- New Game Round-up: Arkham Goes to the Dogs, Communists Go to Space, and K&K Go to Paris
That said, I can now point to one useful or meaningful productive AFD joke, that being Fantasy Flight Games' announcement on April 1, 2019 of Barkham Horror: The Card Game – The Dogwich Legacy. Turns out that so many people responded positively to this gag that FFG has decided to release an actual dog-based scenario for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Here's an overview of what's coming in the 2020 release Barkham Horror: The Card Game – The Meddling of Meowlathotep:Barkham Horror is an alternate universe in which the conflict between humanity and the eldritch forces of the Mythos takes a back seat, and the conflict between dogs and cats takes center stage. In The Meddling of Meowlathotep, a 78-card standalone scenario pack, the investigators must stop Meowlathotep, the Prowling Chaos, Meowsenger of the Outer Feline Gods, who is terrorizing the city of Barkham. Only a few precious pups can defeat the various Meowsks of Meowlathotep and prevent them from destroying Barkham and the world!
When this adventure kicks off, you are hot on the trail of a cat conspiracy. A catspiracy, if you will. Dogs all across town report seeing strange, unnatural cats prowling the streets of Barkham, and each day more and more pigeons are going missing. You've picked up the scent of something big, and once you sink your teeth into a story, you just can't let go. A little wet fur has never stopped you from finding the truth. Perhaps if you investigate the areas of Arkham most plagued by these sightings, you can root out the cat‐monsters that dwell within.
Red Outpost, a game from Raman Hryhoryk and Lifestyle Boardgames that is being released in English via Imperial Publishing, a new publisher imprint founded by Seth Hiatt of Mayday Games. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game due out in Q2 2020 following fulfillment of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign (KS link):A top secret Soviet space mission set out to colonize a planet in a remote galaxy, far away from home. The settlers built there a small communist heaven which exists to this day. As one of the leaders, your goal is to guide the settlers on this new, yet strangely familiar terrain.
In Red Outpost, players get to control all of the settlers, each time a different one. You must expertly manage the resources and choose the jobs carefully so as not to upset the settlers: Keeping up morale is of utmost importance if you want to become the most prolific leader!
Yes, it's a worker placement game in which you can place any worker since they are under the collectivist control of all players. Notes Hiatt, "This is our first game, but we have two more planned for early next year  (both original titles, not licenses)."
Antoine Bauza's Hanabi, French publisher Cocktail Games is releasing a new version of the game in December 2019 titled Hanabi: Grands Feux that contains the game itself, card stands, and three expansions: "Avalanche of Colors" (ten multicolored cards), "Black Powder" (ten black cards), and five flamboyants (which come on six bonus tiles).
• At SPIEL '19, Belgian publisher Game Brewer showed off a prototype of Paris, a game due out in 2020 from the famed design team of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. Here's the short take on the game for now:Explore Paris in the 19th century. Discover its renowned architecture, and obtain the most eminent buildings in the right districts to achieve victory.
Paris is a typical medium-weight Kramer and Kiesling Eurostyle-game with straightforward gameplay, short player turns, and an ingenious point-salad mechanism. You mainly score points by obtaining the right buildings and collecting the right bonus cards.
Read more »
- Isaac Childres Heads North from the Gloom to Prepare for FrosthavenIsaac Childres of Cephalofair Games announced a scaled-down, mainstream-friendly version of his monstrously large game Gloomhaven, a game later given the specific title of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.
Just ahead of PAX Unplugged 2019, Childres has now announced a non-scaled-down, equally monstrously large game in the same vein as Gloomhaven, a game due to hit Kickstarter in March 2020 ahead of an as-yet-unannounced release date. Here's an overview of Frosthaven:Frosthaven is the story of a small outpost far to the north of the capital city of White Oak, an outpost barely surviving the harsh weather as well as invasions from forces both known and unknown. There, a group of mercenaries at the end of their rope will help bring back this settlement from the edge of destruction.
Not only will they have to deal with the harsh elements, but there are other, far more dangerous threats out in the unforgiving cold as well. There are Algox, the bigger, more yeti-like cousins of the Inox, attacking from the mountains; Lurkers flooding in from the northern sea; and rumors of machines that wander the frozen wastes of their own free will. The party of mercenaries must face all of these perils, and perhaps in doing so, make peace with these new races so they can work together against even more sinister forces.Frosthaven is a standalone adventure that features sixteen new characters, three new races, more than twenty new enemies, more than one hundred new items, and an a new, 100-scenario campaign.
In addition to having the well-known combat mechanisms of Gloomhaven, Frosthaven will feature much more to do outside of combat, such as numerous mysteries to solve, a seasonal event system to live through, and player control over how this ramshackle village expands, with each new building offering new ways to progress.
Childres will take part in a Q&A announcement panel for the game while at PAXU 2019 on Saturday, Dec. 9, starting at 10:00 a.m., with the panel being streamed on Twitch.tv.
Read more »
- New Game Round-up: Escaping from Alcatraz, Excelling as The Beheaded, and Erasing Minds in Dungeon MayhemLookout Games reports that the long-awaited reprint of Uwe Rosenberg's Ora et Labora has been produced, with English, German, and Korean editions of the game due to hit stores whenever copies make their way to distribution outlets.
• All I know about video games, I learn through their adaptation into tabletop games, as with Level 99 Games' introduction of The Beheaded into its Exceed Fighting System. The Beheaded comes from the video game Dead Cells from Motion Twin, and as that character, you "adventure through an ever-changing castle of monstrous foes as you endeavor to solve the mystery of your own death and the mysterious illness that plagues the kingdom".
Exceed: The Beheaded is a solo character available only directly from Level 99 Games online or at conventions, with this character able to be pitted against any other in the Exceed game system.
yesterday's news of KOSMOS' ever-expanding Exit line of games, Italian publisher dV Giochi has announced two new titles in its Deckscape line of escape room games, a series that has sold 600,000 copies of its six titles to date.
In 2020, dV Giochi will release title #7 in this series designed by Martino Chiacchiera and Silvano Sorrentino: Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz, with the imprisoned players getting to choose whether to release other prisoners in exchange for help — assuming you can trust those crooked souls, that is.
Deckscape Duel: Pirates' Island, another 2020 release, twists the Deckscape formula by adding a competitive element to the game. Players split into two teams and try to correctly solve the puzzles before the other team does, with the puzzle-based mini-games being specially designed for a competitive experience.
• Another game line being extended in 2020 is Dungeon Mayhem from Wizards of the Coast, with Dungeon Mayhem: Monster Mayhem including rules for playing the game with up to six players as well as six decks that allow you to take the role of six D&D monsters, from Dr. Tentaculous the mind flayer and Mimi LeChaise the mimic to owlbear Hoots McGoots and beholder Delilah Deathray. This game, which can be played on its own or combined with earlier Dungeon Mayhem decks, is due out February 14, 2020.
Read more »
- KOSMOS 2020: Save Dodos, Build a City Worthy of Legacy, Explore Andor with Kids, and Exit from Even More Terrible SituationsKOSMOS reports that it's sold 4.5 million titles in its Exit: The Game series of escape room games since their debut in 2016, so as you might anticipate, more are on the way in 2020.
The basic line will be expanded with EXIT: Das Spiel – Der verwunschene Wald ("The Despised Forest"), a title aimed at beginners set in "a fairytale world full of surprises", and EXIT: Das Spiel – Der Friedhof der Finsternis ("The Graveyard of Darkness"), with advanced puzzle solvers needing to banish the mystery from an eerie crypt.
In Q2 2020, fans can look for EXIT: Das Spiel + Puzzle, which offers players "four challenging and surprising puzzles and an exciting adventure story, in addition to the tried-and-true EXIT puzzles"; two different EXIT: Das Spiel + Puzzle titles will be released, one for beginners and one for advanced players.
While we're still on the north side of Christmas in 2019, you can look ahead to Christmas 2020 for the release of EXIT: Das Spiel – Der Adventskalender and EXIT: Das Buch – Der Adventskalender, with the former including 24 original puzzles at a beginner's level that lead the solver through an adventure story and the latter allowing the reader to puzzle their way through a juvenile detective story.
announced a Q1 2020 release date for My City from Reiner Knizia, this being a competitive legacy game in which you develop a city on your own playing board through the ages. From the publisher: "Over 24 game levels, you experience new challenges again and again. Innovative, simple and, due to the short playing time, super suitable for families!"
Inka and Markus Brand are also behind Andor Junior, a standalone game aimed at players aged seven and up. A short description:In Andor Junior, you slip into the roles of warrior, mage, dwarf, and ranger to move across the land and save the lost wolf cubs. You can win the game only if you work hand in hand and make wise decisions.
Each game offers new challenges, which you must master together before the dragon reaches Rietburg.
• KOSMOS has also released info on the co-operative game Dodo from Frank Bebenroth and Marco Teubner, a design for players aged 6+. I imagine that the video overview we'll record at Spielwarenmesse in February 2020 will be ideal for demonstrating gameplay, but for now we have this write-up:Speed is of the essence in the co-operative game Dodo as the bird has laid its egg on the highest mountain peak, but then unobservantly let it fall out of the nest and towards the cliff...
By using teamwork, you can bring the rolling egg safely to the foot of the mountain! Quickly roll the building material you need, collect hammers and nails, and attach bridges to the sides of the mountain. If you manage to steer the egg safely into the lifeboat, you've won together.
Read more »
- Publishing Diary: Lair, or It's A Long Story
by Banana Chan
Now that you know me as the food drunk narrator behind this, let me formally introduce myself. My name is Banana Chan. I'm the owner of a small box board/card game publishing company called Game and a Curry. I also write RPGs (larps and tabletop), flavor text for board games, and short stories. I'm a Capricorn, and that should tell you a lot about me.
It's Honestly All About the Lasers
I got my start in board games about seven years ago. My partner Herb and I wrote reviews of games and restaurants. (Hence the name "Game and a Curry"; we spent a lot of time in Japanese curry houses back in the day.) During that time, we also met many people in the board game industry.
One of those people was Tam. He showed us his game, Lair, which was (and I quote) "a big game in a little box". It's a worker placement game that's easy to understand and set up. Players are super villains who are trying to keep their super villain boss happy by building out this underground (wait for it) lair. You have minions who will do all the heavy lifting for you, building rooms with both laser sharks and regular lasers. As you burrow deeper and deeper into the ground, you also get closer to the end of the scoretrack. The person who reaches the end first wins. The game looked great and played great, and I was really impressed.
Getting to Know Yourself
Back then, I was also struggling with my mental health. Anxiety is one hell of a state to be in. Things were slow to start, and I was no stranger to the occasional nervous breakdown. Coming from a studio art background, I felt my world was caving in; I wasn't creating as much as I used to in art school. When I got my graduate degree in management, I got even worse.
But I didn't stop going to conventions. I found myself getting closer to RPG and storygaming folx. I started writing and creating again after a couple of years of creative neglect. I also discovered something called therapy...which was hit and miss the first, say, seven therapists I saw. But when I finally found the right match, I got focused.
Around this time, I also discovered that I wanted to get into publishing. Not for the money because, let's face it, it's hard to make money in this industry as a small indie, but to get my designer friends' games into people's hands. I wanted to provide people with interesting experiences through games, whether through board games or roleplaying games.
Yeah! Diamonds by Dave Beever and Bryan Soriano, was small and easy for kids and new gamers to pick up. Our second game, Judge Dredd: Block War by Herb Ferman, was for an older audience, and it got us to a place where we felt comfortable with moving forward with more games — and that's where Lair came back in. It had been six years when we realized the game still hadn't been picked up yet. We played the latest iteration, and we realized, hey, maybe we have the funds to do this. And we did. This introductory worker placement game has honestly been in the works for years. (Heck, the New York gaming group will tell you.) And that's when we finally said enough was enough and signed a contract with Tam to get the game onto shelves.
I won't bore you with all the details, but think of it like a heist movie. You have your team: Tam, the designer himself, the strategic one with the brains, who's a bit of a mad scientist himself. You've got Udara Chinthaka, the artist, focused, yet flexible with different styles. Hayley Birch, the editor — detail-oriented, wise, and in need of more screen time in this movie. Next you have Herb Ferman, the graphic designer, the guy who talks to printers, think of him as the muscle. And then you have me. Think of me as George Clooney.
Like any good heist movie, this is the part where Clooney tells you the plan. After multiple rounds of playtesting, developing, and iterating, the game finally got to a good place. The art was ready, the editing was all set, and then it was sent to the printers. Now we've got our first few units ready for PAX Unplugged 2019, with the rest of the games on their way over, but the movie's not over yet. Now we see whether our hard work pays off.
I could say that the publishing journey is simple, but it isn't. It's time-consuming, it's energy-draining, and you never know what will happen — but it's incredibly rewarding because this isn't just a business; it's building a community and sharing the things that you enjoy, kind of like how you can't have just one Nicolas Cage sequin pillow. You need to cover your couch with them, so visitors can thoroughly enjoy the Nic Cage...
Read more »
- New Game Round-up: Key Signs of 2020 as We Roll Out 2019GridCon, a convention run by Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules! from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, 2019, designer Dávid Turczi posted a teaser image of Keyfoundland, a game he's co-designing with Richard Breese of R&D Games.
No details on the gameplay, so consider yourself teased...
Stefan Risthaus notes that Level X, which was published in 2010 as part of Schmidt Spiele's "Easy Play" line, will be released in a new edition in 2020.
• Chronicle Books is primarily a book publisher, but recently it's been releasing a handful of games each year aimed at a mainstream audience. For 2020 it plans to release at least five games, two of which first appeared in other editions: Cat Rescue, a slide-three-style card game by Ta-Te Wu and Sunrise Tornado Game Studio, and Karmaka, a game about advancing up the karmic ladder to achieve transcendence from Eddy Boxerman, Dave Burke, and Hemisphere Games.
New titles in Chronicle Books' 2020 line-up include:
Aunt Agatha's Attic from Doug Levandowski, with 3-6 players trying to negotiate their way to the best collection of stuff.
—S'Mores Wars, a 3-5 player game from Prospero Hall in which you race to create card-based s'mores.
—Play the Patriarchy, a Cards Against Humanity-style party game from Beth Newell with adults trying to string together Subject, Verb, and Descriptor cards in humorous ways.
• Joey Schouten, one of the editors of Dice & Ink: A Roll & Write Anthology, is embracing that game genre even further with a roll-and-write Christmas card. For a grand total of US$1, you can purchase the files for yourself, then print cards of your own to send to others. Ho-ho-hope you roll what you need!
Read more »
- New Game Round-up: More Fantastic Factories, More Evolving Zombies, and More UNO for More Players
• Fantastic Factories, the first title from designers Joseph Z Chen and Justin Faulkner and publisher Metafactory Games, was Kickstarted in mid-2018 and reached backers in October 2019 — at which time Deep Water Games announced that it had partnered with the company to release the title on a wider basis to retailers starting in January 2020. An overview of the game:In Fantastic Factories, you race to manufacture the most goods or build the most prestigious buildings. There are elements of dice rolling, worker placement, engine building, resource management, tableau building, simultaneous play, and some card drafting. Each round is split into two phases, the market phase and the work phase.
During the market phase, you choose to either acquire a new blueprint for free or pay to hire a contractor. Blueprints are used to construct new factories during the work phase. Contractors can be used to reinforce your strategy by providing resources or allowing you to roll additional dice. You need to be mindful of what cards are available in the marketplace and the strategies your opponents may be pursuing.
During the work phase, all players simultaneously roll their dice and use their dice as workers to run factories. Factories start as blueprints and need to be constructed. Once constructed, each factory can be used once each turn. Worker placement can happen in any order and figuring out the correct sequence can enable a powerful chain of actions. Additionally, you can build training facilities that allow you to manipulate the dice values of your workers. Each work phase is like solving a unique worker placement puzzle in order to optimize your output of resources and goods.
Once any player has manufactured 12 goods or constructed 10 buildings, the game end is triggered and one additional and final round is played. The player with the most points wins (combination of building prestige and manufactured goods).
Le Scorpion Masqué uploaded an ultimate "Tough Zombies" challenge (PDF) for its legacy game Zombie Kidz Evolution from Annick Lobet. Notes publisher representative Matthew Legault, "It is only for those who have opened all 13 envelopes, so it is really a thank-you to the dedicated players who have played the game enough to have explored all the surprises the game has to offer." (Disclosure: I was paid to edit the rules of this game. —WEM)
• In October 2019, Mattel introduced UNO: Braille Edition, which plays the same as ye olde UNO, but with Braille on all the cards and with audible rules for blind and low-vision players.
• Designer Donald X. Vaccarino posted errata and rules tweaks for Dominion in September 2019, noting that the text of a few cards would be changed in future printings and changed more immediately for online play.
• Many messages in my inbox take the form of a random tweet I sent myself in the hope of researching the title later. Does the game sound interesting? Does it lack a BGG listing? Will I actually get to this title in a reasonable amount of time?
Here's one such example of this phenomenon:
The game in question is Die Pest im Pott ("The Plague in the Pot"), a 2-6 player design seemingly published by LWL, that is, the municipal association Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe, which employs 17,000 workers that operate schools, hospitals, museums, and visitor centers in the German region of Westphalia.
What's the game about beyond something associated with the plague? I don't know, but I can tell you that you need to supply your own d6s. Maybe someone else can follow up on this and get it in the database... Read more »
- Links: An Infamous Traffic in Profiles of Kwanchai Moriya and 10 GamesGamers Geekery & Tavern is a board game café that opened in July 2019 in Cary, North Carolina — just one town over from where I live! — and I still haven't made it out to visit. For shame. The café did pick up coverage from one of our local news stations in October 2019, so good for them in getting the word out there!
• On Nov. 8, 2019, the Thai-language version of Voice of America posted a profile of artist Kwanchai Moriya that has text in Thai, but a video of Kwanchai in English giving background on his career.
Cole Wehrle's An Infamous Traffic from Hollandspiele? A note of appreciation and explanation from company co-owner Tom Russell explains why you don't have much time left to do so:After Traffic, Cole continued to move from strength-to-strength, creating games that were both critical and commercial successes: John Company, Root, and Pax Pamir 2e. With the success of that last one, in particular, published through Cole's own company Wehrlegig via a quarter-million dollar kickstarter campaign, Mary and I knew going into 2019 that it likely wouldn't be in Cole's interest to renew the license for Traffic with us when it expired. We exchanged emails about it over this summer. Cole acknowledged that he would derive much greater benefit not renewing the license, but said, essentially, "I don't want to do anything that's going to hurt your company. If it will help you, let's renew."
That was a lot of money to leave on the table like that. It was another act of kindness, and one I found deeply moving. But Mary and I didn't want him to do that, and so are letting the license expire after this year's Hollandays Sale.
What's a 10/10 Game to You?" I'm not sure how I'd answer this question since the titles that I've rated a 10 on BGG — Abluxxen, Ave Caesar, Innovation, The Mind, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, and Qwirkle — don't share anything in common other than me being the one who played them all. In some ways, the 10ness of those games relates to the desire of others to play them with me as that desire led me to play them more times than I likely would have otherwise, which in turn drove my appreciation for those designs.
How would you answer that question? Read more »
- New Game Round-up: Explore Fallout Underground, Spike Top Guns, and Revisit The ThingFallout has already been the inspiration for one tabletop design from Fantasy Flight Games — 2017's Fallout — and now a second standalone game is coming from FFG courtesy of designer Andrew Fischer: Fallout Shelter: The Board Game. Here's an overview of this February 2020 release:Build a better future underground in Fallout Shelter: The Board Game, a post-nuclear worker-placement board game for two to four players. Based on the hit mobile game from Bethesda Softworks, Fallout Shelter sees you take on the role of a vault officer fostering happiness among the citizens of your vault. With the election of a new Overseer looming, the officer who can gain the most happiness among the dwellers is sure to lock up the election and attain victory.
