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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

NPC Creation

The city of Carrhae is ruled by its Duke and a council of royal advisors. When the party arrives they are excited to meet with the Duke to discuss the suspicions they have of a takeover by Thaes, the neighboring kingdom. But upon meeting the Duke they realize he is an unwell individual. He bumbles and cheers excitedly when he shouldn’t. He’s enthusiastic about all the wrong things and far too pleased to meet and re-meet the same individuals.

When Nold Banning, his bard advisor, approaches to handle the rest of the discussion the players figure it out: the Duke’s been afflicted by charm magic for so long that it has begun to affect his mind. Who could possibly have done something like that?

The first time my party met Nold Banning I did not expect for hatred and animosity to grow. When I realized that they despised him because he had done a horrible thing to an otherwise good NPC I filed that information away for repeated use. As it turns out, even neutral parties don’t like monsters.

One of my more recent creations has been Arzia North, an Olenna Tyrellian old lady of sassy wit and puncrafting. At the beginning of the adventure the players loved her and thought she was hilarious. She made fun of the other villainous NPCs and she even helped the party a bit when they needed a distraction. When they learned that she arranged for the kidnapping of nearby elves so that they could be cooked for her dinner they started to change their minds about Arzia North. She wasn’t a sweet old lady anymore.

But that’s enough about villains. Your campaign won’t be populated entirely by villains or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s nice for the party to have good NPCs they can interact with or even rely on when they need to. Even if all they provide is help off-screen or an amusing joke now and again then they’ve accomplished their task.

Althian Locke was one of my first characters. A sarcastic and unconcerned Warlord who rarely ever bothered to think through his decisions. Now he’s one of my most reused NPCs because he tends to stand out to my players. He helps the party when they need it but is otherwise entirely unconcerned with whether they succeed or not. When they need help from a mercenary company he’s there but he has no interest in actually plunging into dungeons or doing any work of any kind. He’s more of a drinking mercenary.

Now let’s distill some of what I’ve learned about character creation into easily digestable bullet points:
  • Villains need to be villainous. If villains never do anything that makes them worthy of the evil alignment then why the hell are they villains? Chaotic neutral individuals can make good villains but they tend to be rivals or pains in the ass. Villains kill, maim, murder, and mayhem (that’s a verb now). They can’t just be bad. They have to be evil. And vile. And perhaps even a little cruel.
  • A good atrocity really upsets the party. Cannibalism is a great one to use. It’s the next step past “killing people” on the “you real crazy” scale. Just because a villain has people killed doesn’t make them a bad person. Hell, the party kills people all the time. But eating people? That’s a bit harsh.
    • Consider the following atrocities for your villains: Arson, Kidnapping, Larceny, Trapping people inside artwork, Serving White Wine with Red Meat, Desecrating Holy Places, Consorting with Devils, Demons, or Astral Travellers, Breeding an Army of Spider Monsters, Mind Manipulation, Executing Good NPCs, Being a Wanker, etc.
  • Good NPCs don’t have to be saints. Good NPCs can be guilty of plenty of crimes but if they’re helping the party and not actively committing crimes they consider unforgivable then you’ve got a good mix going on.
    • For example, Althian Locke burned down an entire forest in order to scatter an army of elves. The party was a bit peeved but it served a fairly good purpose in the end so they didn’t push the issue.
  • Good NPCs are not the DMs avatar. I have a pet peeve about DMs that want to play in their own campaign. The entire point of running a cool campaign is to show people the kind of awesome things you would want to play in.
    • When you insert yourself into your NPCs and try to control the path of the party then I have a word to describe you. That word is asshole. You’re an asshole.
  • Good NPCs help when they are asked (or paid). Good NPCs shouldn’t be pushovers but they should certainly be there to help the party rather than hurt them.
  • That said, that help should be withheld until the party wants it or pays for it. Chaotic NPCs aren’t running a charity over here. You want help you better cough up some forgotten knowledge or at the very least a bejeweled scepter or two.

What’s my one rule? Villains are villains, heroes are heroes.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Setting the Mood: Not Just For Bangin' Anymore

The parlor is packed with nobles, entertainers, and servants. Stage magicians throw small fireworks between their hands and summon birds that dissolve into confetti as they fly. Musicians in the corner keep the air alive with sound. Finally, the host of the party appears at the top of the stairs. As he descends, the music swells grandly and a bit ominously. The minor key makes the party a bit uneasy.

Music has strong ties to our feelings. Songs in the minor key often make us sad or on edge. Fast music in a major key makes us feel energetic and excited. As DM and master of the table, this is another tool at your disposal.

There are two schools of playlist creation (in my mind, at least, it is an epic and bloody war where ne’er the twain shall meet). Something that I often see is a song set aside for a specific situation. One song is labeled ‘boss music’, a different one is ‘tavern music’, and another is labeled ‘sneaking into the building music’. This ensures that every action is backed by an appropriate soundtrack.

