Passive Perception in D&D – A bit of a rant

Is a door hidden here?

As you walk down the forest path, you feel the warmth from the sun, and hear the birds singing. You have been walking most of the day passing small ponds, bushes with berries and meadows covered in small flowers. The trail you have been following does seem rarely traversed, as you have encountered no other beings except for a rabbit, that crossed your path. Near evening you a reach a lovely little roadside inn.

As is obvious the players failed their passive perception roll and did not notice the hidden group of orcs guarding their ill-gotten gains including a treasure map to a nearby dungeon. If you the players had chosen to have a higher passive perception.

This post might be a bit of a rant, but as I am writing these things, and I am in part following the discussions regarding the upcoming Pathfinder 2nd edition and their revisions including new approaches to perception, and it part I have more or less concluded Curse of Strahd and am running the module Ravenloft instead. Comparing the different versions of the Castle Ravenloft text regarding among other things the use of perception and passive perception.

Passive Perception (from D&D 3rd and Pathfinder) is average roll for perception, that the DM can use to see, if the characters notice things even though the players are not asking – and that kind of makes sense, as it is tedious to have the players ask ‘do I notice something now? How about now? Now?’ all the time, and yet their characters might at any moment be passing a secret door in the dungeon or a hidden creature in the wilderness. And asking the players at random moments to roll perception is the same as informing them of something been unseen – you might as well just ask them, if they want to investigate their surroundings.

(When using published adventures the author has determined the DC for the hidden objects, but this does not change the fact, that the passive perception mechanic creates a curious situation, where either the characters do not notice the hidden objects, or it is always the same player noticing things, namely the player who chose that function in the party (and since it is so, perhaps it should be front and center in the character creation: “Choose this class, if you want to be the character who notices hidden things”)?)

Furthermore, passive perception has its another weakness, as the removes a choice from the players and puts it solely in the hands of the GM. Passive perception is a set value, which means that the DM is actually the one to determine, whether or not something is noticed. For instance, a party with passive perception of 13, 14, 15 and 16 is walking down a forest path:

  • Hiding DC 13: The orcs are hidden with difficulty 13, and the DM informs the party, that they all notice a group of orcs hidden in the bushes.
  • Hiding DC 16: The orcs are hidden with difficulty 16, and the DM informs the player, whose character has passive perception of 16, that her character notices a gang of orcs hiding the bushes.
  • Hiding DC 17: The orcs are hidden with difficulty 17, and the DM does not inform the players of the hidden orcs, and the characters continues the trail to the local inn.

The hidden orcs van be replaced with secrets doors or other elements, that are kept of out of sight.

The issue with the Passive Perception mechanic is, that it is solely the DM who decides, whether something hidden is noticed or not – and only the illusion of a simulated setting hides the flaws in this approach, the illusion being that the orcs in hiding and secret doors follows a set of rules that is balanced against the passive perception of the characters, but the same logic allows the DM to include extra well-hidden secret doors or orcs exceptionally skilled in hiding. Again, this leaves it to the DM to decide, if the players find something or not, and removes any choices for the player.

The core design issue behind this is the fact, that in the medium of roleplaying games the players and the characters share the view of the world, and what the characters see, the players can act upon, but the players can also act upon the signals, that the DM sends them (a signal being for instance ‘everybody, roll for perception’), whereas in the other mediums, movies for instance, the view of the setting is not the same for characters as for the audience, and the film maker can reveal for the audience the clues, that the characters missed (and in theater, the actors can play with this, when they speak to the audience about stuff, that their characters missed, but the audience saw).

In other media, the storyteller can reveal to the audience, if the characters missed something, and thus the hidden and unfound object is still a part of the story, whereas in roleplaying games, the hidden and unfound does not enter the shared fiction, and objects outside the shared fiction does not exist (there is no difference between a hidden door never found and a non-existent hidden door).

This is the issue, that hidden objects are struggling with in roleplaying games. The nature of hidden objects is to be found, but how do you find hidden things, if you do not know to search for them?

This is it for now. Next up is a closer look at the nature of hidden things and how to reveal them.

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Gaming, no time for blogging

It is quiet on the blog for the last few months, though my gaming life has been far from quiet, and running two blogs, one in my native language and one in English is time consuming.

