Tag Archives: D&D

Light – Cantrip or First Level Spell?

In the good old days, the Light spell was a first level spell, that could be used to blind a foe. Then it became a cantrip and lost it teeth, and dungeoneering changed forever.

From first level spell to cantrip changes a lot of the dungeon exploring game play. Minor changes in spells can change the structure of the game, and it removes some of the challenges of exploring the dark depths.

I have with interest read DMDavid’s posts on how spells can ruin adventures (Spell can ruin adventures, Spells that ruin adventures, revisited and Spells that ruin mystery and treachery), and there is no doubt that Detect Lie, Zone of Truth and Etherealness can spoil the fun of exploring a dungeon – and yet something as simple as a cantrip can, perhaps not ruin, but still limit a part of the fun of exploring a dungeon.

When exploring dungeons limited resources are a part of the challenge, and every time an effect such as a spell replaces a limited resource something is lost. Recently I have begun playing the DCC module The People of the Pit with a Dungeon Crawl Classics party and with a D&D 5th edition party, and their progress and challenges are in some places quite different.

For the DCC group carrying torches and lanterns, they have to be careful, when solving challenges spending resources – for instance they wanted to burn the bones of the physical remnants of a group of ghosts, and they had to consider how many flasks of oil, they dared spend, as they also needed the oil for their lantern. For the other party, they simply had all the light they wanted, and flasks of oil and torches could be freely spent against foes. Likewise, there was not much worry about lights going out, finding ways to cross basins, while keeping a flame burning, and into every pit is thrown a stone with a light spell in order to determine its depth.

Back in the day, when I played AD&D or D&D becmi, light was a resource, and the group’s spellcaster had to choose between using the Light spell as an offense blinding a foe or a limited light source.

I am not interested in the players tracking each and every torch, as it becomes tedious and adds no fun to the game, but using torches or lanterns, the PCs risks losing their light and being trapped in darkness, and it forces the wizard to choose and use their spells carefully (The role of light becomes obvious, when taking a look at RPGs such as Torchbearer, where light is a central part of the economy for how much can be explored).

The structural change in the game is also visible in other areas, where the simple cantrips changes the game considerably even though they have no or little use during combat.

I had the same issue when I recently ran Tomb of Horrors with a 5th edition party. Light was not an issue (but then again high-level parties do have the benefit of avoiding a lot of the usual challenges. It is a part of being a high-level character), but here another cantrip began causing problems. The spellcasters kept examining, pulling, twisting and turning everything using the Mage Hand cantrip, which being evocative of the wizard, also spared the thief for investigating a lot of objects. Gygax never wrote Tomb of Horrors to handle the new and almost limitless resources of a spellcaster with cantrips ad ritual spells

A minor change in D&D 3rd edition back in the day also took the teeth out of a wilderness campaign, I was running. The players discovered that they had easy access to a Resistance spell that lasted 24 hours and that protected them against heat and cold. This minor spell was of little use against magical fire and cold attacks, but it made traveling through a desert harmless, and the challenges of surviving the harsh climate disappeared from the game.

Next time I am starting a D&D-campaign up, I will be changing a series of spells. Light will once more be a first level spell, but also one that can be used offensively. If dungeoneering is central to the game, Mage Hand will likewise also change.


Death at The Palace of Sweet Dreams

The sweet scents of the lotus flowers spells death and madness for the carefree adventurer, and trolls eat people even statues of trolls. Welcome to the Palace of Sweet Dreams.

This is the third of the Hinterlandet adventures translated to English and converted to D&D 5th edition. The two previous adventures lead the protagonists to an abandoned tower and into the hidey hole of a lich king’s disciples, but this time the adventurers are lead to the ruins of a palace, and here they will lose their mind. You can find it here at DMs Guild: Palace of Sweet Dreams.

This module is from the story line “Seven Swords of the Dwarves”, which was about bands of adventurers looking for the legendary swords of the dwarves, and during the adventures some players succeeded in accidentally awakening the sleeping Dragon introducing the Dragon-story lines, which Tower of the Star Watcher was a part of. In its converted version, the story line about dwarves and swords have been removed. But there is still plenty to explore, as the palace is home to a group of mad people acting strange, and unwary PCs will end up among them, while they are fighting to survive flesh-eating plants and monstrous spiders (and for spoilery reasons I am being vague here, but the cause of madness finds its root in old sword & sorcery tropes).