As an officer, you'll have to direct your dwellers to where they'll spend their time in the vault, whether it's spending some time relaxing in the lounge, gathering vital resources like food in the community gardens, or battling a radroach infestation in the game room. The choice is always yours, but remember, you'll have to balance happiness and efficiency to lead your people to a brighter future underground!
The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31, the debut title from Mondo Games in co-operation with Project Raygun. The movie that inspired that work — John Carpenter's The Thing — is also the inspiration behind The Thing: The Boardgame, a design from Giuseppe Cicero, Andrea Crespi, and Pendragon Game Studio that shares nothing with that earlier game other than a love of the source material.
Pendragon announced this title at SPIEL '19, noting that the game originates "from the strong passion that the two authors feel towards Carpenter's movie, passion that led them to work for years on a title that would be able to capture and transport to the game table the same anxieties and sensations that the movie transmits to the viewer". Pendragon plans to Kickstart this title in 2020, but for details we'll probably have to wait until we travel to the Spielwarenmesse trade fair in late January 2020.
Top Gun Strategy Game, which is due out from Mixlore in January 2020, reaching retail shelves a few months ahead of the Top Gun: Maverick movie sequel due out in June 2020. Here's an overview of the gameplay:Top Gun Strategy Game puts players in the pilot seats of Team Maverick/Goose and Team Iceman/Slider. Each team takes on the other during a intense air-combat training exercise. Pilots must strategically maneuver their planes and coordinate with their Weapons System Operator. Conducting intense gravity-defying aerial maneuvers and securing a valuable target lock on their opponent will secure a swift victory.
Being "Top Gun" is a mental challenge as well as a physical one. When they aren't in the air, pilots will face off in a volleyball card game in which they strut their stuff to gain rewards or intimidate an opponent. In order to ensure victory, players must succeed at their ground game to increase their education and confidence, giving them the tools and the nerve to excel in the air game.
I have not seen the original movie, so this sounds bizarre, but I'm sure it all makes sense to those familiar with the original work, yes? Volleyball skills improve your piloting abilities? I've heard that learning how to juggle knives improves your ability to speak Polish, so who knows? Read more »
- New Game Round-up: Steal Paintings, Loot the City, and Convert Your Wealth into CoinsBruno Faidutti's Stolen Paintings, due out in 2020 from Eagle-Gryphon Games, and the 2-8 player count caught my eye.
Of course, Camel Up has that same player count, and the game works well at all numbers, although the experience changes vastly when you're playing with two compared to eight (not to mention how specific players can sour or sweeten the game experience no matter what the player count), and I'm curious to see more details of the gameplay to learn how this game might change or not change in similar ways. For now, though, I have only this brief description:In Stolen Paintings, players take turns playing as a thief attempting to steal and auction off paintings from a museum display. The other players are detectives who attempt to spot the paintings stolen before they are auctioned. The thief earns points for each painting they sneak by the detectives, and the detectives earn points for paintings they correctly identify as stolen. Whoever earns the most points as both a thief and as a detective wins.
Gangster's Dilemma, an Adrian Adamescu and Daryl Andrews design for 3-7 players. Check out that cover from Kwanchai Moriya!
As for the gameplay, here's the short take:In Gangster's Dilemma, players control a group of gangsters eager to please the mob boss. Each round, players send a gangster to loot one of the locations within the city, in hopes of satisfying the Boss's changing demands. However, each round the cops are also on patrol and could arrest any gangsters they come across. Players need to bribe their way out trouble or rat out the other gangsters as they compete to fulfill the Boss's demands first.
Here's another example of Moriya's dynamic work on this game:
Lions of Lydia is a new design from Jonny Pac Cantin, who caught players' attention in 2019 with Coloma and Sierra West, and publisher Bellwether Games. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game due out sometime in 2020:The ancient world is changing. King Croesus of the historic kingdom of Lydia has minted the world's first coin from the legendary gold and silver of the river Pactolus. Traditional bartering and trading will soon be supplanted by currency as the dominant form of exchange throughout civilization.
Lions of Lydia is a bag-management and engine-building game about the dawn of currency in the ancient world. As a wealthy aristocrat at the turn of the era, you will hire merchants to barter at the city gates for goods you can use to grow your landholdings. When Lydian merchants arrive from the capital, you will gain access to the versatile Lydian Lion coins they bear, which are needed to establish valuable retail property for the first time in history.
To achieve victory, you must effectively manage the merchants you hire, keeping the best assortment in your bag, while leveraging the unique abilities of each when it is drawn. Traditional merchants will help you specialize in basic resources, but if you fail to convert your surplus into bullion, you may not be able to buy the most useful properties in the city. Lydian merchants, in contrast, are especially suited to help you transition to the new monetary system.
Will you be able to maintain the right balance of merchants to maximize your goals every turn? Will you gain the most valuable and prestigious properties before your rivals? Future generations may hear of your economic triumph or defeat. After a significant number of properties have been purchased and developed, the game will end, and a winner will be declared!
Fantagraphics Books collections of his duck stories.) Read more »
- ● 당신의 목소리로 잠들게 해줘 (Korean)Publisher: Chaosium
당신의 목소리로 잠들게 해줘
네가 잠들었을 때 눈을 떴을 때 언제라도, 내가 네 곁에 있다는 걸 잊지 말아줘.
오랫동안 잠들었던 기분이 듭니다. 멍한 머리를 붙잡고 눈을 뜹니다. 당신은 허공에 길게 펼쳐진 레일의 시작점, 두 사람이 함께 앉는 열차 앞자리에 앉아 있습니다. 눈앞에 펼쳐진 풍경은 까만 밤이 내려 조명 속에 반짝이는 놀이공원. 어트랙션에서 일어나려고 해도 이미 헐거운 안전바가 내려온 후라 움직일 수 없습니다.
“-잘 잤어, 탐사자? 얼른 일어나. 오늘도 좋은 아침.”
그때 들려온 익숙하고도 그리운 목소리. 흐린 눈을 억지로 움직여 옆자리를 살피자 목소리의 주인공인 KPC는 눈을 감은 채로 열차에 앉아 있습니다. 곤히 잠든 것 같습니다.
그런 KPC의 무릎 위에 카세트 플레이어가 놓여 있습니다. 빙글빙글 돌아가는 테이프에서 귓가를 간질간질하게 만드는 KPC의 웃음소리가 흘러나옵니다...
- 인원 : 타이만 시나리오 (1:1)
- 시나리오 난이도 : 키퍼 ★★ / 플레이어 ★★
- 소요 시간 : ORPG 5-6 시간 예상. RP에 따라 시간은 더 늘어날 수 있습니다.
- 시대 및 배경 : 현대의 놀이공원.
- 권장 관계 : 연인 관계에 추천.
- PDF와 함께 핸드아웃이 압축되어 있습니다.
- It was written in Korean. Not English.
- ● Classic Stock Art - PaladinPublisher: artofblake
Classic Stock Art - Paladin
The zip archive contains the following files:
PNG file with transparent background.
Stock License Terms and Agreement:
The following image(s) in the product may be used for commercial and non-commercial work as follows:
About the ArtistBlake Davis is a fantasy illustrator/concept artist working in the games and publishing industry. He has worked for many products and properties, and has produced many of his own, including the world of Omenshard.
Unlimited use of the following image(s) in commercial and non-commercial work.
Image(s) may be cropped, rotated, resized, and modified to fit your project.
Artist's name must be credited in all commercial and non-commercial work the image(s) appear in.
Image(s) may NOT be resold or redistributed for free in any way.
If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions for future stock art images please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.Price: $5.00 Read more »
- ● Classic Stock Art - Undead SoldierPublisher: artofblake
Classic Stock Art - Undead Soldier
The zip archive contains the following files:
PNG file with transparent background.
Stock License Terms and Agreement:
The following image(s) in the product may be used for commercial and non-commercial work as follows:
About the ArtistBlake Davis is a fantasy illustrator/concept artist working in the games and publishing industry. He has worked for many products and properties, and has produced many of his own, including the world of Omenshard.
Unlimited use of the following image(s) in commercial and non-commercial work.
Image(s) may be cropped, rotated, resized, and modified to fit your project.
Artist's name must be credited in all commercial and non-commercial work the image(s) appear in.
Image(s) may NOT be resold or redistributed for free in any way.
If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions for future stock art images please e-mail me at email@example.com.Price: $5.00 Read more »
- ● Seafoot Games - The Molten City | 20x30 BattlemapPublisher: Seafoot Games
The Molten City
The Molten City was long ago built by the warrior king Kharg the Fiery, carved into the side of the great mountains they harness the power of the fiery below to power the city. The city covers many levels, walkways connecting each other them above the molten magma bubbling below.
The streets are much like those you’d see in any city apart from the walkways that allow access from district to district. Taverns and stores of all kinds are very common, dealing easily with the influx of visitors that come here for it’s master crafted weapons and armor. Even purchasing exotic magical goods or rare ores is possible in the Molten City. It also houses many temples for the worship of the gods and accommodation in surplus.What You Will ReceiveA home-printable 20x30 battlemap, compatible with any role-play game, and VTTs such as Roll20.
Home-printable, A4 .PDF of the gridded map at 300dpi, spread over several pages.
300dpi .JPEGs of the map for A1 poster printing or VTT.
72dpi .JPEGs of the map for VTTs.
Want more bang for your buck? Come support us on Patreon, and get five or more maps for as little as $4.00 every month.
Or, follow us on Facebook to recieve updates about new maps, adventures, and giveaways!
If you enjoyed any of our content, please leave a review below—or tell us what you’d like to see in the comments!Price: $1.50 Read more »
- ● JEStockArt - Elderly Water Purification Specialist With Sample - CNBPublisher: Jeshields
May be modified for specific needs.
Must credit 'Jeshields' for any use.
May not be used in the following:
Products sold primarily for artistic value (Stock art, tokens, posters, etc)
Works overtly deemed racist, sexist, or similarly offensive works
Sexually explicit works
Key Words: older elder gentleman specialist scientist water sample vial examinePrice: $2.99 Read more »
- ● Port of Call: YemojaPublisher: Michael Brown
Yemoja is a water world whose natives are descended from a third, and finally successful, attempt to settle the planet. Its society was disrupted long ago by a particularly-bad cyclonic storm, one that not only ravaged the landscape, but also the culture. The resulting social schism left the well-to-do citizens trapped aboard an orbital highport, while the downtrodden surface dwellers eke out a meager existence on the dangerous planetary surface.
Port of Call: Yemoja introduces Cepheus Engine and Original Science Fiction Roleplaying Game (OSFRPG) players to this danger-ridden duality of a planet. Inside is an overview of how the information would appear in the PCs’ library database, physical planetary and system information, a brief history, a look at its government, technology, and society, a quick guide to crafting characters that would hail from such a place and maps to help Referees envision the area.
Port of Call: Yemoja. The storms aren’t the only things to watch out for.Price: $0.75 Read more »
- ● Dwarven Treasure SetPublisher: Fat Dragon Games
Are you sick and tired of never being able to represent the dragons hoard like you want? I am really excited to share this set! This is the Dwarven Treasure set that has all you need, but is recommended to pair with the Core Treasure Set for larger troves!
This set includes 62 unique tiles! With such a huge variety of floor and wall tiles, the possibilities are endless!
I recommend printing in .1 layer height and 5% infill with the FDG terrain profile to get all the detail.
Cheers!Price: $9.99 Read more »
- ● Psionic Monsters - Woad HagPublisher: TBM Games
Furtive whispers behind closed doors spread rumors of supernatural forces which control the actions of the aristocracy. Although they aren't always taken seriously, when these conspiracy theories have merit, often a woad hag lies at the center of that tangled web.
Expanding upon Fifth Edition's rules, this PDF is a playtest draft of a monster using TBM Games' psionics system. Using this PDF, you will have the resources necessary to bring a Woad Hag to life in your 5e game, either as a villain in your game's story or as a singular encounter.
This PDF is compatible with the Fifth Edition of the world's most popular Roleplaying Game
- ● Fast Locations: City Geomorphs, markets and storesPublisher: Trilobite production
A small file with a total of 8 full color city geomorphs, non descripted, that you can use for improvising city districts! All the geomorphs here depicts various markets and store streets, fairs, warehouses and dark alleys in wich you may set up pawn stores and illegal stuff dealers. You can print the pages and paste the geomorphs over cardboard and build on the fly your city while playing, using the buildings and features to improvise the city you're playing in, or just use them to plan an area in wich you will set great adventures!Price: $0.50 Read more »
- ● Cooper's Corrected [BUNDLE]Publisher: Skirmisher Publishing
This special 67% off bundle contains six volumes by ENWorld staff reviewer and 3.5 rules guru John Cooper that present thoroughly revised and corrected stats for the myriad creatures in the v.3.5 SRD, to include corrected and expanded stats for creatures called with Summon Monster. Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats A – D (Aboleth – Dwarf)
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Are your game’s Aboleth Mages under-average? Are the Greater Barghest’s skill points grimly befuddling? Do you find Retriever Demons to be ridiculously dominant against your PCs? These are just a few of the monsters in the SRD that have errors in their stat blocks, bringing their mistakes into your game. But now Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures fixes the problems you didn’t even know your monsters had. This critical series of books by ENWorld staff reviewer and 3.5 rules guru John Cooper presents thoroughly revised and corrected stats for the myriad creatures in the v.3.5 SRD. Features of Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats A – D (Aboleth – Dwarf) include: ... Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats E – K (Eagle, Giant – Krenshar)
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Are your game’s Fire Elementals a bit dim-witted? Are your Elves not as stealthy as they should be? Are your Formian Myrmarchs markedly unskilled? These are just a few of the monsters in the SRD that have errors in their stat blocks, bringing their mistakes into your game. But now Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures fixes the problems you didn’t even know your monsters had. This critical new series of books by ENWorld staff reviewer and 3.5 rules guru John Cooper presents thoroughly revised and corrected stats for the myriad creatures in the v.3.5 SRD. Features of Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats E – K (Eagle, Giant – Krenshar) include: * Corrected stats for all the monsters in the E – K secti... Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats L – S (Lamia – Swarm)
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Are your game’s Weretigers a bit on the unhealthy side? Are your Mephits not quite as intimidating as they should be? Are your Dark Nagas markedly unskilled? These are just a few of the monsters in the SRD that have significant errors in their stat blocks, bringing their mistakes into your game. But now Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures fixes the problems you didn’t even know your monsters had. This critical new series of books by ENWorld staff reviewer and 3.5 rules guru John Cooper presents thoroughly revised and corrected stats for the myriad creatures in the v.3.5 SRD. Features of Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats L – S (:st="on"> :st="on"> Lamia – Swarm) include: * Stat blocks for OGL creat... Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats T - Z (Tarrasque - Zombie), Along with the Appendices on Animals and Vermin
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Are your game’s Tarrasques and Thoqquas distinctly unobservant? Are your Vargouilles not as stealthy as they should be? Are your Wights not reaching their full potential? These are just a few of the monsters in the SRD that have significant errors in their stat blocks, bringing their mistakes into your game. But now Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures fixes the problems you didn’t even know your monsters had! This critical new series of books by ENWorld staff reviewer and 3.5 rules guru John Cooper presents thoroughly revised and corrected stats for the myriad creatures in the v.3.5 SRD. Features of Cooper’s Compendium of Corrected Creatures: OGL Monster Stats T – Z (Tarrasque – Zombie) include: * Corrected stats for all the mo... Cooper’s Corrected Summon Monster I-III
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Some of the most labor-intensive and disruptive sorts of spells in the game are for sure the various levels of Summon Monster. As soon as they are cast, things grind to a halt as the proper stats are looked up, the appropriate Celestial or Fiendish template applied with all its various changes ... And that is assuming just one of it was summoned! And if the caster has the Augment Summoning feat as well, introducing more changes to the summoned monster's stats, well ... Cooper's Corrected Summon Monster solves these problems! Written by ENWorld staff reviewer and 3.5 rules guru John Cooper, this critical new series of books presents thoroughly revised and corrected stats for the creatures summoned by these spells. Features of Cooper's Corrected Summon Monster I-III i... Cooper’s Corrected Summon Monster IV-VI
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Some of the most labor-intensive and disruptive sorts of spells in the game are for sure the various levels of Summon Monster. As soon as they are cast, things grind to a halt as the proper stats are looked up, the appropriate Celestial or Fiendish template applied with all its various changes ... And that is assuming just one of it was summoned! And if the caster has the Augment Summoning feat as well, introducing more changes to the summoned monster's stats, well ... Cooper's Corrected Summon Monster solves these problems! Written by ENWorld staff reviewer and 3.5 rules guru John Cooper, this critical series of books presents thoroughly revised and corrected stats for the creatures summoned by these spells. Features of Cooper's Corrected Summon Monster IV-VI ... Total value: 0 Special bundle price: 0 Savings of: 0 (67%)
- It’s Retcon Time!
A long time ago… No. Even longer ago than that. Yes. That far back. We’re going to change reality for that long ago, and that change is going to ripple forward into the current time.
I’m not talking about going back in time to kill someone we all consider the epitome of evil. I’m also not talking about the really cool idea of “the butterfly effect.” I’m talking about something that is sometimes cool and sometimes insidious.
I’m talking about retconning. That’s right. Today, we’re going to see how to handle changing reality using “retroactive continuity.”
DefinitionWe’re going to see how to handle changing reality using “retroactive continuity.”
Let’s put on Phil’s “definition panda” hat for a moment and throw out the meaning of “retcon” really fast. A retcon is a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events, typically used to facilitate a dramatic plot shift or account for an inconsistency. Basically, it means that we’re going to give a new understanding of past events in order to change them up some to free us to move forward in the current storyline that we have going on.
One of the earliest retcons in literature is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrecting Sherlock Holmes from his death at Reichenbach Falls by claiming that the whole series of events was a clever ruse pulled off by Holmes to stage his death.
As an author, I have an advantage of being the sole controller of the story being told. That’s awesome because I get to make up the rules. If Marcus Barber (my protagonist in my Modern Mythology series) dies, he rises from death 3 days later, is weak as a baby for another 3 days, and then gets to go on about his immortal life as a bounty hunter. Pretty cool, huh? What happens if I kill him and I need him alive and well a mere 2 days later? Too bad. Can’t do it without a serious retcon to my entire character, and I’m not allowed to do that.As an author, I have an advantage of being the sole controller of the story being told.
I’m certain if I tried, my editor, continuity readers, publisher, and possibly even a few fans would show up at my door with torches and pitchforks in hand. Well… maybe not, but those 1-star reviews would certainly pour in!
However, at the RPG table, retconning does happen from time-to-time, and it is more acceptable to do so. There are several reasons for this.
The main one is that RPG storytelling is a shared narrative. One player may forget (or may have been absent for) certain events and make a decision based on a “false history.” If this false history is more cool or compelling than the real history of the tale, then a quick retcon can flip-flop things around and make this false history now the true events of what actually happened.RPG storytelling is a shared narrative.
Another valid reason for slipping in a retcon is the fact that much of the storytelling is improv. If the GM or player has to make up some fact about a location or NPC on the fly, they’ll usually do a pretty good job of it. However, given even a few minutes of time to reflect on the statement, a better idea can come along. That’s when a quick pause of the game can help. Then the person can quickly retcon their statement of fact into something a little different.
Who Can Retcon?A retcon should be exceedingly rare.
Honestly, I think the GM has the final call on this, but players are certainly free to throw out ideas for retcons. The reason I say the GM has the final say is that she may have some prepped material based on a past event, location, or NPC. By making changes to the past, this can screw up the GM’s future plans. If the GM denies a retcon, then she probably has a really good reason for it. As a GM, it’s also okay to say something along the lines of, “I have plans for that. Let’s not change it, please.” As a player, respect that.
