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Friday, June 27, 2014

The Coolest D&D Monster That Nobody Uses - The Spellweaver

Nobody has been able to touch this. Scroll down!
I am converting the Lamentations adventure "Doom Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children" for D&D Next to run this Sunday night. I'll keep this blog post free of dirty details, but basically in that adventure, a guy finds a massive crystal in a cave that gives him 22 centuries of knowledge (Earth pop culture...??). He, uhhh, "uses" it's entry port to make an army of crystal-headed children which he will force to take over the world or something.

I know this kind of thing is too wacky for some. My group gets a big kick out of it. Although in this instance, I want to remove the "earth pop culture" element. I need some other entity to be behind the crystals - so I chose one of my favorite monsters - Spellweavers!

As a fan of the art of Tony DiTerlizzi, I first noticed the spellweavers through his illustration of them in the AD&D Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume One. They just look awesome and weird.
 
Come on, now, people.
That said, I despise some of their depictions in 3rd edition, particularly the "black t-shirt bird face" version. Unacceptable!

- The thing that I like the most about them is how dangerous and weird they are. They have 6 arms, and can cast multiple spells per round! That's one arm for each spell level. So they could cast two level 3 spells at once (two lightning bolts?), or 6 level one spells (6 magic missiles!), etc.

- They are from some alternate prime material plane. They come to our realms to steal or study magic items and phenomena.

- They carry a chromatic disk in one hand. It gives them more spell points (normally the amount of spells they cast per day is tied to their hit points). If other races try to use a chromatic disk, it explodes in a 30 foot radius doing 10d4 (I hate rolling that many d4s) damage. It is said that they make these disks by drawing energy out of other magic items.

- They communicate telepathically. Attempts to contact them telepathically result in insanity for d6 days!

Better, but still not close to DiTerlizzi.
- Once per day it can create a 200 foot radius zone that blocks scrying and planar travel. It lasts for ten minutes.

- They reproduce through "magical fission". A spellweaver will split into two beings.

- Sometimes they lie dormant and invisible for months in a magic location. If you wake them up, they will probably kill you.

- The entry includes charts for determining which and how many spells they know.

When reading up on spellweavers, I discovered that they actually debuted in Dragon Magazine. The article is virtually identical to the entry in the appendix. It includes art by the author which definitely confirms that the DiTerlizzi depiction is more "correct" than the dude in the black t-shirt.

There is an "ecology" in one of the Paizo Dragon magazines. I am kind of pumped about it because Paizo comes up with some badass stuff. Let's see what we get:
 
Should not look like the alien from Signs!
- Spellweavers are the last descendants of a magically advanced empire that spanned worlds and planes.

- This empires had colonies, called nodes - big pyramids of stone and steel powered by magic furnaces. They were connected through a portal network.

- They enslaved primitive creatures, and would wipe out threatening cultures by giving them powerful magic items that would destroy them from within (maybe like a deck of many things? Or the classic douche move - the mislabeled potion of poison, heh heh).

- They are obsessed with different types of language and communication.

- They tried some experiment that would alter reality that caused a catastrophe. All of their furnaces exploded. There were relatively few survivors.

Spellweaver language info
- They can turn their necks completely around. Their blood is blue and like quicksilver. That's awesome.

- This article says chromatic disks can be made from a mediation process, where the spellweaver exudes blood and fluids to for a new one out of metallic resin.

- They live for 600 years. When it is time for them to die, they drain the magic from an epic pile of magic items and make a coffin. Then they lie in the coffin for at least a month, and then emerge renewed and with darker skin, ready to live for another 600 years. Pretty cool.

- Spellweavers can "regenerate" like that 6 times. Then they do this ritual with six disks where they decay and a newborn rises up with all of the memories and mental abilities of the 'parent'.

- They do not revere deities. They are looking for gems that contain pieces of the "Code of Reversion", which is a thing that can reverse time to before the catastrophe that destroyed their empire. They refer to the catastrophe as "The  Disjunction". There are two theories as to what the spellweavers were doing that caused the catastrophe:

1. Ascension: The spellweavers discovered the language that could alter reality. Gods have some knowledge of this language. The entire spellweaver race tried to learn this language to ascend to godhood en masse. The gods may have thwarted this, creating a magical backlash. That is epic.

2. Unification: The spellweavers thought that all planes and worlds sprung from one reality that were chopped up by deities. The spellweavers tried to merge them again.

Can't even....
There is a supplementary article with some more Spellweaver stuff. Unfortunately they kick it off with a picture of some birdface BS holding a frisbee.

- The Silver Hexameric Folio is 3 separate pentagonal books made of silver and covered in spellweaver hieroglyphics. A metallic cord connects them. There is art of this, because Paizo is awesome.

- It is sentient and will try to get your PC to rebuild the spellweaver empire.

