The Tidequeller

Busy busy. Work Work. GMing GMing. Blog Post!

I like Dark Souls. One of my favorite things the game does is give every item in it a story, or a small portion of a large story. It’s colored my view of how I include magical items in my fantasy games. In my most recent campaign I have handed out a handful of magical items, either from.

 

Magic items shouldn’t just be +1 swords of stabbening. They should have history and more importantly magic items should have purpose. There’s a reason it has the properties it does, they are tools that perform very specific functions. They could be equivalent to Weapons of Mass Destruction or Defenses of a Particular Kind or more simply a Maguffin that moves the Story Along.  I’ve made a habit of typing up Souls-like descriptions for these items, as a way to keep their place in the world in mind and to help them tell small stories as the players begin to use them. Helping tell the story of the world bit by bit without having to frontload exposition onto the players (this will be my next topic, probably.)

Surprisingly, the DnD 5e Dungeons Masters guide has some fun ways to generate a magic items backstory. Here’s some random ones I’ve created.

 

The Tidequeller – turquoise tinted dagger with a hilt of fish scales.

The Tidequeller was a weapon used in the war between the Pantheon and Yylir, when Yylir corrupted Findui’s creations to use against them.  This weapon was forged by the Smiths of Gadyran, and though it carries her blessing, it’s carrier cannot help but occasionally feel a bottomless sorrow.”

Sesquipedalian – giant’s dagger.

“A large greatsword whose proportions look slightly off, looking more like a gigantic dagger rather than a sword. It appears to be made out of pure obsidian, and flint-knapped into its current shape with small grooves and serrated edges. It’s previous owner used it to cut the tongues out of talkative giants, and when he was slain the blade was cursed through some means. At the blade’s insistence, it’s wielder is prone to speaking the tongue of giants.”

Diplomat’s Band – dull iron jewelry.

“The Bands of Passage are either rings, or bands that would go around ones wrist, very rarely a necklace. They were created and gifted to the Emissaries of the Pantheon, to provide safe travel amidst the various dangers the Pantheon had put in place. No matter the shape, they are made of plain dulled bronze.”

Potion of Invisibility – clear-syrupy flask.

 “This potion was gifted to Daham the Jackal by his patrons. On the top of the flask around its neck is a small piece of parchment glued onto it which reads ‘For dire straits’ only. The liquid drains out of the flask like water, but its texture is similar to molasses. Upon imbibing the flask all sentient beings within eyesight of the imbiber disappear, but leaves their actual presence very much visible. Apparently the Jackal did not curry lasting favor. 

 

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The Tidequeller

New Year, New Post.

I’ve been borrowing a lot from Kevin Crawford’s games lately (shocking, I know.). Even if I don’t use the Faction system for every game I run I still structure it similarly enough. This time however I’ll be talking about adventure outlines and how the ones in Stars Without Number can be ported to any genre of game that focuses on adventurers. These outlines are useful because it allows you a basic structure to get your ideas down without having to plan linearly and most importantly it allows you to plan lots of adventures which is useful in sandbox play.

 

Instead of prepping only for the upcoming adventure, I can use the outline to prep lots of adventures in case the PC’s decide to do a 180 and go somewhere completely different. Of course these outlines aren’t as in depth as more fleshed out adventures would be, and porting them to games like Dungeons and Dragons takes a bit of work due to how it purports to balance encounters. Stars Without Number doesn’t have that problem as the game itself isn’t really about “balance” and the stat blocks are fairly simple to memorize or even come up with on the spot. For DnD we’ll have to work at it a bit more at the end of the post I’ll provide my method of handling it.

 

The Format.

 

Adventure Name: I like to name my adventures, as it helps me stick to a theme or idea.

Location: The main locations where it’ll take place, where they pick up the rumors, where the adventure is, other locations the PC’s MIGHT go to.

Seed: The details residing which NPC needs help, or what impetus the PC’s would have to get involved. You can include multiple seeds here that all point to the same thing.

Friends: The NPC’s whose goals line up with the PC’s goals, or NPC’s who are friendly to the PC’s.

Other NPCs: Neutral parties, bystanders, shopkeepers, bartenders, that kind of thing. I just list their as well as 3 single word details about them. This is just an outline.

Complications: Here’s where you brainstorm what kinds of bad things can happen or what obstacles will be in the way of PC’s. What enemies might show up, hazards, traps, ambushes, deceptions, bureaucratic red tape, etc.

Things: This is one of my favorite ones, it’s simply background (unless the players pull it into the foreground.) It’s things that are going on in the area, or aspects of the place the PC’s are in, or the people they are around. If the PC’s walk into a new place I use these details to set the scene as they walk into a new city or town, or an old ruin lost to time.