So instead of adding new posts or translating more material, if I have been running Curse of Strahd, which ended in an unforeseen TPK in the Amber Temple, when the party encountered a trap, and since the whole purpose of the campaign was to get to explore Castle Ravenloft, and I’ve dug out my old modules, Ravenloft and House of Strahd (comparing the texts of Ravenloft, House of Strahd and Curse of Strahd is actually quite interesting), and we have started playing module I6.

My other group have switched to playing Traveler, and we are having fun exploring the trade and traveling rules, while working our way towards the stellar kingdom of Drinax, where we plan to chase pirates.

My irregular group have almost completed the DCC module The People of the Pit using the D&D 5th rules set (My traveler group went through using the DCC rules), and I have begun a fourth group, where we have set out to play through Tomb of Annihilation placing the campaign in the Mystara setting and focusing on the hex crawl aspects.

I am in the midst of translating one of the early Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) modules to English, and it should be ready late March, but other projects such as my second playthrough of Pandemic Legacy Season 2 (we bought both the black and the yellow box), is taking up some time, as is podcasting, as my regular podcast on board games (in Danish) is soon going to supplemented with a podcast on roleplaying games (also in Danish).

This post is mostly to get back into writing in English and posting here again, and next up I am planning to have a look at things hidden in RPGs, perception, secret doors and such.


Unstable Potions – d20 strange and unexpected effects for your D&D potions

Magic is tricky business, and you cannot always trust your magic items to turn out, as you would expect. Small variations in ingredients and the intonation of magic words or perhaps exposure to magical auras and weird mysteries, and suddenly your potion of healing, growth, giant strength, flying or invisibility does work quite the way, you had hoped. Prepare yourself for unstable potions!

Here is a table of 20 effects, you can add to potions in your D&D game, in order to surprise and challenge your players. The rule descriptions are kept somewhat D&D agnostic and though based on the D&D 5th rules, they can easily be converted to your favorite version of D&D be it 3rd edition, AD&D or Labyrinth Lord. The table was originally designed for the Danish RPG The Hinterlands (Hinterlandet), and is here translated into English and adapted for D&D.

