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    Sly Flourish

  • VideoOwlbear Rodeo: A Simple D&D Virtual Tabletop

    If you're seeking a lightweight virtual tabletop, try out Owlbear Rodeo. It's awesome.

    Covid-19 forced many DMs to move games from in-person to online. For a lot of us, running games online is an entirely new experience. I moved all of my games, about three a week, online and lept into trying out all sorts of systems for online play. My favorite, and the one I've been using for eight months now, is to run D&D over Discord. By copying and pasting pieces of maps, usually grabbed from Dysonlogos, I can show the players where the characters are without using a full virtual tabletop like Roll 20. For combat, I use text-based combat tracker for rough zone-based combat more similar to theater of the mind than gridded combat.

    There are times, however, where dropping down a map with tokens for monsters and characters can be useful. Many players and quite a few DMs prefer this style of play.

    The big dogs among virtual tabletop tools are Roll 20 and Fantasty Grounds. There are other popular and well-loved tools as well like Foundry but these two typically come up when someone talks about virtual tabletops.

    These other VTTs are fine all-in-one systems that integrate D&D's rules with the rest of the tabletop.

    The problem is, I'm fine with running games mostly on Discord. I don't need a fully integrated D&D experience in my VTT. My players like using D&D Beyond and I'm not picky about how they roll dice, whether it's with Avrae in Discord or a plug-in like Beyond20.

    Unleash the Owlbear Rodeo

    When I want a VTT, I really just want a map and tokens. That's what Owlbear Rodeo provides. Owlbear Rodeo is a slimmed down virtual tabletop that focuses on maps and tokens. It has no integrated ruleset, although it does have a shared dice roller in it if you want one. Owlbear Rodeo makes it easy to drop in a map and includes a bunch of default tokens you can use if you don't feel like adding your own.

    If you do want your own tokens, you can upload a bunch of them right into Owlbear Rodeo all at once, whether your tokens are from Printable Heroes (my personal favorite tokens; search for "vtt") or your own hand-made tokens using Token Stamp. Grabbing an image off the net, dropping it into Token Stamp, and uploading it to Owlbear is fast and easy.

    Owlbear Rodeo requires no login or account from either you or your players. You can log in if you want to keep track of your previous maps and tokens, but it isn't necessary. Owlbear uses some sort of cookie to keep track so if you come back it will likely remember what you already uploaded but only if you're coming in from the same machine. Not requiring a login makes it easy for players to jump right in. No accounts means any player can move any token around since everyone's permissions are the same. I'm assuming your players aren't a bunch of 4 year olds (that's a big assumption, of course).

    Owlbear Rodeo has two features that aren't the easiest to figure out at first: grid alignment when bringing in a map and using the fog of war. This three minute video by GoGoCamel camel shows how to use both the grid-alignment feature and fog of war. It's well worth the watch.

    If you're used to a more full-featured VTT like Roll 20, you're likely to find features missing from Owlbear that you really want. If you dig more powerhouse tools, it probably isn't for you. I prefer to keep my D&D games as minimal as possible. I want tools that only do what I need them to do and keep the cruft out of the way. Owlbear Rodeo does just that. I can run the rest of my game in Discord and only drop into Owlbear when I need to use a VTT. When I'm done, we drop right back out again.

    At this point I've used Owlbear Rodeo with dozens of players and have heard no complaints. Many have described it being the exact kind of VTT they want. If you're in need of a lightweight virtual tabletop, give Owlbear Rodeo a try.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • VideoPaths for DM Expertise

    John B., a Sly Flourish patron, sent me a note describing an awesome video series by Wired on levels of complexity. Two of them really grabbed my attention, the levels of complexity of origami and Tony Hawk's levels of complexity of skateboarding. Tony Hawk's video begins with the basic ollie and ends with two moves having never been done at the time of the video. It's fascinating to see how the levels of complexity get exponentially harder the further along the rank you go.

    D&D complexity, however, doesn't always make our games better. I'd argue Matt Mercer's Vecnca Ascended; the finale of the 114 previous episodes of Vox Machina, is about as complicated and amazing as any D&D campaign we're likely to see. It isn't, however, a realistic model of the vast majority of D&D games. Like pulling off a 1260 on a skateboard, games like this are nearly unattainable. And that's ok because complexity doesn't make great games.

    I'm fascinated to look at D&D through the lens of escalating complexity but it isn't exactly practical. We may have run incredibly complex campaigns from 1st to 20th level, with detailed character story arcs, amazing tabletop dioramas, beautiful handouts, and cool props; but they're not necessarily the model of all great D&D games. A great D&D game might be a one-shot drawn from the inspiration of the DM at the spur of the moment. It might be run totally in the theater of the mind. Sometimes the best games are the simplest games: four adventurers crawling through a dangerous dungeon seeking a valued treasure.

    Though simplicity may be a virtue in great D&D games, that doesn't mean we DM's can't get better at DMing. What are the paths we DMs can take to get better at running D&D games? What would it look like as a curriculum?

    Instead of breaking D&D games down into levels of complexity, I'll describe potential paths for getting better at DMing D&D games. These are often parallel tracks, not a single path. There are likely as many paths for DM proficiency as there are DMs but I'm going to offer my own suggestions here.

    Along with the videos on complexity in origami and skateboarding, this article was also heavily influenced by Mark Hulmes's Youtube video on Becoming a Better DM. Check it out.

    The Beginner's Path: Running the D&D Starter Set or Essentials Kit

    One can do far worse than to start running D&D games with either the D&D Essentials Kit or the D&D Starter Set. A set of pregen character sheets from the Starter Set is a great way to get new players on board with D&D. Other than making your way through the rules and through the adventure, I wouldn't expect a new DM to do much else. We're not necessarily going to have deep character background integration, detailed story threads, or amazing tabletop displays. This is just plain and simple D&D and it can still be an awesome time.

    In reading tons of posts on Reddit's D&D Next, and the DM Academy subreddits and clearly many new DMs choose to go the homebrew route. I don't recommend it for new DMs but likely others disagree and I doubt I'll be listened to by those who want to anyway. I do, however, recommend keeping things simple. Avoid house rules until you know the system. Choose straight forward character options. Start at 1st level characters and be nice. That said, I still recommend starting with the Starter Set or Essentials Kit.