Here’s why I don’t like that: It’s a lot of work and it’s lazy. You may ask, how are those possibly critiques of the same thing?

During the game, a playlist with specific music for every action requires a DM to be fiddling with the music at every turn. You decided to sneak? Better change tracks. Your encountered goblins? New track! It takes attention away from what it going on at the table and it means one more thing that a DM has to be thinking about. Too much work.

On the other hand, a playlist like this tells me that the DM didn’t put much time into creating it. Why is a tavern in the creepy, abandoned city the same as the tavern in the busy port town? It’s not. If the music is based on the action, and not on the atmosphere, it’s not doing its job. Rather than setting the scene for the players, it’s telling them what they already know which is the action that they’re taking.

Maybe it’s just a personal quibble, but it is what it is. My preferred method: create a playlist of thematically/atmospherically/emotionally similar music that jives with the theme/atmosphere/emotion of the adventure. This music should be able to be shuffled and still sound like it all goes together. Highs and lows in the music are okay. Sometimes it will line up with the action and other times it won’t. For the most part, you won’t notice the missteps. Then, at just the right moment, the perfect song will play and the players will notice that. Best of all, the DM can have their full attention on the game at all times.  

I won’t go in depth about the reasons for making an adventure playlist. Any movie watcher can attest to the power of a well-placed song. But respecting a good instrumental and finding one are two vastly different challenges. A run-down slum is no place for a waltz. A medieval ballroom is likely not the best venue for a steampunk pirate anthem. Variety is the spice of life, and it is for your tabletop repertoire as well.

The classics are a good starting point. While the waltz has no place in your gang-ridden slums, it does have a place in a romantic ballroom. Pad your playlist with Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Bach. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons can be used for almost every occasion. The Dark Side of Classical album is my personal favorite for shifty and mysterious situations. (Nerd Alert: Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans may recognize the first song on this album, Danse Macabre.)

Steampunk is your friend. It combines modern rock and electronic aspects with older style violin and other instrumental sounds. There is a great variety for piratical adventures and creepy mansions (think porcelain dolls and murder). My playlist at the moment includes Ian Cecil Scott, KK & The Steampunk Orchestra, and Clocks & Clouds.

Sometimes, if you can’t quite name the style of an adventure, it helps to look up the soundtrack to a movie, game, or anime that feels the same to you or shares an element.

My one-shot, Alcinia in Wonderland, is obviously movie inspired. I turned up the majority of the playlist music by searching for the albums to the various movies and looking at user-made playlists (Spotify, you should try it) that had the name ‘Alice in Wonderland’. This turned up the Tim Burton film, the video game ‘Alice: Madness Returns’, and a variety of playlists including some of the above mentioned Steampunk artists.  

My current task is to make a master list of acceptable tabletop music from which I can build new playlists for each adventure. To find new music, search forums and listen to Pandora or Spotify radio using the name of a song you already like or by listening to the instrumental or classical genre stations.

Creating a playlist is often time consuming but the reward is the goosebumps that spring up on your players’ spines when the perfect note hits in time with the action and they feel the epicness of that moment.

Go forth and playlist!

Baby DM out.

Friday, May 23, 2014


The past three sessions have led to this. The party failed to save the Duke of Carrhae from being assassinated by his duplicitous vizier, Nold Banning. They broke their comrade out of an island prison and rescued the former advisor to the Duke who in turn helped the party recruit an Elven revolutionary and a Mercenary Captain who are helping to liberate Carrhae.

The party has arrived in the throne room and battle has erupted. Flaming spheres, witch spells, and inspirational ballads echo through the marble chamber. Nold has suffered many wounds and collapses unconscious, all according to the DM’s plan. Now the party can capture him and learn more about the main villain’s schemes.

That’s when Zak, the party’s bard, approaches the unconscious Nold. He picks up his lute, a magical artifact capable of casting charm spells. After looking over the lute he snaps the fretboard from the bowl and drives the sharpened wood up into Nold’s heart, ending the villain’s life. As it turns out Zak had a very deep hatred for any bards more powerful than him. The whole party was quiet for a while.

I love making nemeses for my players.

The reason that Nold Banning, bard vizier and master manipulator, made Zak the gnome bard so angry was because he was a slightly better bard (one level higher) and Zak’s player is remarkably competitive. He couldn’t stand the thought that someone was better at something than he was. So that man had to die. That man had to die hard.

Now and then I have memorable or incredible NPC’s. My party will always remember the brain-damaged Duke who was suuuuuper friendly because they were expecting to meet a kind and competent leader amidst a game of court intrigue and betrayal. They’ll always remember the mercenary captain who burned down a forest just to scare away some elves. They’ll always remember the kind old grandmother who thought Elves had great taste. Yes that’s a pun.