Actually implementing a retcon should be exceedingly rare because then things get all squirrelly with timelines, events, past notes, and recollections. Do it too many times, and you get a mind-bender of a history for your characters that will more closely resemble the movie Inception. Only do it if really necessary, not just because a “cool idea” came along. The more distant the past event is in the game, the more difficult it is to retcon that event. If a decision is merely a few minutes old, then retcons are more easily implemented because their impact waves haven’t been felt yet.
How About You?
Have you ever retconned in a game? How did it work out for you? I’d like to hear from our readers some examples of how this went well… or not.Read more »
- Headspace: Dystopian Dreams Review
There has been a lot of discussion in the past year about cyberpunk as a genre, and the core purpose of the genre. Much of this discussion has focused on the comparison of cyberpunk as an aesthetic versus cyberpunk as a parable. Is it about looking cool as the world burns down around you, or is it about trying to put out the fire even if there is no way you can do so before everything you love is gone?
Headspace, a Powered by the Apocalypse game about Operatives who are linked to each other’s minds and share emotional space with one another, definitely frames the narrative as one of putting out fires. The core game assumes a world where the PCs were part of the machine that they are now trying to pull apart. The game assumes several corporate bad actors, an incident that has made the current world what it is, and various projects that the corporations are attempting to achieve. While the players are working against one corporation, another is advancing their agenda, so it may not be possible to put out all of the fires, just manage which ones rage out of control.
The core game introduces settings that can be used for the game, but the product we’re looking at today, Dystopian Dreams, introduces more settings that can be used for the game, including multiple new corporations, agendas, opposing agents, and even a new playbook.
Disclaimer and Content Warning
A few of my fellow gnomes had their hands in this product, either in writing the intro or one of the settings. I wasn’t in contact with them about this review, and the PDF that I’m reviewing was one of my own purchase, but I wanted that to be known upfront.
These settings deal with some tough issues, including violence, drug trafficking, the marginalization of groups of people, and harm to animals. I’m not going to go into too many details about any of these things, and for the most part, the settings don’t do a deep dive into the description of these things, but the themes are present in various settings.
This review is based on the PDF version of the product. It is 133 pages, with black and white pages and art, containing customized borders, sidebars, and text that looks almost like a computer interface. There is a three-page section at the back that credits and highlights the various contributors to the book.
Like the core book, the artwork is by Brian Patterson, and not only does this serve to unify the look from the core book, but the artwork does a great deal to convey the bridge between a dark future with looming threats, and characters that are trying to create a brighter tomorrow.
Settings and Overview
This section of the book explains the structure of each setting, and how it conforms to the assumptions of the core game. Each setting has four corporations, with an agent (which acts as the face for that organization) and an agenda for each corporation. Each setting also has five events, five issues, and five corporate issues.
I love this kind of standardized presentation of setting information, because one of the issues that I often have with setting books is, “what do you want me to do with this information?” Sometimes it is self-evident, but I wish more setting information for RPGs was written acknowledging the conceit that the information is for use in a game, rather than being presented as a travelogue of a fictional reality, divorced from the tone and genre assumed by the game itself.
Neo-Tokyo Pleasure Dome Ultra 20XX
This setting assumes that World War III has come and gone, and Japan has become an insular state, with many of its citizens living almost entirely in cyberspace. Many of the corporations that have come to power in this environment are corporations that help to maintain and protect society while citizens are living their lives inside the digital realm. Humans in the Cyberzone still need their physical bodies cared for, and this becomes big business.
The corporations include Oroshi Medtech, Nikumono Custodial Services, Delicious Future Nutritional Assistance Corporation, and Brilliant Diamond Technologies. With human beings spending so much time in the Cyberzone, these corporations are moving into areas like flash cloning, industrial espionage, and the ability to get a wider number of people to be compatible with the Cyberzone.
Overall, I like the concept of corporations fighting over the real world while an increasing number of humans are living their lives completely in the Cyberzone. It’s a manifest analogy for people not seeing what is going on in the world, leaving the “real” world to the corporate agents and the protagonist operators.
Compared to the core setting corporations and events, the corporations in this setting feel a little more generally bad, rather than horrifically bad. Wanting to reduce humans to products is terrible, but contributing to the war machine that everyone else in the world participated in, or hiding corporate incompetence feels like less of a personal gut-punch versus some of the corporate crimes in the core book. Some of the Japanese tropes in the setting also feel a little on the nose, such as the naming conventions for some of the corporations and organizations.
Hieroglyph of the Whale
This setting posits a world where humans are desperate to develop space travel, because they have allowed Global Warming to hit apocalyptic thresholds. Surface mining can’t produce what is needed for this industry, so underwater mining operations and archologies are developed to find more resources. Cetaceans are pressed into service in the mining operations, and eventually the whales have an uprising, which leads to the abandonment of the facilities. At the assumed beginning of the campaign, corporations are attempting to re-establish contact with the archology’s survivors and restart mining operations.
The corporations in this setting are Taneo Exploracion, Invector Biogen, Chidao Corporation Global, and Polyorceanus Deci Corps. The corporate goals include making the re-founded archology into a desirable upscale living space, killing any surviving cetacean workers, sabotaging the efforts of anyone else trying to mine the location, and making humans into better, more pliable workers to subvert the need for the less reliable cetacean workforce.
I love the spin put on undersea cyberpunk in this setting, and the quandary of co-opting cetacean lifeforms into an unwilling workforce. The corporations have the right balance of understandable public goals and nastier agendas under the surface (so to speak). I don’t know if this is a criticism so much as a challenge, but unlike most of the other settings presented for the game, Operatives won’t be part of an established population, but infiltrating organizations that are attempting to make contact with, and reestablish, an archology, which may play out a bit differently than the more traditional cyberpunk assumptions of the core game.
Artifice and Ice
This setting presents a world where the arctic is being developed as premium vacation and living space, but corporate incompetence and greed leads to a sparsely populated wasteland with a failing economy. Unlike the other settings in the book, the introductory information on the setting is presented as the ruminations of a citizen of the region, thinking about everything that has gone, and is going, wrong.
The corporations involved in this setting are Oceanix Unlimited, Nexen, Tower Shield & Sword, and Green Surf. The corporations are involved in trying to start a new housing boom in the region, intentionally undermining government for greater corporate control, floating a conspiracy theory to justify defense expenditures, and hidden ecoterrorism to bring to light corporate and government mistakes in the region.
This is an odd mix for me as I read it. The most compelling secret to me is the conspiracy theory that keeps the security firm going, but two of the corporations feel like general “bad actors,” and the big event of the setting is that the place never caught on the way the corporations wanted. There is also an interesting quandary presented (which appears in a few more settings later), where one corporate entity might not be always working against what the Operators’ interests are, so it may be okay to let their agenda move forward once in a while, curbing the more zealous aspects of its implementation.
New Motor City
New Motor City is set in the Detroit of the future, where abandoned buildings are used for urban farming, and electric street racing is part of the culture. Corporations promote real-time streaming events covering aspects of the city, like the street racing scene.
The corporations at play are Agricum, Nusafe, XO Velocity, and LiveEye. Their interests are urban farming, security, the electronic automotive industry, and reality entertainment. The less savory elements at play involve poisoning habitats with pesticides, manipulation of human brain waves to pacify them, unsafe vehicular manufacture, and eliminating public entertainers that become problematic.
I’m not doing this setting justice in trying to explain it. I greatly enjoy this one. I love it when a setting can walk the fine line of framing the traditional aspects of a genre, and then finding just enough aspects to change and personalize to give the setting its personality. The idea of the high rise reclaimed farms, street racing culture, and a setting where “influencers” might get offed because they are influencing “improperly” really resonates with what I love about cyberpunk and it’s possibilities and adding a new spin to them.
In this setting, a section of the Amazon has been placed under a dome, and there is a return to monarchy, as well as an upswing in criminal activity, as living spaces are defined in the region.
A lot is going on in this setting. The “corporations” are Seibetsu Technology, The Satans, Petrocorp, and Orleans Braganca Construction. I put corporations in quotes because The Satans are a crime syndicate, and the Orleans Braganca Construction company is strongly tied to the interests of the resurgent monarchy.
The corporate interests of the setting involve tracking immigrants via technology, establishing a caste system to make the restriction of land and influences a quantified aspect of the government, and to exploit the maintenance of the biodome to produce exclusive biotechnology, which then becomes necessary for everyday life.
This is a fascinating setting, but there is also a lot going on, and it feels a little constrained by trying to reframe it into the normal Headspace definitions. This is another setting where one of the corporations, the Satans in this case, may have projects going on that the PCs want to come to fruition, adding nuance but also a little bit of confusion to the overall expected structure of the game.
This setting takes place in New Zealand, after a series of disastrous turns including earthquakes, uprisings, and a gene plague spread by corporate modified foodstuff. New Zealand has been divided into Green, Orange, and Red zones, based on the safety of the people in the region and the relative comfort of their lives. One assumption of this setting is that there are displaced rebels in the Red zone that may be allies to the Operatives.
The corporations here are Maturanga Digital, Always Tikanga, Kaitiakitanga Solutions, and Clearwater Developments. Corporate goals include recovering telecommunication data from reclassified Red zone regions, inter-corporation fighting over the ownership of land, stopping smuggled resources from reaching the “wrong” hands, and securing the rights to the Red zone to completely remake that region under corporate control.
One particularly interesting aspect of this setting is that, unlike some of the others, it expressly mentions Operators as part of the assumed description of the Red zone resistance, while many of the other settings are more open to how the group is going to integrate Operators into the established setting story.
The final setting of the book details a U.S./Mexican border struggle that has been exacerbated by ecological disasters, the collapse of the Mexican government and the rise of cartel control of the country, and U.S. political unrest that has led to civilian vigilante groups and a militarized border agency.
This is another case where “corporation” is a very loose term for the power groups in the setting. Las Calaveras Blancas is the new cartel overlords of Mexico, BORTAC is the US border agency, Hard Light is the organized civilian vigilante force, and Las Sombras De La Serpente is a civilian organization in Mexico opposing the cartels.
As might be expected, this setting feels a lot different than the assumed structure of Headspace. The “secret” that Las Sombras De La Serpente has is more a matter of them not thinking through the consequences of their actions, and while some of the other settings have “gray” organizations that the PCs may not mind advancing some of their agendas, Las Sombras De La Serpente is way closer to a benevolent faction than just about any of the other “corporations” in the book.
Aside from the credits, the final chapter in the book details a new playbook for the game, The Insider. The playbook immediately got my attention when it mentioned Transmetropolitan as an influence, because I loved that comic.
The Insider is about knowing dirt and people and planting dirt on people. The edges involve having corporate contacts, dirt that can be sent to the media if anything happens to you, flexible IDs, strong followings, lots of wealth, or lots of drugs.
Interestingly, this takes is inspiration from Transmetropolitan, but the character is not just a journalist. You can see how you could model that since Spider knows a ton of people and where the bodies are buried, but the playbook is flexible regarding exactly how you come by your dirt and the nature of your connections.
The flavor of some of the edges does reinforce how pushing the limits on what is defined as a “corporation” changes the core assumptions of the game. For example, the Insider can have an edge where they know all of the communications officers for the corporations, but what does that look like when two of your factions are essentially civilian militias, or one of them is an expansive crime syndicate?
This is a great collection of settings. I love the game focused structure of the presentation. While all of the settings offer an interesting and unique twist to a cyberpunk setting, I particularly love The Hieroglyph of the Whale and New Motor City settings, and I’ll admit my biases as an American in the current political climate make Carteles Unidos a compelling setting to examine. I always love new playbooks in PBTA games, especially when they are well defined and draw on recognizable tropes.
StressNot only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well.
Pushing the boundaries on how “corporations” are defined makes me a little less sure how the core assumptions will work with those entities, or what the consequences are when the PCs might feel a little safer letting some corporate clocks slide. Given the tightly integrated number of playbooks in the core book, as much as I love The Insider as a concept, I’m not sure if I should add the playbook as someone else present as a “ghost” if the group doesn’t take the playbook, or if it should replace one of the core playbooks for this purpose. Its internal integration is fine, I’m just wondering a little about the nuance of the integration into the game as a whole.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is a great wellspring of setting information for cyberpunk games. Not only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well. The ideas on where the future could be heading, as well as the concisely formatted goals and directions of various power groups, make this useful as a setting book beyond the game for which it was designed.
What are your favorite cyberpunk settings? What are your favorite subversions in cyberpunk settings? What are some of the best ways you have seen modern issues translated into the cyberpunk genre? We would love to hear your thoughts below!Read more »
- Behind the Screen–Looking at GM Screens and What We Expect Them to Do
GM Screens can be controversial things. A lot of people don’t consider them necessary, and others think they actively create a boundary between players and GMs that should not exist. On the other hand, lots of GMs want to keep their notes and resources hidden from the eyes of the table. I’ll admit that I’m pro-GM screen, but much of that comes from the concept that when the screen is up, I’m officially running the game. When the screen is down, I’m “off the clock.”
The controversy doesn’t stop at the presence or absence of the GM screen, but extends to the material on the screen. What information is the most important to display to the GM? How often does the GM use that material? What a designer chooses to put on a screen can communicate what they consider important when running the game.
Similar, But Different
Let’s take a look at multiple screens for the same system, and see what that tells us. I have the D&D Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated screen next to me, as well as Kobold Press’ Midgard 5e screen. Between the two screens, the Kobold Press screen omits damage by level examples, object hit points and armor class, skills and associated abilities, travel pace, services, encounter distance, cover, and lighting rules. In exchange for that information, the Midgard screen adds healing potions, the status rules for the setting, Shadow Corruption, and ley line effects.
While all of the omitted information is likely going to be useful in a D&D campaign, in or out of the Midgard Setting, the Midgard screen is communicating that the setting-specific rules of status, Shadow Corruption, and ley lines are important enough elements to reference regularly, and this communicates to the GM running the game that these things are key aspects of the setting that should have a regular impact.
The Adventures in Middle-earth screen, another system that has it’s basis in the 5e OGL, dispenses with almost all of the 5e rules references seen on the standard D&D Dungeon Master’s Screen, and instead focuses on starting cultural attitudes (which are used for Audience rules), Degeneration (connected to Shadow Weaknesses), Tainted Treasure, Misdeeds, Anguish, Corruption, and Journey rules. All of this communicates that, despite using 5e as its core, the setting-specific rules are important enough to supersede the normal reference tables that even the Midgard screen communicates as important.
All of the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars roleplaying games have their own screen, but the information presented on them is almost identical. None of them reference the different subsystems that differentiate the systems from one another (Obligation, Duty, or Morality), and may, unintentionally, communicate only a superficial difference between the three games. The GM screens provide the same general summary tables for difficulty levels, suggested symbol spending tables, weapons and gear (with a few variations between games), item qualities, critical charts, and medical and repair procedures.
But Wait, There’s More
For a long time, the assumed “bonus” item that came with GM screens was an adventure, and this still happens with some regularity. All three of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs have included adventures, as does The Expanse RPG. Adventures in Middle-earth also includes an adventure. However, an increasing number of GM screens either do not have additional material, or provide something in addition to, or instead of, an adventure.
While the Star Wars RPGs have included adventures, the Edge of the Empire screen includes expanded Nemesis character rules, the Age of Rebellion screen includes rules for squads and squadrons, and Force and Destiny includes rules for lightsaber creation and advice for starting characters at higher XP totals.
Both The Expanse and Star Trek Adventures include player handouts with rules summaries, both for general rules, and for contextually relevant rules (social scenes, starship combat, etc.) that would otherwise require the players to reference sections in the core rulebook.
The Adventures in Middle-earth screen includes individually printed pre-generated characters for the adventure included, which can act as handouts.
There are a growing number of “specialized” screens releasing for some games. As an example, nearly every major adventure release from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons and Dragons has been accompanied by a specialized screen for that adventure released by Gale Force 9. In these cases, the screens often have maps on them that reference the regions visited by the player characters in the adventure, and may have summarized versions of specialized rules used specifically in that adventure (like the nautical rules that accompanied Ghosts of Saltmarsh).
In addition to the variety of traditional screens, there is an increasing number of available inserts for various games, usable in customizable GM screens. Various Savage Worlds settings have been utilizing this approach for years, allowing for many different art inserts for the outside of the screen, and allowing for customized material to be inserted into various internal reference pockets. I own a landscape, a portrait, and even an oddly sized GM screen (whose dimensions I didn’t check before buying) with pockets that can be personalized for various games.
I don’t think GM screens are a must, and even with my “screen up, screen down” table mindset, I don’t use GM screens with Powered by the Apocalypse games, for example, even if I could throw them together with my custom GM screens. This leads me to my thoughts on some of the developments in GM Screens and what they may say about what the gaming community has learned about functionality.
Many GMs and players over the years have talked about how the flow of the game is maintained more effectively without continually referencing the rule book. Summarizing the right rules becomes very important for this, and games like Powered by the Apocalypse games or Forged in the Dark games often have detailed rules handouts that can be referenced during the game, dramatically cutting down on what rules need to be referenced during the game.
Sharing the Love With The Players
In my reviews of both Star Trek Adventures and The Expanse, I noticed that while the rules were very simply expressed, there are situations in both games where having specific game references would be very useful. For example, in Star Trek Adventures, during starship combat, the resolution of tasks is still relatively simple, but there are many structured circumstances that determine the context of what actions can be taken by a character. This is based on the station the character inhabits on the ship. Security officers can only do certain things involving the shields or phasers, and the helm can only do certain things involving maneuvering, for example. The Expanse is based on the AGE game engine from Green Ronin, and that stunt system is very simple to resolve, but the table references for stunt point spends can be cumbersome to look up.
The GM screen for Star Trek Adventures contains player handouts that have the general rules of the game summarized on one side, and the specific rules regarding different starship stations on the flip side of the handouts. The Expanse GM Screen has player handouts that summarize conditions, personal combat, space combat, and the various stunt pool tables. The Conditions and Actions summaries appear on two separate handouts, and the flip side of one of these is an initiative tracker, which means there is one that can circulate among the players, and one that the GM can reference.
I have mentioned in the past that I’m a fan of including a starting adventure in a game, to show what the assumed pacing and structure of a session looks like in the game. Looking at how GM screens have developed, however, I’m not sure that an adventure is always the right pairing for a GM screen. I am a huge fan of useful player handouts to summarize the base rules of the game, and I’m an even bigger fan of the contextual role summaries on the Star Trek Adventures handouts. I’m less excited about including useful additional rules with the GM screen, as I feel that those rules either belong in the core rulebook, or in an appropriate supplement.
When playing in a Numenera game at Gamehole Con this year, all of us had access to a rules summary playmat, and while I’m not sure that GM screens are needed for every game, I do think that a GM summary playmat would be a great addition to the materials available to GMs. These playmats and reference sheets don’t need to be physical products. In many cases, having a clearly laid out PDF that can be printed is just as useful as a professionally produced physical playmat (and some of us love our laminators).
Lowering the ShieldsI may not need a GM screen for every game I intend to run, but I do want some kind of “at the table” facilitation kit to help guide the game
Looking at how GM screens have progressed over the years, I’m not sure that the reference tables were always the main point of screens in the beginning. I think the physical barrier could be seen as the primary purpose, but adding reference tables seemed like a logical addition to the functionality of the screens. I think we have reached a time where the charts point towards what the hobby may need more than the screen, more reference material at the table, facilitating smooth play with relevant references, easily at hand.
In the future, I may not need a GM screen for every game I intend to run (even if I have a habit of reflexively picking them up when they are available), but I do want some kind of “at the table” facilitation kit to help guide the game, cutting down on page flipping. And while looking at tools to add to a GM kit for running the game, why not make safety tools a part of that kit as well?
What have been your favorite GM screens/GM kits for games that you have purchased? What kind of tools for facilitating play at the table would you like to see become a standard part of games? We would love to hear your opinion below, and we’ll look forward to reading your responses!Read more »
- So You Want to Write an Asian Campaign Setting (Part 1: Historical China)
I have been incredibly vocal on my social media accounts about the importance of involving Asian creators in the writing, artistic, and editorial processes behind Asian campaign settings. While hiring sensitivity readers like Clio Yun-Su Davis, James Mendez Hodes, and myself is an important step in ensuring an equitable portrayal of Asian people, cultures, and themes, not everyone can afford our services or will seek them out. Furthermore, those producing campaign settings for their home games (with no production aspirations) won’t need our services, but may still want our insight.