1d20                   Title        Effect

  1. Viscous – the thick liquid flows slowly like syrup, and it takes two rounds to drink the potion.
  2. Elusive – the liquid turns into vapor once it is exposed to the air, and the imbiber must drink it fast. The character must perform a Dexterity Check DC 10. If it fails a part of the potion evaporated, and the character only gains half the effect or half the duration.
  3. Explosive – the liquid begins to boil and surge, and must be drunk immediately. The character must perform a Dexterity Check DC 5. If it fails, the potion explodes in a shower of shards between the imbibers hands for 1d6 damage, and the potion is lost.
  4. Disgusting Taste – the liquid tastes awful, and the imbiber finds it difficult to consume. The character must perform a Constitution Check DC 7 or vomit the potion out losing its effect.
  5. Congealing – the potion constantly crystallizes and must be shaked vigorously into order to return it to its liquid state. The character must shake it for one round, before it can be imbibed, and the player must simulate shaking the potion flask.
  6. Slow working – it takes 1d4 rounds before the potion’s magical effect occurs.
  7. Smelly – The imbiber becomes foul smelling while under the influence of the potion. While the potion lasts, the imbiber releases a cloud of foul stench every time the character performs a physical activity (i.e. making an attack, jumping, running etc.). The stench results in disadvantage (or a -4 penalty) on social activities.
  8. Hunger – the imbiber becomes ravenous, once the effect of the potion runs out. Until a meal is consumed (costs a ration), the imbiber suffers disadvantage (0r a -4 penalty) to strenuous activities (including attacking).
  9. Sleep inducing – the potion makes the imbiber drowsy, and once the effect runs out, the drinker risks falling asleep spontaneously for the next three hours. Once pr. hour the character must succeed a Constitution Saving Throw 10 (or Saving Throw vs Poison) or suddenly fall asleep (does not happen, during fights or other vigorous activities).
  10. Exhausting – the potion’s magic drains the imbiber. Once the effect runs out, the character begins yawning heavily and feels drowsy. For the next hour the character will doze off, if he or she is not moving about constantly or being kept awake by others.
  11. Cooling – the potion drains bodyheat from the drinker, who becomes cold to touch and briefly leaves rime on glass and other objects touched, while the potion lasts. Once the potion has ended, the drinker shivers with cold and has disadvantage (or a -4 penalty) on physical activities and activities requiring concentration, until wrapped in blankets, sat in front of a bonfire or some other warming effect.
  12. Chatty – the potion loosens the imbibers tongue, and the imbiber is constantly small talking, while under the potion’s effect. The player must constantly chat or small talk, and if the player is quiet for one minute, the potion’s effect immediately ends.
  13. Roaring – the imbiber is unable to whisper and finds it difficult not to yell instead of talking, while influenced by the potion. The player must speak loudly, when speaking, and if the player does not speak loudly, the potion’s effect immediately ends.
  14. Whispering – the potion limits the voice of the character, who can only whisper. If the player does not whisper, when speaking, the potion’s effect immediately ends.
  15. Balance – the potion’s effect only works as long as the character is focused and in balance. The player must balance a d20 on the back of their hand, and if the die falls off, the potion’s effect ends immediately.
  16. Taunt – While under the influence of the potion, the character struggles with not coming up with taunts and insults. Every time a conversation is initiated, or the character is contradicted, the character must succeed a Charisma Check DC 6 or immediately throw a taunt.
  17. Restless – The imbiber cannot rest or sit still, while under the influence of the potion. The player must be moving around, and if the player is not in motion, the potion’s effect ends.
  18. Blood infusion – the powerful magic in the potion infuses into the blood of the drinker, whose blood now functions as a scaled down version of the potion. If other creatures drink the fresh blood (for 1d4 damage) of the imbiber, they gain the effects of the potion (but the duration is at most 10 minutes). This last while the potion lasts or until the character is killed.
  19. Echo – 24 hours later, the potion reactivates itself and the imbiber once more gains the effect of the potion.
  20. Secondary effect – 1d6 rounds after the potion ends, the strange magics of the potion activates the effect of a new, beneficiary magical potion, as if the imbiber had drunk another potion.

Some of the effects of the potions was also used in the module Grave of the Heartless, and several effects are based on the idea, that some of the effects should be more than a modifier, they should be things, the player role plays.

I have uploaded the list as PWYW pdf on RPGDriveThru:

I hope you have fun tweaking potions at your table.


Entering the Grave of the Heartless May Break Your Heart

A curse is upon the land. An ancient barrow has been looted, and the dead has exacted their revenge. Brave heroes, who dare step onto Death’s doorstep are needed to lift he curse and restore order.

Welcome to the sixth adventure translated from Danish to English in the line of Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands). The module has been adapted to Labyrinth Lord, and can be played with most D&D becmi inspired retro clones or otherwise easily adapted to your favorite D&D-game.

Grave of the Heartless is originally from the convention HammerCon, and it was made to challenge the players with a dungeon, that was supernatural rather than natural. Even if dungeons require a stretch of imagination to accept, many are somewhat naturalistic with stone walls, patrolling goblins, kobolds digging mines and orcs setting up ambushes. Inspired by the local barrows near my childhood home, I decided to use a barrow as the starting point for the dungeon, and then create it as a border region between this world and the land of the dead, where the other realm suffuse the nature of the dungeon creating a slightly unreal place. That made it quite fun writing the adventure, but one of the challenges with ‘undead dungeons’ is adding creatures for the players to interact with. Zombies, ghouls and skeletons rarely do anything beyond killing heroes, and a whole dungeon of that is not interesting, so a way to add talkative creatures was needed, and is a central part of the challenge.

The adventure introduces a powerful NPC, who can become an unusual ally, and to a certain degree sets up a gate to another realm for the characters to guard and use, or perhaps just keep secret until they need it. An interesting part of the adventure is, that there is no grand villain or boss monster at the end of the dungeon, but there is a powerful opponent. The adventure also easily functions as a sequel to Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart and fits easily into the storyline from the adventure The Flooded Temple.

You can find Grave of the Heartless at RPGDriveThru: Grave of the Heartless.