Having memorable NPC’s is one thing. Having nemeses is something else entirely. A nemesis can turn a fun night into a story that will be told for years to come.

In fact, hashtag story time. Last session was an intense and thoroughly high stakes … costume party. That sounded more dangerous and sexy in my head. Anyway, Carolina, swashbuckler and treasure hunter, got the job of seducing Isaan, the target of potential wife-making by Narissa Embers, bitch-queen extraordinaire. Carolina isn’t normally a charismatic swashbuckler but she shined as a manipulator of the not-too-intelligent Isaan. Narissa was an excellent counterpoint since she was supposed to be very cunning and manipulative but kept being outplayed by Carolina. When Narissa and Carolina both started making moves on Isaan sparks flew. Not love sparks. Dangerous sparks. Burn down a manor to collect the insurance sparks. At the end of the night Carolina finished their conflict by coup de grace via crossbow bolt to the face. The whole party felt good knowing Narissa was out of the picture.

But a nemesis is very particular and I want to be very clear about what I mean. I don’t create nemeses for player characters. I create nemeses for players. It’s much easier to create a compelling villain that affects my players when the villain is targeting what they like.

A nemesis for a player needs to hit their interests and sometimes you have to tweak the NPC you create depending on the campaign and the scenario. With that in mind here are my tips:

  • Figure out what each player generally wants out of DnD. A player who focuses on Roleplay won’t find a min-maxed villain with poor dialogue a great nemesis. They may hate them but not on a deep level that drives them to lute-murder them in a throne room. But a character who min-maxes to the extreme would despise a min-maxed villain who was able to kill an unkillable creation.
  • Tailor the NPC around the player character. Create a nemesis template for each of your regular players and use that template to build new NPC’s from. For example, one of my players reacts more to inanimate objects than to NPC’s. His nemesis in a campaign is always a magical item that he desperately wants but is punished for using or has to fight to use. A necklace that gives him +1 AC but is constantly trying to strangle him is a great nemesis for him. He is an odd squid.
  • Give the player a session where their nemesis is the spotlight. The venerable Chris Perkins of Acquisitions Incorporated and WOTC fame ran his 4th edition campaign like a television show where each sessions was an episode within a season. He liked to focus certain episodes on certain players and I love that format so long as you vary the focus and give every player a chance. That means that when you’re focusing on a character you should probably be focusing on their nemesis.
  • Have the nemesis target the player. In combat, with witty banter, and through other NPC’s. The nemesis needs to be an active participant in the hate-hate relationship that you have created. The player could lose interest in the nemesis if the nemesis isn’t actively trying to have their mind eaten or their heart cut out or their magic sapped away by the Gauntlet of Ark-Thul. Don’t make the player feel targeted but target the hell out of them. It takes work. It isn’t easy. But some of the greatest stories my table has produced involve nemesis fights.

What’s my one rule? I love making nemeses for my players.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The One-Shot Algorithm

We of Rules & Riddles have tried to give our readers a little glimpse into the kinds of shenanigans that we run every weekend at our gaming table. There have been angry, swearing, Wrecking Ball singing tower shields and insane monks and public executions of city officials and treasures galore. We put a lot of effort into making each session fun and memorable. Sometimes we put far too many hours into thinking about it, in fact.

So it may be daunting to hear stories of epic adventures and realize that being a DM means creating these types of things. I’ll be frank, it doesn’t come automatically or easily. Some of the things that pop up in gaming are the combined effort of a table full of creative people. They are often inspired by movies, or books, or video games, or even by a random occurrence in everyday life that sparks an idea. Rarely, and possibly never, does a DM pull every bit of an adventure out of the air. We are, after all, products of our environment.

As a new DM, I find it difficult to remember everything that needs to go into creating an adventure. Forget the epic/funny/clever details, I can’t even remember to fill in the information for a boss character. So how do you keep track of it all? Where do you start?

I’ve developed a process that seems to be working for me so far. It helps me to create something from start to finish without majorly damaging my brain by trying to keep it all packed in there. No doubt trial-and-error will perfect the process with time, but it’s a starting place. Take and leave what you will.

  1. Develop an Adventure Hook.

This is the very brief summary of what the adventure is about without actually revealing the mystery or surprise twists along the way. Here’s my hook for this coming weekend:

“Things start to get weird for the party when they are put in charge of Alcinia's pet rabbit, Mirage. Alcinia has threatened a severe curse on every party member and to dispel the magic on their most expensive items if anything happens to Mirage, but now the rabbit has escaped with the party in hot pursuit. Just where has the rabbit led them? They're pretty sure they aren't in the guild hall anymore.”

This gives you an idea of where your adventure will be going.