We had a lot of fun with this module at the convention, where it was originally played, as the adventure does strange things to the adventurers’ sense of time and place. For the lucky players, great treasures await them. The adapted version has maintained most of the original material but added new hooks and a few other details, but it is now setting agnostic and maintains its use of non-balanced encounters. You can read more on the design principles behind Hinterlands adventures in this post.


Design Principles for a Hinterlands Dungeon

photo (87)There are many guides and posts on building an exciting encounter or creating a three-act structure or five room dungeon of combats, but when we began designing adventures for OSR-clone Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) different principles were being used.

  • Many ways and none is the right one
  • There are bosses, but no boss fights
  • Balance is not the issue, avoiding combat is
  • There will be death

These are some of the key-elements, and now that I have begun translating the adventures into English from their Danish originals, and adapting them for D&D 5th edition, it might be the right time to have a look at the principles behind the adventures.

Many ways and none is the right one

The dungeon must have more than one way to go. It cannot be linear, and ideally it has multiple entrances, and it allows the players to choose directly or indirectly between the entrances. A great part of the fun is to see the players choose, and when running a living campaign with multiple groups running through the same dungeon, the different choices are interesting. Many dungeons emphasize the multiple paths by giving the characters the option of breaking down walls, falling through floors to other areas or scaling the walls to gain quick access to other parts, i.e. in Tower of the Star Watcher the PCs can scale most walls and enter different areas in almost any order.

There are bosses, but no boss fights

It follows that when the PCs can choose multiple paths, there will rarely be a boss monster exactly at the end of the dungeon, and it helps bring the world to live, when the players know, that monsters in the dungeon do not behave according to computer game logic. I.e. in One Night amongst the Necromancers the ‘boss’ is moving around in errands, and stealthy PCs can easily find their way to him without working their way through all the rooms. In other adventures, such as Grave of the Alchemist, one of the worst monsters resides just inside of the dungeon and to gain access, it must be defeated in some manner.

Balance is not the issue, avoiding combat is

The encounters in Hinterlandet are not really balanced, and this feature is carried over into their D&D 5th edition adaptions. However, many encounters include creatures that can be avoided or snuck by, or they begin with parlay – some monsters are hungry and can be bribed, some are sleeping or distracted, others are mistaking the PCs for other residents or guests, and yet others are suspicious but not hostile. Rarely does a monster attack, when the PCs enter. Instead the players are invited to interact with the monster, and this results in many great moments.

There will be death

Even though it may sound easy to avoid the nasty encounters and the tough fights, it is not so. Character death is common, and one cause is traps and magical dangers. Each dungeon usually contains one trap or phenomenon, that will kill or remove a PC from the game. Often there is some warning sign, and usually the PCs can simply choose to stay clear of it, but it will challenge their curiosity, and it will tempt their greed. For instance, in Palace of Sweet Dreams drinking too much of the ghost wine will trap a character in the realm of the dead, and merely visiting the ruins of the palace might result in a character forever lost in its madness.

These are some of the main governing principles for the adventures of Hinterlandet / The Hinterlands. The adventures have all been part of the OSR Living Campaign at Danish roleplaying conventions and have been run for multiple groups. Some characters survive, some don’t, but we always end up with great stories of adventurers’ daring do.


Tower of the Star Watcher

Bygning 2aA strange tower awaits the heroes. It lies deep in the forest.

That is the premise for the first D&D 5th edition adventure, I have presented at DMs Guild – you can find it here: Tower of the Star Watcher – and it is not your average adventure. It is small open air dungeon, that originally is part of The Dragon Awakens storyline fra Hinterlandet Living Campaign at the Danish RPG-con Fastaval. In this storyline all the adventuring parties are entering The Vale of the Dragon in order to find weapons against the dragon and find it in order to defeat it.

A fun part of the Tower of the Star Watcher is that it is an open-air dungeon. The ruins lie in a forest under an open sky, and the PCs can enter through one of multiple entrances, but there is nothing hindering the PCs in scaling the walls and entering any part of the dungeon as they please. However, most groups don’t. The players tend to follow the walls and the doors, and part of the fun for the DM is when the PCs discover, that they can approach the ruin in many ways, and that there multiple ways through the area, and none is really the correct manner. Of course a lot of the fun also comes from the encounters, as there several strange ones, and many invite the players to use different approaches rather than charge in at any given time. Ghost children, whistling stone heads and sarcastic skulls are among the encounters.