    Recommended reading: Getting Started with D&D, D&D Starter Set, D&D Essentials Kit.

    Running Your First Short Campaign

    With a few games under one's belt, the next level of experience occurs as a DM runs their first campaign up to about 5th level. Here I'd expect the DM to begin to customize the adventure to fit the backgrounds of the characters. Maybe the guy running the inn is the cousin of the dwarven cleric. DMs here should likely begin improvising some scenes as they come up, including building NPCs on the spot when the moment calls for it. DMs here can hopefully start developing situations instead of building scenes already planned out.

    Beyond this is when the complexity of DMing goes up and the paths to becoming a better DM split into parallel tracks. Each of these parallel tracks shores up different areas for being a well-rounded DM.

    Becoming the Characters' Biggest Fan

    Once we get beyond the basics, it's time for a DM to look at the people around the table and the characters they bring to it. We can deeply internalize a concept from Dungeon World to become the characters' biggest fan. Here we put aside any idea that we're competing with the players in a game. We put aside our own drive to force a story down one particular path. We play to see what happens. We put the characters first and foremost in the spotlight. We make reviewing the characters the first step in our game prep. We run session zeros to calibrate everyone's expectations of a campaign.

    We serve the fun of the game first and foremost. Our goal is for everyone, including ourselves, to have a great time.

    Recommended reading: Dungeon World.

    Run Lots of Games, Run Lots of Systems

    We get better at DMing by DMing more games. We also get better by playing more games, with as many other DMs as we can, good or bad, so we can see how it's done. Playing and running other roleplaying game systems also helps us become better DMs. There are lots of ways to run RPGs and lots of systems to help you do so. These systems often have great ideas we can bring back into our D&D games. Running games for a wide range of players also teaches us a lot. Convention games and organized play programs offer great opportunities to run games for many players.

    Recommended reading: Numenera, Fate Condensed, Blades in the Dark, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord.

    Flexibility, Adaptability, Improvisation

    As the most valued DM traits; we can follow a lifelong path for improving our flexibility, adaptability, and improvisation skills. We can work harder at thinking on our feet, building scenes as they occur during the game instead of planning them ahead of time. We let go of fixed scenes and predetermined stories and build situations. We can learn how to improvise NPCs. We can seek out the tools that help us best improvise during the game. Learning how to stay flexible, go where the story goes, and steer it delicately towards the fun is an advanced DM trait that leads to more enjoyable games for both DMs and players alike.

    Understanding Pacing

    According to RPG veteran Monte Cook, there is no more important skill for a DM to learn than pacing. Robin Laws teaches us that understanding how upward and downward beats feel during the game and knowing how to shift them one way or the other to avoid apathy or despair is an advanced and critical skill for running great games. Like a curling player, our job is to smooth out the path in front of the story, not grab control of it. Recognize and take hold of the dials you have available to change up an encounter, a scene, or a whole adventure to fit the feeling and theme of the adventure's pacing as it plays out.

    Recommended reading: Hamlet's Hit Points.

    Maps, Props, Terrain, and Handouts

    Physical stuff increases the immersion of a game. When players have things they can see, touch, and hold that ties them to the world, that world becomes ever more real. While not necessary to run a great game, tabletop accessories, when used well, can make a great game better. Some of these things can be made at home for almost nothing. Others can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. These exponential costs often result in linear gains, however. Before spending a lot of money, consider that there are often ways to make our games better that cost nothing at all.

    Rules Proficiency, Not Rules Mastery

    One might think that a better understanding of the rules is critical to run a great D&D game. Certainly being proficient enough with the rules to run the game is important but, according to tens of thousands of surveys conducted by Baldman Games for their organized play program, rules mastery, as one of four tracked attributes, has the least correlation to a fun game. Instead, being friendly and being prepared have a far greater correlation with running a fun game. DMs should have enough of an understanding of the rules to keep the game running smoothly. Rules mastery, however, isn't required. Instead, focus attention on the other areas that have a higher impact described above.

    Recommended Reading: Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual.

    Learning from Other DMs

    The internet has given us unparalleled access to other DMs. We have unlimited sources to run our ideas by other DMs, see what ideas they have, and get differing points of view. I argue that the D&D-focused subreddits on Reddit offer some of the best access to DMs of all experience levels. Look at the questions those DMs are asking and learn from the answers they receive. Further, if you happen to be running a published campaign book, there's almost always a subreddit focused on it with advice, tips, tricks, and accessories to help your own campaign run well.

    Recommended reading: DM Academy, D&D Next, DM Behind the Screen, numerous campaign subreddits.

    A Lifelong Pursuit

    Being an expert DM is a lifelong pursuit. Never have we had more access to more knowledge about being a great DM. We have access to videos of more D&D games than we could ever watch. With a few clicks we have access to the knowledge of thousands of other DMs. Spend time figuring out what makes a great D&D game for you, build your own path, and keep running D&D games.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • Building Lazy Dungeons

    The eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master mentions little about maps. The expectation is that the "develop fantastic locations" step covers locations big and small and stick-figure diagrams are enough to connect locations together.

    Recently, though, I've been using actual location maps — mostly dungeon maps — in my prep and found a nice lazy way to fill these maps out.

    Behold Dyson Logos

    There are lots of sources for great maps out there but my current favorite is Dysonlogos. Dyson offers nearly a thousand maps on his site for free, many of them usable in commercial works if you're so inclined. Visit the site, grab a map that fits the location you're thinking of, and you're off to the races. For lazy map making, think in general terms about the location you need and grab the first map that fits the idea. Need a crypt? Grab the first crypt you find. The less picky you are, the easier it is to find a map that works.

    Annotate Locations

    Next, as part of "developing fantastic locations", annotate the map with evocative names that fuel our minds when the characters reach the room. This way we don't waste time on rooms the characters don't visit and yet still have enough detail to improvise the room if the characters do go there.