  1. Three Step Outline

Create a beginning, middle, and end point of the adventure. I even use four points sometimes to give myself more to work with in the middle. I saw this process somewhere once in an article (Hell if I know which one) as a tip for running a full campaign. In that case, it was used to allow improvisation while still having an idea of where the party needed to go. I prefer to use it as a bare bones look at what is really important in my one-shot and what challenges I want them to overcome.

  1. Determine Atmosphere and Style

Now is the time to figure out the setting if it is not done already. Are you in a city, a forest, a crypt, the ethereal plane? Is the forest creepy and haunted, or beautiful and natural? Are we dealing with a cyberpunk futuristic city or a medieval village? Decide.

  1. Map It Out

Style and the outline will determine the map for the one-shot. For the Piper City adventure, I used two maps. One was the map of the city and the other was the map for the underground tunnels. I could have also used a map for the tavern and for the guard station, but it wasn’t particularly necessary to the action.

Maps can be completely made up, or found pre-made on the internet. The Piper City maps were actually found on Pinterest (a surprisingly good resource for maps and NPC pictures). I just took some that looked like what I wanted and relabeled. Ta-dah!

  1. Fight, Test, Trick, and Treasure

Remember what I said about learning and growing my process? Well here’s the first addition. After my last one-shot, I decided that I needed each adventure to be more well-rounded.

So, onto the map or the adventure notes, try to identify a place where the players fight, a place where they go through a skill test, a place where there is a twist or trap that they won’t be expecting, and a few places for them to acquire treasure. Doing this will ensure that everyone who is playing has a little something in the adventure to get excited about.

  1. Fill In The Blanks

What’s missing or needs work? That’s all this step is about. If you added fights, make sure you have a villain character sheet or monster information page written up. Fill the treasure chests with cool loot. Transitioning from one part of the adventure to another may require interaction with an NPC, make sure that NPC is in place. This is the step to polish and perfect.

  1. Flavoring (Optional Add-Ins)

Now that the bulk of the work is done, extra flavor can be added. I like to customize a playlist for the adventure. A script can be written to remind yourself what important information an NPC has, or what features are notable in a particular room. If an erasable drawing mat isn’t your style, you can print out large maps for the table on which to put minis. There are a lot of little things that can be done to add to the experience that aren’t strictly necessary.

Following this process makes sure that I cover every aspect of adventure creation. It gives me confidence that I have everything handled when it comes time to step up to the table.

Now that you have the tools, let your creativity run free. Speaking of, I’d better get back to my own one-shot. Wonderland awaits.

Baby DM out.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rules for the Table

Saturday: The party has successfully infiltrated Lord North’s costume banquet. Lucan, the druid, has found a secret trapdoor leading into the secret basement and has led the party into the waiting clutches of three barbarian swordsmen who unleash their fury upon the party.

Ree Singga, a monk who is the champion of the common people, has unleashed a series of punches, neck strikes, and raking blows worthy of a big-budget superhero flick. In the wake of him blinding and murdering one swordsman I turn to Eric, the Cleric (I literally just got that he had done that now as I write this …) and see that he is busy on his smartphone playing 2048.

I don’t allow electronics at my gaming table.

When I’m not writing these articles or slaving over graph paper and a thesaurus (how many words are there for golden?), I’m a teacher. I don’t need to go into that anymore. Just understand that I have to deal with some of the worst human beings the planet has ever produced: teenagers. Teenagers that are glued to their smartphones, mp3 players, and tablets every moment I try to enlighten them about Constitutional Amendments.

I don’t have a problem with technology. Even now I’m typing this on a Dell laptop while I listen to music streamed through the internet that allows me to, at any moment, look up the exact name for a light, fast two-masted sailing ship (it’s a Brig) and the name of each individual sail on said ship (tops, royals, t’gallants, mains, etc). I use eReaders and if I could have a smartphone I probably would (data plans suck).

But at my table I don’t allow anyone but myself to have electronics. My players print out their character sheets and write with pencil. They roll dice on a wet-erase board I have hand-drawn maps upon and we each have minis we are attached to. In the past 2 weeks I’ve actually bought 5 new minis because I could. Actually I could probably use some more …

I have tricks for keeping players interested in the game. Encouraging roleplaying, giving them benefits if they are ready to take their action immediately, using NPC’s to provide needed hints or clues when they’re stuck on a puzzle or can’t figure out what to do next. Creating a mental toolbox like that is very important.