In a series of blog posts for the Stew, I will outline an author who’s work can elevate your fantasy Asian campaign settings and cultural depictions to a more respectable level. For this post, I’m going to start with China – my own culture – and a story about my connection to this featured author.
From 2010 – 2018 (plus a year of medical leave until 2019), I worked as an academic archaeologist. I conducted field research in Jordan, Greece, and China, and wrote my Masters thesis on prehistorical Jomon material from northern Japan. I know a bit about Asia. Much of what I learned about China, can be traced back to one man – Kwang-Chih (K. C.) Chang (1931 – 2001). K. C. was in many ways, the godfather of modern Chinese archaeology and the general study of East Asia. Chinese archaeology is primarily a historical discipline, contrasting the scientific approach employed in the West. Scholars in China actively seek to validate historical texts USING archaeological finds (Lothar von Falkenhausen explains it well HERE). K.C. was one of the first Chinese scholars to hold prestigious teaching positions at Ivy League institutions like Yale and Harvard and helped bring multidisciplinary anthropological archaeological research methods to East Asia. He was also a proponent for viewing East Asian prehistory from a pluralistic perspective – where China, Japan, and Korea co-existed in a state unbound by modern geopolitical boundaries. This last fact is of particular significance to you, my gamer friend.
One of the greatest pitfalls of Asian campaign settings is how they reduce Asian cultures into a problematic, reductive amorphous blob. Cultures blend, yet never engage in dynamic exchanges. Reading K.C’s work is one of the solutions to avoiding this. While academic in nature, his book – The Formation of Chinese Civilization – is the perfect entry-level guide to China’s archaeological past. From extraordinary works of jade and clay to the fantastic palatial complexes and tombs of the Shang lords. This book, if taken completely out of context, reads exactly like a campaign setting. Chang weaves a story of kings and queens but contextualizes everything within times of great cultural exchange. China is not home to a single culture. Since the earliest dynasties, it’s home to a rich tapestry of regional cultures that Chang introduces to readers.
This is why archaeological literature, particularly of the academic variety, is so important. They’re written with the intention of making a culture feel real. They’re written with the intention of telling a story based on bone, bronze, jade, and ceramic. These are real ancient stories come to life and if we want our fantasy worlds to feel the same, we should strive for this level of detail, structure, understanding of regional interaction.
So, if you’re out there writing a homebrew campaign setting for your friends and family inspired by ancient China, look no further than K.C. Chang’s work. If you’re looking to publish a campaign setting, take a look at his academic legacy. Look to how this pioneer of East Asian archaeology breathes life into cultures that are thousands of years old, and consider how you can do that for the ideas in your head.
Oh, and maybe hire a Chinese sensitivity reader like myself. I kid, but only partially. Check it at danielhkwan.comRead more »
- Unusual Resources
For starters, I’d like to thank the fine folks over at Writing Excuses for sparking this idea in my head with one of their recent podcasts. If you want to hear what they have to say about unusual resources and how it can impact a world or economy, head over to href="https://writingexcuses.com/2019/11/17/14-46-unusual-resources/">/
This article is more about prep and world building from the GM’s perspective than how to run a game, so I hope you can enjoy the read as I walk through these concepts.
Both fantasy and science fiction realms run rampant with weird resources. At least, they’re weird as compared to what we have here on our regular old Earth. This article could be jam-packed with examples from games and literature, but I’m going to limit it to just two.
The first is from The Expanse and the protomolecule. It’s clearly extra-solar in nature and completely alien to everyone in the story, but it changes the balance of power between the different human cultures. It also causes characters to go to extremes to try and either harness or destroy the protomolecule. This introduction of an alien lifeform is done very well because it’s not just here to hunt us, eat us, or procreate with us.Both fantasy and science fiction realms run rampant with weird resources.
The second example is the Murgo red gold from the Belgariad series. In these books, the power of the red gold is subtle and horrific. The red gold can be bartered with, just like the regular yellow gold, and apparently has the same monetary value. However, the more red gold a person has, the more they desire to acquire even more of it. This is hideously subtle because the Murgos of the realm know this and leverage this desire into currying favors from people that would otherwise be morally or loyally immune to such influence.
In both cases, the resource at hand is highly unusual but changes the way the game can be played. Wars break out. Millions die. Characters’ goals are upended or redirected. Conflict happens. Great storytelling ensues.
While you’re crafting your realms (or playing in an existing property), take a step back and think about what kind of unusual resource exists in the world. Try to go beyond the trope of using body parts of mythical or supernatural creatures. These are fine for side quests, but if you want to push forward with a main goal, a deeper connection to the world is needed beyond setting your PCs out into the world to “murder hobo” their way through the world’s population of mind flayers to acquire a nodule of their brain or their mouth-tentacles or whatever.Go beyond the trope of using body parts of supernatural creatures.
I also encourage you to think about what’s weird or abnormal about a resource beyond the rarity and/or value of the item. If you listen to the podcast I’ve linked to above, you’ll find out that the value of diamonds is an artificial creation or that aluminum (you know, what you put your leftovers in) was incredibly valuable and rare to find in pure form because the methods to smelt the metal out of ore had not been created yet.
I’ll throw out two examples off the top of my head and see if it sparks any creative ideas in your own world building.
From science fiction: What if the element that is needed to power FTL travel only comes from the heart of a star? We managed to collect enough material “outside the heart” for one drive that will last forever. Now we, as humanity, have to choose which stars to destroy by taking their heart in order to power our FTL drives. Clearly, destroying a star will remove any chance of life surviving in that star system, so here comes the conflict! Does humanity have a greater need for “yet another” FTL drive in exchange for wiping out life in the area? What about regulations or doctrines that require “star heart miners” to prove that a system is devoid of life before they destroy the star? Will this lead to piracy and privateers? Ohh… The options and implications of how this changes starfaring society are fun to think about, but I’ll leave that exercise up to you.
From fantasy: Imagine a metal ore that can store magical/mystical energy. Of course, magic users will flock to that ore like crazy. Now shift the creation of all magic items to require this ore, but once the ore has been tempered and forged, it loses its ability to store magical energy in exchange for it gaining magical abilities. If the party finds a large vein or collection of this natural ore, here we’ll find conflict as the magic users will want to keep it in its natural state. However, the fighters will want a new magical sword or the rangers will want magical arrowheads. This simple rock is now a treasure to be split more aggressively than any pile of gold coins from a dragon’s hoard. Now expand this thinking to the rest of the world and how it’ll impact economics, trade, and society.Read more »
- Roles for Social Encounters
When I was talking with Ang and J.T. on a recent Gnomecast, we were discussing niche protection with characters. The discussion turned to the 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons concept of character roles. Those roles, if you are unfamiliar, are as follows:
- Controller–Spreads damage or conditions across an area to change the tempo of a fight
- Defender–Soaks up damage that would otherwise hit other characters and provides a steady source of reliable damage
- Leader–Provides boosts and healing to other party members
- Striker–Provides definitive targeted damage under the right conditions and is often mobile enough to move out of danger after doing so
While there has been a lot of discussion about 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, defining the expected roles of characters in a game that has a lot of tactical combat provides a roadmap for what combat looks like and what characters should be doing in combat.
What is interesting is that we don’t typically see a commensurate set of similar roles for in-game social interaction. While 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons considers social interaction one of the pillars of play, often this “pillar” is resolved without mechanics, or is reduced to single rolls.
Adventures in Middle-earth, Cubicle 7’s adaptation of the 5th Edition OGL to Tolkien’s fantasy works, includes a structured social mechanic called the Audience. In an Audience, characters set the difficulty by making an introduction, and then describe how they are interacting with the NPC in question. Depending on the NPCs motivations, saying or doing certain things might provide a bonus or a penalty to the final check in the Audience, and using certain tactics may fail utterly. For example, a proud, warlike chieftain might shut down an audience immediately if intimidation is used, while a weak-willed bureaucrat may dislike flattery and only really respond to threats or bribes.
While I’m citing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in this article, my real point is to show how, in a game with enough structure provided to those scenes, you can develop similar social interaction roles that parallel the tactical combat roles. In many cases, social interactions are reduced to a single “face” character that is generally good at “charisma things.” Looking at a more granular resolution, such as the Adventures in Middle-earth’s Audience mechanics, you can see that social roles can develop as well. Here are the roles that occurred to me while I was speaking with Ang and J.T.:
- The Face–Good at getting people to like them and to frame themselves and the party favorably
- The Heavy–Good at intimidating and shutting down debate
- The Silver-Tongue–Good at deception and getting the party out of trouble once they have been put in a bad situation
- The Sage–Good at providing context to the social situation at hand
A single character may be at least passably good at all these roles, but isolating specific roles in social encounters may help to give more texture to social interaction in games where it devolves into singular rolls, and may also provide something for other members of the group to do if social scenes.
Talking in Action
Let’s look at how this might play out in a more structured scene. Let’s say that our hypothetical party is attempting to attend a council meeting and they wish to convince the mayor to take a specific action. Various council members may be for or against the action that the adventurers are advocating.
In this situation, the Sage makes some kind of insight check to read the room, or they may rely on a knowledge check that tells them about past trends. In either case, they know that there are two influential council members that the mayor won’t take action against that dislike the plan. The sage also determines that the mayor is generally honest and proud, so they can’t be bribed or intimidated. The Sage imparts this to the rest of the party.
The Heavy looks at one of the opposed council members, deciding how they are going to intimidate them into being silent. This might be with a more subtle intimidation check, glaring at them with a general sense of menace, or they might overtly touch their weapon and look at the council member. Depending on how they do this, they may have a long term enemy in the future, but currently, if they are successful, they have taken out one piece of opposition.
The Silver-Tongue isn’t going to be the one to plead the party’s case, because they don’t want the mayor to grudgingly go along with their plan. That said, the Silver-Tongue can talk to the other opposing council member and heavily imply that it may be profitable for that council member to sit this discussion out in the long term. Again, if there isn’t any real profit to be had in the endeavor, that may create a long term enemy, but it shuts down opposition if the Silver-Tongue is successful.
The Face can then make an honest and impassioned plea to the mayor about the proper course of action, and without opposition, they are only attempting to win over the mayor. They are relying on the mayor trusting that they are being upfront, and presenting a course of action that is reasonable and the right thing to do.
Since we don’t want checks to outright stymie the progression of a game session, we might have situations where the two council members add conditions that advance their agendas to step out of the way with the mayor. The mayor may have another condition to add if this check is failed. If the Heavy fails, the Silver-Tongue may attempt to smooth over what happened with their councilor, and if the Silver-Tongue failed, the Heavy might glower at the other councilor that they didn’t previously engage with. The Sage might make a check to suggest the proper course of action with any character that wasn’t suitably impressed or to intuit exactly the approach that the NPC is waiting for.
Introducing the ConceptThe goal is to make it feel like granular decisions are important to the development of the scene, so that it isn’t entirely the job of the singular charismatic character to carry everything that is going on.
Once you define roles for social scenes, you may want to explain these roles to players as they are making characters, to reinforce that one character in the party doesn’t need to take all of the traditional “social skills,” so that the group has a more diverse social skill set in addition to having other diverse “hard” skills.
You may also want to devise a more layered encounter using these roles early in the campaign to show that there will be opportunities for characters to use these abilities. In more tactically focused RPGs, it’s still not likely that a scene as structured as the one outlined above is going to take as long as a regular combat, and that isn’t the goal. The goal is to make it feel like granular decisions are important to the development of the scene, so that it isn’t entirely the job of the singular charismatic character to carry everything that is going on.
I am not suggesting this is the only way to structure a more granular take on social scenes, and this is flavored by a contrast to the tactical roles defined in games that have a more granular combat system with more constrained combat abilities. But I think it can serve as a template for how to engage more players in scenes that aren’t tactical, and to move the onus of resolving social interaction scenes from a single role to multiple roles that might have various evolving complications.
Have you seen the roles for social interaction well defined in the games you have played? What did the game do to define those roles? Did the game have a similarly granular combat system, or was the focus of the game the social interaction? We would love to hear about your experiences below!Read more »
- First Time Larp
As a long time table top gamer, I’ve played a pretty wide gamut of games. I spent years in crunchy Pathfinder and 3rd edition D&D before my tastes in gaming changed and sent me on the hunt for games that give me the feels. My fun has shifted away from the joy of mechanical mastery to the joy of the story created through group improv and through making the most interesting choices, even when they aren’t in the best interest of my character. Enter the freeform/parlor larp: a confined one shot intended to be played in someone’s home or otherwise moderate space; frequently with little or no conflict resolution mechanics and focused on relationships in some sort of pressure cooker situation. Or y’know. That may just be the kind I’m really interested in.
Last night I played in my first ever larp. And I loved it.
There’s a stigma table top players have about larpers because we think that removing the table makes things more intimate and embarrassing and most of us remember that wild YouTube video from the early 2000s of some guy throwing ping pong balls and yelling “Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!” over and over again. I never had a desire to move my mechanical mastery fun to a live action setting, but my interest began to perk up when my primary fun shifted to feels, story, and relationship drama. If what you enjoy are the more social aspects of gaming, then I can strongly recommend the experience — we’re already planning our next one.
What was different?
There’s no table (of course).
- There’s nothing to keep you from interacting directly in character with the other people who are playing, or from specifically not interacting with them as the case may be. You have the opportunity to be both more intimate and more removed. Your physicality in the space can reflect your play more. Two of our characters did not like each other, and every time they were in the same space they pointedly ignored the other, or even pushed past. We didn’t find out until later they were related!
- You don’t see everything else that’s happening, or hear it. I spent a lot of time meeting in small groups with other people because I had a secret — I was a werewolf. I didn’t want to hurt anyone but I also couldn’t just tell everyone…but moonrise was only ninety minutes in. When the game was over, we sat around chatting for quite a while and there were so many undercurrents besides my own at play, and there were even people that I didn’t end up having a single interaction with all night who also had wonderful story arcs of their own. Putting all the pieces of the story together to understand the whole picture can become more of an after the fact as you act only on the information that your character (and you!) has at the time. When you’re playing with a table, you know the story even of the scenes you’re not participating in, so this feels very different. Each experience is truly unique.
- Because you are physically interacting, you have the opportunity to include props much more prominently. They matter more because they help to suspend your disbelief and give you something physically representative to hold on to. They’re also a visual way to create shared narrative — especially useful when you may have missed some parts of a conversation because something different was happening for you! For example, I walked back in to the room to find a ritual circle laid out on the floor, created by a character I didn’t trust at all but whom I desperately wanted to succeed.
A stronger social contract and clear rules for interacting.
- It’s neat that a larp has the potential for more physical interaction, but because it does, the base line of what is acceptable needs to be clearly defined before play. It can be negotiated further on an out of character person by person basis, but how much contact you can make with someone before you pause to ask for consent should be clear. It might be none at all, or it might be hand to shoulder — but it should be known before you play. On an individual basis because of our in game relationship status, I negotiated more with specific people. Mostly so that I could end up holding lapels and crying about how I didn’t want to hurt anyone, while the moonrise drew ever closer.
- Safety is just as key, or even more so. Being physically in the space can make experiences more intense. Consent is a key conversation — consent about physical touch, consent about what happens to our character in the game (we played a New Magischola scenario, for example, and you get to decide what, if any, effect any given spell has on you). Larp is the source of the OK-check in that I am already using at my tabletop games because it gives us the ability to check in on each other during play — it can be hard to tell if you are upset or if your character is upset, for example — so being able to check in nonverbally is very important. Having a way to walk through the larp space invisibly to remove yourself for whatever reason is akin to the open door policy, although scaled up to manage the larger space scale of the game.
- We can explicitly play pretend together. You can say out of character that the necklace you’re holding is silver, even if in actuality it is not; we agree to see it that way together for the purposes of the narrative. After all, if it weren’t silver, it wouldn’t be useful to restrain a werewolf.
There were no dice.
- To play together, we’re agreeing that outside the limits we’ve put in place and the mechanics that give us agency in our own character’s actions, the things that other people say are true.
What was the same?
- It matters who you play with. It’s easier to engage when you have a level of trust with the people you’re interacting with — even if that just means a solid understanding that playing a relationship of some sort doesn’t leave the larp itself.
- It’s still group story telling and will benefit from the same kind of group improv tips that your table will.
- You probably won’t be able to stop talking about it after a good one.
I honestly can’t believe it took me so long to try this since it’s right up my alley, and I’m excited to get the crew together and do more. Next time maybe ghost hunters or a murder mystery!
Do you larp or play tabletop RPGs exclusively? Do you mix them together?
We played A Wolf By Any Other Name, which is a New World Magischola and can be found here:
- Now I Like Published Adventures
One of the cool things about RPGs is that you constantly evolve through your time in the hobby. One of the bad things about being a blogger for so many years is that everything you ever said is captured for posterity. Seven years ago, I wrote an article about how I did not like published adventures. Which back then was entirely true, and upon re-reading I still partly agree with most of my points. But we constantly evolve and my feelings about published adventures are coming around. Right now I am running three games, and all of them are using published adventures (with my own touches added in), and I am having a great time.
Seven years ago I told you why I did not like published adventures, now it’s time for me to tell you why I like them.
It’s Mostly About Time
The truth is that time was the driving factor into why I got back into published adventures. I am running three bi-weekly groups, and with my other design, podcasts, and blogging responsibilities it would be impossible to keep up. Published adventures, for the most part, do all the heavy lifting in getting the adventure together.
And while adventures are an added expense for gaming, when I compare what my time is worth and the enjoyment I get from gaming with all of my groups versus the amount of money I am spending, it is worth it, for me. Please recognize that comes with some economic privilege, where I have some disposable income to spend on adventures. There have been times in my life where that was not true, and I am fortunate today where I can make that expenditure more casually.
So I am trading money for time, and that seems to be working. Having an adventure that needs some tweaks and some customization is time-saving, compared to brainstorming something from scratch, writing, reviewing, etc.
Writing is Getting Better
I have nothing to base the next statement on, but I think overall adventuring writing is getting better as the hobby matures. At various times in my life, I have gotten published adventures and was never blown away by them. In most cases, I turned my nose up at them and thought I could do better. Honestly, I was pretty arrogant when I was younger.
To be 100% clear, there have always been great adventures written every year, written by some great writers and designers. Most of my bias amounts to a sampling error and hubris, but it was one that colored my perceptions of published adventures for a while.
But recently, as I started to look at published adventures for various games that I am running, I find that the plots are solid and the writing and the structures for writing are really good. They are not only entertaining stories but many of them are laid out in ways to facilitate running them. More on that in a bit.
I Still Prep
I have not encountered an adventure that I have not done some customizing on, to make it either run for my group or to get it to play better with my style of GMing. I always take time, the week before a game, to read and prep my notes for the game.
The first part, as I mentioned, is that I make changes to the game to better fit my group and our campaigns. That is totally reasonable because the writer of the adventure knows nothing about my group (see my original article). But having come from a place where everything I wrote was customized, I always take an hour or two to customize the adventure to make it fit nicely into my campaign. Mostly this is done on the starting and end of the adventure where I add in NPC’s, events, etc to make it better dovetail to the campaign narrative.The things I fix most often are for things like asking for a roll to find out something interesting when it’s just more interesting to give that to the players and see what they will do with it.
There are times when I change things in the middle of an adventure. The things I fix most often are for things like asking for a roll to find out something interesting when it’s just more interesting to give that to the players and see what they will do with it. Once or twice, I have had to tweak the plot of the adventure to make it run more like an adventure I have written, but I try to avoid that as much as possible.