Places: This is a followup to locations, it is all the minor places the PC’s might go. Bars for information, the castle they get sent to if they get arrested. That kind of thing.

Governance: PC’s are always getting up to trouble, and so for me it’s important to note what will happen if they start breaking rules. It’s also useful to note here what the governance IS and what they are DOING.

Rewards: Either in terms of payment for an adventure from an NPC, or the kinds of stuff they find along the way. Or just raw XP and gold.

Enemies: This is where all the antagonists go. Either in name or their minions. People whose goals are against the PC’s or their allies, or who are against the PC themselves for whatever reason. I usually put their goals in the complication section but it can go here too. Here is the tricky part, in Stars Without Number I just put normal statblocks here, but for DnD I use Kobold Fight club to come up with groups of enemies the PC’s might encounter based on the details we have filled out before followed by what ratings the groups are for the PC’s based on what system I’m using.  SWN doesn’t really have a rating system for its bad guys so I just have to guess based on the damage they do. Remember this is just an outline, something to springboard your ideas into more fully fleshed out adventures or dungeons depending on what threads the PCs tug on. I play mostly theater of the mind however, and so using these outlines is more often than not enough to provide a great session.

 

Examples from my DnD game.

 

Adventure: Archaeological Discoveries

Location: Zerinnth, the surrounding area. The warrens underneath. Dahams Stronghold that is

located in an old Maalati fortress.

Expected Levels: Level 3

Seed: The ruins of an ancient Shaper temple has just been discovered by the PC’s.

Multiple parties express interest, especially the Church of the Shaper who say that this

city should be declared officially the main holy site for which all the Tribes and believers

should pay tribute. Additionally Daham the Jackal is still around, intending to ramp up his

efforts against the PC’s. The PC’s will make their own goal here, pursue The Jackal.

Handle the political turmoil between the Church and the State here. Shareen and Saratavi

seek the party out in order to inform them of the suspected location of Daham the Jackal,

whom has been disruptive to the Maalat tribe.

Friends: Doctor Gregori, William One-Eye, Shareen (female, dark hair, Maalati tattoos,

no-nonsense.) the visitor from the Maalat tribe accompanied by an Okeshir apprentice

Saratavi, (female, long-dirty brown hair, curious, naive, esoteric knowledge.) Vasumangla

the Azer trapped in the ruins of the Shaper.

Other NPCs: Nisil the Magistrate Superior (female, elven, warm outside, cold

underneath.) Ober the Magistrate Interior (square jawed balding tough man.) Yylsalrin The

Magistrate Exterior (brutish female, short hair cut but beautiful.) Mauldis the New Temple

of the Shaper leader (charismatic, young, well dressed, short cut dark hair).

Complications: Daham sends more assassins. The church causes a ruckus. More

kidnappings. Some minor elementals start to appear in the city and start a ruckus. The

Fortress of the Maalati is far away. Taking 3 days travel to reach. (9 hexes) (DC 10

Survival to not get lost, DC 15 to avoid a random encounter.) The party encounters the

bandits wandering the desert.

 

Things: A fire elemental appears from the Shaper, burning part of the bazaar. Resurgence of the faithful to the Shaper, protests. More trade caravans get hit. A beggar becomes target for public shaming.

 

Places: The Merciful Efreet, Zerinnth Garrison HQ, The Well. Slums area being turned

into dig sites. The abandoned Maalati fortress (known to them as The Old Trials) where

Daham is currently residing (can be seen in the distance from the main road, at the top it

gives a great view of the deserts, surrounded by dunes.)

 

Governance: The Zerinnthian Hegemony is not happy with the recent developments,

trying to suppress populace from digging up their own homes for rare artifacts or digging in

the streets.

 

Rewards: Bounty for Daham is 2500gp.

 

Enemy Groups: 1x Fire Elemental MM pg 115 (VD)

5x Magmin MM pg 212 (H)

1x Bandit Captain (Daham), 1x Thug (H)

1x Scout 1x Spy pg 349 1x Thug  pg 350 1 x Acolyte pg 342 (H)

12 x Bandits mm pg 343 (H)

1x Giant Hyena pg 326 3x Hyena pg 331 1x Scout pg 349 (M)

 

What Now?

 

Now comes the more in depth methods of adventure prep, which can be short but more importantly are informed by the ideas written in the outline. I would write my own but honestly it’s been covered more thoroughly and better than I could ever do by The Alexandrian 

New Year, New Post.