    Annotate the map with whatever image editor is easies to use. On my Mac, I use Preview to add text labels with white backgrounds to the map so it's easy to read against the map's background. Here's an example map from my Eberron game.

    Microsoft Paint works equally well. More advanced image editors can also do the trick but you don't need anything too fancy. It should be fast and easy. We're not making publication-level work here. Friends of mine like dropping the map into Roll 20 and annotating it right in the virtual tabletop. Anything can work as long as it's fast and easy.

    Define Ten Locations

    Sometimes we'll want to annotate every room in a dungeon if it isn't too much trouble. Other times, though, it isn't so clear how many places we need to label. A city for example, may need a bunch of locations to feel real and alive. In this case, I recommend defining ten locations. Ten seems like a lot, and it may be more than you actually need, but defining ten locations pushes our brains into interesting and creative directions. Here's an example of a city map for the city of Eston in which I defined ten locations the characters could explore:

    Dropping evocative names on a map like this gives us ideas should the characters visit a location. For larger locations we might use additional maps to further break down these larger places. Otherwise, if the characters never bother to explore them, we need nothing more than a couple of words.

    Use Evocative Labels

    When you're considering your labels, make them unique and interesting. Inspire yourself with your descriptions — even of they're only two words long. "Lighting Rail Station" isn't very interesting but "Wild Lighting Rail Station" sounds cooler. We have an idea what might be going on there. "Radiant Sinkhole" is more interesting than a straight sinkhole. Here's a list of ten example evocative labels for the inner cars of Karshak, the rogue warforged lighting rail in my Eberron game modeled after Blane the Mono in Stephen King's Wastelands:

    • Manifest Portal Engine
    • Karshak's Artificer Brain
    • Warforged Guardian Car
    • Automated Dining Car
    • Transparent 1st Class Cabin
    • Gas-induced Sleeping Cabin
    • Cryofreeze Cabin
    • Dragonshard Storage Car
    • Automaton Construction Car
    • War Caboose

    These aren't perfect examples but hopefully it gives you the idea. The main thing is that the labels mean something to you. You're not writing these for anyone else.

    Need some inspiration? Try out the random monument generator or this Eberron location generator to get some ideas for interesting location labels.

    Home Use Versus Publication

    When we're preparing stuff like this for our home game, remember that we're only doing this for ourselves. We don't need to meet the high standards required for publishing adventures. We only need a few words to spark our own imagination, not pass this along to others. Fast and dirty is perfectly acceptable for our own prep. Leave it rough, no one will care what it looks like. The game is your painting, your maps and prep notes are your messy palette and brush rag. Don't worry if they're rough.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • Building a Great D&D Character

    Here at Sly Flourish I focus on advice for D&D dungeon masters. Today I'm breaking away and offer some advice for players. This is, however, advice for player from the perspective of a dungeon master. You're not going to find optimal feats for any given build. Instead, I offer thoughts that might make the game more fun for you, for your DM, and for the rest of the group.

    Here's a quick summary and checklist to consider when building your character:

    • Build your character around the theme of the adventure or campaign.
    • Build a character that fits in well with the group both from a story and mechanics standpoint.
    • Use the Xanathar chapter "this is your life" to generate a fun background.
    • Keep your backstory to a few lines instead of dozens of pages.
    • Build your character's background over time.
    • Choose mechanics that synergize with the group.
    • Hold back on mechanics that frustrate the DM.

    Build Around the Theme of the Campaign

    Everyone's going to have more fun if you understand the theme of the campaign before you build your character. Just as DMs can review the characters first while preparing their D&D games, the players can digest the theme of the adventure and campaign before building their characters; both in story and in mechanics.

    Many players dive right into character creation without considering the story or the theme of the campaign. They get excited about a particular class or a race and class combination and run with it. They plan out a bunch of levels ahead of time and never consider whether the themes of that character fit well with the themes of the campaign. This leads to ham-fisted attempts to draw the character into the story and into the adventuring group.

    If your DM hasn't told you about the adventure or campaign yet, ask them. Ask them what themes will come up. Ask them what skills will be most relevant. Suggest they run a session zero if they're not already planning one and don't build your character fully until you're in that session zero.

    Once you have a handle on the theme of the campaign, spread that information around. Talk to the other players. Ask them how they plan to build their characters around the theme of the campaign as well. Help the DM steer the other players towards building characters that fit well with the story.

    Build For the Group

    Once you have a good idea what the themes of the campaign are and start to build your character around it, consider how you can build a character that fits in well with the group from both a story and mechanics standpoint. Ask yourself this key question to help integrate your character into the group:

    Why does my character want to travel with others while going on these adventures?

    Often players come up with backstories that seem antithetical to the story of the campaign and traveling with a group. Nobility that would rather spend time alone with a good book in a royal palace often doesn't enjoy traveling through dungeons with a group of smelly adventurers. This doesn't mean you can't have a character where adventure is foreign or even undesired but they must still have the motivation to adventure with others. The character doesn't have to like adventuring with others but they should be motivated to do so anyway.

    The same is true for the mechanics you choose. DM David wrote a wonderful article about choosing character abilities that work well with other characters. It's an eye-opening idea. Choose classes and abilities that support the other characters and you'll build a much stronger bond with the characters and players when you use them. When you have a choice for new spells or abilities, ask yourself which abilities help other characters and choose those as often as you dare. Building huge high-damage characters is fun but so is helping other characters do their thing best. Consider how your character's mechanics can directly benefit the group.

    Build a Digestible Backstory

    Our characters are the heroes of the story in our eyes. As players, our own character is the hero of our journey and we don't often put other players' characters in the same spotlight. We are, most of the time, one fifth of the group but our own character feels more important than that.

    When developing the backstory for your character, keep that one-fifth spotlight in mind. Keep your backstory brief. Describe it in one to five sentences instead of one to five pages.

    You don't need to build out your character's backstories all at once. As a player, I don't start filling out my backstory until I've played at least one adventure and reached 2nd level. Then I'll spend the time to start filling in the details.