Favorite Published Adventures
It’s only fair that I highlight a few games that have great published adventures. These are games I am running right now and in all of them, I am using published material.
Tales from the Loop / Things From the Flood
Free League is doing some great things. The mysteries in both Tales and Things are excellent, entertaining, and fit perfectly with the genre. Where they really excel is that they have a mystery framework, which they dedicate a chapter to explaining how it works, and their adventures all follow that format. That framework makes reading and prepping the mysteries fast and the format is helpful as a reference while running the game. Mysteries are not always the easiest of adventures to run, and the framework facilitates making them playable. While they don’t create the most intricate mysteries, they are entertaining and the right kind of strange to support the game.
Forbidden Lands Adventure Sites
Again Free League is doing it right. The adventure sites in Forbidden Lands are great to run, though they are set up differently than Tales or Things. They take a very different approach, one that more supports the sandbox feel of Forbidden Lands. They present a site, fill it with interesting things and potential problems, and then leave it to the GM to use as they see fit.
What this does mean, is that you need a bit more prep for these to make them into stories (if you want to play that way. I do.), but everything you need to make those stories is right there, it just needs some narrative thread to connect them up.
Dungeon Crawl Classics
DCC knows exactly what it is and their published adventures give you that experience. The DCC adventures feel like better versions of the D&D Modules with which I entered the hobby. For the most part they are…well…Dungeon Crawls… and they are strange as hell, in all the best ways possible. DCC does not worry about if something is too over the top, but rather has a way of making it work, at any level of play.
One of the real gems of DCC adventures is the cartography. Doug Kovacs creates maps that are not only functional, but are works of art. The only downside to them is that you can’t show them to your players until the adventure is done.
Evolution Is Good
So if I am blogging seven years from now, will I have gone back to only writing my own adventures? It’s possible. But I think it’s more likely that for some games I will use published adventures and others I will write my own. What I do like is that its now an option. So when I get a new game, I typically look at one or more of the published adventures and see how they line up with my thoughts about the game, and then I make my decision. Growing up and expanding your options is good.
So what are your feelings about published adventures? Do you use them? Do you want to give a shout out to one of your favorites?Read more »
- The RPG Zine Revolution
All the way back in February of this year, Kickstarter hosted an event called Zine Quest, where RPG creators launched a huge variety of projects – short, small, self-contained projects in the form of zines. All told, 108 Zine Quest campaigns were launched in just two weeks. And for me, my eyes were opened to all kinds of possibilities.
Just a few months later, I was lucky enough to host an RPG zine meetup and swap at Metatopia, a game design convention earlier this month. It was a really fun little round-table discussion for people who’ve made zines and who want to make zines. We talked about why people chose to make zines over other forms of books, about the pros and cons of the zine scene, about where the format has been in the past and where it’s going in the future (pro-tip: Zine Quest 2 is coming in February 2020 so get ready!).
For me personally, until this year, I had thought of zines as something that were kind of dead (of course, they never really went away, they just went more underground). Zines were something that old punks made before the internet was a thing, not something that was relevant to the modern day. We didn’t “need” zines in the modern world of self-publishing and blogs and social media. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I put the meet-up on the schedule for Metatopia, I expected to see some cool zine work (I did!). I expected to meet some awesome zine makers (I did!). I expected to learn some fun facts I didn’t know (I did!). I didn’t expect to have my whole perception of the format challenged… but I did, and I loved it.What defines a zine is pure attitude.I think I was wrong about not needing zines because my definition of a zine was wrong. I was too mired down in the details. A zine is a small book, I might have said before. A zine is under a certain page count, probably 5.5” by 8.5” or smaller, is one way to define it. A zine is something made by just one or two people working out of a home or a print shop, not something that got a print run from a big press or made by a big team, maybe. A zine is a one-time thing, not a series, sometimes. A zine is a book that’s cheap to make and cheap to buy, usually.
Some or all of those things are true of… most zines. But I can no longer say that I think that’s what defines a zine. What defines a zine is pure attitude.
To make a zine is to work outside a major publishing structure. It’s to work without a team of marketers saying “you shouldn’t do this” or “you shouldn’t write about this”. To make a zine is to make a project out of love and passion for the subject, no matter what it is. When I read some of the zines that I picked up at the swap, I hear the writer’s voice so clearly that it feels like they’re with me. Zines are, to put it briefly, punk as hell.
So many times, in the modern world of publishing and game creation, you hear “no”. No, we’re not publishing your game. No, I’m not buying that. No, I think your idea is bad and you should feel bad. But when you make a zine, you’re telling yourself “yes”. Yes, I care about this thing. Yes, I can make a game without needing a big company or a big audience or anybody but myself and my friends. Yes, I can use my voice.But when you make a zine, you’re telling yourself “yes”.I think this is particularly relevant to roleplaying games, where so often the most money and the most attention goes to the biggest names, but there’s thousands of others out there doing their own little punk-rock thing anyway. Sometimes it gets big and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s a game out there for every mood, every genre, every tone, every age group, every possible theme, and they were almost always made by someone who refused to be told “no, you can’t game that way”.
Earlier this year, I published my own first zine (about fanfiction, another rich source of zine history!), and now I have a zine project on Kickstarter – both work that I’m extremely proud of, and I know that my collaborators are too. I used to think that publishing by zine would be “lesser” than publishing in another format, but now I know that isn’t true at all. It’s a wonderful accomplishment to know that every copy of this game passed through my hands, to know that I made each one. And I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.
All of Metatopia was an invigorating and exciting experience – I left feeling so energized to make games and play games and learn about games. But more than anything else, this little panel made me feel particularly excited to make zines, and I hope everyone who attended was able to leave feeling the same way. Because every new voice making their own punk-rock DIY game adds brightness and color to our RPG landscape, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Did you participate in Zine Quest last year? Will you be participating next year? Tell us about a zine you love, or show us your zine collection!Read more »
- ● Romancing SaGa 3 - Review @ RPG SiteRPG Site checked out the re-released J-RPG Romancing SaGa 3: Romancing SaGa 3 Review Romancing SaGa 3 is a classic JRPG that originally released on the Super Famicom back in 1995. Like its predecessor in Romancing SaGa 2, against the odds, the game has now been remastered and is making its first official release in the west.... Read more »
- Roadwarden - AnnouncedRoadwarden is an RPG announced for next year and described as illustrated text-based RPG that uses isometric pixel art and combines mechanics borrowed from RPGs, Visual Novels, adventure games and interactive fiction. loading... Who or what is a Roadwarden? You are a Roadwarden, a brave stranger putting his life in danger to make a difference in this grim world.... Read more »
- Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory - Released on Epic Game StoreParanoia: Happiness is Mandatory has released on Epic Game Store. Lead a team of four Troubleshooters of dubious loyalty, who (mostly) obey orders from Friend Computer, a paranoid and irrational artificial intelligence. Inspired by the classic gam... Read more »
- Empire of Sin - Relationship System@Gamasutra Brenda Romero talks about the relationship system in Empire of Sin. loading... Units can become alcoholics, fall in love with someone else, go insane from continuous violence, and even get a sexually transmitted disease. Each effect has different impacts on characters, if a unit falls in love and unit they fall in love with dies, they may go on a senseless rampage.... Read more »
- Phoenix Point - Some ReviewsHenriquejr spotted some reviews for Phoenix Point: Strategy Gamer - 4/5 PC Gamer - 77/100 GodIsAGeek - 9/10 PC GamesN - 8/10 Rock Paper Shotgun [...] There’s slow-burn greatness in Phoenix Point. It’s a game where you might be exploring a site, bracing for ambush, but instead find an abandoned theme park dedicated to a novelty boy band of hedge fund managers called the Lucrative Lads.... Read more »
- Encased - First Content Expansion December 14thThe first content expansion for Encased is set for December 14th. Encased is currently in Steam Early Access. First Content Expansion Launches December 14th Experience a completely reworked prologue and see the real wasteland in the first story act.... Read more »
- Pillars of Eternity II - Ultimate Edition Release DateThe Ultimate Edition release date for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire has been announced for January 28th 2020. loading... The god Eothas awakened from his sleep, erupting from beneath your castle, killing your people and stealing a piece of your soul.... Read more »
- Everreach: Project Eden - ReleasedEverreach: Project Eden has been released on Steam to a 20% launch discount. loading... WELCOME TO EDEN Everreach: Project Eden is a fast-paced, story-driven action-RPG set on the visually stunning Planet Eden. In Everreach, you play as Nora Harwood, member of Everreach’s Security Division, on a mission to secure the colonization process of Eden and investigate mysterious incidents.... Read more »
- The Dark Crystal - Release Date TrailerA release date trailer for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics announces February 4th 2020. loading... In The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics, you will lead a fledgling resistance of Gelfling against their oppressive overlords, the Skeksis, across more than 50 unique turn-based tactics RPG battles.... Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 5, Isle of the Abbey
This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh Session Zero
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 2: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 3, Danger at Dunwater
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 4: Salvage Operation
Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
A Reskinnable Fixer-Upper
Like Salvage Operation the third adventure in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Isle of the Abbey is an highly reskinnable adventure. The central hook, the backgrounds of the clerics, and the item they covet in the Winding Way can all be reskinned to suit the campaign we're running.
Unlike Salvage Operation this adventure needs work to bring it up to par with the other adventures in this book. It is, in my opinion, the weakest of the first four adventures in the book.
Here's why. First, the island can get boring once the characters have made it through the skull dunes. Second, the entrance into the abbey is problematic in its design. Third, the winding way can be a boring character-punishing trap-festival filled with a strange menagerie of "CR-appropriate" combat encounters that go on and on and on.
We'll dig into all of these problems and how to fix them throughout the rest of this article. For now, let's look at how we can twist this adventure into one that supports our current story.
Reskinning the Hook
The first big reskinnable feature of Isle of the Abbey is the story hook itself. Who wants to build something on the isle and why? Perhaps it's Mannistrad Copperlocks, the head of the dwarven miners, who wants to clear the island so she can build a new watchtower. Maybe it's the council of Saltmarsh who wants to set up the watchtower and lighthouse to look for the sahuagin threat. Maybe it's a secret Scarlet Brotherhood ploy that the characters fall for. Whatever hook sinks deep into the characters works best and we can tune it however we wish. Someone wants to build something on the island for some reason. We get to decide what, for whom, and why.
Whatever hook we set in, we'll want to ensure that the characters become aware that they must stop or defeat the clerics of the abbey in order to accomplish it. Waves of necrotic energy may be continually reanimating the skeletons on the beach; something that must end if our patrons are going to rebuild a tower or lighthouse on the beach. We'll want to reinforce this throughout our running of Isle of the Abbey so that the players never have to ask "why are we doing this again?"
Reskinning the Clerics
Other than being described as "evil", the clerics in Isle of the Abbey have few details. We can choose what god or gods they follow depending on what fits our story. In my own campaign I turned them into refugee clerics from the Temple of Elemental Evil who came to the abbey to study the Elder Elemental Eye. This ties in nicely with a larger Chained God / Elder Elemental Eye / Tharizdun thread we can string throughout these adventures culminating in the Styes at the end of the book. If you want to connect well with the previous adventure, Salvage Operation, you can tie the clerics to Lolth and fill their abbey with all sorts of regalia of the spider queen.
When we define the theology of the clerics, we'll want to wrap the whole adventure in that lore. We can add giant carvings in stone of the four elemental symbols surrounding a huge symbol of the Elder Elemental Eye. We can give the clerics powers reminiscent of their former elemental bent. We might even pull up those stat blocks for the cultists in Princes of the Apocalypse which fits well in our elemental-themed take on the clerics of the abbey.
The adventure, as written, has very little of this flavor in it already so defining such flavor is up to us. Pay attention to those secrets and clues!
What's In the Treasure Room?
Our final bit of customization for Isle of the Abbey comes with the contents of the abbey's treasure vault. The Winding Way, the main dungeon part of this adventure, guards a treasure vault with oodles of traps and monsters. We'll want to ensure whatever is in that vault is worth the effort.
Perhaps it contains an intelligent mace of disruption or sun blade filled with the lawful good spirit of a planetar who waged war against the very god the clerics worship. Perhaps the clerics have placed the item in an unholy pool that inverts its holy energy into the very waves of necrotic energy roaring across the island. Perhaps only the undead can reach into the pool and take it out; something they're not likely to do. Any living creature reaching into the pool suffers the effects of a finger of death, a final deadly trap to protect this powerful weapon.
We can put any item or items we want in this vault as long as it's important enough to warrant the difficulty of traversing through the Winding Way. The characters should know why they're braving a deathtrap dungeon before they bother to step inside.
Improving the Island
Isle of the Abbey is one of the more flawed adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. First, the island itself is bland. The initial incursion to the Skull Dunes is great fun, although high perception checks can get a group through it too quickly. Consider halving the result of a Wisdom (Perception) check to see how many square the characters traverse before running into a pile of skeletons. We can, if we choose, skip the skeletal swarms which are a bit anemic in my opinion with an actual big pile of skeletons. Try 25 skeletons and see how the party fairs. You can roll for them normally, assume a quarter of them hit or save at any given time, or use the mob calculator to run that big pile of skeletons. The skeletal juggernaut is great fun conclusion to their battle on the beach as well.
Once the characters get past the Skull Dunes, it's basically a straight shot to the monastery.
We can make this journey more interesting by flavoring the island based on the background of the clerics. If they're members of the elemental cults, maybe we see huge symbols of the elemental sects or statues to the Elemental Princes themselves. Huge stone idols or great summoning circles or carrion pits filled with sacrificed victims; any of these can bring more flavor to the island. Make them big and make them old.
If you're hard pressed for an idea, drop in an ancient monument to spice things up.
You'll also definitely want to throw in an NPC. Skeen the pirate mentioned in the table of complications can be a good NPC to drop in. Too much combat can get boring and players generally love talking to folks. Skeen can be a great source for some secrets and clues.
Shaking Up the Design of the Abbey
The map for the abbey isn't ideally suited for careful exploration. The abbey's single staircase leads into a main hall surrounded by eight rooms, many of which have occupants who can hear the characters coming. All of the careful details about the NPCs goes out the window when they all come rushing into the central room daggers high.
You might consider changing the configuration of the room into a hallway leading into the main hall with side-halls leading to smaller rooms so the whole thing is less cramped.
If you want an entirely new configuration, try out one of Dyson Logos's maps instead. Many of his maps have far better configurations than the single hall with eight attached rooms. If you do run it as is, consider removing some of the extra characters so it's not nearly as painful to fight through.
The Downward Beats of the Winding Way
In a previous article I talked about the downward beats of dungeons. That article came from my experiences running the Winding Way. This half of the abbey is a festival of traps, tricks, and rooms full of monsters. The monsters are quite a mix too. Three out of the four main encounters in the Winding Way contain "deadly" encounters.
So let's rebuild it into something better.
Handwave the traps. If the characters have a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 16 or higher, they'll see most of the traps outright and be able to avoid them. To make this more heroic we can skip over the detailed workflow of trap detection and inform the characters that, due to their keen eyes, they are no mere tomb robbers and manage to avoid many of the deadly traps that would have felled lesser adventurers. We might keep a few traps handy and, if they get boring, we can always grab a random trap from the Lazy DM's Workbook or our handy trap generator and spice them up.
When the characters get into fights and decide to fight out in the hall, we might impose a DC 10 Intelligence check to see if they remember to avoid one of the hallway traps. A fall into a pit isn't out of the question on a failure.
Add harassing specters. We can also grab the specters from room 11 and use them to harass the characters while they navigate the hallway. Specters aren't particularly powerful when compared to 5th level characters but they're really nasty when they can float through walls, hit, and run. Their reasonable dexterity gives them a good chance at gaining surprise and their lifedrain is no fun for anyone at any level. These guys will be quite annoying but a lot of fun at the same time. Just don't overdo it.
Changing up the monsters. We can use some of the monsters listed in the encounters but we'll probably want to mix them up. A bodak might be cool but ogre zombies and ghasts just eat up time. We can decide which rooms have what, perhaps giving each room a theme based on the themes of the clerics in the temple. Maybe each room is an elemental node with a single negative energy room (complete with a bodak) for the node of the Elder Elemental Eye. The vampire statue is pretty cool, as is the crystalline minotaur statue. The two statues in the final treasure vault may be better off as mummies; the original tomb guardians. Even a mummy lord isn't out of the question. These ancient dead priests protect whatever item of great power resides in the final chamber of the Winding Way.
A Scaffold of Adventure
Isle of the Abbey requires more work than the other adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Like Salvage Encounter we can reskin much of it to fit the story we want to share. Unlike that adventure, Isle of the Abbey requires a lot of work to fix up as well. Hopefully this article gives you ideas how you can twist this adventure into an awesome experience for your players.Read more »
- The Flow of Trap Detection
Noticing, studying, and disarming traps is a common activity in Dungeons & Dragons and yet it can be difficult to understand exactly how it works. Likewise, depending on the situation, it can be difficult for us DMs to understand how best to describe what is happening in a way that still fits the fantastic tales of high adventure we want to share. Today we're going to look at two things: the tricky workflow for detecting, investigating, and disarming traps, and how we can let these situations flow into the rest of our story.
The Mechanical Flow of Trap Detection
The most useful description for trap detection appears in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide on page 120 and 121 under the heading "Detecting and Disabling a Trap". If you're confused about how the flow of trap detection works, start with that section to understand the rules-as-written.
In short (and you really should read the DMG description if you haven't already) traps are first perceived (or not...), then investigated, and then disarmed.
Perceiving a trap. Perceiving a trap requires, you guessed it, perception. When a trap is perceived, the danger of the trap is noticed. According to the DMG, this means the character succeeds in noticing the trap. There's some wiggle room in there that we'll discuss in a minute. This perception can either be an active roll or a passive check. Jeremy Crawford blew this topic wide open with his discussion on passive perception during a Sage Advice episode (jump to the 22 minute mark to hear about passive perception).
Investigating a trap. Once a character notices a trap, they might need to investigate the trap to understand how it works and how to disarm it. This investigation may either take place by the player describing how they mess with the trap or might take place by rolling an Intelligence (Investigation) check. An Intelligence (Arcana) check can be used to detect and investigate magical traps as well as disarm them. The type of trap and its setup could determine how this investigation takes place and how well it works.
Disarming a trap. Disarming a trap can require a few different potential skills. Like investigation, a character might be able to foil a trap without rolling any check at all. Holding a shield up in front of a chest that fires off poison darts might be enough on its own that no check needs to be made. Other traps might require a Dexterity check using thieves' tools if they are mechanical or an Intelligence (Arcana) check if they are magical. Other abilities can likewise foil a trap such as Dispel Magic.
On Passive Perception
This all seems rather straight forward but there are some edge cases that can complicate things. First of all, how much can be detected with passive Perception? As Crawford mentions, and this RPG Stack Exchange thread clarifies, passive Perception acts as a lower floor for a Perception check. It's always on, even if a character attempts an active Wisdom (Perception) check. It's the minimum of what they see. The DMG clearly says that you can compare the DC to detect the trap with each character's passive Wisdom (Perception) score to determine whether anyone in the party notices the trap in passing. This gives us some wiggle room, though, and we may want to take it. Sometimes characters have insanely high passive Perception scores; like above 20. The observant feat can give them an even higher passive Perception. Obviously we don't want to negate or work around this. Players chose these options in particular for their characters.
But we can change what they see with passive Perception. This can depend on the story and the situation. We can be sure that a character with a passive Perception higher than the DC of a trap notices danger ahead, but they might not know what danger they see. This would require its own Intelligence (Investigation) check to learn more about what is going on with the trap. Like passive Perception, a passive Investigation likely acts as a lower floor for investigating the mechanics of traps. Again, we can decide what information comes up from this. Yes, you see danger ahead (high passive Perception). Yes, you see that there are deep grooves surrounding some of the tiles in the floor ahead and believe they move or can be moved (high passive Investigation). That doesn't tell you exactly what is going on but smart characters (and smart players) will test it out and see. Maybe they back up and toss something heavy on the tile. Maybe they duck out of the way and press a torch down on it only to see a poisoned barbed dart hit the torch. They still learn things by actually investigating.
