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  • Designer Interview: Julian Courtland-Smith, creator of Survive: Escape from Atlantis!

    by Neil Bunker

    [Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]

    Survive: Escape from Atlantis! designer Julian Courtland-Smith joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable forty-year career designing board games:

    DM: Hi, Julian, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us how you got started in game design?

    JCS: When I was a child I loved playing board games. After I left school, I went into catering. Didn't care for it so went on to art college. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, probably architecture. In 1965, whilst I was making up my mind as to what direction to go in, I read an article in a magazine about games. It was by Waddingtons, publicizing their new product Mine A Million. That was the moment I thought I can do that and become rich and famous! Ha! Easier said than done!

    My first design was a world domination game, akin to Risk. Looking back, it was rubbish. Well, you have to start somewhere. I worked in retail management and spent my nights and weekends inventing numerous games. However, it was 17 years before I had a game accepted.

    An early press photo
    DM: Survive: Escape from Atlantis! is your most well-known game. Where did you draw inspiration for the game from?

    JCS: After I'd invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs I was looking around for another strong theme when I chanced upon a row of books in my local library all about the island of Atlantis. These inspired me to devise a game with a sinking island.

    DM: Can you elaborate on the design process?

    JCS: My first attempts at devising "Escape from Atlantis" didn't really work as I drew the island on the board. During play, the island was slowly covered by sea tiles to effect sinking. When tokens were moved across these tiles, they all shifted and knocked down other meeples like men in boats. It was two years later before it dawned on me to change the sea tiles to land tiles. That way the island could be removed piece by piece from the board during play to simulate it sinking. I called the game "Escape from Atlantis" as the title summed up the game's objective.

    DM: How did you get "Escape from Atlantis" to market?

    JCS: I took my 2D prototype to Graeme Levin, owner of Games & Puzzles magazine. He became my agent and showed it to Parker Brothers. They liked it and made it their lead game in 1982 in America. They changed the name to Survive! and altered the game in a number of ways. It was advertised coast to coast in the States and sold very well. At the time Survive! was selling 14,000 copies a week compared to Monopoly's 12,000.

    Unfortunately, computer games came out and the winter of '83 saw a massive 80% drop in the board game industry as people were buying the new computer games. Board games bounced back a couple of years later but never recovered their dominance in the market. Parker Brothers dropped the game, and it dragged on until closeout a few years later. In 1986 Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was launched in the UK. It did very well, coming in at #2 to Trivial Pursuit in the bestsellers list. I remember saying it would never catch on. What do I know!

    Waddingtons phoned and asked if I had another 3D game. I confidently said yes! I had two weeks to turn Survive! (2D) into a 3D game. I remember sawing up a wooden hoe handle to make the island's land-tiles. Waddingtons launched their 3D version of Survive! and agreed to call it Escape from Atlantis!

    An early photo of Survive!
    DM: Survive! has been an incredible success and is still available 38 years after its original release. What do you attribute this success to?

    JCS: When Survive! was launched there was nothing like it on the market. Starting off in the mass market gave it great impetus. The turbulent years of the 1980s/90s when companies were either going under or being taken over meant I was constantly taking my prototypes from one company or another. I knew to be financially successful that I needed a major manufacturer to market the game, hence I only dealt with the top five companies in the world. I had many offers from smaller companies but decided to hold out for the big one. When Hasbro took over Waddingtons in the 1990s, I submitted my game to them and they relaunched Escape from Atlantis into Europe in 1996 under the Waddingtons brand.

    The game ran until 2002 and was off the market for a number of years. Meanwhile, Survive! reached #1 in the secondhand board game market. Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games in the USA was looking to relaunch popular retro games. He saw copies of Survive! trading on eBay for up to $100. He thought if there was that much demand for this game secondhand, perhaps there's a market for a new product. He became my new agent, and in April 2010 announced that Stronghold Games would be reprinting a new version of the game called Survive: Escape from Atlantis!


    The game was launched on October 10, 2010. In June 2012, Stronghold Games relaunched a new edition, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! – 30th Anniversary Edition, which is still on sale today. It included refreshed artwork and a slightly revised theme. Simultaneously, French publisher Asmodee licensed the EU languages and launched The Island, which is the same game as Stronghold's version but with a rebranded name for EU trademark purposes only.

    Yes, my game has done the rounds with a lot of publishers. End of the day, it's the public who decide. I'm pleased and grateful that games players today enjoy playing Survive! I get messages from fans who say they enjoyed the game in their childhood and are now playing it with their children and grandchildren. I'm pleased Survive! has lived up to its name.

    DM: What influence do you think the success of Survive! has had on the games industry?

    JCS: Games evolve just as art, music and literature do. Each new artist, author, or designer is influenced by preceding works. Good games, popular games have always been copied.

    There are a number of games out there which appear to be influenced by Survive! Catan (1995) comes to mind as does Forbidden Island (2010). I think the biggest change Survive! brought to the market was hexagonal spaces on the board, thus allowing tokens more efficient movement. Before then, you saw hexagonal spaces only in war games.

    Prior to my games, there were countless Monopoly-style variants where you commenced play from one corner and went round the edge of the board or track rolling dice. This trend had continued from Victorian days. I wanted to break out of that niche and use the whole board in play.

    I do believe the same level success can be repeated despite market saturation that has occurred following the advent of Kickstarter. Survive! has remained successful because the play mechanism hasn't dated. Being the first such game, this style of board game has endured. Someone will come along one day with fresh ideas and usurp the market, then we'll see a whole new trend emerge.

    A cover star in 1986
    DM: Did the success of Survive! change your life?

    JCS: Guess so. It was literally a rags-to-riches story. Prior to the success of Survive!, I was broke and unemployed, scratching a living doing odd jobs, but I persisted with my dream. Following the success of Survive!, I became a full-time designer and moved with my family from a three-bedroom council house to our five-bedroom country house. Whilst there, Waddingtons launched Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs, followed by Escape from Atlantis. The government wanted to tax me at 60% which was crippling, so we emigrated to Eire. We stayed there awhile, and in 1987 moved to the beautiful Isle of Man.

    DM: You designed Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs before Escape from Atlantis. Can you tell us more about that game?