- If you figure out the secret of the folio (re-arrange the pages) you can learn new spells created by the spellweavers:

Anamensis: You tap into the collective memory of the spellweavers and gain a bonus to knowledge checks. It lasts an hour per level, and during this time you hear hums and clicks, as if some weird thing was trying to contact you. Kind of cool. I'd change this from just a static bonus.

You can hold your dice in them.
Cynosure: This spell makes plane shift and teleport spells more accurate.

Modulate: You can use this spell on a wand to then infuse the wand with another spell, to cast instead. That's pretty crazy. This only lasts one minute per level, though.

Siphon: You can drain charges from a magic item to allow yourself to cast an expended spell.

Spell Star: You create a hovering star. You cast spells into it. If anyone casts those spells at you, the spell star automatically counters it! Nasty. Pretty creative!

Spellweavers were used in the Shackled City adventure path, in an adventure called The Demonskar Legacy. The spellweavers had built a thing called the Starry Mirror.

They used the Amaranth Elixir, a magic potion that made ogres stronger but more easily controlled.

The heroes fight their way through an ancient Spellweaver lair, now over-run with monsters. There's some hags that control spellweaver skeletons. The PCs have to jump through the Starry Mirror, which was basically a mirror portal network.

When I ran this back in around 2008, one PC bravely jumped in. Another, a selfish rogue, refused. The rogue was scolded by the paladin's trusty minion, a one hit point kobold, who tied a rope to his waist and jumped in after his liege.

Passage between mirrors was not direct. The heroes ended up in color-coded puzzle rooms that were very confusing. As I recall, my PCs couldn't figure it out. I am terrible at puzzles like this myself, so an NPC aided them. It was one of those puzzles linked to the color wheel aka ROY G BIV.

There is another Shackled City adventure that involves Spellweavers. It is called Secrets of the Soul Pillars. Underneath the city the heroes live in is another Spellweaver ruin called Karran-Kural which was a complex designed to research a combination of necromancy and cold magic.
 
Inside are glass tubes that hold motionless spellweavers in them. They are not alive or dead. If the PCs check them out, there's a cool little chart that you roll on to see what the spellweaver does. It's mostly a thing to freak out the PCs. If freed they dissipate into black smoke.

There are soul pillars - things made of necrotic grey flesh that contain spellweaver lore. PCs can ask the pillars questions of the spirits trapped within. They answer in "yes" or "no". This seems kind of... not very spellweaver-y.

The whole place is guarded by an undead dragon named Vitriss Bale. My party had a truly epic fight with him. The party rogue was riding the dragon, stabbing it, and puled off this maneuver where he got it to bite at him as he jumped off of it onto a ledge, triggering the paladin's mark, killing it.

In Dungeon 130, there's an Age of Worms adventure with.. a spellweaver lich! What a great idea. The text then goes on to say that not only is its' chromatic disk not used as a phylactery, it's not even used at all. Sheesh it seems like the disk is beyond perfect as a phylactery. Just make one and stash it somewhere.

6-armed alien is just like a normal lich. Got it!
Then the text goes on to tell us this guy is just like a normal lich. Well.. uh.. OK.

Seems like a waste!

The 4th edition version of these creatures is a misfire, in my opinion. They are reclassified as "weavers". There's battleweavers, thoughtweavers, etc. And they used the black t-shirt art again on the second page! Come on!
Not quite...

The lore claims that the weavers tried to fight "a terrible incursion from the Far Realm". Why do you have to fix what isn't broken? And really.. the Far Realm? I've just never found it very interesting. There's not too much you can do with the Far Realm. Madness! Tentacles! Got it. Although hey, maybe someone could cook up an entire Far Realm adventure path, what do I know. I do remember there being a very cool Far Realm encounter in Madness at Gardmore Abbey.

The book (Monster Manual 3, that is) goes on to say that the nodes and furnaces are active. The weavers are working toward The Disjunction in 4th edition. I love 4e, but this is not doing it for me.

They are extremely high-level. Level 28! Their stat blocks are very underwhelming. When dazed, they get a standard... and a minor action! Gasp. They're level 28, just say they can't be dazed due to their multi-tasking brains and be done with it.

I can stomach the other types of weavers. I guess it gives depth to their culture.

So there you go, a ridiculously thorough inspection of what I consider a very cool and under-utilized monster. I think you have to be careful not to portray them too much like aliens from Independence day or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They feel like it'd be easy to make them too sci-fi for the liking of some.

But I think with care and the proper tone, these can be freaky and deadly creatures for mid to high level characters to come across. Please, just don't put them in a freaking t-shirt.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dead In Thay: Trying to Impress New Players

We are rapidly approaching the release of 5th edition. From what I understand, WPN stores will be getting the starter sets on July 3rd. The store owner asked me if I'd run some demo games in exchange for a free starter set. My answer: Yes.