But the rules of your table, the House Rules as they are sometimes known, can have the greatest impact on how well your game is run. I shall share my House Rules now:

  • No electronics unless it’s an emergency. You can take a call and step away but if you are texting or playing a dumb game I’m gonna skip you. When you ask why there’s a big spider eating you and you never got to take an action against it, I’m going to laugh. Oh how I shall laugh and explain that your Elf was staring deeply into a crystal or was distracted by a bumblebee.
  • Describing your attack will always get you a bonus. Ree Singga told me exactly how he wanted to scrape his poisoned gloves over the neck of Roren the Swordsman. In fact he demonstrated it by standing up and raking his hands across either side of my neck. Did he get an auto-crit? No. But the poison on his gloves auto-succeeded.
  • One-away. I stole this rule from Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade fame. I stole it and I’m proud. Simply put, if one of my players rolls to hit and is 1 away from the creatures AC then I give them the opportunity to recover the attack and land it through roleplay. The party’s wizard, a Gnome Stage Magician named Zak, missed his Ray of Frost by 1 but because he aimed it low between everyone else’s legs the bolt ricocheted up into the face of Roren the Swordsman (he didn’t have a good day).
  • Advantage and Disadvantage. I learned about this from the new Dungeons and Dragons Next playtest. If you have advantage you get to roll 2d20’s and take the better. If you have disadvantage you have to roll 2d20’s and take the worse. It’s a remarkably simple and it doesn’t always mean the difference between success and failure but it’s the easiest method I have found of giving a player a benefit or a penalty. Dress up in a glamorous outfit for the costume ball? Advantage on Charisma to seduce the Lord’s son. Blinded by poison gloves? Disadvantage on your attack rolls.
  • Cool things must happen. I am more likely to give a player an automatic success or advantage or even just a +5 if their action is likely to lead to something incredibly awesome happening. I don’t punish players for being boring but I certainly reward players for wanting to climb onto dragons, trick villains with illusions, or make an incredible pun while executing a nemesis.

Make sure your players know your rules and if they don’t like them then open a dialogue. Tabletop gaming is a cooperative form of storytelling and gameplay that promotes incredible adventures and even better laughs. If a player isn’t happy because of one of your rules, find out why.

What’s my one rule? No electronics at my gaming table.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Can you even pronounce "Chalcedony?"

Kylaan is dead and his minions have dissipated. Lying in the corner of the room is a heap of treasure beyond the party’s wildest dreams. Piled on a table are seven ivory statuettes of women in states of leisure set beside two chests of glittering sapphires and eight great tomes bound in leather and tooled with precision, their pages illuminated by colored ink of silver, gold, red, and blue. Behind the table four mannequins stand proudly with suits of bronze plate mail, each set with the blazing sun of Pelor in copper upon its chest. A single scroll case of ivory rests against the leg of one armored statue, packed with ancient parchment. To the left, three great casks of dwarven liquor that gives off the pleasant scent of sweet honey draped in red and gold velvet cloaks.

The party salivates with anticipation.

Or you know … I could have given them 50,000 gold coins and sent them on their way. Which sounds better? If you said 50,000 gold coins then you may not be playing this RPG for the RP part. That’s cool. I won’t treasure shame you. Treasure’s treasure, right? And we all want it.

There’s something inherently more satisfying about acquiring treasure when it has personality to it. Anyone can find a chest of gold coins in an ancient dungeon. But a gold bound chest of sapphires and lapis lazuli stones with a single silver dagger plunged into the heart of the glittering gems? I hunger for that chest. I want to buy that chest dinner and some wine, play a little elven lute music to set the mood, and then spend the hell out of it.

It takes a bit of prep … that’s an understatement … it takes a metric butt ton of prep to create a treasure with the right personality. I’ve spent the better part of an hour creating just the right treasure with the right descriptors and the right gold value. I’ve done that more than once. I did that on Monday. Twice.

Hashtag real talk, everyone. A lot of us at one point in our life wanted nothing more than to become a pirate or an adventurer or Indiana goddamn Jones. We wanted to plunder ancient tombs or unwary merchant vessels so that we could have chests of gold and jewels to just look at. I think of it like a fire. You’re drawn to the fire just as you’re drawn to the idea of coins and jewels you can run your hands through. I have a complicated relationship with treasure and I accept that.

RPG’s let us do all of that. Rolling some dice and reading some numbers off of a character sheet gives us the opportunity to be rewarded for bravado, daring, and a clever wit. Sitting and laughing with friends about the silly thing we did a tavern that one time is its own reward but learning that our character is going home with a jeweled goblet and a longsword with a diamond in its pommel is a different matter.

So far all I’ve done is tell you that treasure is cool. You know that treasure is cool. You don’t need my help to know that treasure is cool. We’ve been trained from birth by movies, games, and books to know that treasure is something we want.