    JCS: I invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs in 1979. I got the idea whilst standing on a London Underground station waiting for a train. On the wall was a poster advertising a dinosaur exhibition at the Natural History Museum. That was my eureka moment. I thought great idea for a game! I was highly influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 book The Lost World.

    Inspired, it took me just two weeks to invent the game, six weeks to write the rules, and six years to get it to market. Before Waddingtons took the game I approached a number of manufacturers. I remember a Dutch company turning it down as it was "racist". At that time the men in the jungle were represented by small black Halma pieces, so I changed them to small white Halma pieces and called them Incas. Initially, the pteranodon in the game was a picture on a card. One day, I chanced upon a retailer selling small plastic pteranodons. I introduced that to the game as a playing piece. Waddingtons turned this bird into a moving toy, and it became a big hit with the kids.


    DM: How was the design process for Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs different from that of Survive!?

    JCS: I was six years trying to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs. During that time the game was extensively playtested by my family and friends until it worked perfectly. There was no pressure back then to deliver another game as games contracts were always one-offs, unlike books. When new authors get their first book launched they will normally sign a contract to produce more. With games you're only as good as your last but your reputation does get you interviews.

    Games manufacturers of old retained artistic control. You were lucky if you got your name on the box! The first print runs of Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis, which were 25,000 copies, did not give me any accreditation, even though it was written into my contract. Later, after a fuss, they agreed to mention me in the rules. Companies would, if they so chose, alter the rules or change components. The swirler dice in the Waddingtons Escape from Atlantis game was included by them, but to be fair, it proved popular with children.

    By and large, Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis didn't differ too much from my prototype, but Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was radically altered. I was trying to break with tradition and designed the game with no dice. Waddingtons decided to include dice as they reasoned children like to roll dice. They also made a number of other changes, which is why I always say Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs is their version of my game.


    DM: Are there plans for a Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs re-release?

    JCS: I have been approached many times over the years by companies wanting to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs (LVD). In 1987 I divorced. My wife and I agreed to split ownership of all the games I'd devised during marriage. Hence, she retains copyright to LVD whilst I own EFA. My ex-wife has indicated that she would be open to offers, but that she wants the game marketed as it was originally designed.

    Publishers always want to input their creativity which can be an improvement or not. As I said, Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was nothing like the original. I tend to agree with her. Had LVD been marketed as invented, I believe it would still be around today as in its original form, it's better suited to the hobby gaming market.

    DM: What other games have you designed, and do you have plans to release any others?

    JCS: Too many to list here. I've designed well over fifty games to date.

    I did produce a third game in my adventure trilogy called "Mammoth Mountain". The game has a strong theme which includes prehistoric animals of the period like woolly mammoth, sabre-toothed tiger, and so on. The game involves armed conflict between tribes fighting for survival whilst the world is slowly freezing over. When I presented it to Waddingtons, the games industry was in turmoil. Waddingtons were facing extinction therefore weren't prepared to launch "Mammoth Mountain" or any other games.

    "Mammoth Mountain" prototype
    In the intervening years I devised a number of products, including a debating game called "Controversy". I was turned down because it was considered too controversial.

    Late 90's, I devised a range of 3D hand-held magnetic puzzles. Hasbro turned them down due to production costs. The magnets in my design precede today's neodymium magnets! Had I been able to acquire cheaper components, I believe they would have got to market.

    When I took Escape from Atlantis to Waddingtons, I also produced a space theme of the game in case they preferred that. Years later Stronghold Games told me they were interested in marketing a space version of Survive! It was "re-imagined" by American designers Brian, Sydney and Geoff Engelstein and called Survive: Space Attack! I had very little input into the product; any co-developing by me was done via Stronghold Games CEO, Stephen Buonocore.


    In recent times I have invented games for a younger market, for example, "Diamond Quest", a ludo-style game based in India of old which is enjoyed by my grandchildren.

    Regards Survive!, a new Japanese version of the game was launched in 2020 and is doing well. Also, there are plans in the pipeline for another version of Survive!, hopefully in 2021. Watch this space!

    DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?

    JCS: Start with a good, strong theme. Once you have that, try to match the theme with a major mechanism as in the island of Atlantis sinking in Survive! From there have some rough ideas about minor mechanisms like meeple movement, die rolls, cards.

    Maths must come into the game straight away. How many players? How many spaces on the board? How many tokens, cards, etc. All these need to "balance" so that play runs smoothly. Size of spaces and tokens is important. Make your game appeal to as wide an age group as you can. The greater the age group, the wider the audience, the bigger the market. 8-80 is perfect.

    Make rules concise, to the point. Easy to read. Don't make the game difficult to play. It's easy to add a new rule to solve a problem in play. Much better to concentrate on getting the game play working smoothly.

    The days of games lasting all day and night, like Risk, are long gone. Time each player's move, ideally making the game last up to an hour and a half. Try to build into the game a natural ending. Last, but not least, playtest, playtest and playtest. To give you an idea, Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was playtested over two hundred times.

    Finally, can you think of a new way of playing a game? Hard ask I know, but try to break out of the mold. Break with tradition, start a new trend and with luck your game will be around for the next fifty years! Read more »
  • New GMT Game Round-up: Command U-Boats, Struggle for Glory, Raid Anglo-Scottish Borders, & Write the Versailles Treaty

    by Candice Harris

    • In a May 2020 newsletter, GMT Games announced its latest P500 addition: Border Reivers: Anglo-Scottish Border Raids, 1513-1603 from designer Ed Beach. Beach is known for designing deep, immersive, historically rich, and often beasty, games such as Here I Stand and Virgin Queen, and some might also know him from his design work on the Civilization VI PC game.

    Similar to Here I Stand and Virgin Queen, Borders Reivers serves players a strong dose of 16th century history, but is a faster-playing, slightly Euro-feeling game of resource competition, raids, and battle for 2-6 players. In more detail:
    For two hundred years, war waged back and forth across the border between England and Scotland. By 1482, the unfortunate town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, once the richest port town in Scotland, had changed hands thirteen times. By the time Henry VIII ascended the throne of England in 1509, the fifty-mile-wide stretch of rolling hills and stunning vistas that straddle the border had seen decades of hardship and atrocity.