Tomb of Annihilation – Captains of Chult

Large stretches of Chult are coasts, and with Port Nyanzaru being a port, it is an obvious choice to reach distant parts of Chult by sailing along the coast rather than braving the jungles or the sluggish rivers – but ships are expensive, so how does explorers in Tomb of Annihilation get there? By hiring transport on a ship, and in the dingy taverns of Port Nyanzaru, there are captains who offer their services for a reasonable fee.

I really like the concept of guides in Tomb of Annihilation. It may seem obvious, and yet it is so rarely done this well in wilderness adventures. Expanding upon the idea, thus allowing us to increase the scope of expeditions into the wilderness, I added Experts for Hire as mentioned in my previous post, and now I have Captains for hire. An assortment of captains, each with their own little kernel of a potential adventure, and a series of random events ranging from bad weather to weird and inexplicable phenomena. Captains of the Coasts of Chult can now be found at DM’s Guild. My previous Expedition Crew supplement was Experts of Chult, and I am considering adding a third one.

I am running my own Tomb of Annihilation set in the Mystara setting, and there may be hidden a few references to that setting among the captains, but easter eggs seems to a part of D&D 5th edition, so it is merely keeping with the style.

 


Tomb of Annihilaton – Experts of Chult

Tomb of Annihilation is an interesting campaign module, not just because of the modern attempt to create a hex crawl adventure but also because of some the tools the adventure contains. One of these tools are the Guides. They are NPCs with well-developed personalities, quirks and secrets, and not just that they are set-up with nice handouts, making them easy to present for the players and keep in mind.

The guides may not be a revolutionary thing, but they are still something I have not seen in other hex crawl adventures. Some adventures may suggest hiring a guide and even add a few details, but having a roster and letting the players choose between these set-ups is quite inspiring.

For my ToA campaign (which is set in the Mysrara setting) I am planning on running larger expeditions with more henchmen, and thus I wanted to add more NPCs for hire, and they did not all need to be Guides. Some could be experts with valuable skills, and thus I set up a bunch a small selection of Experts for Hire. The Experts of Chult – which now can be found at DM’s Guild.

Using henchmen, that are more than anonymous torchbearers and sword caddies, is also an opportunity to add role-playing situations to an otherwise eventless trek through the wilderness. Travelling through the wilderness may present the players with obstacles and challenges, but many are dealing with savage beasts or difficult terrain, but many does not include beings to interact with, and having NPCs jog along means there continuously will be beings to interact with. The experts add skills or bonuses to skills, but getting access to these require interacting with them, and that creates opportunities for role-playing.

Experts of Chult is the first of my Expedition Crew supplements to Tomb of Annihilation. The next one is Captains of the Coasts of Chult, as seafaring along the coasts will likewise be a part of my campaign.


Xanathar’s Guide to Everything including Easter Eggs

So I went and added Xanathar’s Guide to Everything to my library, which I intend to mine for ideas, when running my tweaked Tomb of Annihilation campaign – and lo and behold, if not a reference to an old favorite D&D-module sprang forth during the reading of the book.

D&D 5th edition contains several call backs to earlier D&D-material, for instance they happily namedrop older settings in their campaign books even though the default setting is Forgotten Realms, but they also add small touches here and there referencing various characters, details, events and such from older modules. For instance the Monster Manual in the goblin section, they reference ‘Bree-Yark’ from module B2 Caves of Chaos, and in the Players Handbook a table of random items contains wines from module B7 Rahasia. And being both a D&D becmi and a Mystaran fan this warms my heart. Likewise I was pleasently surprised, when I discovered that Xanathar’s Guide to Everything caries a reference to B4 The Lost City.

In the DM section the chapter on traps includes a deadly trap found in the Lost City of Cynicideans near the graves of queen Zenobia and king Alexander. These details are all taken from module B4, including the trap. I may not get Mystara back in published form, but at least I still get some references to some of my favorite stuff.

Any other references to the B-modules in the D&D 5th edition material?


Tomb of Annihilation – Using the Mystara Setting

This fall’s great adventure for D&D is the Tomb of Annihilation, and I picked up the book with some interest. I like the idea of a hex crawl having the players to travel deep into jungles searching for lost cities and ancient ruins, but without finding everything on their first go. Instead, they will have to make multiple journeys mapping the jungles bit by bit, and between expeditions they have a home base in a large harbor town.