Here are my tips for creating the most delicious treasures in the world:

- There are resources for you. Old Sword and Sorcery stories are bursting at the seams with descriptions of city’s literally made out of gems, silk garments and the people wearing them, and what parts of attire should and should not be made out of gold. Seriously, go read an old Conan the Barbarian or Red Sonja story and tell me you can’t find description of a treasure hoard somewhere. I’ll wait. I’m still not gonna wait. I’m sorry I keep lying to you … I’m not, actually. That was also a lie. I’m a bad person, reader.
- Not all that glitters is gold. Silver, Copper, Bronze, Brass, Electrum, Gemstones, Marble, Polished Wood, Jade, and even Silk can shimmer and glitter and draw attention to itself. Someone in the world wants giant insect chitin. I don’t know if I want to be friends with that guy but he’s out there and he thinks chitin is treasure. Give that man some chitin.
- Little treasures are important. Giving the player an ivory salt box at the start of the dungeon can peak their interest. They might even become attached to the idea that someone in the world would go through the trouble of having a small salt box made out of ivory. Give them vials of ink and feathers from rare birds, belt buckles and velvet gloves, gem dice and illuminated playing cards, ornate weapons, beautiful pieces of armor, and even just a jeweled scabbard for their cutlass.
- Big treasures are important. A Black Iron Suit of Platemail with Gold Trim and a Winged Helmet is going to be worth quite a bit of coin. Or maybe the tank likes the idea of wading into a fight with black iron and gold. A magical artifact that grants the user the ability to talk to birds can be exactly what one of your players has always wanted and if its magic its gotta be worth a bit of cash.
- Give the players exactly what they want. If they’re raiding a silver mine then there better be some damn silver treasure in there. If they raid a library there better be a book or two. Even a book titled Codex Dracarys sounds like it might be valuable to people who like dragons. If they plunder the ancient and forgotten tomb of Sar-Azria, Sorceress Queen of long dead Kula, then there better be some ancient and forgotten mysteries that should have remained buried. Also gold. Gold’s good.
- Give the players what they never expected. The bones of a long dead saint who was important to your paladin’s god? Rad. Your warlock has been branded with the sigil of a lesser devil by touching its severed horn? Awesome. The rogue found a treasure map leading to the last treasure her father was searching for? Sounds like you know what you’re doing next week. Use treasure and loot to give your players direction for their characters.

Offer them more than mere gold.

Monday, May 12, 2014

One-Shot Review: Disappearances in Piper City

Saturday Night: The players are sent by their guild to check out the string of disappearances in Piper City's slums. After meeting with the captain of the town guard, Knoxin Holt, the party has a few leads to follow. There's a large tavern near the port, where they may hear some rumors, or the party can go to the River District, home of the missing people. The party eagerly chooses the tavern. 

Mentioning the tavern was the first of my many mistakes. I hadn't realized while I made this one-shot that the party I would be dealing with was mostly evil. They could really care less about some disappearances, but mention a tavern and I had their attention. My intent had been for them to check out the River District, talk to some people, and then go to the tavern where I could direct them to a supposedly haunted house in the Wind District.

So, lesson the first: Set clear hooks. If you want your players to go somewhere first, don't tempt them to stray. I made the mistake of mentioning the tavern, when I really wanted them to go to the River District.

The Naked Piper Tavern is full to bursting. Sailors, musicians, prostitutes, servers, some off duty guards, and gossiping women, sit at tables around the room. 

Zugg, the half-Orc fighter of the party, bellows at the barkeep, attracting the attention of some half-Orc sailors. They all fist bump excitedly. Iyrn, cleric to the goddess of lust and outer beauty, sidles up to the prostitutes. The rogue and gnome wizard wander around the tavern before finding seats at an empty table. 

Zugg leaves his Orc friends and decides to demand information from everyone in the bar. The sailors know nothing of the disappearances and others know very little. Iyrn finally interferes as Zugg bellows at a table of gossiping women. 

One woman has some information. The husband of her friend Lorena went missing a few weeks ago. It was a shame, because he had just found a new job and Lorena was looking forward to getting out of the River District slums for good. 

Iyrn sweet talks the woman a bit more, bribing her with a little gold before she will tell him more. The job had seemed a bit strange. A woman had come in on a ship about two months previously and started hiring people out of the River District for some kind of secret project. Lorena's husband had disappeared a little while after starting the job. 

Despite my subtle attempts to lead the party back to the River District, hoping that they would find and talk to Lorena, they continue to question the bar patrons.

Iyrn finds out from a prostitute named Sylvia, who talks in an annoying valley girl accent, that despite the disappearances in the River District the guards have been focusing their patrols on the Wind District. It seems that the residents of the Wind District have been reporting weird noises coming from an empty house and have used their influence in the city (The Wind District being the most wealthy district) to get more guards stationed in the area. 

The party decides to leave, shooting the barkeep with a poison dart and knocking him out (evil party, remember) before declaring an open bar and running away. They rush over to the Wind District, intent on checking out this mysterious haunting. There are a great number of guards in the area. Zugg once again decides that if he yells at them loud enough, he will get information. The party circumvents him, questioning the guards before convincing them that there's a brawl at the Naked Piper that needs to be taken care of. Supposedly, some prostitutes had even started to mud wrestle. Iyrn also talks the guards into leaving one of their medallions, so that other guards would recognize that the party is working for the city. 