    Yet still the hardy families living on these frontier lands persevered. Unable to count on crops surviving until the harvest, they subsisted primarily on the livestock they could shepherd in the fields near their homesteads. When supplies ran low, raiding to steal what they needed from their neighbors was often the answer. Raids were often carefully planned operations with several border families uniting to steal livestock from a common foe in the dead of night. Cattle and sheep were the likely targets, often with hundreds of these creatures being stolen in a single raid. The reiver's goal was to herd their quarry to safety before the retaliatory "hot trod" pursuit could catch up and force an engagement.


    To combat this constant hostility, England and Scotland established the system of March Law. Each nation divided its border lands into an East, Middle, and West March with each of these six territories administered by a Warden responsible for keeping the peace. The Wardens were drawn from the most powerful families on the borders, clans of great renown that could put upwards of a thousand men in the saddle in times of need. The March Law would have succeeded, too, but for the fact that these same great families were usually the ones best equipped and most inclined to raid their neighbors.

    In Border Reivers, each player rules over one of the Marches as leader of one of the six major riding families of the border: Grey, Fenwick, Dacre, Maxwell, Kerr, or Hume. Your goal is to increase the wealth and fame of your clan throughout the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth to end the century as the most famous border reiver of all time. Players gain VPs from successful combats, amassing large herds of livestock, and by elevating their notoriety above the other players in the regions of the map.

    While we wait (anxiously, in my case) for further updates on Borders Reivers, I figured I'd mention a couple other new GMT releases available for pre-order directly from GMT and retailers:

    • Eric mentioned Imperial Struggle in a post in December 2018, but considering that was a while ago and more importantly, it's from the design team (Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews) that brought us the acclaimed Twilight Struggle, I figured it was worth putting back on everyone's radars. Here's a brief overview of this highly anticipated two-player peace and war game:
    Imperial Struggle is a two-player game depicting the 18th-century rivalry between France and Britain. It begins in 1697, as the two realms wait warily for the King of Spain to name an heir, and ends in 1789, when a new order brought down the Bastille. The game is not merely about war; both France and Britain must build the foundations of colonial wealth, deal with the other nations of Europe, and compete for glory across the span of human endeavor.


    Imperial Struggle covers almost one hundred years of history and four major wars, yet it remains a low-complexity game, playable in a short evening. It aims to honor its spiritual ancestor, Twilight Struggle, by pushing further in the direction of simple rules and playable systems, while maintaining global scope and historical sweep in the span of a single evening.

    In peace turns, players build their economic interests and alliances, and take advantage of historical events represented by event cards. They must choose their investments wisely, but also with an eye to denying these opportunities to their opponent. In war turns, each theater can bring great rewards of conquest and prestige, but territorial gains can disappear at the treaty table. At the end of the century, will the British rule an empire on which the sun never sets? Or will France light the way for the world, as the superpower of the Sun King's dreams or the republic of Lafayette's?

    In 2018, Ananda Gupta posted an excellent article that sheds light on the similarities and differences between Imperial Struggle and its "older cousin" Twilight Struggle which has me pretty hyped to play it.

    Geoff Engelstein and Mark Herman's Versailles 1919 is a political, negotiation game in which 1-4 players gain influence to contribute to writing the Versailles Treaty. While thematically reminiscent of Herman's World War II classic game Churchill, Versailles 1919 is lighter and very different mechanically, sitting in a sweet spot that eurogamers and wargamers alike will probably dig. Here's the gist of it as described by the publisher:
    On November 11, 1918 an armistice halted the killing field that was The War to End All Wars. To make peace, Woodrow Wilson (United States), David Lloyd George (United Kingdom), and Vittorio Orlando (Italy) were hosted by President George Clemenceau (France) in Paris, and sat down to write what would become the Versailles Treaty. The treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, after six months of acrimonious debate and bargaining between the great powers.

    Versailles 1919 allows you to experience this piece of history as one of the four leaders with a national agenda that must be satisfied. As one of the Big Four, you sit in a conference room gaining influence on the issues present in the room. Hovering in the waiting room sit other issues and personages who are waiting their turn to make their case to meet regional aspirations such as self-determination. Will you support Ho Chi Minh's attempt to free Vietnam from French colonialism? Help Prince Feisal establish a new nation in Mesopotamia or Chaim Weitzman create a Zionist state? Work with TE Lawrence to reduce unrest in the Middle East or with Ataturk in Anatolia?


    As France, you are concerned with containing future German aggression while aligning with the British on reparations to pay for the destruction of the war. The British, however, would like to see Germany restored as a trading partner while preserving their empire against the global aspiration for self-determination. Italy wants territorial concessions from the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Lurking in the background is the threat of Bolshevism. Towering above it all is President Woodrow Wilson with his fourteen points that set global expectations soaring, ultimately ending in disappointment when the U.S. does not join the League of Nations.

    Versailles 1919 introduces a new card-bidding mechanism in which you use your influence to settle issues aligned with your agenda while keeping domestic constituents in support of your actions. You need to balance the need to demobilize your military forces while simultaneously keeping regional unrest under control. All of these decisions are set against the backdrop of regional crises and uprisings. The player who writes more of the treaty prevails in this contest of wills and national agendas. Can you save the world from the rise of nationalism? Can you make a better world while satisfying your domestic electorate? Play Versailles 1919 and relive making the flawed peace that was the Treaty of Versailles.

    • For the solo gamers out there who love a good challenge, be sure to check out The Hunted: Twilight of the U-Boats, 1943-45, which is Gregory M. Smith's sequel to The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-43. Similar to The Hunters, The Hunted also includes rules for two players. Here's an overview of what you can expect:
    The Hunted is a solitaire tactical level game placing you in command of a German U-Boat during WWII. This game picks up the action where The Hunters left off, with you commanding one of many U-Boat models available starting in 1943 and looking to successfully complete U-Boat operations until the end of the war. Not only is this a standalone game, but fans of The Hunters will enjoy having the capability to easily combine both games to span all of WWII and experience the career of a U-Boat commander from 1939 until 1945.