Slowin it down

Now’s the season where my schedule at work begins to get a bit crazy. So the posts will slow down a bit until the New Year, and I’m ideally moving after that.

It’s not going anywhere, don’t worry your pretty little head about that.

Til next time..

Slowin it down

We continue to chase the Sun

Last week for my DnD group I ran a marathon of a session, lasting about 6 hours. It was great fun and at the end of it I was extremely happy with the quality of the roleplay from my players, and while I fludged up the combat a little bit (I’m not the best at running 5e combat, especially on Roll20.) it still went really well. It’s inspired me to write about something I’ve seen in the bunch of games I’ve played in and ran myself, the Hammer and Nail Problem.

If you don’t know what I mean, here is an explanation from Wikipedia:

 The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow’s hammer, Gavel or a golden hammer[a] is an over-reliance on a familiar tool; as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”[1].”

To see where this crops up, let’s look at the character sheet for DnD 5th Edition.

5E D&D Basic – Character Sheet (Form)

Notice anything? Most of the sheet is dedicated to things that are used in combat, with a section dedicated to skills and a space on the top-right for your Personality/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws. It is nice those things are there to keep players referencing character traits to help roleplay, but in my experience it rarely comes up. Stats come into play in combat, as do saves, HP, AC, the space to put your attacks. In fact most spells in the game are tailored towards a combat use.

“So what? Isn’t that what Dungeons and Dragons is about, hitting monsters with swords and spells?” you might say, and to that I say…you’re right. DnD is absolutely about those things. It works best when the game is mostly about dungeon crawling and using the pointy-end on monsters. But unless all your players are strict wargamers then the game shouldn’t JUST be about those things, and if you aren’t careful the game can drift in that direction. When it looks like all you have is hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Compounding that is the fact that human beings are creatures that crave variety. Unless you are on the spectrum you probably don’t enjoy literally doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again, it gets stale. Spice up your game and invite your players to think about what they can do besides clubbing things on the head each time. Here’s some tricks to doing so.

Let a player get away with a stupid plan that (probably) should not work

 

In my last session, a character wanted to use their animal handling skill to defuse some aggressive tigers. Now, combat had already started, but this person was driven by the fact that she didn’t want to harm cute kitties (I empathize.) So she rolled her animal handling skill, got a 23! In my version of the fiction this totally should not work, given that the tigers were raised and taught to be man-eaters. However in the spirit this post I met her in the middle. I allowed it to work but only for a certain amount of rounds, and the other tigers were still oncoming. On the other players turns they took cues from the first and decided to try their hand at it. Some of them failed, but now this combat has turned from using their swords to stab tigers, to surviving an onslaught of beasts in order to calm them down and avoid killing them if possible. It says something about the characters that they’d be willing to sustain major injury in order to solve the situation this way, it’d be much easier to Use Sword on Kitten. Alternatively if the players come up with an articulate a well thought out plan..let it work with minimal rolling. This concept is basically the tried and true GM-advice of saying “Yes, and..” but I prefer it phrased the other way if a player’s idea is a little too stupid. The “No…but.”. Then again if I feel like it will shake up the experience a little bit I might even let a hyper-stupid plan work.

Present situations that cannot be solved by using swords.

 

This one simply involves baking in some variety in your campaign and/or dungeon. The Five Room Dungeon method is a quick and easy way of doing this. Once you’ve done it a few times you will see that you can really do any combination of the item’s listed here and even expand on them. Avoid a Door Kickers scenario, where every room has bad guys sitting in it waiting for the party to open the door. That particular scenario can be fun, but not when it’s all you’re doing for 3+ hours.

One thing I particularly hate though is outright puzzles. Often times it plays out in the same way as it does in adventure games, “Guess exactly what the designer was thinking or you can’t progress”. So heed the advice in the Five Room Dungeon method, “puzzles” don’t mean to solve a riddle necessarily, or a block puzzle. It means any challenge that cannot be overcome with combat. Along the same lines as using encounters that can’t be overcome with combat necessarily the other thing is to have the goal of the party in a combat to not simply slay the opponent. Grab the MacGuffin and run out of the room before the overpowering threat kills you. Defend an NPC/PC as they try to complete a ritual against a horde of weaklings. Run through a gauntlet of bad guys to escape a crumbling tower. If you are playing with players who are slow to adapt to this kind of stuff then it’s best if you make liberal use of foreshadowing or telegraph what is going to happen. If they don’t…well I guess the rocks fall on their head.

Give the antagonists a sense of self-preservation.

