Tag Archives: roleplaying

The Evolution of D&D from 1983 to 2016: From Ravenloft to Curse of Strahd

From 1983 to 2016 Dungeons & Dragons have moved from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition (and D&D becmi) to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, and it is more than just a streamlining of the rules and development of the rules, that has taken place.

Recently I have been playing Curse of Strahd (2016) and I6 Ravenloft (1983), and therefore I will show how the game has developed from the early 80’s to the present through a comparison of an encounter or location, that appears in all versions of the adventure. Originally published in 1983, the Ravenloft adventure was relaunched as House of Strahd in 1993, where it was adapted to both Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition and the Ravenloft setting. Again in 2006 it was published, this time as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, this time adapted to D&D 3.5, and then finally in 2016 it was launched as a campaign module, Curse of Strahd, in 2016 for D&D 5th edition, where the original castle was made a part of a much larger campaign, where the whole valley is explored.

In the castle is a sequence, where a set of plate armor equipped with a halberd springs forth to frighten people. The armor is not animated but is rather a jump scare showcasing the original adventures curious mix of gothic horror and campy horror tropes, as the armor might be right out of an episode of Scooby Doo.

So, let’s see how different versions of the adventure deals with this sequence.

Ravenloft (1983) – AD&D 1st ed

As is clear from the text, the armor is set up as a cruel joke, which is recurrent in the later versions of the text. Where the sequence differs is how game mechanics handles the event.

There is a mere 60% risk, that the trap is sprung, and 25% chance that 1d4 hit points are lost. This may not sound like much, but for an AD&D character, this loss might still be felt, as hit points and healing resources are less than in later versions of the game.

House of Strahd (1993) – AD&D 2nd

This time the armor is automatically triggered – and is considerably more fun, as triggering the ‘jump scare’ is more fun, than the event never happening. Another difference is that the armor is now making an attack roll rather than checking for the risk of getting hit. THAC0 8 is a rather high chance of hitting its victim, but at least the damage remains at 1d4 hit points.

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft (2006) – D&D 3.5

In this version the armors are changed from something happening during the exploration of the castle and has instead become an encounter, where the adventurers fight the two armors, that has become animated monsters assisting the vampire Strahd in an encounter.

This change is significant, because it shows, where D&D was headed in 00’s with D&D 3.5 and D&D 4th. Basically D&D was unable to do things, that was not an encounter, and an encounter is in general always some sort of combat. D&D was broken into units of combat with D&D 3.5 and 4th (the fourth edition just finalized, what D&D 3.5 had already begun).

Curse of Strahd (2016) – D&D 5th

The amount of text has grown considerably, but the game has returned to its roots, or at least it has abandoned its encounter structure, and made it possible to play strange little happenings again, but the game suffers from a desire to put rules and explanations onto everything. Another interesting change is that now the players are rolling the dice – a saving throw is made by the player instead of an attack roll or a percentage roll by the DM – and damage has increased rom 1d4 to 2d6 to reflect the increase in hit points in the game.

Final words

I do appreciate the return in 5th edition to a structure closer to the Advanced period (1977-2000), but there is still a needless amount of mechanics and rules cluttering the text, instead of just letting the GM run the scene.

What is missing from all versions of the module is some good advice for the DM as to how to run the scene, for it is not really important whether or not the armor hits one of the characters for a small amount of damage, but rather it is of importance whether or not the it is run as a jump scare, and my advice is to play the scene with a low voice quietly describing the stairs, and as the characters either pass by or moves in to look closer at the armor IT SUDDENLY SPRINGS TO LIFE, AS THE ARMOR JUMPS TOWARD YOU! THE POLEARM FLIES TOWARD YOU STOPPING MERE MOMENTS FROM YOUR FACE!!! While you either emphasize this with hitting the table with the flat of your hand, or lunges quickly toward the player. The sudden shift in your behavior can easily make your player jump in their seat, thus recreating the campy jump scare of the adventure (and yes, that is how I played the encounter, and yes, the player did jump in his seat, and yes, I try to use only sparingly, so it works better, when used).

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In Tomb of the Lovelorn not Everything is Roses

Entering the Tomb of the Lovelorn is stepping into the vestiges of a wizard’s revenge, as he cursed two lovers to be forever kept separated. Trapped in here are the servants forever to maintain the tomb. For the daring adventurers, they, though, may risk never leaving the tomb again.

Welcome to the seventh adventure to be translated from Danish to English in the line of Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) modules. The adventure has been adapted to Labyrinth Lord and can be played with most D&D becmi-inspired retro-clones or just with the D&D becmi rules set.

Originally Tomb of the Lovelorn was part of the first line of adventures for The Hinterlands, when the foes in the storyline was The Dragon and The Lich King, and as time progressed and the living campaign advanced the Lich King was defeated. The Tomb then became a source of background information on The Dragon, and it was a place to attempt to retrieve powerful but not too stable magic items.

The adventure is designed to be shorter and faster to play than many of the others, and though the monsters are relatively few, the adventure is known for a few TPKs, as the dangers in tomb are quite lethal. The magic items in the loot should compensate for it.

The adventure can easily be adapted into The Dragon storyline from the adventures Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart and The Flooded Temple.

You can find Tomb of the Lovelorn at RPGDrivethru: Tomb of the Lovelorn.


New Danish RPG Podcast is Your Chance to Learn Danish While Listening to Talks about RPGs

A new podcast in Danish about roleplaying-games – of which there are only very few – have seen the light of the day, and that has been the reason for the few posts on this blog recently. Not because I have spent my time listening to the podcast, but because I am one of the hosts.

For the curious the podcast is called Lænestolsrollespil, and it is about reading RPG-books, mainly rulebooks, but we will also be reading scenarios and source books, and then discussing how they hold up. It is not actual play or reviews but discussions of the texts and how they work as games, and that is why the title of the podcast is ‘Reclining chair rpg’.

With the first four episodes out, we have so far dealt with the following books

  • Ashen Stars
  • In a Wicked Age
  • Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd edition
  • FATE Accelerated

Next up is GURPS and somewhat later we will be looking at games like Apocalypse World and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

You can find the podcast on Soundcloud here, on facebook and on its own website.


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.


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.


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.


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.