One note about passive Perception I missed until DM David brought it up in his excellent article on group ability checks; the lighting matters a lot. Dim lighting for those without darkvision drops passive Perception by five. The same is true for total darkness and those with darkvision. Keeping track of the lighting tells you how easily the characters can actually perceive. We're not monsters, though. We should likely mention this difficulty before the characters start wandering into pit traps. "The total darkness in this chamber makes it difficult to see well, even for those of you with darkvision." Give them the reminder and they'll likely need to fire up some light to avoid the penalty to their passive Perception.
A Faster Narrative Description
Maybe you want to take this a different way and use those passive scores to smooth out the description of the story. In the adventure Isle of the Abbey in the adventure hardcover book Ghosts of Saltmarsh, there is a hallway filled with traps known as the "Winding Way". Many of the traps can be detected with a passive Perception of 16; some need as high as 19. There are enough of these traps that, instead of going through the full flow of trap detection stages mentioned above, we can just describe what they see:
"As you travel through the Winding Way you notice and avoid dozens of traps designed to thwart run-of-the-mill tomb robbers; but you are no casual tomb robber. Poisoned darts drip from hidden shafts. Large overhead rocks threaten to smash intruders into thin pink paste. Illusionary floors sit atop fields of poisoned spears upon which are impaled the skulls of those less perceptive than you. You journey through the Winding Way noting these deadly traps as you make your way to the vaults of the dark priests."
Obviously you need not read something like that aloud but you can describe how the characters avoid these traps without going through every step of the process. You might mention that other more cunning traps may not be as easily discovered. The pit traps, for example, require a DC 19 passive Perception to detect which a group of characters simply may not possess.
Working With the Players, Not Against Them
Traps are one of those areas where antagonistic DMs clearly run a different kind of game than character-focused DM. Antagonistic DMs take a "you deserve what you get" approach, sitting back and giving only whatever information they have to based on the questions the players ask and the rolls of their characters. Instead, we can work with the players. Yes, we know where the traps are but there is a huge translation problem continually occurring when we run our D&D games. We're describing places that don't actually exist from images on our heads and hoping that the same images transfer intact into the heads of the players.
In the Elements of Style (a mandatory read for writers in my opinion), EB White says "most readers are in trouble about half the time." The same is true for players at our game. With any description we describe, our players are probably not understanding it about half the time. We need to work with our players, clarifying our descriptions, and giving them material to work with.
The characters in our D&D game, for the most part, are experienced adventurers. They're not going to do stupid things. We can assume that, by the time they've been through a few dungeons, they know how to stay out of the way of explosive runes when someone is trying to disarm them. They know how to duck behind a corner so as not to be in the path of poisoned darts.
We should assume that the characters are seasoned adventurers, not idiots, even if our players aren't fully grasping what is going on or spending a bit too much time on their phones. Find other ways to bring them into the game than sticking poisoned darts into the faces of their characters.
Another Tool for Tales of High Adventure
The whole flow of traps and trap detection, like all elements of our D&D games, is here to help us share a story. Traps are pieces of the world, a moment of stress and resolve, that fits in with the rest of the tales we share. It's a careful balance to ensure tension and resolution don't turn into frustration, tedium, or boredom. When we understand how traps fit into our story and keep the flow of trap detection at the right pace, we can keep the energy high and put traps in their rightful place as sinister agents of the stories we share.Read more »
- VideoRunning Dragon of Icespire Peak from the D&D Essentials Kit
This is an evolving article offering tips for running the D&D Essentials Kit adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. I'll be updating this article as I run the adventures in the book and gain first-hand knowledge on how to run each of the quests within them.
Please also note that this article includes spoilers for the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak.
The D&D Essentials Kit is the first new entry point for Dungeons & Dragons since the original and excellent D&D Starter Set released by Wizards of the Coast in 2014. The D&D Essentials box includes everything a group needs to play D&D including the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. In this article we'll talk about how to get the most fun out of this adventure.
In addition to this article you can watch this Dragon of Icespire Peak video discussion including tips for the first quests in the adventure and thoughts about one-on-one play.
Table of Contents
Click the links below to jump to a particular section in this article.
- Main Tips
- The Danger for 1st Level Characters
- Showcase the Dragon
- Dwarven Excavation
- Umbrage Hill
- Mountain's Toe Gold Mine
- Shrine of Savras
- Butterskull Ranch
- More Adventures to Come
Here's a quick list of tips, further described in this article, for getting the most fun out of Dragon of Icespire Peak.
- Give one of the 1st level characters a relic that casts aid on the party; increasing their hit points by 5 for 8 hours.
- Showcase the dragon.
- Be careful with 1st level characters. Replace the ochre jellies in Dwarven Excavation with gray oozes. Limit the combat effectiveness of the manticore in Umbridge Hill and the mimic in Gnomengarde.
- Add interesting flavor and treasure to Dwarven Excavation.
- Ensure the characters have access to the spell magic weapon before facing the wererats in the Mountain's Toe Gold Mine quest.
- Reduce the number of orcs and ogres at the Shrine of Savras if you have fewer than four characters.
The Danger for 1st Level Characters
1st level characters in D&D are delicate. A 1st level D&D game is almost a different game. In another article, Building 1st Level Combat Encounters, I recommend the following for 1st level adventures:
- Keep monster challenge ratings to 1/4 or less.
- Include fewer creatures than characters.
- Limit average monster damage to 5 (1d6+2) or lower.
Given the low hit points of 1st level characters, the above guidelines ensure they won't get wiped out in their first combat.
Unfortunately, Dragon of Icespire Peak does not follow these guidelines. In the first three adventures, intended for 1st level, the characters face a ochre jelly (CR 2 with immunity to slashing), a CR 2 grappling mimic, and a CR 3 manticore that can inflict up to 21 damage on a turn. Any of these monsters can easily kill a 1st level character. Some groups can get lucky when facing these foes but many may not.
One way to help the characters survive their initial quests at 1st level is to give the characters a relic that casts aid. This relic may only be usable once or you might give it three charges. Aid increasese the hit points of characters by 5 for 8 hours; a big boost for 1st level characters. This relic can be a family heirloom of one of the characters or something given to them before they begin their adventures.
Showcase the Dragon
Dungeons and dragons; that's what people want to see and Dragon of Icespire Peak has both. While our characters can hear about the dragon from their first visit to Phandalin, it's something else to see it. When rolling on the "dragon location" table in the "Running the Adventure" section of the adventure book, it's unlikely the dragon will show up at the very location the characters visit. It may, however, be somewhere nearby. When you roll on the dragon's location and its close to a location the characters are traveling to, give them a chance to see the dragon from afar. Nothing beats seeing a dragon in Dungeons & Dragons. Help make it happen.
Individual Quest Tips
The rest of this article contains advice for each of the quests in Dragon of Icespire Peak. I'll add more quest tips and summaries as I run through the adventure.
The Dwarven Excavation quest is a fun exploration of a mysterious temple to the evil dwarven god Abbathor. The text is light on details but adding in interesting information about Abbathor can make the whole temple come to life. You can learn more about Abbathor from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes or read about him at the Forgotten Realms Wiki. Characters can make Intelligence (History) or Intelligence (Religion) checks to learn details about Abbathor and his devious followers as they explore his lost temple.
You might add some lightweight traps to some of the doors in the temple ruins to tie in with the theme of Abbathor. Don't include any traps that will wipe out 1st level characters but small dagger, dart, and poison traps fit the theme. The trap generator or the random trap generator from the Lazy DM's Workbook can give you some interesting and devious traps. In general, traps should have +4 to hit, DC 12 saving throws, and inflict about 3 (1d6) damage. The ancient nature of the temple can explain why these traps aren't as deadly as they once were.
The ochre jellies in this quest can be very deadly for 1st level characters. One easy solution is to replace them with either CR 1/2 gray oozes or CR 1/4 dwarven skeletons wearing tattered cloaks and hoods. If the characters are 2nd or 3rd level and have more than two characters (not including sidekicks), you can stick to the jellies but their immunity to slashing and splitting on a slash can still be very deadly.
For all of the mysteries and secret doors in this dungeon, it is light on treasure. The final chamber, according to the text, takes 40 hours to dig through and includes no useful treasure; only a deadly trap. We can reduce the time it takes to dig to this chamber to 40 minutes instead of 40 hours and include a magic item or a relic to reward their exploration of the dungeon.
For more tips, see this Dwarven Excavation tips video by Bob World Builder or watch this one-on-one Dwarven Excavation liveplay video with NewbieDM and myself.
Umbrage Hill is one of the shorter quests in Dragon of Icespire Peak and makes for a great 1st level challenge. The characters arrive at the hill and find a manticore harassing Adabra Gwynn the apothecary. This adventure needs only a little modification. If played to the fullest the manticore can be a deadly opponent, firing three tail spikes from the air per round for an average of 7 damage each. We might describe how the windmill is riddled with tail spikes and that the manticore only has a few left. Should combat begin, the manticore might fire only one tail spike per round instead of three. The manticore might also start off wounded by the dragon, coming to Gwynn for her potions of healing. This offers another line of negotiation other than paying 25 gold pieces to the manticore. Perhaps it needs that 25 gold pieces for a discounted potion of healing from Adabra.
We can also add some flavor to the dwarven graves here, providing some history of the Besilmer dwarves, a potential lead-in to Princes of the Apocalypse or other dwarven nations. We can also drop in a relic to offer a reward to the characters for their exploration. Such a relic might cast the spell magic weapon thrice, helping characters deal with the wererats in Mountain's Toe Gold Mine.
For other tips for this quest, see Bob World Builder's tips for running Umbrage Hill. You can also see me run this adventure for Enrique Bertran, the NewbieDM in this one-on-one Umbrage Hill playthrough video.
This adventure will push heavy on the roleplaying skills of you and your players. The mystery of the mimic's killings can be stretched out into an Alien / The Thing style hunt throughout the caves with lots of paranoia among the gnomes and a lot of mystery about the foe they face. Be careful not to project the actual nature of the mimic, hinting at some sort of shapeshifter and throwing in red herrings such as ghosts, doppelgangers, or even that there is nothing at all wrong in Gnomengarde and that the missing gnomes simply took a vacation.
In the text, King Korboz has lost his mind when he witnessed an attack. When the characters talk to him, it's better if he didn't see the whole attack and instead just saw a tentacled horror devour one of the gnomes. Maybe it was his nightmare, maybe it was some Far Realm horror, maybe it was a black tentacles spell. Hint at a lot of different possibilities so when the mimic reveals itself its a surprise even to the players who know what a mimic is.
Replace Facktore's motivation in area G7 with paranoia that someone may be killing gnomes and only she can stay safe in her crazy crossbow contraption. That works better than a crazy gnome who wants to test out the crossbow by shooting random people.
When the characters actually face the mimic, the variant option to have the mimic speak common can make for a more interesting interaction instead of a simple slugfest. In combat the mimic can be quite dangerous for smaller numbers of 1st level characters. Tune its hit points and damage output to fit the number of characters you have. If you have a lot of characters facing the mimic, consider giving it a multi-attack that hits multiple creatures.
For other tips for this quest, see Bob World Builder's tips for running Gnomengarde.
Mountain's Toe Gold Mine
Mountain's Toe Gold Mine is one of the three second-tier adventures in Dragon of Icespire Peak. The warning at the front of the adventure is one to heed. If things turn to combat in this adventure and the characters don't have any magic weapons, there's a good chance they'll get killed. In this case, failing forward is an option. The wererats beat up the characters but then offer them a deal instead of killing them. In return for their freedom, they must go to the Shrine of Savras and clear it out so the wererats can return there.
The scaling of monsters for smaller groups can be tricky in this quest as well. If the two door guards from area 1 follow the characters to the main hall in area 4, that could end up being a lot of monsters per character. Instead, reduce the number of wererats to a maximum of about one per character (not including sidekicks) if possible.
If the characters are headed here without magic weapons, it might be worth dropping a magic weapon casting relic into their hands before they come here.
For a liveplay example, take a look at my one-on-one Mountain's Toe Gold Mine playthrough video with the NewbieDM.
Shrine of Savras
The Shrine of Savras isn't an actual quest but can become one if the characters talk to the wererats in Mountain's Toe Gold Mine instead of fighting them (which is probably a good idea if they don't have magic weapons).
The Shrine has scaling options for the levels of the characters but these might still scale too hard. For example, a 3rd level character with a sidekick can end up facing three orcs and two ogres according to the rules. Instead, consider removing one of the ogres and spreading out the orcs so your single character and sidekick don't get pummeled to death under the orcs' powerful battleaxes.
The situation at the shrine also makes it impossible to sneak up during the day and very difficult to sneak up at night. Instead, include some large natural rocks sticking out of the hill that can give characters a chance to sneak up on the tower undetected by the orc sentry. If the orc does see them, it might not alert its friends right away thinking it might take care of these foes itself.
For a liveplay example of this quest, watch my one-on-one Shrine of Savras liveplay with NewbieDM.
In Butterskull Ranch the characters go to the ranch of Alfonse "Big Al" Kalazorn who has been attacked by Orcs. Big Al himself is still alive, captured by the orcs, but his ranch hands have all been killed.
This quest can feel a lot like the Shrine of Savras if we're not careful. It's important to project why the orcs are here; that they've been routed by Cryovain and have taken to raiding homesteads like this one.
The initial encounter with the horses is a good one run before the characters arrive at the ranch, although the encounter with Petunia the cow can be run after the characters learn of it from Big Al.
You'll want to choose the number of orcs at the ranch carefully. Spread them out across the ranch so the characters aren't overwhelmed all at once and the story of each encounter can be interesting. The text recommends three orcs per character not including sidekicks. This might end up being a lot or a little depending on how things go so feel free to change up the number of orcs as you run the adventure to best fit the pacing of the game.
The hills north of Butterskull Ranch might be an interesting place to put a fantastic monument to spice up the area a bit. Perhaps the find a cairn to an orc veteran of Uruth Ukrypt who sacked Phandalin back in 951 DR. Perhaps it is a monument or crypt of the Delzoun dwarves or the Netherese. Monuments like these are great ways to show some of the history of the location and drop a nice relic into the hands of the characters. You can learn more about these historical nations in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. Choose these monuments to fit the backgrounds and interests of the characters.
For more on Butterskull Ranch check out my liveplay Butterskull Ranch one-on-one video with NewbieDM, Bob World Builder's Butterskull Ranch tips video, and Bob World Builder's Butterskull Ranch gameplay video. Bob's recommendation for an orc in the outhouse is one not to miss.
More Adventures to Come
This article will be updated with further tips for running each of the quests in Dragon of Icespire Peak. Keep an eye on this page for future updates.
The D&D Essentials Kit and Dragon of Icespire Peak will likely bring new players and new DMs to the wonderful hobby of Dungeons & Dragons. These quests are just a taste of the fantastic adventures to come. For further adventures and recommendations, see our Guide to Published Adventures. May you find endless fantastic adventures with your friends and families in your future.Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 4: Salvage Operation
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Chapter 4 of Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Salvage Operation, is the first chapter that isn't part of the actual Saltmarsh series of adventures beginning with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, and Danger at Dunwater. It's the first adventure that doesn't actually connect to the town of Saltmarsh or the threat of the sahuagin. On the surface, this makes it a more difficult adventure to incorporate into the larger Saltmarsh storyline, assuming you have one. It is, however, an extremely flexible adventure that we can easily use to reinforce the story of Saltmarsh rather than sail away from the story.
Today we're going to talk about modifying Salvage Operation so it can better reinforce the stories we're already exploring in our Saltmarsh campaign.
The Adventure Structure of Salvage Operation
Salvage Operation is a refreshingly simple adventure. The characters learn that a ship thought sunk called the Emperor of the Waves is actually still afloat. They're asked to go to the ship and recover a lockbox containing something valuable (one wonderful bit of flexibility). Aboard they find that the ship has actually been taken over by a cult (another bit of flexibility) and is soon under attack by a huge sea horror (a third bit of flexibility). The characters must get on the ship, get the lock box, and escape the ship before being killed by the sea monster. It's a great simple adventure ripe for a lot of modifications to help support our own campaigns.
The Brotherhood's Plot
If we're running Ghosts of Saltmarsh as a larger campaign, we may have included the Scarlet Brotherhood as a secret villain. They're busy figuring out how to take over the Saltmarrsh council, member by member, so they can control Saltmarsh from the shadows. The Brotherhood isn't afraid to kill, kidnap, extort, or bribe their way in as long as they have control.
This mission to recover the lockbox is a great way to reinforce the Brotherhood's plot.
When they return from negotiating with the lizardfolk in Danger at Dunwater, the council will need some time to reach out to the lizardfolk and deliberate about their response. This is a great time for the characters to engage in some downtime. During this downtime, their friend, Anders Solmor, may come to them with urgent business and a request. It would seem, Anders describes, that someone on the council has a secret to hide. Associates of Anders (associates that once worked with his parents who are now both dead) told him that evidence of this secret are stored in a lockbox aboard the Emperor of the Waves. Everyone believed the ship had sunk years ago but apparently it did not. Anders's associates know where the ship might be and, being a mission of some delicacy, Anders trusts the characters to make their way out to the ship and recover the lockbox.
The Cult of the Chained God and the Scarlet Brotherhood
Behind the scenes, a high-ranking member of the Cult of the Chained God, Mr. Dory, is also a member of the Scarlet Brotherhood. Through his connection to Tharizdun, he found the Emperor of the Waves in a dimensional storm near the Endless Nadir. All of this comes from the Chapter 8 adventure The Styes, including Mr. Dory, the Endless Nadir, and the Cult of the Chained God. We're foreshadowing some of that adventure while running this one.
Mr. Dory passed his information on the Emperor of the Waves and its secret to Skerrin Wavechaser, the ranking member of the Scarlet Brotherhood in Saltmarsh who passes the information to Anders Solmor. Anders gives it to the characters.
What secret is within the lockbox? We can change it to whatever suits our needs to move the Scarlet Brotherhood plot forward. In my own game it was evidence that the Emperor of the Waves was a slaving vessel that did business with Eda Oweland. The evidence would have her removed from the council and likely hanged. Earlier, it is possible that Skerran's ruse with Gellen Primewater had him removed from the council as well. That reduces the council from five to three. A kidnapping in the Kingdom of Keoland of Eliander Fireborn's daughter puts the majority of the remaining three councilors in the hands of the Scarlet Brotherhood.
The Flexible Cult
As written, Salvage Operation includes a cult to Lolth but we can just as easily change this cult to the Chained God and tie it closer to the adventure The Styes. The Cult of the Chained God can become another front in our overall Saltmarsh campaign, one that can move forward as the characters engage in the adventures.
We may want to change some of the creatures in Salvage Operation with creatures closer to the aberrations we might see in service of Tharizdun. We might reskin the swarms of spiders, the giant spiders, and the ettercaps into pirate abomination hybrids formed and twisted by Tharizdun's corruption on the island where they landed. Among the papers found in the lockbox might be a journal of their landing on an island and the discovery of a fifty-foot-high obsidian obelisk over a million years old marked with the sign of Tharizdun. This would be an island directly above the huge rift leading to the Endless Nadir.
The Flexible Villain
Krell, the main villain in Salvage Operation, is easily reskinned as well. In my own game, I wanted to give him a connection to one of the characters so I changed him into a triton warlock similar to the triton warlock character in our game, Jamras. Jamras knew Krell and vice versa. Jamras, being a warlock of the Great Old One, is an easy recruit for Krell, so he thinks.
Krell can be easily reskinned into whatever villain best fits the campaign and the backgrounds of the characters. A warlock of Tharizdun fits well but we can just as easily reskin him into any villain that either fits our characters or fits the story.