    Until we start seeing our character going on adventures with the rest of the group, we don't really know that character. Our idea for their background may change. Like the DM who lets the story of the campaign evolve from session to session, we can let our character's backstory evolve as we begin to know who they are. Think of it like carving a statue. It starts as an undefined block and slowly, as we play them at the game, they begin to take better definition.

    Xanathar's Guide to Everything has an awesome way to generate your character's background in the section called "This Is Your Life". You might have two older sisters and a younger brother. You might have an old childhood friend who you hurt through a mistake and still regret it. Lots of interesting backgrounds come from these tables, backgrounds we're unlikely to have thought of ourself. When you have one, share your background with your DM and the other players, keeping in mind to keep it brief.

    Be Nice to Your DM

    Our character is at the center of that story but players can remember that the DM is invested in this tale too. Don't build characters intended to circumvent every challenge or "easy mode" their way through the adventure. We all want our characters to be effective but there's such a thing as too effective. Avoid focusing on just one aspect of the character, like focusing on a crazy high armor class, huge damage output, or paralyzing single powerful creatures. Remember that your DM wants to have fun too and it's just as lame for their boss monster to be stuck in a force cage for a whole battle as it would be for your character.

    If your DM lets you choose multi-classing and feats, choose options that fit the story of your character rather than chasing a particular combination of powerful mechanical benefits. D&D is a complicated game and there are ways to break it. Instead of zeroing in on those spiky bits, consider the story of your character and act as they would act in a great action movie.

    Be wary of abilities that "break" the game or take the fun away from the DM just as you would hope they do not take the fun away from you.

    Building For the Group and the Story

    Building a great character isn't about optimizing mechanics or building a unique story that no one has ever heard about. Building a great character means bringing in a character that fits with the group and with the adventure. Do your whole table a service and think about how your character can best serve the other characters and the story overall. Build the character that brings the most fun to the story and the group.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • D&D Prep: Write Down Ten Things

    Everyone has creative habits that work well for them. Today I'm going to share one of mine.

    Write down ten things.

    Write down ten notable locations in your fantasy city. Write down ten dungeons the characters might discover in their journeys. Write down ten encounters they may run into while traveling through the ruins of Talondek. Write down ten interesting NPCs they might meet. Write down ten monuments that might serve as the backdrop to a scene when the characters explore those old ruins.

    Instead of writing long paragraphs of history and lore, jot down ten interesting bits of history the characters may learn.

    Seasoned lazy dungeon masters recognize this as the model for Secrets and Clues in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Secrets and Clues are the secret sauce for preparing to improvise. We don't write out long piles of theological lore; we write down ten things the characters may discover in the next game independent of where they might discover them. It's the location of those secrets we improvise during the game.

    There's a secret power in writing down ten things. Three things are easy. Six things aren't so bad. We can hit seven things before we start to struggle. Ten requires thinking hard about those last three. We've gotten all of the easy stuff out of our heads and how we have to work. Those final three things are often painful. They're also often the most interesting ones.

    Often we can define big parts of our campaign from combinations of these lists. We can build a city, wilderness, or dungeon from a combination of ten important locations, ten notable landmarks, and ten potential wandering encounters. Ten is often more than we need to put in front of the characters. Often three will do. But listing ten and even hinting that we have more makes the players feel like the place is lush and alive and bustling.

    Give it a try next time you're stuck in a boring meeting (ugh) or out for a nice walk (much better). Ask yourself to define ten things about your game. Maybe it's ten random encounters (not always violent monsters, by the way). Maybe it's ten landmarks in the region. Maybe it's ten gangs or mercenary companies.

    Define your whole world from lists of ten things.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • Running Ravenloft / Curse of Strahd in a Single Session

    Note: This article has been updated since its original version published in November 2012.

    Published in 1983, the classic D&D adventure I6 Ravenloft, was ranked in 2004 by Dungeon magazine as the second greatest adventure of all time. Five years before its publication, Tracy and Laura Hickman ran the classic D&D module every Halloween. Ravenloft contains one of the best open-ended randomly determined adventures produced for Dungeons & Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.

    With the release of Curse of Strahd, we have Ravenloft fully updated to the 5th edition D&D. Though intended for a long campaign, we can strip Curse of Strahd down to a single five-hour game for 7th level characters perfect for us to run on or around Halloween every year.

    Here's one way to run Curse of Strahd in a single session Halloween-themed adventure.

    The Party's Goals

    Strip down the goals of Ravenloft to one single goal: Kill Strahd. Expanding this a bit, the characters must hunt down the devil Strahd to save Ireena Kolyana from becoming his dark bride.

    To help them kill Strahd, the characters must seek out three powerful artifacts hidden within the castle including the Sun Sword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Tome of Strahd.

    I've replaced the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind with the Icon of Ravenloft because the Icon's abilities better fit the theme of this game and a paralyzed Strahd isn't much fun. That means the Icon of Ravenloft does not sit on the altar in room K15. Instead, replace it with a large bowl of holy water able to restore the vitality of the party once, giving them the equivalent of a short or long rest depending on how hard a time the characters are having.

    We're also going to add a trait to the Tome of Strahd to streamline this single-session run of Ravenloft. When defeated, the characters can burn the Tome of Strahd to destroy Strahd permanently instead of seeking out his coffin. This is likely the only item the characters need to truly defeat Strahd.

    Ireena as a Character

    In this scenario Ireena accompanies the group into Ravenloft. She isn't putting up with his creepy stalker ways and is taking the fight right to him. You can either let one of the players run Ireena as a veteran along with their main character or you can have one of the characters play Ireena herself as their main character. Ireena is a human but can be of any class the players choose and is the same level as the rest of the party.

    Ravenloft Character Bonds

    To keep this game simple, every character has the following bond:

    By blood or by deed you and your companions are sworn to aid and protect Ireena from the devil Strahd.

    With this bond every character has a built-in motivation to group together, go to Ravenloft with Ireena, and destroy the vampire once and for all.