    While your mission is to destroy as much Allied shipping and as many capital ships as possible, players will find it extremely challenging to "go the distance" and survive the entire war. The second half of the war has not been sugar coated; the brutal aspects facing U-boat commanders in the final phases of the war make surviving your attack difficult at best. True to history, your challenge is to accomplish what only a few could achieve — to make it to the conclusion, as happened historically.

    The Hunted is purposely designed to deliver a brisk, yet intensive gaming experience that forces many decisions upon you as you take command among the major German U-Boat models in service during WWII, and try to survive until the end of the war. All major U-Boat models are accounted for, with every level of detail, including period of service, armaments, crew make-up, damage capacity, and more. Fans of The Hunters will enjoy the same nail-biting game system, but fraught with many more challenges to withstand the advances the Allies have made in anti-submarine warfare. If you ultimately survive until 1945, you will surrender at port, having done your part on the front lines.

    As U-Boat commander, you will be confronting many decisions during your patrol. To begin with, eleven German U-Boat models are profiled and available for you to choose from. Patrol zones reflect the period during the war at sea and will shift as the war progresses. All stages of the U-Boat campaign are represented; missions become increasingly more difficult as your adversary makes advances in anti-submarine warfare.
    Read more »
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    DriveThruRPG.com Newest Items

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    Estas reglas combinan los elementos de dos grandes sistemas de juegos de rol de fantasía como son Clásicos del Mazmorreo y Dungeon World.

    En este pdf encontrarás reglas para crear campesinos completamente al azar, desde el nombre a su profesión; directrices para crear pueblos y 4 aventuras para iniciarte en este tipo de aventuras.

    ¿Qué es un “embudo”?

    Un embudo es una aventura en la que los personajes comienzan siendo una banda variopinta de campesinos normales y corrientes que se encuentran en circunstancias extraordinarias; el pueblo llano se ve lanzado hacia un crisol de muerte y horror, y debe luchar para pasar de una pieza al otro lado.

    Muchas de estas pobres almas, y en muchas ocasiones todas ellas, hayan muertes horribles durante el transcurso de la partida, pero aquellos que tienen la suerte de sobrevivir quedarán transformados por esta experiencia extrema.

    Mientras que en la mayoría de JdR de fantasía los PJs comienzan siendo ya héroes, en una aventura de estas características se muestra cómo la gente normal se convierte en héroes.

    Esta es la historia de sus inicios.

    Necesitarás el reglamento de DW para poder jugar.

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    Merchant extraordinaire Hagesh Corinth is looking for a hardy group of adventures to help protect his wares as he travels the roads up and down the coast, selling his goods to all that need them. Tales abound of bandits, dark forests, and ghostly ghouls prowling the roads as of late. Do you have the courage needed to travel the Valley of Storms and face the trials that await?

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  • VideoQuick & Dirty GMing
    Quick & Dirty GMing

    Have you ever kind of just been waiting in line to get into the rad nerdy board gaming bar with your friends after playing D&D and the wait-list is like 1-hour long (but you’ve already been waiting for a half-hour so you might as well stick it through) and you think “hey, maybe I should just run something but I have nothing prepped whatsoever so what will I do” and you decide “y’know what, fine, I’ll totally do it” and you want to run some random one-shot about high-schoolers fighting zombies but you don’t know what to do? Are you also a fan of run-on sentences?

    pictured: people I don’t know from the internet

    No? Too specific?

    Welcome to some Quick & Dirty GMing, where the stakes are low but you still wanna run something fun while everyone is waiting.

    What are you going to need?

    – bored friends
    – some dice (d6s in this case)
    – a super light system
    – index cards
    – pens (pencils are for nerds)
    – a “[Yes++]” attitude for improv

    Why do we need dice?

    If you wanted to do a storytelling thing, that’s fine, but I find the most compelling part of tabletop rpgs to be the fact we roll dice and let it decide our fate. As much as folks like to imagine they’ll decide whether or not they’ll fail at something on their own, it’s a storytelling skill that needs to be developed. Plus, it gets rid of the situation where people might argue over where the story should go.

    Did you ever have to deal with that kid in the playground that changed the rules as they went along? “No uh, actually you’re on fire now and all damage I took reflected on you.” Now imagine that kid as a full-grown adult and capable of presenting an articulate argument.

    Terrifying.

    Let the dice decide! Avoid an argument!

    Why do we need a system?

    If we’re rolling dice without a system we might as well flip a coin to decide success/failure. While that’s totally a fair way to handle that, I don’t really believe it’s all that interesting. Players like feeling smart and that they’re doing something right or unique. If everyone is equally good at everything, then no one gets to feel like they specialize—no one gets to feel like they have a role in the whole ordeal.

    Let players feel clever! Let players specialize! A system, even a super basic one, does exactly that.

    Alright, what system?

    When running a Quick & Dirty game you want something you and your players can glean over in a snap. When it comes to that, there’s nowhere better to look than a one-page trpg that you can just save as an image on your phone. Text it to the group chat and bam, they know how to play. There’s a ton of one-page trpgs out there but my favorite line tends to be under one of three:

    Lasers & Feelings (and other similar hacks)
    Honey Heist
    Risus (okay so it’s 6 pages, sue me)

    Lasers & Feelings is the sort of magical game that, while alone is pretty amazing, ended up inspiring dozens of ‘hacks’ using the mechanics with new and interesting settings. Seriously, google “lasers and feelings hacks” and you’ll constantly find something new. Here are two repositories for such. It was also based on this song by The Doubleclicks. Warning: it’s adorable.

    Honey Heist kinda came out of nowhere around 2017 and, like the honey being heisted, kinda stuck? It’s about criminal bears Ocean’s 11’ing a honey convention. What more do you need? Perhaps the fact that Critical Role ran it as well?

    OKAY SO LIKE Risus isn’t exactly a one-page trpg, as it exists as a six-page pdf. However, it’s super clean and easy to explain to players and even easier to run. It’s been free forever and has actually developed a pretty devoted fanbase for its clean and flexible gameplay. It’s honestly super easy to convert anything ran in Risus into a campaign with the same system.

    And the best part is that they’re all free!