Moving along, the party talks to a citizen, discovers the location of the haunted house, and collects some taxes ("You collected taxes just last week." "We implemented a new one... for.... Zoo Upkeep and Grounds-keeping. Your city thanks you for your contribution."). They find that the haunted house is being watched by guards who have been stationed there by the captain himself. The party scares them off with a few bellows from their half-Orc, approach the haunted house, and kick the door in before striding into the front room. 

My second mistake: not putting any traps on the front door. Or in the house at all. Nothing. A half-Orc came busting through the door and there wasn't a single punishment put into place. Truthfully, I hadn't been thinking about endangering my party when I had designed this one-shot. I set out to write a mystery, and write one I did. Unfortunately, that meant that there wasn't much of a challenge for my characters. They never feared for their lives or had anything at stake but the success of the mission.

So the lesson that I took from this is: Make your adventure well-rounded. A mystery still needs action and danger. An obstacle course should make players use their brain. A fight shouldn't be all about rolling to attack. Adventures that are all one note leave players dissatisfied.

In my case, they kept expecting a trap to take someone out. If I had just added one or two traps, it would have upped the tension of the whole adventure. Busting into a door only to set off an explosion would have made the players wary of everything else. They also would have known that this house and whatever was in it meant business.

Once inside, the party can hear the weird noise that everyone had been reporting. It's coming from below them, clink clink crunch. They search the house, finding it empty except for some rooms full of beds upstairs. In the kitchen, there's a door covered in dirty hand prints that leads down to a cellar. The party descends down the stairs. The cellar is dimly lit, looking rather ordinary except for a large hole in the floor. A ladder disappears down the hole and into the darkness. The weird sound is louder now. 

The party descends the ladder, finding themselves in some roughly cut tunnels. Unstable wooden beams hold up the ceiling in some places. Traveling through the tunnels, the party finds a room of preserved dead bodies (some of the missing people of the River District), carrion crawlers, and guards with guard dogs waiting to take out the intruders that had set off the alarm spells (whoops. No one used detect magic). Zugg mangles everything in his path while the wizard, Zac, takes out the beams in the central corridor to collapse the tunnel.

The party uses the other tunnels to maneuver around the now collapsed section, and approaches a final tunnel section where the sounds are the loudest. The rogue, Sarven, peaks in and sees the source of the noise. Workers use pickaxes to chip away at the wall of the chamber, clink clink, before wheeling heavy carts through the rubble to collect the largest pieces of stone, crunch. The workers are bedraggled and underfed. Men, women, and children, look ready to collapse at any moment.

Three people oversee the work. One is a flamboyantly dressed woman with hand crossbows strapped to her side. Another is a halfling mage holding a staff and looking decidedly nervous. The final figure has the party outraged. Knoxin Holt, captain of the guard, watches the workers while flirting with the flamboyant woman. Guards and dogs stand around the room as well, keeping order. 

The party makes an entrance, questioning Holt for a bit before Zac throws a fireball into the middle of the enemies. The halfling mage steps out of the fight. 

Here was an area of improvisation. I had actually forgotten to write up the information of the halfling mage and I didn't have the knowledge to completely wing it. So I had her step out of the fight, claiming that she didn't know that she was getting herself into murder and didn't want part of this. That left the flamboyant woman, Carolina, and the captain to face our party. I upped their health a bit to compensate for the lack of a third party member, and increased the health of all of their guards.

Even with this adjustment, the fight was fairly quick. Having a cleric in the party means that the tank gets to come back no matter how much you throw at him. So, always have some kind of magic user among the enemies. It really helps.

And furthermore, get comfortable with improvisation. Just because you wrote it one way, doesn't mean you can't change it to suit your needs.

By the end of the fight, Sarven is unconscious but otherwise the party is still standing. Carolina and Knoxin have been knocked out and tied up. Iyrn revives everyone, bringing them back to consciousness. Sarven, who had challenged Zugg to a duel earlier in the adventure is abruptly knocked out again by the still rampaging half-Orc. After questioning the enemies, dispelling the curse on a crypt of goodies that the baddies were trying to uncover, claiming the loot, and releasing the captive workers, the party deals with their own captives. 

Carolina is too hot to die, apparently. Iyrn decides to let her go and she even talks him into giving her a finder's fee for the treasure. She disappears through the tunnels. The halfling is likewise released. Zac steals her staff, but she is otherwise allowed to go unharmed. However, the party wants to see Knoxin Holt bleed. The party decides to drag him to the Naked Piper, where the kegger still rages even though the barkeep has survived the poison dart and is back behind the bar charging for beers. 

Holt is threatened into confessing his crimes and then Sarven executes him on a table in the middle of the bar. It's all very bloody and the party abruptly leaves, probably so they don't have to clean up the mess or pay for the ruined clothing of half the patrons. Satisfied with a job well done, the party happily says goodbye to Piper City. 