 

Unless the antagonists the PC’s are struggling against are actually mindless (gelatinous cubes, golems, robots, most undead.) they probably will not fight to the absolute bitter end and will try to plead with the party, run away,  pay them off, beg forgiveness or opt for being taken prisoner as opposed to an immediate death sentence. This might not work if the party has already killed multiple people who have tried this tactic on them. Then it’s reasonable to say that their bloody reputation has caused almost every enemy they come across to fight to the death because they know they won’t be spared. Hopefully it never gets to that point.

Not only does this make the conclusions of combat more exciting due to unpredictability, it also adds some dimensions to the bad guys. He might be the leader of the cultists who has gone around kidnapping people and sacrificing them..but he’s still rational. He would prefer imprisonment and the chance of escape rather than the surefire death should he fight til the bitter end.

The TL;DR version

 

  • If the plan is stupid but might have some remote chance of success, let them try it.
  • If the plan is sound and well articulated, let them try it with minimal rolling.
  • Present scenarios and threats that can’t be solved with swords
  • Puzzles suck.
  • Help the party establish goals that might include not simply killing stuff. Short or long term.
  • Give combat itself alternative “win” conditions other than dropping Baddies to 0 HP.
  • Make Antagonists somewhat intelligent or at least self-preserving, unless fictionally it makes sense for them not to be.

Til next time..

 

We continue to chase the Sun

Let’s make a deal…

 

I started working to create some fun tables for Arcane Afflictions for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. Lots of these inspirations from the roguelike game Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup‘s mutations. In addition there are some inspired by the bad things that happen to people in the show Fringe.  Rather than just give a list of fluff I tried to develop some mechanical reinforcement of the affliction itself. Keep in mind these are NOT necessarily balanced in the numeric sense and if they were its for low level adventuring (around 1-3.) And when the list refers to a saving throw assume the DC is something like 10-15 or whatever you decide.

The Arcane Afflictions Table

Let’s make a deal…

As we’re going down – not alone.

I think there is common problem among many tabletop RPG fans, both players and GM’s alike. In my experience a lot of players tend to -overthink- their characters rather than the opposite, and I’ve experienced this lately in my DnD game. It becomes very hard as a GM to piece together how or why 4 different PC’s should be adventuring together when they invent their own multi-paragraph backstory. One guy is a Prince of the Elven lands who is on a pilgrimage to prove his nobility. One is a ex-pit fighter out to kill his old master. One is a chaotic stupid Paladin who wants everything done by the book and the last is a thief who confuses his occupation for preoccupation.

None of these things are wrong necessarily to have as part of your characters background, it’s just that none of those things answer the question of why you are together in the now, and why will you be in the near future. Leaving room in your characters backstory for aspects of the setting to tie them to the world, as well as other player characters creates a richer and more cohesive narrative to the game.

This is why I always advocate group character creation with a bonds system similar to how Powered by the Apocalypse games do it. Now this isn’t always possible and some games have their own methods of subverting the “You All Meet in a Tavern” trope. At the very least establishing vague bonds like “Me and Rob’s PC characters served in the same army.” or “This person did me a favor, one I must repay with service.” or my favorite “This person is my brother/sister, I need to adventure with her so he/she doesn’t end up killed.” No need to get specific yet about what the army was, what the favor was, or the quality of the sibling relationship. Adding layers and depth to these bonds will come as the game progresses.

From the GM perspective though, we (and perhaps by “we” I’m referring to “me”.) tend to over-create the world. I’ve posted already how I think pitching a setting to your players should go but here’s some stuff to keep in mind.. Keep it to as few words as possible. Use any and all cultural or fan-touchstones you can to paint a picture of what you are thinking of, avoid conjuring up something that requires tons of exposition. Leave blank spaces, either on the map or in the metaphysical truths of your world for the players to inject some ideas. This is why I particularly loathe certain canned settings, (coughForgottenRealmscough.) because much of the enjoyment of the setting comes from everyone having similar levels of knowledge, which in my experience almost never happens. Someone who knows more about Forgotten Realms can make a more entrenched and “deep” character than those who don’t. Also I just hate Forgotten Realms so maybe I am biased.

Another thing is be willing to kill your ideas that your players don’t like, additionally to kill plot points/NPC’s you cherish. If you aren’t willing to do that then you are treading dangerously down the path of Thomas the Train.

Maybe all of this just sounds like “Just play Fate/Dungeon World.” and that’s fair I guess. But like with a lot of things with the hobby, a lot of games don’t do a good job or even -attempt- to solve the “You all meet in a tavern.” problem with any kind of rigor. But like the theme of this post, I’ll leave some blanks and let you decide the rest.

As we’re going down – not alone.