    Intro: The Carriage Ride to Ravenloft and the Drawing

    When the characters begin the adventure, read or summarize the following:

    The ornate black carriage roars along the narrow winding road leading to Castle Ravenloft. Peering out one window, you watch rocks fall one thousand feet to the river below. Ahead the carriage master turns his cowled face towards you, his eyes shrouded under his tattered leather tricorn hat. Reaching back with an arm too long for his body, he gently pushes you back into the carriage and locks the door.

    Raspy laughter rattles the glyphed coins of Madame Eva's veil. Sitting across from you, she draws an ancient worn deck of cards from her colored robes and begins placing them face up on the small table inside the carriage.

    When using Curse of Strahd for this run of Ravenloft, we'll use the simplified fortune drawing described in James Introcaso's Guide to Running Curse of Strahd as a one-shot adventure with one minor exception: skip the ally and stick to the three artifacts and Strahd's location. Remove all but the following cards from the common cards in the Tarokka deck or a normal deck of cards:

    • Paladin (2 of Swords/Spades)
    • Mercenary (4 of Swords/Spades)
    • Berserker (6 of Swords/Spades)
    • Dictator (8 of Swords/Spades)
    • Warrior (Master of Swords/10 of Spades)
    • Transmuter (1 of Stars/Ace of Clubs)
    • Evoker (6 of Stars/Clubs)
    • Necromancer (8 of Stars/Clubs)
    • Swashbuckler (1 of Coins/Ace of Diamonds)
    • Merchant (4 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Guild Member (5 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Miser (9 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Shepherd (4 of Glyphs/Hearts)
    • Anarchist (6 of Glyphs/Hearts)
    • Priest (Master of Glyphs/10 of Hearts)

    Madame Eva places out four cards, three from the common deck (one for each artifact) and one from the high deck which represents Strahd's location. With those cards placed, the adventure is ready to begin.

    Strahd's Invitation

    The characters arrive at Castle Ravenloft under the invitation of Strahd as described in the book. Instead of an illusion of Strahd playing the grand organ, it is Strahd himself. As they dine, Strahd lays out the rules of his "game" which, in short is the following:

    "Defeat me and you save Ireena. Perish and she is mine."

    In his unfathomable cruelty he asks Ireena a simple question:

    "Give yourself to me now, my love, and you can save their lives."

    Ireena looks to the party for guidance. If she appears as though she will give herself to Strahd, he turns to them and asks:

    "and you would allow this?".

    Should they choose to hand her over, Strahd looks very disappointed.

    "They are not worth your affection. Let them rot in this castle and let you walk with them and see the results of their cowardice first hand."

    Strahd then departs from the dinner as the room grows cold.

    Should the characters decide to confront Strahd there and then, Strahd is accompanied by two vampire spawns and has an additional spawn for every character above four. Strahd himself may battle the characters but leaves the characters to his vampire spawn and departs.

    Recover the Three Artifacts Before Facing Strahd

    The party must find all three artifacts before facing Strahd. 45 minutes before the end of the game, Strahd attacks the characters wherever they are and with whatever artifacts they have received. If the party does not have the Tome of Strahd, they cannot truly defeat the vampire in this scenario.

    Maps for Online Play

    Because of the timing, it's best to run this scenario mostly in the theater of the mind. It can help, however, for the players to see the rooms they're in and what rooms they've already explored. The maps in Curse of Strahd follow the isometric versions found in the original I6 Ravenloft module but you can find top-down maps on the DM's Guild. I preferred these realistic Ravenloft maps.

    When running online, you can use a lasso-style copy and paste utility to grab the part of the map the characters have seen and avoid showing rooms they haven't yet gotten to. With some practice, this is a fast way to show off parts of this massive dungeon.

    Strahd's Interjections

    Throughout the session, Strahd might join in another encounter and harass the party. He may arrive in his hybrid bat form or his hybrid wolf form, poke at the party, and then leave. Each time Strahd arrives, his entrance is foreshadowed by his children of the night ability.

    Facing Strahd von Zarovich

    45 minute before the end of the game, Strahd arrives and unleashes his full power. Take a few minutes to read Strahd's full entry in the book before the game to remember all of his intricacies. As a spellcasting vampire, Strahd is a complicated monster to run.

    If the characters have the three items, Strahd may find himself at at a great disadvantage. Greater invisibility may end up his most dangerous spell, removing any disadvantage he has, preventing him from being targeted by spells that require sight, letting him move freely without opportunity attacks, and preventing his spells from getting countered. This does, however, remove his ability to charm. Whether he casts it before he engages in combat or if things start to look bad for him is up to you. Strahd's spider climb is an effective way of staying out of reach of powerful melee characters. His charm ability is likely best dropped on those with poor wisdom saving throws and Strahd is smart enough to avoid elves (who have advantage against charms) or paladins with crazy-high saving throw bonuses. Non-elven fighters and non-wisdom spellcasters are the best targets. For more tactics on running vampires, see the Monster Knows What They're Doing on Vampires.

    Strahd is likely a hard challenge for a group of 7th level characters. If you happen to be running him at a higher level or feel he needs to be beefed up, add one or more of the following enhancements:

    • Increase Strahd's hit points up to to 200.
    • Give Strahd an AC of 17 (mage armor).
    • Increase the necrotic damage of Strahd's bite to 14 (4d6) or 21 (6d6).
    • Make these changes to Strahd's prepared spells: shield instead of comprehend languages, mage armor instead of prestidigitation, counterspell instead of nondetection, lightning bolt instead of fireball, and dispel magic instead of scrying.
    • Give Strahd Beguiling Gaze: As a bonus action, Strahd fixes his gaze on a creature he can see within 30 feet of him. If the target can see Strahd, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or Strahd has advantage on attack rolls against the target. The effect lasts until the target takes damage or until the start of Strahd's next turn. For that time, the affected creature is also a willing target for Strahd's bite attack. A creature that can't be charmed is immune to this effect. A creature that successfully saves against Strahd's gaze is immune to it for 1 hour.

    If you have more than four characters, consider adding one vampire spawn for each character above four. These spawn may serve as Strahd's brides. If you want to give them some mechanical flavor, you can give them the capabilities of a mage, veteran, or assassin (without the poison).