    Tools

    With a system, even a simple one, comes complexity. That means you need to track character sheets; what better way to do that than an index card? I typically keep a stack of index cards on me at any time to run games. I’ve honestly done impromptu games at a bus stop if I have a long enough wait time. With index cards, dice, and a handful of pens you can literally turn any awkward amount of time into a roleplaying opportunity.

    Quick note: I only advocate for the use of pens. Pencils are dumb and smudge up everything. The only time I touch one is when I absolutely have to.

    Improv & [Yes++]

    When it comes to the Quick & Dirty game, you won’t really have any time to prep anything. That means you’ll hit the ground running, improv-ing only steps ahead of a collapsing ground behind you. Remember that this is all for fun and literally throw in every silly trope you can think of from every piece of media you’ve absorbed. The characters are running from zombies in the mall? The local nerds have set up a safe-zone in the anime store armed with metal cosplay weapons.

    Why not?

    The game is going to be ending the moment your table is called so honestly go wild and throw in your heart. Don’t think about the GMing techniques some podcast told you about. Don’t think about making the moment narratively weighty or meaningful. Be silly, be campy, be cliche. Say yes, but more ‘yes’ than you’ve ever ‘yes’d’ in your life.

    Be [Yes++] and maybe your improv-ing can be improving as well.


    Last Thoughts

    I like tabletop rpgs; I think a lot of people do. The main concern I always hear is “there’s never enough time” and “it’s hard to schedule” and they’re right. But it doesn’t have to be. Not everyone in your gaming group has to be present to have a good time. Not every game has to be emotional or super narrative-heavy. Sometimes people just want to laugh with their friends, eat snacks, and throw some dice around and I don’t think we should put any less value behind those kinds of nights.

    I also don’t believe we need to place our ‘real and serious(TM)’ game nights on a pedestal either.

    Throw dice, do something stupid, and have fun. Be a Quick & Dirty GM and be proud of it. Your players, whoever they are, will appreciate it.

    ~Di, signing off

    Read more »
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    Sly Flourish

  • Running Hordes: The Lazy Way to Run Lots of D&D Monsters

    The heroes stand atop a mountain of bones with one hundred skeletons swarming in. The cleric holds her holy symbol aloft and waves of radiant energy tear through the skeletons, shattering dozens of the creatures before the rest roar in.

    Our heroes stand atop the ruins of an elven watchtower, blades and spells ready as forty orcs charge in. The stout warrior cleaves into them, slicing off four heads in two vicious cuts.

    Our heroes stand atop a cliff of ice, a thousand foot drop behind them and twenty five wights in front, their eyes blazing blue and their black blades ready.

    These are the tales of high adventure we know and love. We all remember Aragorn standing alone atop the ruined tower facing a horde of urukai in Lord of the Rings. We all remember John Wick facing off against a whole club of eastern European thugs. And we all remember the seven samurai facing off against fifty town-ravaging bandits.

    The mechanics of D&D combat generally presumes the characters will face somewhere between three and twelve bad guys in any given battle. This is why characters have a huge advantage against a single opponent.

    Our stories need not be limited by these mechanics. We can, with a little work, run any number of monsters against the characters. Ten? Twenty? Two hundred? Ten thousand?

    There are many imperfect ways to run huge hordes of monsters in D&D—situations in which the characters face twenty or more monsters in a single battle. They all require some level of abstraction from our standard combat rules. Some are simpler than others. Some use tables, others you can do in your head. You may have your own preference while other DMs have theirs.

    In this article we focus on one particular method for running hordes. I selected this one for a few reasons:

    • You can do the math mostly in your head.
    • It doesn't take much more time than running smaller numbers of monsters.
    • It scales to any number of monsters we can imagine.
    • It still treats members of a horde as separate monsters when it matters to the players.
    • It focuses on the fiction of the situation instead of getting bogged down in mechanics.

    Summary Guidelines for Running Hordes

    Here's a summary of my preferred techniques for running hordes. It breaks down into three large parts: tracking the damage done to the horde, tracking the horde's attacks and damage, and adjudicating areas of effect.

    Tracking Damage Done to the Horde

    • Track damage inflicted to the horde instead of individual monsters in a single damage tally.
    • Write down the hit points of a single monster in the horde to keep track of it. Round it to the nearest 5 or 10 to make the math easier.
    • When the damage tally takes enough to kill one or more monsters in the horde, remove those monsters, reset the tally to zero, and carry over extra damage.

    Tracking Horde Attacks and Damage Output

    • Determine how many monsters in the horde attack a given character based on the circumstances of the battle. When in doubt, divide attacks equally among those characters the horde can reasonably attack.
    • When the horde attacks, assume one in four attacks succeed. If the horde has advantage, assume half succeed. If they have disadvantage, assume they all fail. Adjust this up or down depending on circumstances. If someone casts shield or has a crazy high AC, remove a couple of successful attacks.

    Adjudicating Areas of Effect

    When the horde is hit with an area of effect like turn undead, hypnotic pattern, or fireball, adjudicate the results with these guidelines:

    • Determine how many creatures are in the area of effect. Assume it's a lot of them.
    • Assume one in four creatures in the horde succeed on their saving throws. Adjust this up or down depending on the circumstances. For a truly heroic moment or to make your life easier, assume they all fail.
    • If the horde takes damage high enough to kill a single creature, remove all affected creatures. Extra damage doesn't carry over.
    • If monsters in the horde are incapacitated, separate them from the main horde and remove them from play.
    • Add up any remaining damage done to creatures who survive and add it to the current tally for the horde. If this kills more creatures, remove them, reset the damage to zero, and roll over remaining damage.

    Other Tips for Running Hordes

    • Use evocative narration to describe the characters' heroic battle against huge hordes of enemies. Hordes are there to show off the might and heroism of the characters.
    • Use only one type of creature in the horde. Don't mix up multiple horde types in a single battle. Use the same stat block and create variance in your descriptions.
    • As desired, mix in normal monsters with your hordes. A horde of forty creatures might be led by four lieutenants and a boss. Run these extra monsters as you normally would.

    The rest of this article dives deeper into each of these ideas.