This adventure went significantly better than my first one-shot. I was better prepared overall and had come up with a decent hook in order to entice my party into wanting to follow the trail I had set for them. And that, I think, is the most important part. The party will forgive a lot of things and are much less likely to rabbit off in a completely new direction if they are interested enough in where your story is going on its own.

But that may be a discussion for a different post.

When we had finished and were sitting around the gaming table, everyone was asked to give their pro and con list for the adventure. Overall, my friends were very supportive. They had liked the mystery that I had set and the NPCs that I had created. On the other hand, my traps were lacking, my impromptu descriptions were weak, and there was not nearly enough loot to be had in the maze of tunnels. I was also told that the annoying valley girl voice was going to be used against me at a later date.

So, my final word of advice: Listen to your party, both during the game and after. While being a DM can be fun in itself, your primary job is to make sure that everyone else can have fun too. Your players aren't expecting perfection, but if it's not fun they won't be coming back. Use their advice to improve, and then get back out there for another adventure.

Catch me back here on Friday, where I'll be going through the prep process for my next one-shot: Alcinia in Wonderland.

Baby DM out.

Friday, May 9, 2014

What do you mean "Swords are Lame"?!

Brom charged the door, caving it inwards with one mighty blow from his tower shield. This had been his preferred way of bringing down dreaded doors. Or bringing down demons. Or skeletons. or allied players …

Without breaking stride he gave the bird on his shoulder a pat and said in the thickest Russian accent you ever heard, “Is bad door. Needs work.”

Based on the new League of Legends character, a brand new player at my table desperately wanted to play a champion who wields nothing but a big tower shield that he uses to hit people with. Yes, he bases most of his decisions on League of Legends and I know what you’re thinking: “There aren’t rules for an item like that! He’d have to take a feat to be able to use a weapon like that! He’d have to lose the AC bonus for the round he attacked- I’ma stop you there before you manage to push your glasses all the way through your bridge of your nose. That’s dangerous.

What’s my one rule?

Always say yes.

I whipped up a 1d8, +4 AC Tower Shield of Wrecking for him in about 5 minutes. Made it a Songcraft weapon so it would play brief seconds from Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball whenever he struck an object. And after it played through the whole song? Became sentient and pissed about it. Basically if Danni Devito could be a sentient shield that swore and spoke in rhyming, derogatory couplets.

“Don’t you know how to duck?
Seriously, bro, what the f***?!”

We laughed about that shield for 2 hours as we made it and we laughed for the entire 6 hour session as he took out doors, enemies, walls, and used it as a makeshift tent. We had more fun that we had ever imagined laughing about a tower shield. Seriously, think about a regular tower shield and try to make it funny.

I’ll wait.

I lied. I’m not gonna wait.

Making weird or interesting weapons for your players is something you should approach with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. Sorta like snake charming. Anytime a player wants something weird or special it’s a dangerous moment. They could be trying to break the game. They could be trying to get an edge on whatever monsters you’re going to throw at them. They could be trying to wring you out of a nice item for cheap.

Or they could be trying to have fun.

Not everyone who plays an RPG wants to be a knight or a thief or a sorceress or a shieldmaiden. Some want to be goofy and silly and have fun alongside the serious players who are very, very concerned about the fate of Elven racial rights. I’ll address how to hold together a party of mixed personalities at a later time but when a player has an idea that will lead to fun I generally roll with it. I’m going to use that pun a lot. Get used to it.

My approach to making new items, weapons, or artifacts is to remember to balance the issue. If Brom is wielding only a Tower Shield then that’s his only weapon. He can’t wield anything else so no torch in his off-hand. Two attacks if he’s lucky and a cover bonus for his allies. Just his allies. If he wants to be the party’s tank then he’s gonna be the party’s tank.

If he had tried to complain I would have told him to take a sword and board get over it. Don’t let your players push you around. Especially when you’re doing them a favor and giving them something cool. Sometimes players are like 4 year olds and they need to have very clear boundaries because you can’t use magic to manipulate shopkeepers without dipping toward evil and you have to eat your vegetables because I said so.

So his Shield has to do damage but not as much damage as possible. I made it 1d8 because it’s a good middle range of damage that won’t aggravate the great sword wielding paladin or the hammer throwing ranger dwarf. Four AC boost because it’s a walking wall of steel but that means he’s going to get disadvantage on just about any check that requires him to be agile. For every 1up mushroom I throw the party I try to throw a banana peel just to be safe. Sometimes literal banana peels. I have a lot of players that prefer to charge into danger.

When you make a new item keep these things in mind and you should do fine:
- Consider the item’s role
- Make certain the item cannot break the party dynamic
- Make certain the item is fun, not a pain

For now I’ll put this topic aside. I may return to it someday, dust it off, and wonder what the hell I was doing.