Tag Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

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.

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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.


Wandering Monsters as an invitation to role-play

For or against wandering monsters? Are they an important part of the game or are they disrupting the game?

In my previous post I spoke about viewing equipment as a limited resource in the game, and that any part of the character sheet could be seen as a resource to be spent. Another resource-influencing element of the game is the wandering monster. So, let’s have a look at the phenomenon.

In some games, I have no use for wandering monsters. When running Transhuman Space or Delta Green, I don’t use wandering monsters, and when playing a character-driven drama using the D&D 3rd edition rules, I do not use wandering monsters.

In other games wandering monsters are disruptive for the flow of the game. Playing D&D 4th, where each combat easily eats up two hours of game time, you never get anywhere, when checking for wanderers for every 30 minutes of in-fiction time. One time we attempted to run module B4 The Lost City using D&D 4th, and due to wanderers, we never got to anywhere in the adventure. That made us abandon D&D 4th and move on to play older editions of D&D.

In yet other games, such as AD&D, D&D 5th (we are two thirds into Curse of Strahd) and The Hinterlands (Hinterlandet) – my own retro-clone – I do happily make use of wandering monsters.

There is a time and place for wandering monsters, and what I want to do here is to have a look at using them at the right times.

When Wandering Monsters

Wandering Monsters can serve as a timer in the game forcing the players to move on and making it difficult to rest after each encounter. The resources are dwindling, and you have to explore as much as possible, before you run out of time.

Wandering monsters works well with versions of D&D or clones thereof, when combat lasts no more than about 15 minutes of game time – and this is something I strive for. Once combat is initiated, I want it to end as fast as possible (and this, the why and how of it, I will explain in a following post, so bear with me right now and focus on the wandering aspect).

Wandering monsters work even better, when used as random elements to generate play. With this I mean that rolling on random tables, be it weird spell effects or critical hits can create unforseen elements, that creates opportunities for role-playing. For instance, I am running The People of the Pit using Dungeon Crawl Classics right now, and the strange random elements creates events for us to role play around from critical hits almost pushing a character off a steep ledge to a bloody nose making a player speak with a nasal voice for a while to the mercurial effects of the wizard’s spells to the gods’ response their clerics’ spellcasting. These things add color or create situations, that gives us opportunities to roleplay and do more than just fight monsters. This is what I want my wandering monsters to do as well.

This works best, when wandering monsters are perceived as anything but a combat. Many adventures have monsters to show up, 2d4 orcs, 1d6 goblins etc. and then it is supposed to turn into a fight: ‘Three orcs appear. Roll initiative’.

This is one of the things I like about Curse of Strahd, where the wandering monsters table contains several entries, that are either strange objects found or evocative, brief meetings (like a skeletal rider on a bone horse passing by). This is also one of my own guidelines, when writing The Hinterlands modules, and that is, that every encounter must foremost be an invitation to role-play, where any combat occurring is ideally instigated by the players.

Now it is easy to say ‘that is how I always do things’, when monsters appear at random – but it is whole lot easier, when the entries on the wandering monster-tables gives you the inspiration and the ideas.

Setting up Wandering Monsters

Creating entries that allows for more than combat the entries can be strange events (like a wind whispering their names and the last person, they dreamt of) or foreshadowing of coming encounters (for instance using the foreshadowing, the first result generates the boot prints of a nearby band of orcs, or the bloody victim of an owlbear or the leftover rust from a rustmonster’s meal).

  • Foreshadowing
  • Strange events

Another way is to give the wandering monsters an errand. They are not here to fight the adventurers, nor are they looking for them. Instead they chance upon them, as they are on their own way. By giving each entry a reason to be out walking, you can give the players a chance to role play and find alternate options, when they encounter them, to solve in the problems.

  • The monsters are minding their own business being on an errand

When setting up errands look at the dungeon and try to imagine the daily activities of the dungeon. Are goblins going hunting? Are kobolds cleaning areas for ritual activities?

Now include faction-life and intrigues. Consider anything you would like to reveal to the players about the life in the dungeon, especially things they can use to ally with factions or play them out against each other. Perhaps they overhear the bandits gossiping about dividing the spoils, and how there are grumblings among the bandit king’s lieutenants? Perhaps they overhear that the orcs are planning to hire the services of the local hag?

  • Reveal factions, secrets and daily life through their activities

To keep this easy to use and create, it is my advice to try and keep each entry as a single sentence.

  • Keep the description to one sentence

They can look like this:

  • ‘two almost adult wolf cubs comes bouncing loudly playing with each other, if disturbed they will run off and warn the pack returning with additional 1d4 wolves’
  • Five kobold slaves replacing burned out torches while loudly complaining that the bugbear chef favors the goblins with the best food
  • 1d4+3 orcs with fishing rods each bragging about the size of their latest catch
  • 1d6+1 goblins running off with wine from the cellar willing to bribe the PCs to keep silent on the theft
  • Orc chieftain and bodyguards on the move, while the kobold butler is loudly complaining or advising the chief to look proper before meeting with the slavers.

There is nothing to stop the players from declaring initiative, if they want to fight, but you have opened the door for them to do other things, and it is easier to use alternate strategies, when the situation includes more than ‘2d4 orcs appear’ – and you can breathe life into your dungeon.

Wandering elsewhere

Once you have this praxis in place, you can use it in villages and towns to create encounters there as well:

  • 7 drunk members of the city guard extortion a dwarven goldsmith
  • Two competing town criers trying to outdo the other yelling still higher trying to present the most sordid gossip for a few coppers.