    A Variety of Systems

    This system for handling hordes is just one method of many. Other methods include:

    It's possible you will prefer one of these other systems to the one proposed in this article. That's fine. What works well for you and your group is the one that matters. The end of this article describes the advantages and disadvantages of these alternate systems.

    The Basics of Running Hordes

    When we're running large hordes of monsters in our D&D games, we generally skip the use of miniatures and we worry less about any individual creature in our battle.

    We run these huge battles mostly in our descriptions augmented by some quick sketches of the situation. The players may want to find choke points where they can't be attacked by the whole horde all at once. We can use miniatures for the characters and then draw large blobs to represent the hordes and the groups they form up into. If the characters are defending a tower from a horde of orcs and there are three ways into the tower, we can represent the tower and place the characters' miniatures so that they can clearly see where the choke points are. We don't need forty orc miniatures, a big handdrawn blob with "orcs" in the center works just as well. People will get the idea.

    Our goal in these battles is to adjudicate the situation. What makes sense given the current story and situation?

    Tracking Damage: Tallying Damage Against the Whole Horde

    When we begin a battle against a horde, we write down the number of creatures in the horde and the hit points of one creature within the horde. Round their average hit points to the nearest 5 or 10 to make life easier.

    When the characters attack the horde, they still attack versus the AC of a single monster in that horde. When they damage the monster, add the damage to the single damage tally for the whole horde. If the tally goes above the hit points of a single creature, we remove the last creature damaged from the horde, reset the tally, and roll over any remaining damage. This is similar to the "Cleaving through Creatures" description in chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. A single powerful blow might kill multiple creatures which, of course, is awesome.

    For example, a fighter faces off against a horde of skeletons and hits them with three attacks, inflicting 36 damage. We remove three of the skeletons (10 hp each) and add 6 damage to our tally. Next turn a rogue backstabs a skeleton for 19 damage. We add 19 to the 6 (25), remove two more skeletons and roll over 5 to the damage tally.

    If a bunch of monsters in a horde are damaged with an area attack spell, we first figure out how many monsters in the horde it hits and then apply the damage to those who would be hit. If the damage is higher than the hit points of a single monster, we remove them all and don't worry about rolling over excess damage. If they don't take enough damage to kill them, we add it all up on the tally and see how many monsters it might kill.

    For example, a wizard casts fireball on a horde of zombies and we adjudicate that it can hit sixteen zombies (20 hp each). The wizard rolls 27 damage for the fireball. Three quarters of the zombies fail their saving throw, taking 27 fire damage each, and are instantly killed. The remaining four take 13 damage each or 52 total added to the tally. This is enough to kill two more and leave 12 damage on the tally. Two zombies remain, one badly scorched.

    This tally idea seems complicated but it scales well for any number of monsters. You can run a dozen orcs this way, or one hundred skeletons, or five hundred goblins and the same system applies.

    Track damage done to the whole group in a damage tally and remove monsters as the group takes enough damage to kill a single monster.

    Adjudicating Which Characters Get Attacked

    It's possible, given the size of the horde, to just use the damage tally idea above and still roll monster attacks normally. If you're running around twenty creatures with single attacks, rolling individual attacks isn't so bad. If you're running a LOT of monsters, though, you may want to abstract the attacks to speed up gameplay.

    First, you need to decide who's getting attacked by the horde and how many monsters within the horde are attacking them. Start by looking at the situation. Does the horde have ranged attacks? Are any of the characters up front and likely to take on more than everyone else? Our base assumption should be that the monsters attack the characters equally. If there are fifty orcs and five characters, ten orcs will attack each character. If one character manages to hide from the orcs, the orcs divide their attacks among the rest. If a circumstance means that the monsters simply can't attack, for example if there's a choke point and they don't have ranged attacks, they miss out.

    Determine based on the circumstances how many within a horde attack each character. Begin by assuming they divide their attacks equally.

    About One in Four Attacks Succeed

    In any given match up between weak monsters and strong characters—the likely situation when a horde attacks the characters—we can assume that about one in four monsters in the horde will hit when they all attack.

    This is a loose approximation and we can adjust it based on circumstances. Such circumstances might include:

    • The characters have extraordinarily high ACs, like the use of a shield spell or some other big boost to AC.
    • A character has a particularly low AC and might get hit more often.

    In these circumstances we can either choose to round up or down when determining how many creatures succeed or, if its a big enough bonus, we can change it from one in four succeeding to one in eight or one in ten if things are going against them or one in two if they have advantage.

    Start with one in four and then slide the gauge up or down depending on the situation. This is a nearly math-less way of determining how many monsters succeed or fail that we can do in our heads without the use of a table or tool. Thus, it's the lazy way.

    If the horde has advantage, such as those having pack tactics, we might increase this to half of them succeeding. Likewise, if they are at disadvantage, we might lower it to one in ten succeeding, or even less.

    When the creatures in a horde have multiple attacks, we pool all of those attacks together to decide how many total attacks hit. If eight thugs attack a single character with their multitattack, we begin by assuming two of them hit with both attacks (one out of four of them) but remembering that the thugs have pack tactics, we might increase that to four successful thugs and eight total attacks hitting for 5 damage each (40 damage). Thugs make dangerous hordes.

    Assume one in four monsters succeed on their attacks and adjust accordingly.

    Adjudicating Areas of Effect

    When the characters face off against a large number of monsters, they're almost certainly going to fall back to area of effect spells like fireball, cone of cold, shatter, turn undead, or hypnotic pattern. Adjudicating areas of effect against large numbers of monsters takes a few steps but once these steps are wired in, it isn't too hard.

    • First, figure out how many creatures are in the area of effect based on the situation. Are the monsters all packed up together? Are they spread out? Consider the size of the area and how many you would think would be piled in there. Lean towards lots of monsters being within the area of effect. It's cooler that way.
    • Assume one in four monsters succeed on their saving throws and adjust to suit the situation. For a more heroic situation, assume they all fail the saving throw and describe the awesome results. Don't nitpick the details, round in favor of the characters and focus the description on their success.
    • If the damage of the area of effect inflicts enough to kill a single creature, those creatures die and are removed from the horde. If it's close (like a 14 point fireball against skeletons with 15 points), make your life easy and kill them anyway.
    • Add up the remaining damage that didn't kill the creatures and add it to your horde damage tally. This may kill additional creatures so remove them too.
    • If the effect includes a status effect of some sort; three out of four of the creatures will have failed and are under that status effect. You might remove them from play and describe their impotent attacks in the narrative instead of tracking things.