The adventure has now been adapted to D&D 5th edition and made setting agnostic, but has maintained traces of the original setting, and a lot of the original style, which includes a focus on non-balanced encounters. Talking, bluffing, sneaking, running are all valid strategies and important, when you want to stay alive. Oh, and it also contains a bunch of new monsters, just to keep the players on their toes.


#RPGaDay2015 – Day 24: Favorite House Rule

rpg-a-day-2015Today the challenge in #RPGaDay2015 is favorite houserule, and I will pitch in with a few thoughts on my own. Houserules are interesting but sometimes also controversial, but to my mind most controversies around house rules are related to how they are broadcast to the group, and the purpose of houserules. To some a houserule is used to mend a perceived flaw in the system, whether there is a flaw or not, and careless applied houserule might in such instances make the game less appealing for the other players thus hurting their game experience and creating a controversy.

Day 24 – Favorite Houserule

I like houserules, and we use them a lot. We usually play with two kinds of houserules: 1) Campaign house rules (tailored rules) and 2) Houserule of the day.

Tailored rules are houserules, that are added to the campaign to make the rulesystem help focus on certain aspects of the game. In a Mystaran D&D Glantri campaign, where all the characters were wizards attending The Great School of Magic, all XP were gained from passing courses in magic, not from killing and looting, which forced the players to divide their time between attending classes and going on adventures.

Houserule of the day is a favorite among my players. In this instance a rule is introduced, that only applies for one session (unless it becomes such a succes, that it becomes a permanent feature of the campaign). Houserule of the day is a specific rule introduced to support a certain event or feature during a session (just as when an episode of a tv-show is filmed entirely in black/white or as a muscial). One such houserule during the wizard campaign was A Night at the Opera, where the wizard students when to a yearly major opera and the action alternated between the story of the opera and the backstage intrigues among shady wizard nobles.

In this case the rule was: Everytime you want your character to do something at the opera (a clandestine meeting, conspirering, gaining intel etc.), you must play a scene from the opera, and the scene must last two minutes.

This meant that the action alternated between the play on the stage and the intriques behind the stage and among the nobles on the balconies at at opera house, and we had some great fun at seing the players act out the different roles of the opera struggling to keep a scene lasting two minutes (this required a lot of repeating the same lines “I love you … I love you … I looooooooooove you …” giving the events on the stage a feel of being an opera play).

So the opera house might have been a favorite, but mine would in this case be the following:

Play a scene, gain a bonus

This is the most basic version of the scene, but we use it in a variety of ways. In The Great School of Magic campaign, the rule was formulated as follows: Play a studyscene with another play to gain a bonus to pass an exam.

Passing exams was the source of XP and thus levels, and the players would do their best to gain as many bonuses to these rolls as possible – and one source was studyscenes. In a studyscene the player’s character would be studying together with a secondary character belonging to another player, and what happened during the scene was open, and was mostly being used to develop characters and explore aspects of their personalities. It allowed the players to shine, and was important for the development of the characters.

We use this kind of houserule in many different versions, and it works great to put a focus on the small things, but stille those that develop characters and settings.


#RPGaDay2015 – Day 23: Perfect Game for You

rpg-a-day-2015Joining in on #RPGaDay2015 in the last moments of the project, where people daily cover a specific subject regarding our hobby, I too will share my thoughts on these subjects.

(and use it as an excuse to write in English again, before my writing skills entirely wither away).

Day 23 – Perfect Game for you

Today we are asked about which game is the perfect one for us.

For me there is not a single perfect game, just as there is not the single perfect movie, book, board game or graphic novel. So choosing the easy way out, I am tempted to say, that the perfect game for me is the one, that is tailored specifically to what I am playing.

I don’t want to play with a system, where I have to house rule away flaws in the game engine, and I don’t want to play with a system, where you ignore its presence or play against what the rules are intended to do.

So when I run campaigns, I tailor the system to do, what I want it to do.

When we play dungeon exploration RPGs, we play with my D&D clone Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands), that rewards the players not for killing the monsters but for each room explored, and structures the encounters with monsters, so that the players can more easily choose between negotations, trickery, retreat and combat, and when I ran a Delta Green campaign, we wanted to emphasize how the missions of the agents slowly alienated them from their surroundings by having the system focus on both their family lives and their black op missions for Delta Green.