    A Halloween Tradition

    With Curse of Strahd in hand and your streamlined plans in place, you can make Castle Ravenloft your very own Halloween D&D tradition.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • Using the Guilds of Ravnica in Eberron

    Mashing up the ideas from published D&D books is one of the best ways to capitalize off of the massive benefit from published books while, at the same time, turning published worlds into one of our own. Today we'll take two campaign sourcebooks from very different origins: the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica and Eberron: Rising from the Last War. While they each have a unique focus, both of these books work surprisingly well together. We can, for example, use the guilds from Ravnica to fill out some of the lesser known factions of Eberron.

    Let's take a look.

    Rakdos and the Mockery

    Eberron's pantheon includes a group of sinister gods known as the Dark Six. Little is given for these six gods other than evocative names and a couple of lines of description. The Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica, however, gives over huge sections to their guilds. What if we took material from Ravnica's Cult of Rakdos and turned it into the cult behind the Mockery, one of the dark six?

    The Children of Mockery, as we'll call them, often perform in small towns, villages, and cities. For the most part they stay just above the law but their shows often turn violent and it isn't uncommon for members of the audience to disappear during the performances. The Children also host bloody gladiatorial events that draw in contestants from all over Khorvaire. It is said the Children have their own city of entertainment just on the edge of the Demon Wastes though no one knows exactly how to find it until it wants to be found.

    Monsters of the Droaam sometimes split their loyalty between the Children of Mockery and the Daughters of Sora Kell. There's a shaky truce between the two groups, one that could shatter under the wrong circumstances.

    Some say a demon leads the Children of Mockery and acts as the master of ceremonies in this hidden city of blood and debauchery.

    Using the Cult of Rakdos for the Children of Mockery gives us a ton of value. We fill in a few lines of text in Eberron: Rising from the Last War with a huge section of the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica. We have all kinds of fantastic art we can use and show our players. We have an awesome selection of monsters and stat blocks that fit perfectly with the Mockery. It works perfectly and requires almost no work at all from us to integrate.

    Gruul Clans and the Droaam

    The wild and bestial nature of the Gruul clans works well within the Droaam, the nation of monsters in Khorvaire. The various clans can be lifted right from Ravnica and dropped in as clans within the loose bonds of the Droaam who follow the daughters of Sora Kell, the three hag leaders of the Droaam.

    Orzhov Syndicate and Karrnath

    The bond between the living and the dead in the nation of Karrnath fits well with the lawful evil Orzhov syndicate, a guild of bankers and religious leaders ruled by the undead. The banking aspect of the Orzhov isn't a clean fit but the societal connection between the living and the dead fits very well indeed.

    Golgari Swarm and Avassh, the Twister of Roots

    We can delve deep into the realms of the Daelkyr, the lords of madness in the depths of Khyber and draw upon the Golari swarm to fill out the followers of Avassh, the Twister of Roots. It's given only a single line in Eberron: Rising from the Last War that's mostly filled with evil plant stuff but the necrotic hivemind of the Golgari swarm fits nicely with that description. The locations and monsters work perfectly for this necrotic-touched plant-based lord of madness.

    House Dimir and House Thuranni

    The dragonmarked house of Thuranni is a good fit for the material from House Dimir in the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica. The fact that the house could be led by a vampire is pretty compelling and the overlap of spies and assassins makes it a good fit.

    Izzet League and House Cannith

    The chaotic and inventive nature of the Izzet League fits well with House Cannith. Both of them seek invention over all and may have caused catastrophic chaos in the past.

    Simic Combine and the Cult of the Dragon Below

    The strange fascination of magic and biology can fall under the umbrella of the cults of the Dragon Below. Cult members may exist in other dragonmarked houses or hidden away in the chambers beneath Sharn conducting horrible experiments that focus on the nexus of biology and magic we find with the Simic Combine.

    Art, Maps, Adventure Seeds, NPCs, Monsters

    When we pull the guilds out of Ravnica, we get a ton of material we can drop into our Eberron game largely untouched. The guilds in the Guildmaster's Guide include fantastic art, adventure seeds, location maps, NPC descriptions, and awesome monsters. All of this expands our Eberron game without us having to do much work at all. Steal, mash up, and build new worlds you and your players can experience.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • Thinking Two Horizons Out

    In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master I recommend focusing attention on what we need to run our next game. This mostly comes down to the eight steps of lazy DM prep:

    • Review the characters
    • Create a strong start
    • Outline potential scenes
    • Define secrets and clues
    • Develop fantastic locations
    • Outline important NPCs
    • Choose relevant monsters
    • Select magic item rewards

    In chapter 16 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master I also recommend spiral campaign development in which we start at the characters' current positon and build up what's around them. Where are they now? What's going on there? Who will they meet? What might they have to fight? What might they discover? Where will they go?

    We can think of this as the first horizon. What can the characters see when they look around? What's within their view and within their reach?

    If we're planning to run more than just one session, though, we probably need to think not just about what's around the characters now but where they might be in the future. We need to know this so we can drop in the right hooks, hints, secrets, foreshadowing, and clues in front of them now. What's over the next horizon?

    This is the second horizon. What is over the hill? What's beyond the wood? What's outside the city? What's buried beneath the old citadel?

    If we want to drop seeds of future adventures, we need to think two horizons out.

    The area of that second horizon can be far bigger than the first. Let's think about it mathematically for a moment and pretend we're talking about actual horizons — the distance between the characters and what they can see. If we pretend the first horizon is 1 mile out from the characters, that's an area of about 3 miles. But if the second horizon is 10 miles out? That's about 314 square miles we'd have to fill out. That's a lot of prep for lazy dungeon masters.

    Planning Three Hexes Out

    Instead of trying to fill out a thousand square miles with interesting stuff, we can take an approach from Micheal "Chgowiz" Shorten and think three hexes out. What are three interesting places the characters might explore outside of their current hex? For us, these three hexes out corresponds to the second horizon.

    Turning that 300 mile second horizon into three hexes makes it managable. Three is a great number. We can all remember three places. It's a good selection of options without being overwhelming. What three major locations sit outside of the characters' current position? That's not too hard for us to come up with and a group can likely come to a consensus about which location they want to go to next if given three options.