    These steps might seem complicated but most of the time it will work out well. Areas of effect should be very useful against huge hordes of enemies.

    When hit with an area of effect, determine how many creatures are in the area, roll damage, remove those who die, carry over any remaining damage to the horde and remove additional dead creatures.

    Many areas of effect abilities, such as turn undead, don't inflict damage but inflict some other status effect. In this case, we can assume that one in four succeeds while the others fail. We can keep track of these incapacitated enemies separate from the rest of the horde or simply remove them from play. When a character wants to target one of the creatures who are under the status; like a skeleton restrained by an Evard's black tentacles spell, they can simply state it and we adjust accordingly.

    Calculating Challenge Ratings

    I've talked here at length about the flaws of D&D's encounter building rules and offered numerous solutions. Many times when facing huge hordes of monsters, the encounter is very likely deadly. This goes up significantly if the challenge rating of the monsters in the horde are higher than CR 1/4 or 1/2.

    You can still use my simple encounter building guidelines to determine this however, and get an idea how many monsters in a horde are on that edge of deadly. Here's a summary of my simplified encounter building rules:

    An encounter is potentially deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than half of the sum total of character levels, or one quarter if the characters are below 5th level.

    Thus, if we have five 10th level characters, we know that more than 100 skeletons in a horde is potentially deadly. If we have five 7th level characters, more than 34 thugs is potentially deadly.

    These battles against hordes can swing one way or another easily, though, given the sheer number of them and the potential to get wiped out with big areas of effect so, of course, your mileage will vary.

    Don't hang on too tight to encounter building rules when running hordes.

    Other Guidelines for Running Hordes

    That covers the basics of running monster hordes. Here are a few tips to make running huge battles easy and memorable.

    Go big with descriptions. These battles are all about epic storytelling. Don't focus on the mechanics in your descriptions. Instead, focus on the story. Describe the screaming hordes of orcs charging the characters only to be blown away by a fireball. Describe the hordes of skeletons charging up the hill or the silent wights marching forward. Focus on the fiction first and last. Let the mechanics help shape the story.

    Use the same type of monster for the horde. Don't try to run multiple monster types in a single horde. Trying to track two different hordes is really difficult and gods help you if those hordes get mix up together.

    Reflavor for variance. If the story dictates that the horde has different kinds of creatures in them, use a single stat block and reflavor the creature in your descriptions. If the characters are getting attacked by both pirates and sea spawns; use a single stat block to represent them. In your description you describe some of them as more humanoid looking pirates and others as more twisted sea creatures. Yet, for you, the stat block is still the same. No one will be the wiser.

    Use three groups or fewer. When you split up your hordes into separate horde groups, keep them around three or fewer. One is best and easiest to work with. More than three and life gets complicated.

    Mix hordes with normal creatures. While running multiple types hordes can be difficult, a single horde can work well when mixed with normal single creatures. A horde of fifty orcs might be led by an orc war chief and four armored ogres. You can run the war chief and the ogres as individual creatures like normal and the horde using the guidelines above. It will make for a complicated fight but it isn't out of the question.

    Now let's take a brief look at some alternate systems for running monster hordes.

    Alternate System: The Dungeon Master's Guide Mob Rules

    Page 250 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes a brief section called "Handling Mobs" with instructions and a table to help adjudicate hits when lots of monsters are attacking a single character. The general idea is that, instead of rolling dice, you figure out how many monsters are likely to hit given their attack bonus and the AC of their victim. We can use the same table in reverse to determine how many creatures make their save against a characters' spell or ability.

    The guidelines in the DMG are solid. If you have the table on hand, it's a fine way to adjudicate how many monsters succeed in an attack. You can also reverse-engineer this table to also determine how many monsters would succeed on a saving throw.

    Unfortunately, these guidelines don't tell us how to easily track hit points for a large number of monsters so we need some other system for tracking hit points. The horde damage tally can work well for this.

    Alternate System: The Lazy DM Workbook Table

    Page 7 of the Lazy DM's Workbook includes a table similar to the one in the Dungeon Master's Guide and offers a way to track hit points by building a huge hit point pool for all of the monsters and then every time that pool takes damage equal to the hit points of a single monster, removing that monster. This latter part is actually difficult when used at the table and I now prefer the solution in this article. The table itself, however, continues to serve in the same way the one in the DMG serves.

    Alternate System: 4e-Style Minion Rules

    If we want a simpler system for tracking damage done to monsters, we can steal the idea of "minions" from the 4th edition of D&D. In this system, every creature in the horde has only one hit point. If they take damage, they die. They take no damage if they succeed on a saving throw, however, so you can't just wipe them out with a single fireball unless they all fail their saving throw. Damage, in this case, does not carry over.

    This system works well by requiring no bookkeeping. Monsters are either alive or dead. They don't actually have hit points. If they are hit, they die. If they are missed, they survive. It's a deviation from the core rules but a clean system none the less.

    Alternate System: The Mob Damage Calculator

    A while back I wrote a mob damage calculator intended to help DMs determine how many monsters succeed on attacks or saving throws. You plug in the data and it spits out the results. This script works well enough but requiring a script to figure this out isn't ideal. Thus, I recommend easier systems for determining success. If you prefer this to other systems, go with the gods.

    Alternate System: Reskinning Bigger Monsters into Swarms

    Likewise, I wrote another article on reskinning big monsters into swarms. This system seems elegant but it fails as soon as the characters try to hit the "swarm" with an area of effect spell. A fireball should be very effective against a swarm yet does nothing special to a single big monster treated as a swarm. The same is true with spells like hypnotic pattern or abilities like turn undead. Against a big monster swarm, its either all on or all off. That isn't ideal. Thus, I prefer systems that still treat monsters in a horde individually.