From here it is a small step to introduce wandering monsters or random encounters or events in other games such as small towns being investigated in Call of Cthulhu by investigators.

  • Two villagers appears idly talkning but they become silent the moment, they see the PCs, and only the word ‘the hollow’ is heard.

My Final Wanderings

This is how I like to play out and use my wandering monsters. They are not combat encounters appearing at random, but tools to create life in the dungeon, and they are invitations to roleplay. By setting them up head of the game or writing them into adventures, it becomes easier for the DM to improvise and create exciting situations – and the players can still declare initiative any time they want.


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.


It calls from The Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart

Scouts report, that they have seen a hill standing on burning pillars. What lies behind this mystery, why is an army of kobolds on the march, and what strange force is calling you from the dark depths of its forgotten tomb?

Welcome to the fifth adventure translated from Danish to English in the line of Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) adventures. This time the module has been adapted to Labyrinth Lord, and is thus compatible with D&D becmi and various retro clones as well. It is oldschool adventure rich with opportunities for roleplaying.

The adventure is part of the Seven Swords of the Dwarves storyline, and it is the adventure that sparked the storyline for the next two years, where the players in Hinterlandet Living Campaign fought against The Dragon and its cult while searching for weapons to defeat the Dragon with. This is an adventure, that allows you to set loose a great villain on your campaign and let the players be in the center of it all, as they are the ones to (accidentally) unleash the foe. The adventure is followed by the adventure, The Flooded Temple, as it is from the first storyline about the Dragon – The Dragon Awakens – where the adventurers go searching for weapons against the Dragon, and the Cult of the Dragon is trying to stop them.

A large part of the fun with this adventure was seeing the players interact with the residents of the dungeon, especially when they discover, they are under siege, and hostile humanoids wants to enter the ruins. Another great moment was when the players figured out how the tomb worked (no spoilers here), and that this moment allowed a player to let her character become a central villain in the Living Campaign as she became a Herald of the Dragon.

You can find The Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart at RPG Drivethru: The Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart.


Waiting for Death’s Herald at The Flooded Temple

It is an ancient and forgotten temple hidden at the bottom of canyon only accessible by boat. Here wait’s death for curious travelers, but also an ancient relic and several factions struggling to claim the ruin as theirs. Meanwhile the kobolds just wait for Death to carry them away, and careless explorers may find, that they too will be carried off.

This is the fourth Hinterlandet adventure to be translated into English, and where the previous three were converted to D&D 5th edition (Palace of Sweet Dreams, One Night Amongst the Necromancers, Tower of the Star Watcher), this one was kept system agnostic or perhaps more precisely D&D agnostic. It is a sandbox dungeon, that invites the players to explore the caves from several different angles, and encourages roleplaying and problem solving over outright fights, and combat will mainly be at the instigation of the players.

The adventure is a part of The Dragon Awakens storyline – The Hinterlandet Living Campaign – where adventurers are seeking out the Grave of the Dragon Slayer in order to find a mighty sword to battle The Dragon with (this was a consequence of the “Seven Swords of the Dwarves” storyline, where other adventurers accidentally woke the Dragon). This means that a recurring foe, The Cult of the Dragon, appears in the adventure and intrudes in the dungeon, while the PCs are exploring the place (when adapting the adventure for your campaign, you can either use the cult or replace it with a recurring foe of your own campaign).

A part of the fun with the adventure was seeing the players deal with the different factions of the temple, and many found the kobolds to be the saddest humanoids ever encountered, and their beliefs strange and unsettling. The factions, the many paths through the adventure and the open structure is all part of the design principles of a Hinterlandet dungeon.

Recently The Flooded Temple received a positive review, which I wrote about here.

You can find The Flooded Temple at Drivethru here: The Flooded Temple.


One Night amongst the Necromancers

Billede06.jpgThe Disciples of the Lich King are gathering – and you are not invited!

The adventurers are drawn into a haunted dungeon home of necromancers and their allies. This is the premise for this OSR-style D&D 5th edition adventure. It has been uploaded to DMs Guild – you can find it here: One Night amongst the Necromancers – and it is a tricky adventure with many moving parts. It is not an adventure, where the PCs are supposed to kill their way from room to room. Rather there are a lot of NPCs to interact with, and many have their own plans.

Originally this adventure was from the Viking-Con (a Danish RPG con) story line “Return to …”, where a series of older Hinterlandet adventures were visited again a few years later giving experienced players the joy of seeing a dungeon, they had visited years before. The original adventure was from The Lich King Returns story line. A fun part of this adventure was seeing the players interact with the remnants of the Lich King’s cult after the Lich King had been defeated. There are several approaches to the adventure, and it invites the players to infiltrate the dungeon, though without dictating how they should go about it.

The adventure has now been adapted to D&D 5th edition and made setting agnostic. It plays out in an ancient Roman-style empire, but can easily be placed in your local fantasy-campaign. As part of the original OSR-inspired style the encounters are formed without respect to balance, but instead allows the PCs to sneak around and taking the different encounters in various orders, and the DM is invited to play along with plenty of suggestions as to situations, that may occur. The Hinterlands strives to follow design-principles like these, instead of doing balanced set pieces.

The adventure contains a bunch of new monsters and NPCs and strange magical items to challenge the players. Magical items in Hinterlandet are generally unique (not counting minor items such as potions), and following this tradition, new weapons and items can be won. A personal favorite for me is The Whispering Skull, which is a skull that whispers spells for wizards to memorize.