    We also don't need to fully fill out these locations before we start dropping in hints and clues. We don't need full maps of the locations or full rosters of monsters, NPCs, and treasure. We mostly just need the hook and can drop that right into our secrets and clues.

    Example: Locations Outside Deepdelver's Enclave

    Let's pretend we have a small adventuring outpost called Deepdelver's Enclave (the town central to the adventures in Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot). We want to come up with three interesting places outside of the town tied to hooks, rumors, or secrets that we can drop in front of the characters in our next game. What do we need?

    We can start by digging into the Dungeon Master's Guide and look at the tables in chapter 3 and chapter 5. Mixing together the "Dungeon Locations", "Dungeon Creator", "Dungeon Purpose", and "Event-based Goals" tables, we can generate locations such as:

    • The lair of a destroyed lich in the middle of a nearby subterranian desert still festering with the lich's malovelent magic and monsters.
    • A group of dwarves recently uncovered a prophecy that a ruined yuan-ti temple within town will soon become the central site of a great evil coming into the land.
    • A cult of the elemental prince Yan-C-Ben has taken interest in a beholder's lair on an island in an underground lake. The characters are asked to assess the situation and see what danger it might hold for the locals.

    You can also use this 1d20 Adventure Seed list to generate interesting adventure ideas and mix them with Eberron factions or Forgotten Realms factions if you happen to be playing in those game worlds. Random lists inspire the hooks and locations we can drop two horizons out from the characters' current position.

    Looking Two Horizons Out in Published Campaigns

    Looking two horizons out while running a big published adventure means reading a chapter ahead. When running such adventures it helps to know what options will soon be in front of the characters when they're done with their current session. Reading up on those future options helps us know what hints to drop in our current game. If we time things right, these options hit the table at the end of the session and the players can decide what to do next to help us plan the next session. This lets us focus our reading around the area the players already decided on. If such decisions land at the beginning of a session instead of the end of one, we end up having to prepare for all possible options or wing it. That's not ideal.

    When possible, help players choose their next path at the end of a session to help you focus your prep on the path they chose.

    Where to Keep These Horizons

    When you've thought two horizons out and have some ideas, where do you put them? If following the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master they fit well in our secrets and clues and fantastic locations. Hints of future events, NPCs, or situations work well as secrets and clues.

    If we're identifying interesting locations in our look over the horizon, these fit in as fantastic locations. We don't need to fill these locations out too far. A good evocative name serves fine such as "burning forest", "Skyfall Tower", or "Karshak's Creche". These two-word names often give us enough to get our heads going in the right direction if we do need to fill them out in the future. A name alone is often enough to drop hints to the characters without wasting a lot of time on places the characters will never bother to see.

    Two Horizons Out in a Spiral Campaign

    Thinking two horizons out is a key component of spiral campaign development. We build a campaign from the characters' current position outward. It's a key component for us lazy dungeon masters to keep our world evolving, make it feel real, and spend less time on material our players may never see.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • Average Hit Points of a D&D Character

    Sometimes it's useful to have a rough gauge of how many hit points we can expect D&D characters to have at any given level. Will our deadly trap be truly deadly? Will the dragon's breath weapon TPK the party? Every so often questions like this come up.

    Granted, we can simply ask our players for their maximum hit points and work with that or we can keep a rough gauge of character hit points on hand. But, with the wide range of classes, constitution bonuses, and feats; how can we determine average hit points?

    To answer this question I developed a simple Monte Carlo simulator of character hit points. This simulator determined the hit points for 200,000 randomly generated characters from 1st through 20th level across all classes. It includes weighted probabilities for constitution bonuses and the weighted likelihood that a character takes the toughness feat.

    The table below summarizes these simulated characters with the median HP value across the 10,000 simulated characters of each level, their quartiles, the standard deviation, and a simpler equation of 7 x Level + 3 which ends up nearly as accurate up through 16th level and is likely good enough on its own.

    level 25% 50% 75% std 7 x lvl + 3
    1 8 10 13 2 10
    2 14 18 21 4 17
    3 20 24 30 6 24
    4 24 31 39 8 31
    5 32 39 48 10 38
    6 38 46 57 12 45
    7 44 53 66 15 52
    8 50 60 75 17 59
    9 56 67 84 19 66
    10 62 74 93 21 73
    11 68 81 102 23 80
    12 74 88 111 25 87
    13 80 95 120 28 94
    14 86 102 129 30 101
    15 92 109 138 32 108
    16 99 129 148 35 115
    17 105 138 157 37 122
    18 111 145 166 40 129
    19 117 153 175 43 136
    20 123 161 184 44 143

    When to Use This Table

    Much of the time we build our campaign worlds without regard to the characters' specific level of statistics. Instead, we let the situation dictate how the world works. Sometimes, though, we want to know if we're headed into a danger zone or whether something is going to be easier than the story dictates. In this case, it helps to know what the average hit points are at a given level. At the same time we don't want the world to react too closely to the characters. If we built it around the exact hit points of the characters, the world would overfit. Instead, we keep the average hit points in mind as a rough gauge to recognize when something might be too easy or too hard.

    Keep the equation in mind of "7 X level + 3" as a rough gauge. When we want to know how powerful some trap, hazard, or monster is compared to the characters; use this equation to estimate the risk of the threat. We can also take comfort in knowing that it's pretty close to the more detailed simulation of 200,000 characters.

    Keep such simple tools on hand to help you steer the game's focus on the story of your shared adventures.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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  • Dreamscape Investigations

    What if we combined the reverse-clues of Memento, the dreamscapes of Inception, and in-media-res clue-gathering scenes from the video game Return of the Obra Dinn into a model for dream-based investigations? Let's take a look how that might work in an Eberron game.