The giant octopus is likewise reskinnable. This octopus might instead be a giant ink-black whale with the powers of a great old one warlock that killed the parents of one of the characters. It might even be a full-fledged kraken. This is a good opportunity to connect the big environmental monster in this adventure with the one in The Styes.
The Flexible Chest
Finally we come to the chest. As mentioned above, we can put anything in it that drives the story forward. In my own game, some truthful but damaging evidence against one of the council members fit very well. What will the characters do with proof that Eda Oweland sold Saltmarsh citizens into slavery five years ago? How will that tip the scale of the council? What secret organization wants this information to get out and why?
A chest like this is a great gift for the story of our game. We can put anything in it that helps that story move forward.
The Gonzo Conclusion
The real fun of Salvage Operation hits when the giant octopus, or whatever you turned it into, attacks the ship. The ship starts falling apart. The characters start scrambling while the world crashes around them. Do they keep fighting the villain? Do they grab the box and flee? The continuing escalating chaos makes this scene shine. Let things get out of control. Drop new challenges in front of the characters and help them overcome them. Maybe some of the characters can swim but others can't. Maybe others make it into the water only to see a sea of specters from the roaring storm rushing in.
A Simple Reskinnable Adventure
Salvage Operation is one of those perfect small focused adventures with lots of room for us to shape it and prune it into the adventure that best fits our story. With a straight forward storyline and some clear reskinnable areas, we can take the bulk of this adventure and turn it into one tailored perfectly for our own campaign.Read more »
- VideoKitbashing Dungeons
While some are quite happy designing their own maps from scratch to run in their D&D games, us lazy dungeon masters are much happier stealing maps wherever we can. The maps in Lazy DM's Workbook are designed specifically around this goal. These maps are built around the most common dungeons in D&D including the crypt, castle, dungeon, caves, sewers, temple, mines, cellars, docks, and wizards tower. These are all common staples in our fantasy RPGs. If those ten maps don't get us what we need, we can always hit up the map archive of Dyson Logos which has more than 750 maps we can choose from.
These maps alone, however, may not fit the intention we have for the dungeon in our game. What if we steal a dungeon with fifteen rooms but only need three? What if the dungeons in our game span different environments? How can we build an entirely new map without starting from scratch?
Simple, we smash two of them together.
Let's say we want to run a small temple with a small catacombs beneath it. We have the above maps (drawn by Elven Tower), of course, but these might be too big for us.
Just like mixing a few traits from different monsters can make an entirely new monster (hello vampire!), we can take a few rooms from our temple map and a few rooms from our catacombs map and build something entirely new. We might, for example, only use 1, 2, 9, 10, and 11 from our cacacombs map and rooms 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9 from our temple map. We might add in hallways that connect rooms 2 to 5. The big pit in room 7 of the temple map might lead to the giant skull in room 9. Now that's an interesting connection!
Starting With the Rooms We Need
When we prepare for our game and go through the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, step 5 has us identifying fantastic locations. Typically we need only one such location for every 45 minutes of gameplay. For a single-session four-hour adventure we might need six to eight such locations. We can start by looking at the maps we are thinking of using, selecting the rooms that fit the story, and cutting out the rest. Instead we can start with our locations and then look for generally appropriate maps to connect them together. Often one map alone won't be perfectly suited but two maps cut up and smashed together can suit the job perfectly.
Doing It All In Your Head
Some DMs might be tempted to sit down with some sort of computer program and redesign the maps, actually cutting and pasting rooms together into a new physical map. That's likely not necessary. Sometimes we can just write down the list of rooms and know, in our heads, that the others aren't accessible.
Many times we DMs build out our adventures as though someone else is going to rum them. We add flavor text; we draw beautifully designed maps; we write up large random-encounter lists; we carefully document dozens of story threads, hooks, and plot seeds. It's unlikely anyone else will ever see these notes, however. They're just for us. Thus, our notes can be much briefer than we might expect from a published work because it's all in our head already. We don't need carefully written read-aloud text; we just need a couple of words to remind us what's in a chamber so we can describe it to our players when the game comes around.
The same is true for maps. Some might want to spend an hours drawing a beautiful Dyson-quality maps but sometimes a stick figure is all we need to know how a bunch of rooms are connected. Some square blocks and interconnecting lines are all we really need to run such a location.
When we're smashing together a couple of existing maps, knowing which parts we're going to use, how the maps are going to connect, and which parts of them we're going to throw away is just about everything we need to run a great game.Read more »
- The Beats of a Dungeon Crawl
Dungeon crawls are a staple in Dungeons & Dragons games. Ever since the game's creation characters have traversed forgotten hallways accosted by beasts never touched by the sun. Even as D&D's focus has shifted for many of us from tactical combat to a more story-focused game, dungeon crawls still remain a common adventure theme.
And sometimes they can be a drag.
Almost by definition dungeon crawls press the characters. Throughout their crawl, the characters face monsters, traps, and hazards in the darkness of the tunnels. There's not a lot of joy in the forbidden depths and that lack of joy can drain not just the characters of their resources but the fun out of the players.
Beats and Hamlet's Hit Points
"Stories engage our attention by constantly modulating our emotional responses."
The above quote comes from Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. In this book, Robin talks about hopeful and fearful beats of roleplaying games, in the context of upward and downward beats in movies. Too many downward beats and a story can feel depressing and hopeless. People give up and their immersion breaks. Too many upward beats and things get boring and stale. The excitement wears off. Hamlet's Hit Points also offers definitions of the types of story beats including procedural, dramatic, commentary, anticipation, gratification, bringdown, pipe, question, and reveal. For this article, we're going to worry less about beat types and focus on beat resolution; how the beats feel to the players.
You can learn more about beats in my interview with Robin Laws on the DM's Deep Dive.
Oftentimes we don't have to worry about beats too much. We need not keep the model in mind because our game naturally hits the right mix hopeful and fearful beats as we run it. As we become more experienced game masters, we naturally fall into a pattern of storytelling that resonates well with our players.
Sometimes, though, the nature and direction of our game pushes us into an area where one type of beat resolution might be far more common than another, pushing us into the domains of hopelessness or boredom.
For example, if the characters travel to a peaceful and well-guarded town with few threats, they might enjoy shopping and meeting powerful people. They might enjoy their downtime, for a while at least. But without a threat, without a challenge, their time in the town can get boring. Waterdeep, the jewel of the north, still has a vast dungeon beneath it and a whole city full of smugglers, thieves, and assassins in a vast cave right near by. Conspiracies abound. Residing in peaceful towns is only interesting for so long. We love James Bond movies when he travels to exotic locations but the movie would be pretty boring if the whole movie consisted of Bond traveling by gondola between casinos like Anthony Bourdain in Parts Unknown.
The Inherent Fearful Beat of the Dungeon Crawl
Dungeon crawls are the opposite. Unlike safe and clean cities, dungeons are full of constant and continual danger. They are filled with terrible monsters, vicious traps, and deadly hazards. They are not nice places to visit and yet they are a common theme in many of our D&D games. Because of this, remembering the importance of adding hopeful beats to offset the many inherent fearful beats of a dungeon can be critical to the fun of the session.
Not All Players Have the Same Beats
Its important to note that beats are a blunt tool for a complicated situation. We might have a table where, for whatever reason, one player has had a series of bad rolls (down beats) while everyone else is doing fine. The same can go the other way; one player is having a great time while everyone else feels like they're being dragged through hell. Though not all players feel the same beats the same way, we can generally keep an eye on the beats of the overall adventure and how its affecting the players.
Twenty Hopeful Dungeon Beats
The following is a list of twenty hopeful dungeon beats we might drop into our game if our dungeon is becoming too hopeless. You can read through these or roll 1d20 to get some ideas for your own dungeon-based hopeful beats.
- A healing font that restores the characters to full health
- A lost magic weapon
- A friendly ghost who gives useful information
- A torn tapestry revealing a useful secret or clue
- A trap that can be used against enemies
- A hidden treasure vault
- A secret passage that bypasses a hazard
- A hidden room offering safety for a short or long rest
- A map revealing a piece or the whole of the dungeon
- An amulet that lets the characters bypass a trap, hazard, or group of monsters
- An useful ambush point
- A friendly or turncoat monster
- A statue that casts a one-hour bless on the characters
- A snoozing guard
- A corpse possessing a powerful single-use relic
- A group of skeletons easily turned by the cleric
- A group of low-powered monsters easily blasted by the wizard's fireball
- A hazard that can be turned against a group of enemies
- High ground that offers an advantageous position
- A powerful monster convinced to become an ally
Downward Beats to Keep an Eye On
As constructs inherently designed for downward beats, some common themes emerge in dungeons that amplify the dungeon's fear, leading potentially into hopelessness, frustration, and eventually disengagement from our players. Here are some common downward-beat themes we should be aware of.
Too many hard battles. Our drive to bring a challenge to our characters can result in us dropping too many hard battles against the characters with little chance for a break. Sometimes battles with multiple waves bring great excitement and challenge. Too many in a row, though, can make players feel drained and bored instead of challenged and excited. Instead, throw in some easy encounters where the characters' power can shine.
Too many of the same type of monster. Getting attacked by a group of specters can feel dangerous and exciting as they phase through the walls and attack. Spreading out these specters into three or four scenes of hit-and-run ambushes can become a frustrating drag. In general, avoid encounters that look a lot like ones already faced. Add something new and interesting into each encounter so they don't all feel the same. Likewise, avoid using the same type of monster continually. Facing battle after battle with specters, shadows, ghosts, and bodaks can make players feel like they're just getting their hit points drained over and over. Mix in other monster types that still fit the theme of the story.
Too long without a rest. Limiting opportunities for short and long rests is a well-known and highly-recommended technique to ensure DMs can challenge characters, particularly at high levels. This can go too far. As we watch the characters' resources get drained in a dungeon, we need to be conscious of their current status as the challenges continue. The longer the characters go without a rest, the more fearful their players become. This is ok as long as we're aware of it and able to off-set it with upward beats. When possible and where it makes sense, an opportunity for a short or long rest can be its own powerful upward beat. Perhaps a host of specters has prevented the characters from resting in the dungeon until the necrotic sphere in the dungeon's center was destroyed. Now the specters have vanished and the characters can take a safe rest.
Boring environments. The walls of the dungeon tell a story. Murals, carvings, statues, corpses, torn pages from a journal; all of these details can tell the story of the dungeon. Strange decorations, huge statues in high-vaulted chambers, great rifts that fall into bottomless depths, gruesome altars; all of these details can change the environment and steer us away from endless stone walls, narrow passages, and 30-foot-square rooms. Add details and fantastic elements to catch the imagination of the players and show them the uniqueness of the area they explore.
No new information. Traveling from hallway to hallway, from room to room, fighting monsters and learning nothing can get boring and stale fast. Each room, hallway, challenge, and monster offers a new opportunity to learn something. They might learn the history of the dungeon. They might learn why it was built the way it was. They might learn a secret few know about. They might learn about their villain. Use every scene as an opportunity to reveal a piece of the story of the world.
No clear goal. "Why are we doing again?" Because of their dangerous nature, its important that the characters know why they are facing the dangers they face within a dungeon. Without a clear goal progress is unknown. Hopelessness and frustration soon follow. Keeping the goal clear and showing progress towards that goal gives the characters, and the players, something to hang onto while they face the deadly challenges of the dungeon.
No warning. If the players don't realize they're going to be headed into a resource-draining dungeon with few opportunities to rest, they can become frustrated quickly when it dawns upon them; often after they've spent a good deal of resources early on. Warning them of the coming trials can help them prepare and sets them up psychologically for the challenge they will face. Sometimes this can be a warning from a friendly NPC or information gleaned from an old explorer's notes. Other times we might warn them of something their characters would recognize that the players may not. "Seeing the threats in this dungeon, you do not think you'll able to rest safely for some time." When the players are prepared for the challenge, they can keep some of their hopelessness and frustration in check. It was, after all, expected.
Constant combat. Combat is likely the most common challenge in Dungeons & Dragons and it's easy to overuse it. Filling a dungeon with battle after battle can get stale fast. Just because our dungeon is an ancient vault untouched for centuries doesn't mean we can't fill it up with exploration and roleplaying as much as any other scene. Roleplaying can come from ghosts, other explorers, turncoat monsters, divine entities, or intelligent items. Exploration can bathe the walls of the dungeon, revealing all kinds of secrets and clues. We need to keep our drive to fill a dungeon with monsters in check by ensuring the characters have just as much opportunity to explore the dungeon and interact with its denizens as they are fighting foes.
Watching the Beats
Dungeons, by their nature, break away from our natural storytelling instincts to modulate emotional beats. The inherent danger and hopelessness of a dungeon pushes downward beats easily and requires extra effort on our part to offset them with suitable upward beats that make sense within the context of the story. While we all have fond memories of D&D's most popular dungeons such as the Tomb of Horrors, Castle Ravenloft, the Temple of Elemental Evil, and the Tomb of the Nine Gods we might also remember the frustration and hopelessness that drives players to think less about how their characters survive such challenges and more about how mechanical design screwed them over.
Bathe your dungeons in stories and lore, drop in interesting NPCs, and let the characters discover a hidden vault with a forgotten fountain of rejuvenating water. Watch the downward beats, drop in upward beats, and turn your dungeon crawl into an exciting tale fondly remembered.Read more »
- Building 1st Level Combat Encounters
No level is more dangerous in Dungeons & Dragons than 1st level. With their low hit points, it isn't uncommon for a 1st level character to go from full hit points to zero in one or two successful hits. Stories of 1st level characters falling to the critical hit of a swarm of rats are commonplace. Given the low hit point threshold of 1st level characters, death due to massive damage is much more likely at 1st level than any other level in D&D.
"Dragon Slayers And Proud Of It" by Larry Elmore.
This threat doesn't continue as characters gain levels. The hit points of 2nd level characters increase by more than 50%. A 3rd level character has twice the hit points of a 1st level character. Not only does it require twice as much damage to send a 3rd level character to zero but it takes four times as much damage to kill them with massive damage. That's a much bigger safety margin.
With more hit points, better spells, and more character options available, the threat facing higher level characters is not nearly as deadly as it is at 1st level.
A group of 16th level characters facing two hezrou demons and a balor is not nearly as threatening as four 1st level characters facing a single ogre.
The Entry Point of D&D
It also doesn't help that brand new players to D&D nearly always start with 1st level characters. With limited options available, learning how to play D&D is easier at 1st level than it is at higher levels.
It's unfortunate that it's also the the most dangerous level to play.
Some hard-nosed veteran D&D commentators might state this this is how the game is meant to be. D&D is about the threat of death, they might say. We each have our opinions and this is not one I share. I think D&D is about sharing tales of high adventure. While the risk of death is important, it need not be so much more prevalent at 1st level during someone's first exposure to D&D. I also argue that this threat does not maintain pace as characters level up. Higher level monsters are not nearly the same threat to high level characters as low level monsters are to 1st level characters.
There are some easy fixes to this problem. Starting characters off with five or ten more hit points would make a huge difference and not affect much of the rest of the game in higher levels. Removing death due to massive damage is another option. Characters will still drop when they hit zero hit points but they won't be instantly killed by a rare critical hit.
If we prefer not to house-rule our way out of the dangers at 1st level, we can take more care on the DM's side of things and pay particular attention to the combat encounters we design for 1st level characters.
1st Level Combat Encounter Rules-of-Thumb
When designing any combat encounter in D&D at any level, we must consider a few variables. You can read more about this in A New DM's Guide For Building Combat Encounters. The variables we note when creating a combat encounter include the following:
- What is the story of the encounter?
- What monsters make sense for that story?
- How many monsters are there?
- What challenge rating are the monsters?
Whatever combat encounter you're designing for 1st level characters, you still need a story and that story will still dictate the types and quantity of monsters the characters might face. Sometimes this story may be "there are giant rats in my cellar" (a Teos Abadia favorite...) or "there are giant constrictor snakes in the well outside of the haunted mansion" (from Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Simple stories for new adventurers.
The next two questions require particular care when designing combat encounters for 1st level characters. Here are some basic rules of thumb to help us design combat encounters for 1st level characters.
Include fewer monsters than characters. If there are more monsters than characters, regardless of their challenge rating, the battle will be very hard for 1st level characters. In general, choose fewer monsters than characters at 1st level.
Include monsters of challenge rating of 1/4 or less. Even a challenge 1/2 thug is a serious problem for 1st level characters. Two of them can be deadly given their multiple attacks and pack tactics. Stick to monsters less than challenge 1/4 for encounters against 1st level characters.
Keep average monster damage to 5 or less. Some CR 1/4 monsters like giant centipedes, swarms of insects, and flying snakes do a fair bit of extra damage. Like higher challenge monsters, they might kill a 1st level character outright if things go badly. Watch the average damage of your monsters and keep it to around 4 or 5.
You might think limiting yourself to monsters of CR 1/4 or less would be burdensome but over seventy such monsters exist in the Monster Manual alone. With some reskinning, changing out armor, changing weapons, and otherwise altering the flavor of these monsters, there is really no limit at all.
In Lost Mine of Phandelver the characters face Klarg, a bugbear. Klarg hits like a Tarrasque when facing 1st level characters. If he gets a surprise attack, he hits for 18 points. That's probably enough to kill a wizard with a single hit. If he critically hits? Make that 34. That will kill any 1st level character, maybe even 2nd level character, in a single hit.
I'd argue the battle against Klarg is harder than the battle against Strahd or Iymrith or even Tiamat given the power of 1st level characters when compared to the power of Klarg. Keep that in mind when running low level adventures.
One trick that doesn't require any houseruling is to have a benevolent priest cast aid on the characters before their first adventure. Maybe this is a friend of one of the characters. Maybe this is their quest NPC. Maybe they're not so benevolent after all and will call upon the characters for a service in exchange.
This need not be an NPC either. Maybe one of the characters has a single-use Relic that casts aid on all of the characters once. Maybe this relic activates as soon as the game begins.
Aid gives each character a bonus of 5 hit points to their cap and to their current hit points for eight hours. That's a good boost for 1st level characters and doesn't require any houseruling.
I often quip that 1st level adventures should be limited to a stern conversation and a fight with a giant rat. 1st level adventures need not be long affairs. When characters reach 2nd level, they become much more robust. We don't need to be nearly as careful at 2nd level and above. Thus, its always worth while to get characters to 2nd level after four hours or less of game time.
Consider leveling characters to 2nd level quickly; maybe even after the first combat in an adventure.
Paying Special Attention to the Beginning of D&D
When we think about a player's first experience playing D&D, we want it to be a fun and positive experience. Getting killed by a pack of six wolves in the first scene in the game isn't much fun. We DMs have a lot of flexibility when designing combat encounters throughout our D&D games but 1st level games require their own special attention. Use fewer monsters than characters, keep them at CR 1/4 or less, watch their damage, and let the players enjoy their first game of D&D.Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 3, Danger at Dunwater
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Danger at Dunwater.
Danger at Dunwater, an adventure originally written in 1982 and the second adventure in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, is an interesting case study in adventure design. The adventure hangs on a particular approach in order to work well. In this approach, the characters should go in unsure of the threat the Dunwater lizardfolk pose to the town of Saltmarsh and, throughout the adventure, they should learn that the lizardfolk not only don't pose a threat to Saltmarsh but are mobilizing against an enemy that does threaten the fisher village: the sahuagin. The characters should be on their guard as this adventure begins, but not go in swords drawn and murder a bunch of innocent lizardfolk. That's a thin line.
Steering Towards Non-Violence
There's an interesting range of attitudes the characters might hold as they approach this adventure:
- They could assume the lizardfolk are peaceful.
- They can be unsure of the lizardfolk.
- They can assume the lizardfolk are hostile.
If they are in the third category, this adventure might end up going poorly quickly. If they go in hot, they stand the chance of getting invested in combat. If they've cut down one lizardfolk or five or ten, they're likely to continue even if they start to get evidence that things might not be as they seem. It can be a bummer for the players if they realize they've killed a bunch of creatures that could have been allies.
