Tag Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

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.

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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.


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.


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.