    The Situation: A Ghost Ship on the Edge of Dal Quor

    Our story begins as the characters head to the Northern Wind, a ghost ship in the docks of Sharn returned from Xen'Drik. Leto Skalle, a gold-ringed member of the Aurum, financed the ship's journey and the expeditions of its crew into the ruins of the arcane giants of Cul'sir. On it's return, Leto Skalle's mercenaries took what it brought back and left the ship and its crew to rot in the docks below Sharn. The characters travel to the ship to learn what happened there, what the expedition brought back from Xen'drik, and why no one has seen the crew since it returned.

    When they arrive on the ship they begin to realize that the ship rests on an unheard-of manifest zone between the world and the dream world of Dark Quor.

    Stealing Three Angles of Storytelling

    This investigative model steals from three angles of storytelling from three sources of fiction; two movies and a video game. First, we're going to model our descriptions of the borders between worlds from the movie Inception. As the characters step into the borderlands they see huge buildings seemingly built of sand. They turn and watch a life-sized model of Sharn collapse as a billion tons of sand crash down from a falling tower. They look out over the sea only to see see a stretch of blue-gray sand swirling in ethereal breezes and crawling with powerful and tormented sorrowsworn. The dream-like state of this borderland can be fueled with the strange twisted nature of the dreamscapes in Inception. We can, if we want, even play with the dilations of time between layers of the dreamscape if we wish. Perhaps the characters spend days, months, or even years in the dreamscape only to return just moments from when they left the real world.

    As the characters explore the ship, they come across clues. They find a severed and torn hand on the ground. They find bloody handprints on bars of a doorway meant to prevent a mutinous crew from reaching their captain. They find a strange three-bladed dagger forged by the Sulatar drow. They find a scrap of the contract between Leto Skalle, the captain of the Northern Wind, and the Tharashk dragonmarked explorer who would locate a sought-after Xen'drik ruin and the mysterious power contained within it.

    We could reveal these clues in reverse order, as in the movie Memento. First, we see Leto Skalle's mercenaries removing their treasure from the hull of the Northern Wind while sealing up the remainder of the crew (including the characters) with the ghouls who have taken over the ship. Next the characters learn of the fate of the captain of the ship as the mutinous crew attempts to capture and eat him. Next they learn of the Sulatar drow attack on the expedition, an attempt to return what was stolen from the ruins. Next they find themselves in the ruins itself, drawing a huge Eberron dragonshard from a black-iron vault kept in the center of the giant ziggurat. Next they locate the ziggurat itself before being attacked by ankhegs. Next they find themselves at the mysterious dock on Xen'drik where an old hag curses them and hands them a scarred coin. Next they find themselves on the docks of Sharn negotiating their journey with the same Leto Skalle who, months later, would leave them to their deaths.

    Each step happens in reverse order, giving the characters (and the players) a piece of the mystery. They learn of the end before they get to the beginning. Only when they reach the beginning do they have the whole picture.

    This can all take place in the first person. As in Return of the Obra Dinn, the characters witness the situation themselves. The dreamscape of Dal Quor pushes them into these scenes where they must defend themselves from ghouls, cannibal mutineers, murderous shadow assassin drow, giant wraiths defending the shard, and ankheg defenders of the ziggurat. The characters feel the press of the scarred coin in their hand. They bear first-hand witness to the fated agreement between the crew of the Northern Wind, the Finders Guild, and Leto Skalle. They see it all.

    Ensuring Player Agency

    It's tricky to ensure that dream-based investigations still give the players agency over the story. Because these dreamscapes often look at past events, our instinct is to ensure the characters don't change the past. Aside from the biggest events taking place in the past — the things already true in the current world — we might let them change the past and use it to shift the current and future story in ways that were already not solidified.

    For example, as the characters are swept through the dreamscape realm of Dal Quor in our Eberron game, they witness an expedition in Xen'drik recovering a huge Eberron dragonshard kept in a vault within an arcane giant ziggurat. The giant wraith guardian of the shard (a wraith with double hit points and two attacks instead of one) animates and attacks. The character's can't actually prevent the expedition from getting the shard; the shard is already in the possession of the campaign's villain in the current day; but the characters have agency to destroy the wraith however they wish including dropping the huge black iron sarcophagus lid on the giant's skull head; shattering it and leaving an artifact intact in the actual present. Like the fortune telling scene in Curse of Strahd, we can use the unexpected discoveries in the dreamscape investigation to build the story in the future before it has been determined and make it all fit well in the story.

    Pitfalls of Dream Sequences

    Running dreams in D&D requires careful work. Many people hate both dreams and flashbacks in fiction for good reasons. Dreams and flashbacks don't actually move the story forward. Things don't happen. Things in the real world aren't moving forward. Doing something in a dream isn't really doing anything at all.

    Thus, when we run D&D games in which the characters partake in a dream, make it really valuable. Make it matter. The characters have to acquire knowledge they need, and the players want, so the accomplishment is there.

    In our borderland dreamscape between the world and Dal Quor, things can be real. The characters can actually acquire the three-bladed glaive carried by the drow shadow assassins. The characters can hold the scarred coin in their hand. They can learn valuable information that can discredit Leto Skalle in the eyes of the Aurum or make him the enemy of the Finder's Guild and House Tharashk.

    Most of all, things matter. Every clue the characters learn has to matter. We need to continually ask ourselves "so what?" every time we build out a scene or offer a piece of information. Why will the players care? Why will it be worth their time to struggle through battles they know aren't real? What can they gain that makes it worth the effort? This is important in every scene in D&D but its particularly important in dream sequences or historical flashbacks, even if our approach is cool and edgy.

    A Unique Model for Investigation

    These ideas are one possible way to build an adventure around investigation. Instead of making skill checks and revealing clues, what if every piece of evidence teleported the characters to the scene and they act in the scene first hand to see what happened? What if they put together each piece of the puzzle into the full picture? What if they could talk to people now dead? What if they could stare from the bow of a ship embedded in the sands of dreams, watching as the world of yesterday literally collapses as time moves forward?

    Stepping into the world of dreams gives us the freedom to tell fantastic stories outside the bounds of the realities set in our fantasy worlds. With a careful touch, such an adventure can be one remembered for a lifetime.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Support Sly Flourish by using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or dice from Easy Roller Dice.

    Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.

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

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