I like this. I do not care much for the backstory with the curse killing people, who has been resurrected and making the raising of people impossible. It is a fine, grandiose plot, but not one, that I care for, and neither does the jungles of Chult nor Forgotten Realms have my interest. That is mostly because, when it comes to D&D settings, my favorite is The Known World or Mystara. So, I want to run this campaign, and I want to run it in the Mystaran setting.

But where to place this wonderful, empty hex map filled with deadly wonders and ancient secrets?

An obvious choice would be the major hex crawl adventure for D&D becmi, namely The Isle of Dread from module X1 The Isle of Dread (1980), which is an obvious choice, and I could simply just use the map from X1 with the adventure from Tomb of Annihilation, but I have already explored The Isle of Dread, and it could be interesting to try some other area.

Tomb of Annihilation itself suggests The Savage Coast, but they are probably not thinking of module X9 The Savage Coast (1985) but rather the (sub)-setting later published for AD&D 2nd edition The Savage Coast (based on the expanded material from the articles Voyage of the Princess Ark), but even though the region is called ‘savage’ it is far from unexplored or inhabited, and adapting Tomb of Annihilation to this region would require a lot of work, if I want it to stay true to the Mystaran setting.

There is, however, an interesting alternative. South of the Sea of Dread lies the continent Davania, and though parts have scarcely been colonized by Thyatis, it is at least from the view of The Known World unexplored lands, that are vaguely known, and near the Serpent’s Peninsula on the opposite side of The Serpent’s Sound the continent of Davania is somewhat shaped reminiscent of Chult area from the ToA book, which means that I can use the map from ToA without it being too far off, and that saves me time.

The coastal city being used as a base in ToA will be replaced with its Mystaran equivalent – there is actually one on the continent of Davania in the right place – called Kastellos. The name could indicate a Thyatian origin, but its position is just next to the Yawdlom Divinarchy, which means that I can keep large parts of the material from ToA and add materiale from the box set Champions of Mystara, which describes The Serpent’s Peninsula and The Yawdlom Divinarchy.

Adapting ToA to Mystara

The Mystaran Tomb of Annihilation plays out in the harbor town Kastellos on the continent of Davania. The town was originally a Thyatian colony, but Thyatis was unable to maintain its control of the city, and soon a large part of the population were newcomers from the Yawdlom Divinarchy seeking adventure. The city still has a large minority of Thyatians, and both traders from the Minrothad Isles and Thyatis pass by regularly keeping Kastellos in the orbit of The Known World-region.

Besides Thyatians and Yawdloms, Kastellos is home to a thriving colony of wererats, who arrived from Karameikos, as well as a large group of skygnomes stranded here, when their skyship crashed, and they are waiting for the flying city of Serraine to pass their way again. Elves are rare, but the few that are here, are mostly forest elves from Karameikos and sea-elves from Minrothad. Dwarves are here as travelling artisans, and the few hin finding their way here, are mostly hin pirates from the coasts of The Five Shires. Small groups of tortles from the Savage Coast also call the northern coasts of Davania for home, and they can be seen in the streets of Kastellos. Davania is home to nomadic tribes of Rakasta – some are related to the Rakasta from Isle of Dread – and Lupins. This should give a hint as to which playable races will be used in the campaign.

I am right now in the process of adapting ToA to run it in the Mystaran setting. This is first post in a small series of posts about adapting ToA, and fitting its backstory and plot into the existing framework of Mystara.


Dungeon Crafting: Breaking Down Walls

Dungeons have been likened to flow charts. As in-fiction tools to structure the game leading the characters from one room to another. In one design tradition this has led to D&D 4th’s linear adventures leading the players from one combat to the next.

However, many paths through an adventure is part of the fun not just for the players but also for me as the DM, as I am not just presenting the adventure setup but playing it by adapting it to the choices, the players make. Right now, I am running two different groups through the Dungeon Crawl Classics module The People of the Pit, and a part of the charm is the different choices the players make and the different routes they pick.