    Another Tool for Fantastic Stories

    This article outlines a simple system for running large numbers of creatures against your characters. As lazy dungeon masters, we let the story take us where it will and use the tools we have on hand to make them as exciting and fantastic as possible. Now when our epic heroes are standing on a mountain of bones in the undead world of Thanatos surrounded by two hundred ghouls, you have the tools on hand to let the story flow into this epic situation.

    If you enjoyed this article please support Sly Flourish on Patreon and take a look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • The Grendleroot in Eberron

    In a previous article, we looked at how to place Blackclaw Mountain, the primary location in Fantastic Adventures, Ruins of the Grendleroot, into Avernus, to expand the hardback adventure Descent into Avernus. Today we're going to pull up the mountain and drop it in another world entirely, the world of Eberron. How can we put this limitless mountain into the lands of Argonnessen, Khorvaire, Sarlona, or Xen'drik? Let's take a look.

    Grendleroot's Points of Reskinning

    When we look at the material in Ruins of the Grendleroot we can identify the following areas where reskinning helps situate it in an existing game world. These include:

    • The origin of the Grendleroot itself
    • Deepdelver's Enclave
    • The Magocracy of the Black Star
    • The Order of the White Sun
    • The rest of the history of the mountain
    • The adventures themselves

    For a quick reference, here's one way you might reskin Ruins of the Grendleroot for Eberron:

    • The Grendleroot is a huge dragonshard that has pierced through Khyber and into Xoriat, the realm of madness.
    • House Tharashk runs Deepdelver's Enclave and runs a branch of the Finders Guild there. The Finders Guild is an excellent group patron for Eberron characters in Blackclaw Mountain.
    • The Magocracy of the Black Star are leaders of a Xoriat cult who worship the daelkyr. Much of the iconography in Shadowreach shows images of Xoriat and the daelkyr.
    • The Order of the White Sun is a branch of the Church of the Silver Flame. They fought back against the aberrations of Xoriat but gave up when the massive dragonshard known as the Grendleroot, burst fourth and killed many of them. They sealed the entrances to Blackclaw Mountain as a dangerous portal through Khyber into Xoriat.
    • As part of Khyber, many of the deepest tunnels of Blackclaw Mountain lead all over Eberron. Much of its history comes from these outer reaches.
    • The glyph titans of Blackclaw Mountain are arcane giants of old from Xen'drik. The Caretakers are powerful aberrants from Xoriat who studied one of the daelkyr.
    • The other dragonmarked houses have representatives in Deepdelver's Enclave and can show up throughout the adventures in Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    The rest of this article dives deeper into these ideas and offers alternate paths you may make when reskinning Ruins of the Grendleroot for Eberron.

    The Origin of the Grendleroot

    The origin of the Grendleroot is one of the main elements that root Blackclaw Mountain in the world of Eberron (pun intended). Perhaps the Grendleroot is a living spell gone awry—a continually growing parasitic casting of wall of thorns or spike growth. Perhaps it is a piece of Khyber, the dark progenitor dragon who killed Siberys and formed the dragonshards. Perhaps it is the will of Xoriat, the plane of madness that has grown like cancer in the depths of Eberron.

    It may even be part of the weapon or an aftereffect of the Mourning, the cataclysmic event that destroyed an entire nation. In this case, the Grendleroot wouldn't be particularly old; only a decade or so, which will change your timeline.

    Of these ideas, the idea of a shard of Khyber piercing into the plane of Xoriat works well with the theme of the Grendleroot. The Black Sun the Grendleroot calls out to may be a particularly powerful daelkyr (see the bestiary in Eberron, Rising of the Last War for details).

    Deepdelver's Enclave

    Deepdelver's Enclave can be kept mostly as-is. Explorers from all over the lands might meet here to explore the strange depths of this mountain. House Tharashk might be the custodians of the enclave, as explorers and hunters. The Finders Guild of House Tharashk engages in dragonshard prospecting, a good match for the relic hunting found in Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    The alien ways of the underworld of Khyber allow it to connect to all sorts of places across Eberron. Thus Deepdelver's Enclave could have explorers from many distant lands. This fits well with the melting-pot intention of Deepdelver's Enclave. Everyone is welcome and many diverse faces can be found there living in harmony.

    The Magocracy of the Black Star

    We can reskin the Magocracy of the Black Star in a few different ways. The archmages themselves may be cultists of Xoriat and the daelkyr. The massive statues of the archmages may in fact be statues of the daelkyr themselves.

    The magocracy might instead be reskinned as powerful leaders of the cult of the Dragon Below. This works well if you choose the Grendleroot to be an ancient shard of Khyber.

    The Order of the White Sun

    The Church of the Silver Flame fits the Order of the White Sun perfectly. These seekers of the light could have come to the mountain to rid it of its dark influence or to battle the cult of the Dragon Below or the cultists of Xoriat. A particular branch of the Church of the Silver Flame may have come here and then been routed as the Grendleroot, in whatever manifestation you choose, grew. The Church of the Silver Flame could have abandoned the site, marking it as a poisoned well leading through Khyber to Xoriat and sealed it up. See the sections on Khyber and the Church of the Silver Flame for details on the church's interaction with Khyber and Xoriat.

    The Remaining History of the Mountain

    Connecting Blackclaw Mountain to the deepest depths of Khyber lets you draw on histories from all over Eberron.

    Much of the rest of the history of Blackclaw Mountain can be tied to other elements of Eberron's history. As part of Khyber, Blackclaw Mountain can have strange underworld connections to any part of the world and thus their histories. The arcane giants of Xen'drik fit in well as the strange glyph titans in Grendleroot. The aboleths can be easily replaced with the mind flayers of Xoriat. There are many hooks in Grendleroot upon which to hang the history of Eberron.

    Tailoring Grendleroot Adventures for Eberron

    As both Eberron and Grendleroot have their roots from the original ideas behind Dungeons & Dragons, There is little to change with the adventures themselves. Sprinkling in the dragonmarked houses, criminal syndicates, cults, fiends, and otherworld entities throughout the adventure can make it feel like a rich part of Eberron. The best thing you can do is dig deep into Eberron, Rising of the Last War and let its lore flow down throughout the caves and crevasses of Grendleroot while you run it.

    If you enjoyed this article please support Sly Flourish on Patreon and take a look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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