To me some rule systems makes this easier than others. Shadows of Yesterday was great for running our Transhuman Space campaign, rather than using GURPS, and we mostly just reskinned it. Delta Green Hoarfrost Dragon campaign used a heavily modified Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies engine, as the Basic Rulesystem is very easy to work with, and I sometimes default to some very basic d20 engines, that I then start modifying. Polaris, My Life with Master and In a Wicked Age along with Lady Blackbird are also favorites, since they are very focused on telling specific stories.


One Does Not Simply Play Dead Gods

Lately I have been playing Monte Cook’s Dead Gods super module to Planescape, that he wrote back in 1997. It is a module filled with intestering ideas and concepts using the Planescape setting to its fullest – and also in a sense revealing how Monte got the ideas for Numenera.

one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor_1394963912One Does Not Simply Play Dead Gods. Its black pages are guarded by more than just orcs. There are narratives there that does not sleep. The great story line is ever watchful. It is a barren campaign, riddled with vague ideas, nonsensical plotlines and superfluous ideas. The very pages you read is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand sessions could you do this. It is folly.

Boromir on playing Dead Gods.

But why not play Dead Gods? Well, this quote from the module will reveal why:

Whether the PCs follow Renik or Kair-aama, they eventually see their mark meet with something in the dark shadows of an alley near High Point. If the cutters keep watch for several evenings, they observe a number of secret meetings and finally see the true “face” of their enemies.

[read aloud text with description of “true face of the enemy”]

If the PCs dare to follow one of the visages after it leaves the alley […] (p.40)

1. The text assumes the players will choose to observe a number of secret meetings – without giving the slightest hint as to why.

2. The text does not bother with describing who’s participating at these meetings, the above text is the full description about the meerings.

3. The text does not explain what is happening at these meetings. Again the quote contains more or less everything mentioned about the meetings.

4. The text does not allow for any other action. What happens if the PCs follow any of the participants? Not an option. What happens if the PCs interferes with the meetings? Not an option. What happens if the PCs investigates the participants at the meetings? Not possible.

If the players want to do anything beyond “keep watch for several evenings”, then the scenario leaves no clue as to what happens or how to play it out.

5. The whole next sequence hinges on the fact, that the players choose to observe for several evenings, until they see the monster, and then their choice is to neither keep observing or interfering with the meeting, but to solely track the monster – which they have never seen before, and they don’t know what the monsters are up to beyond appearently killing people and taking their place.

6. Once the players have decided to follow the monster, which is the only option (well, technically they can choose otherwise, and the module has at the end of section a brief note on what to then, which is mainly just to skip ahead and then continue the events, as nothing had happened – oh, wait, nothing did happen), then the NPCs and the secret meetings are simply forgotten by the module, as it no longer cares about it. This is not for the players to care about any longer. This happens multiple times in the module – once the characters have seen or witnessed something, the characters are ushered on not letting the players investigate them (and neither leaving any info to the GM, should the players decide to look closer).

There are descriptions of places and NPCs and plots and ideas, that one can steal, but you cannot play Dead Gods without forcing the actions of the players, and if playing the module as written you leaving the players in the dark most of the time having them play several chapters without knowing who, what or why they’re are exploring and fighting them – and it is not fun, just frustrating. No wonder why 90’s modules have such a bad rep.

 


One Does Not Simply Walk Under Illefarn

one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor_1394963912After several evenings of storming the dungeons of The Temple of Elemental Evil we decided to put the module to a rest since not too much happened, as the dungeons were deadly and it kept being supplied by new monsters, forcing the players to deal with areas they had already explored. Instead we decided to play N5 Under Illefarn (1987), which consists of three small introductory adventures and then a huge dwarven mine divided by three factions.

One does not simply walk into the mines of Illefarn. Its dark corridors are patrolled by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The dreadful necromancer and the dwarven prince are ever watchful. It is a barren dungeon, riddled with old traps, new traps, and empty rooms. The water rushing from the mines is a poisonous sludge. Not with ten thousand sessions could you map this. It is folly.

Boromir on exploring the dwarven mines of lost Illefarn.


One Does Not Simply Walk into Temple of Elemental Evil

one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor_1394963912This blog has been quiet for all too long. I shall attempt to raise it from its slumber, as have not been quiet regarding roleplaying. Revently I have explored Temple of Elemental Evil with my homebrewed OSR Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands).

One does not simply walk into The Temple of Elemental Evil. Its black corridors are haunted by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. Zuggtmoy er ever watchful. It is a multi-level dungeon, riddled with fire, air and earth. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand party members could you explore this. It is folly.

Boromir on playing Temple of Elemental Evil.