Now commonly adventurers behave nicely, when exploring dungeons. They kick in doors, negotiate peacefully or violently with the inhabitants, collect treasures and then move to the next door. As they gain levels, they gain new powers such as teleport, pass wall and gaseous form allowing them to circumvent doors and walls, and soon choose their own way through the dungeon. Some dungeon designers do lot like that, and they create teleporter-immune dungeons to avoid the players’ options of circumventing the dungeon flow chart (and not wanting the players to skip to the end of the dungeon, there is a certain logic to wanting to restrict teleporting, but it is also cheats the players of using their hard-earned resources).

Yet, I find a pleasure in designing dungeons with multiple paths and multiple entrances allowing the players to choose their own approach. It also requires me to create the dungeon in such a way, that it can be explored in multiple ways. There is no guaranteed route, which means that each encounter must be able to stand on its own.

To increase the various ways a dungeon can be played, I add areas, where the players can break the walls of the dungeon flow chart. Once the map has been drawn and the rooms designated, I sometimes go back and add a detail to the map. It can be a blocked passage between two rooms, whereby I show the players the existence of a potential passage, if they decide to clear it, but it can also be a fragile brickwall, they can choose to knock down. In some dungeons factors are added to increase the chances of a wall being knocked down, it may be a room with a hill giant swinging a large club, that if the giant misses with a certain amount hits a wall and knocks a hole into it, or it is a room with an owlbear chained to the wall, and if it is provoked, it may tear its chain loose leaving a hole in the wall.

  • Choose 1-3 areas in the dungeon – after it has been populated – and mark a wall in the area as fragile

Fragile walls can be poorly constructed brick walls, thin cave walls, a worn down wall, a collapsed doorway.

A fragile section is more than a door. Doors are in active use, doors are expected to be opened, and they can be closed. Doors are expected to open. Breaking down a wall is an irrevocable change to the dungeon. It is forcing a connection on the flow chart, that wasn’t there, when you began the adventure. It is a change, the players added to the dungeon.

  • Add a signifier near the fragile wall to help the players see the option

Signifiers can be many things. It can be information revealed, when the room is examined. For instance, it may be details in the wall’s construction, that dwarves and thieves can identify.

It can be something revealed by accident, when the players explore the room or interact with its inhabitants: It can be monsters chained to the wall, an unbalanced statue tipping over, an accidental strike during combat (any fumble by a large enemy) or an area attack (an area attack spell dealing 15+ damage or being 3rd level or higher).

Signifiers can also simply be visual cues: They notice a bit of light shining through a crack in the wall, a section of the wall simply just appears as fragile, or tools being used to damage the wall have been left in the room.

Giving the players the option of forcing their way through a section of the dungeon can be fun as a DM, if you allow them the choice and allow yourself to be surprised by their choices. This is why, it is an interesting thing to add the fragile wall sections to your dungeon after having populated the dungeon. In this way breaking down the wall is not something anticipated by the inhabitants, and the encounters are not designed to handle it.


Another review: Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart

Not long ago I uploaded the adventure Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart written using the Labyrinth Lord system. Recently the adventure was reviewed by Bryce Lynch from Ten Foot Pole blog.

Bryce writes:

 This FEELS like an adventure in a place greater than yourselves, and its communicated pretty well.

To this is added hooks. Not just one sentence “caravan guard” hooks, but a paragraph or two for each. There’s enough detail to communicate motivation adequately and get the DM’s imagination running so they can fill in the rest. Then there’s the rumor table, telling you actually useful things about the situation in the dungeon, and other factions that may be present, all communicated in a style that represents a little vignette, in only two sentences. And then there’s the wandering table.

Addtionally:

The initial text, up to the keys, is a good “read once” type that you should not have to refer to again and is a quick read with bullet points and call out. The “appendix” information after the keys is most monster stats and the like, leaving the encounters proper a feel of a separate section that you can reference … which is exactly what I’m looking for in a supplement.

Multiple entrances, a chance to make a pact with the dragons heart, or abuse it for power … there’s an interactivity here that most adventures lack.

I am glad and honored by the positive review. It does inspire to write more and translate more into English, but it also raises the bar. This is a minimum to strive for, and ideally I will improve on my writing creating even better modules. I hope you find it interesting and perhaps after reading Bryce’s full review, you might want to head to DrivethruRPG?