It's ideal if the characters go into the situation unsure of the lizardfolks' intent and with a desire to learn more about this intent before they're willing to draw blades and throw spells. This keeps the tension high and still allows for the big reveal; that the lizardfolk are actually arming against the sahuagin, not Saltmarsh.
If keeping that tension becomes too difficult, it's better to steer the characters towards the assumption that the lizard folk are not hostile. This removes the tension from the adventure but it's better than the characters murdering half of the lizardfolk only to realize they have it all wrong when they're standing on a stack of bodies.
We can control this approach by determining what clues we drop in front of the characters ahead of time. Here are a few secrets and clues the characters can discover that helps steer them the right way:
- The lizardfolk are arming themselves using stolen weapons from the kingdom of Keoland.
- Lizardfolk are not typically raiders or invaders. They stay in their own territory and are largely isolationist.
- It is not unheard of for lizardfolk to trade with other humanoid races.
- Saltmarsh has seen no lizardfolk scouts scouting out the town.
- The lizardfolk of Dunwater haven't always been there. They arrived there as refugees from somewhere else.
- Ships from the west report of being attacked by "sea devils" who are likely not lizardfolk.
Some of these secrets might feel heavy-handed and go against the goal of running this adventure with a clear tension. As we listen to the conversations of the players, though, we can gauge whether they think of the lizardfolk as a hostile force to attack on sight or something worth investigating deeper. If they're leaning towards hostility, we might drop in one or more of these clues to help steer them the other way.
Ignoring Fifty Two Rooms
Depending on how this adventure goes, we may end up ignoring the 52 room descriptions in this adventure. Similar to Village of Hommlet, we have a lot of descriptions of places that really only reward murder hobos. Any group that tries to negotiate with the lizardfolk aren't likely to go room by room looking under mattresses for jeweled conch shells. It's possible we'll need those room descriptions if one or two characters go sneaking around. They're also handy given that the characters can approach the promontory from three different entrances. The rooms, map, and description are written like a dungeon crawl, however, but if it ends up running like one, something has likely gone wrong.
The Situation at the Promontory
Like we did with much of Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh we'll run the promontory as one big situation. We have a lot of lizardfolk (I didn't count but it feels like fifty) conducting their daily activities. The queen is meeting with ambassadors from other aquatic races so at any given time she may be in her throne room receiving the koalinth or locathah. Depending on what the characters do, the lizardfolk could show up in force or they could be quite confused and run about the lair trying to figure out what is going on. Again, if things go poorly and it turns into a bloodbath, this adventure has gone the wrong way. This is something to watch out for early.
This adventure won't go well if your players are "stab first, ask questions later" sorts of folks. This adventure is designed so the characters will discover that the threat they assumed they had, the lizardfolk, are actually not the threat at all.
It is possible this whole adventure goes down this road and maybe that's ok. It will likely dawn on the players that they maybe shouldn't have killed all of those lizardfolk in the first place. That doesn't sound like a very fun run of this adventure to me but maybe it works out.
The adventure includes some mechanics for determining how the lizardfolk queen deals with the characters should murder occur. I'm not a fan of these mechanics and think it's easier if we DMs wing it based on how the situation looks to us and how we think the lizardfolk might react. If some lizardfolk died fighting the characters before negotiations have started, you may decide how that gets sorted out. Perhaps, as Merric Blackman offers, the lizardfolk demand monetary restitution to the clan for each lizardfolk lost in battle.
If your group are a bunch of murder hobos, maybe one of the councilmembers approaches the characters before they leave and tells them that its more important that they find out what is going on before they jump right into hostility. It's a bit heavy handed but sometimes we need to be heavy handed to help steer an adventure towards the most fun.
Players are Unlikely to Surrender
It's important to note that players very rarely surrender in D&D. It's one thing to see a big monster that you know is beyond you and slowly step away. It's something else to be surrounded by an overwhelming force and drop your weapons. Player characters don't drop their weapons. They have little guarantee that they'll get them back and players hate losing their stuff. There's also no guarantee that they'll be left alive or have to suffer through some pain-in-the-ass escape scenario.
Thus, whatever you expect your players to do in this adventure, don't expect them to surrender to the lizardfolk. That's one of the very unlikely results. It's far more likely they'll either have a stressful negotiation or it will turn into a bloodbath. We want to aim for the former. This should be first and foremost on our minds when we run this adventure.
Queen Othokent's Quests
This wouldn't be much of an adventure if the characters simply figured out that the lizardfolk aren't hostile and helped form an alliance between the lizardfolk and Saltmarsh against the sahuagain—the real threat.
Instead, to prove themselves to the lizardfolk, Queen Othokent offers the characters two quests they can complete for her to show their loyalty:
- Kill Thousand-Teeth the crocodile.
- Retrieve the queen's helm from the bullywugs.
This gives our characters a pair of more traditional adventure hooks to make up for not cleaning out the lizardfolk lair room by room.
The Thousand-Teeth adventure can run much as it does in the book. See "Epilogue: Croc Hunt" for the details.
For the bullywug encounter, we can go beyond what's in the adventure.
Expanding the Bullywug Encounter
The beginning of Danger at Dunwater includes a potential encounter with a bullywug king and some of his followers. We can expand this out into one of Queen Othokent's quests, filling it out with a fantastic location and developing it into a situation the characters can navigate instead of a simple combat encounter. In my own running of this game, I chose an old Suloise ruin with a huge statue of a Suloise hero before both the Suloise and Baklunish nearly killed each other off roughly a thousand years ago.
In this expanded encounter, King Gulpa'Gor, his pet giant toad Bipsy, and about a dozen bullywugs are watching two bullywugs duel one another. The duel consists of great displays of insult and boasting with nary a blow passing between them beyond, perhaps, a great fart. This is a good opportunity to read up on bullywugs in the Monster Manual and note they are all about projecting an image of superiority without actually wanting to get involved in a fight. Good fun for potential roleplaying in this encounter.
King Gulpa'Gor has carefully stashed the helm of underwater action in the belly of Bipsy who can regurgitate it on command.
How the characters choose to deal with this situation is up to them. They can sneak in, perform some sort of ruse, or go in swords drawn. Such a situation has lots of opportunity for exploration, roleplaying, and combat.
Queen Othokent has requested that the characters recover the helm, an artifact of the lizardfolk stolen from them by the bullywugs. On their success, she gifts the helm to them as a sign of their commitment to the alliance between the Dunwater lizardfolk and Saltmarsh.
The Malenti Assassin
There's a wonderful bit of lore hiding in the description of sahuagins in the Monster Manual. Some rare sahuagins appear indistinguishable from sea elves. These alienated sahuagin, known as malenti, make the perfect spies and assassins. In Danger at Dunwater one of these malenti might have infiltrated the lizardfolk lair appearing as an ambassador of the sea elves. While the lizardfolk have not allied with the sea elves, it is possible they would harbor a sea elf ambassador regardless. This sea elf, however, is actually looking for the opportune moment to strike; first by releasing any captured sahuagin and then by attempting to murder Queen Othokent.
When the characters return from their croc hunt and bullywug heist, they might return to the queen for a celebration and an evening of rest. That evening, however, the malenti releases a number of sahuagin imprisoned by the lizardfolk and then makes for the queen's bedroom. The characters are awakened by the sound of combat and follow a trail of dead lizardfolk to the queen's lair where they see the malenti, a spy, crouched over the dying body of the queen. The characters must defeat the malenti and sahuagin and save the queen.
This is a fun little encounter that shows the sahuagin as more than an abstract threat and gives an opportunity for a tighter bond between the queen and the characters. The queen, after being saved, rewards the characters with the very helm they acquired for her from the bullywugs.
A Return to Saltmarsh
With the queen now open to an alliance, the characters can return to Saltmarsh and inform the council of the sahuagin threat. Perhaps it's another good opportunity for a downtime session in which the characters seek out their own quests and goals before being recruited for the next adventure in the book, Salvage Operation.Read more »
- Adventure Keys
When I began putting together Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures, I had a model for what I wanted to do already in hand. Monte Cook Games had recently released Weird Discoveries, a book of ten short adventures for their awesome science fantasy roleplaying game, Numenera. Weird Discoveries fit very well within the philosophy behind the Lazy Dungeon Master as a book of adventures designed from the ground up to be easy to prepare and easy to run. I wanted the exact same thing for Dungeons & Dragons so I wrote and released Fantastic Adventures to do exactly that and, this year, wrote Ruins of the Grendleroot to do the same thing.
As part of the latest release of Numenera, Monte Cook Games released Explorer's Keys, a book very similar to Weird Discoveries. It's another book of of ten adventures built from the ground up to be easy to prepare and easy to run. In particular, Explorer's Keys has one design technique to solve a difficult problem in published adventures; how to control their timing and pacing: keys.
In this article we're going to dig into this design technique and see how we can incorporate it into our own D&D games.
Keys, the Physical Objective of an Adventure
Keys, in this context, are physical things tied to the overall objective of an adventure. The key is the thing you need to accomplish the adventure's goals, or one of its goals. A key can be just about any physical object. It might be an idol the characters are sent to acquire. It might be an ancient forbidden tome they must acquire. It might be a demilich's dormant skull. It might be an actual key required to get through a door. It might also be the door itself.
Keys aren't bound to unthinking objects either. A key might be a boss villain that must be put into the ground. It might be a child that must be rescued. Keys might even be information. A secret or clue could be a key required to move on in an adventure or campaign. The secret location of the ancient blue dragon sorcerer, Iymrith, might be a key.
One factor defines keys in this context: they're required to accomplish an adventure. Sometimes only one key is required. Sometimes a few are needed. The characters have to acquire the key or keys to complete the quest.
Here's a list of twenty potential keys we might find in any given adventure.
- A vast black door barring entry to the realm of the Night Serpent.
- A soul coin containing the tormented soul of a long-dead sage.
- A strange map with directions to reach the isle at the center of the Endless Nadir.
- A map with a safe route through the deadly underdark.
- The code word required to enter the hideout of the Weeping Blade assassins' guild.
- The spell that can crack the great seal and release a trapped planetar.
- The last cult fanatic of Bhaal who knows the secret of the Death Curse.
- The four clues to the identity of the head of the Scarlet Brotherhood in Saltmarsh.
- The location of the Vault of Dragons.
- The evidence that proves one of the council members of Saltmarsh was once a slave trader.
- The portal key to enter the Doom Vaults.
- The three weapons hidden away in White Plume Mountain.
- The sword that can destroy the devil Strahd.
- The Book of the Worm buried beneath the unholy cathedral.
- The word that can quiet the Grendleroot.
- The demonic assassin sent to kill the last follower of the Gray Prince.
- The ring of three wishes that can undo the tyranny of the queen of dragons.
- The gateway of the Red Wizards hidden beneath Dragonspear Castle.
- The evidence of the king's broken lineage.
- The dagger that can pierce the archmage's spell of invulnerability.
Keys can Move
It's one thing to clearly define keys in an adventure but that isn't a big change from how adventures work. One trick to the keys in Explorer's Keys is that they can move. Like secrets and clues, we need not define exactly where any given key is in an adventure. We can put these keys where they best serve the adventure we're running at the time. Being able to move keys around means we can tune an adventure for the time we have and change its pace if things get slow and boring. I sometimes refer to this as the "moving MacGuffin".
Obviously the location of some keys will matter. The ark of the covenant can really only be in the well of souls. The well of souls, however, might be anywhere. The well of souls itself is a key.
One great example of movable keys are the artifacts in Curse of Strahd. In the adventure itself, tarokka cards are drawn that define where these artifacts lay. Just like in the original i6 Ravenloft, the location of these artifacts defines the adventure. One problem with this design is that you can't change the location of the item once the card is drawn. If the characters are having a hell of a time getting up into the highest tower to recover the Tome of Strahd, you can't suddenly decide it's in the dining room to save everyone some time and energy.
An Example of Movable Adventure Keys: The Book of the Worm
Let's look at an example of how movable adventure keys can fit into an adventure. I'm going to lift this one right out of the short story Jursalem's Lot by Stephen King.
One of the characters has inherited an old dilapidated mansion far outside of town. Shortly before arriving at the home, the characters are attacked by cultists of the White Crow, a strange and forgotten cult that once resided in the area. They shouted "the worm must be eaten" before trying to stab the characters to death. If interrogated, they tell the characters that the character inheriting the home is a descendant of a priest who resided in the nearby town of Blackbristle. The town was overtaken by the wilds centuries ago and no one knows exactly where it once stood. On arriving at the house, the characters are accosted by specters and worm-filled zombies. In their exploration of the house, they learn that the character is indeed cursed by their ancestral line and must burn the Book of the Worm, lost in the Blackbristle temple, if they want the curse to be broken.
Thus, we have two keys for this adventure: the location of Blackbristle and the Book of the Worm.
We could have three or four locations for this adventure, each with a number of smaller locations, rooms or chambers. The mansion itself could be one big location, the forest surrounding Blackbristle might be another. The town might be its own location. The temple of Blackbristle and the dungeon beneath might be a fourth. This can give us quite a big adventure if we want. Maybe twelve to sixteen hours worth if we fill it all out. Or we can compact things and run it in three.
It all depends on where we put the keys.
If we want to run this adventure in a couple of hours, we might move the book out of the temple completely and put it in the cellar beneath the mansion. If we want to stretch things out, the location of Blackbristle might take quite an investigation to find with all sorts of twisted ruins and lairs in the forest blocking the way. Maybe the Book of the Worm is on the lectern in the temple's nave. Maybe it's five levels down in the rat-infested sub-cellars beneath the temple. Our movable key lets us tune the adventure however we want and however it best fits the time we have to run the game.
A Fundamental Structure to an Adventure
Keys are fundamental components of our D&D adventures. When the characters go off on a quest, they're changing the world somehow. They must find something. They must recover something. They must destroy something. Keys are the objects, people, monsters, or pieces of information they must find, recover, or destroy. Some keys may be as small as a glyphed jewel. Others may be entire lost planes of existence floating in the astral sea. Identifying our keys and understanding how we can move them gives us a powerful dial to make our D&D adventures as exciting as they can be.Read more »
- Making Great Handouts
While not required to run a great Dungeons & Dragons game, great handouts can really draw players into the story of the game. They give the game a tactile feel. They show the players what the world looks like. When made well, they give players an artifact that looks like the thing their character would see. That's a whole other level of immersion into this wonderful game of ours.
Handouts are also a great way to frame the game and steer its direction. It's a way to reinforce the important points of the game to the players, remind them of important NPCs, and show them how their actions can affect the world.
There are many different types of handouts. Today we'll talk about three of them. Artwork, maps, and letters. We'll also talk about the best way to construct such handouts and how we might do so with relative ease and lower cost.
A Big List of Handout-Suitable Ideas
Here's a list of the types of things for which you may want to make a handout. You can read through this list while thinking about your game to figure out which handouts might make sense.
- NPC artwork
- Location artwork
- Puzzle or trap artwork
- Monster artwork
- Magic item artwork
- Geographic maps
- Dungeon or building maps
- Encounter maps
- Legal documents
- Secret codes and cyphers
- Hit orders
- Notes between secret lovers
- Mad ravings
- Desperate calls for help
- Job board postings
- Letters from family members to characters
- Letters from bosses to henchmen or vice versa
- Journal entries
- Shopping lists
- Evil villain to-do lists
- Treasure maps
- Secret plans
This Twitter thread had many wonderful suggestions on the types of handouts one can make and how to make them.
There are many overused metaphors for the importance of great artwork. "Show don't tell" and "a picture is worth a thousand words" leap easily to mind. There's truth to these metaphors. If we're visual people, seeing a picture of a person, place, or thing will have a bigger impact than a simple verbal description. When possible we can show art to our players of the things their characters might see. Maybe it's a monster, maybe it's a location, maybe it's an NPC, maybe it's a magic item. Whatever it is, they'll be more likely to place it and remember it if they can see it.
Making a legal physical handout of art is tricky. In the US, it's illegal to print and display a piece of art without permission. You can search for Creative Commons artwork that gives you more permissions to print yourself.
You can also save artwork to a digital photo album and use an iPad or a TV screen if you happen to have one in your gaming room to show artwork to your players during a game.
If you don't have access to a color printer, you can put together a PDF of the images you want and send them to your local Fedex print center. You can print two nice big pieces of color art for about a buck a page, a little more if you want nicer paper quality. With two to four pieces of art per page you can slice them up with a paper cutter and have some excellent art handouts for your players.
For monster art, my friend Joe at Inkwell Ideas sells a bunch of decks of monster cards with statistics on one side and artwork on the other. These cards not only help you keep track of which monster you might use in a game but can also give you a piece of artwork to show your players when the monster hits the table.
Maps of all sizes; whether it's regional maps, dungeon maps, or encounter maps; can draw your players into the world. Like Bilbo Baggins planning his journey back to Rivendell, maps capture and recapture the imagination. They take ethereal worlds and make them real. Even better are maps your players can draw on. Good maps of Chult and Omu for Tomb of Annihilation sold by Mike Schley run about $2 for a digital version and can then be printed on 11x17 paper at Fedex for about $3. A big regional map can be used for an entire campaign. Each location the characters discover can be marked on the map. At the end of the campaign you'll have a nice artifact of the journey you and your players took through the lands of Chult.
James Haeck has an excellent article about printing the maps available on D&D Beyond if you happen to buy your material there.
Dyson Logos, a true hero in this hobby, offers a huge amount of royalty-free maps you can print and use in your game. They print well on normal black and white printers or you can have them printed in larger formats at your print shop of choice. For larger dungeons, they're hard to beat.
Black and white line-art maps print very well at Staples or Fedex using theirblueprint printing services. This was nearly ten times cheaper than printing full-color maps. The Staples blueprint printing service can produce an 18x24 map for under two bucks and a 24x36 map for under four. You may be tempted to print 36x48 inch maps but they're really too big to be useful. Stick to no larger than 24x36. Using this service I was able to print every map from Ghosts of Saltmarsh for under $40.
Letters and In-World Handouts
In-world handouts can include any sort of letters, pictures, diagrams, codes, or anything else that anyone in-world might have written down on a piece of paper.
Letters are likely the most common. Letters might be secret notes sent between villains or cyphers kept by crazy old wizards. They might be notes secretly sent by sadistic vampire lords to trap adventurers in their realm of shadow.
One great way to make handouts is to use parchment resume paper and write notes using strange fonts. You can dig through your own selection of fonts or download some relevant fantasy fonts from dafont.com.
Print your notes on the resume paper, tear off the edges, and crumple them up a bit and you have a wonderful in-world note for not a lot of effort or money. Throw some red paint on there and you have the last note of the Burgomeister's agent clutched in the poor fellow's wolf-torn hand.
If you don't want to drop the money for special paper you can print on normal paper, tear the edges, and soak it in tea or coffee to give it a rustic feel.
Instead of writing your own handouts, you can find excellent handouts published by others in the DM's Guild. Creators on the guild have published handbills, notice boards, legal documents, treasure maps, and more for many published D&D adventures. These may not have the same value as a customized handout built for your own campaign but their production value may make up for it.
Handouts As Game Prep
Beyond building a nice tactile prop to help draw your players into the game, making handouts helps you get a better grasp on what's happening in the world. Letters between villains and henchmen can tell you what a villain is thinking and what they're doing in the world. Journals can help you keep important plot points down. Secret messages and maps reinforce the important places in the world. Building handouts helps you reinforce the main beats in your campaign for both you and your players.
Drawing Your Players into the World
Building handouts as part of game prep is often overlooked yet it provides a tremendous value in bringing a whole new physical sense into our game. It's one thing to read a letter aloud or describe the contents of a journal and something else entirely to hold a letter written by Strahd von Zarovich himself in your own hands. While not a critical component of game prep, when we have the time, building great handouts can take our game to a new dimension.Read more »