While I am pretty fired up about Tyranny of Dragons, I am a bit bummed for my players. Their characters have gotten all the way to eighth level and they'll be a little sad to start over.

I ran the latest installment of Dead in Thay yesterday. As I sat down and set up, two new players asked to jump in. Both were female. One was about 11 years old. That was awesome. In all the years I have run encounters, I don't think I've ever had a young female jump in, Immediately I was determined to sell her on D&D and really tried my best to make sure she understood the rules and most importantly, had a good time.
 
Unfortunately, I don't think I succeeded. My regulars showed up - teenage boys. They all sat together and for some reason were really fired up about talking about video games. The two new players were a bit isolated from them. My guys weren't overly welcoming.

I remember back when I was in high school running games of D&D. The players were often impossible to corral. They'd start talking about some movie or telling jokes and I just couldn't get them to focus on the game. A few times when it got really obnoxious I literally got up and left. They'd come find me and beg me to come back, and promise to pay attention.

I am a grown man, now. I can't go sulk. So I have to loudly try and keep these guys in line. It was a bad first impression.

Secondly, the new players remarked to me that this adventure was very "kill-y". I can't disagree. I love this adventure, but it is a whole lot of hacking and slashing. I think they were looking for something with more variety.

Who knows, maybe they'll show up next week, but I am not optimistic about it. I gave it my best shot.

Our heroes had chosen to go through The Predator Pools last time. We continued that. Once its' done, they want to try the Forest of Slaughter.

78. Undead Pool

This is a room with a pool and 8 aquatic ghouls. The new player's wizard launched a fireball into the room and killed half of them in a single shot. She got a big kick out of that. The rest of the heroes ran in to mop up in their inimitable berserker style.

79. Bone Pool

Four merrows, slaughtered. The new player cast sleep, which unfortunately wasn't too effective. Each merrow has 56 hit points, and her sleep spell only affected one creature of 20 hit points or less. I cheated and had one merrow fall asleep. More mad hacking followed.

I believe it was in this encounter where a player was eating food from Wendy's. He had one of those little cups that holds ketchup. He went to roll to hit and plop.. right in the ketchup. I wanted to count the roll, but it was cocked between an 8 and a natural 20.

I think normally I would have counted it as a 20 just because it was fun and unique. But one of my pet peeves is people eating meals while we play D&D. In fact, I am of the belief that it's a little rude to eat a meal like that in front of people in general. Eat before you come. Snacks, obviously, are fine during a game. A steak dinner, not so much. Usually at this game, I just wait for them to finish eating and then we start, but in this instance I wanted the new players to get started right away. I didn't want to bore them for 15 minutes watching this dude eat a chicken sandwich.

80. Black Gate Pool

Somewhere during this encounter, the older new player had her boyfriend come and watch. He seemed nice. I think he has played D&D before. He was making comments to me about the group, asking me why Hack and Slash Guy was running clear across the room alone. I explained to the boyfriend that that was what he always did. 

"But he's going to die," pointed out the boyfriend. Hack and Slash guy smiled and pointed out the cleric would heal him.

There was a bunch of weak kuo toas in here. I like kuo toas - especially their minis. They just look cool to me. I at this point sensed the possibility of this becoming a very dull session. In this room were some of those hovering globes of water that you can move with an INT check and suck people in them. So I had the kuo toas use them. The new player wizard decided to use them to. She loved it. At the end, she had control of a globe that a creature was stuck inside of. I told her she could do whatever she wanted with it. We all brainstormed ideas like having him spin around like he's in a washing machine, mixing foul substances into it, etc.

She again had a big smile on her face and was laughing.

81. Spawn Hall
 
This room had a bunch of pools full of tadpoles that hurt you if you go in. Also lurking in the room were a horde of undead. 4 zombies, 2 wights and 2 dread warriors. Originally there was one dread warrior but I decided to add one as things had been extremely easy for the heroes.

The thing about these tadpole pools is just the fact that nobody is going to go into them. I guess I could use a monster action to throw them in. In retrospect, I should have done that. I had four zombies, I could have had them do like zombies do - grab a PC and drag them in.

The extra dread warrior made a big difference. He's got 75 hit points and 2 attacks per round. I have some PCs with ACs of 18 or 19, so hitting them is difficult. Zombies have a +2 to hit, so it's almost not even worth it to attack them. But, then again, a zombie isn't going to decide to attack someone because they have leather armor on, right? It's just going to lunge for the closest living thing.

Hack and Slash Guy ran clear across the room and ate face-fulls of magic missiles. It was a somewhat challenging fight for them. The new player fired off a lightning bolt. She thought about using burning hands, but it would have hit her allies. The undead were eventually defeated.

We stopped it there. The heroes needed a rest. I continue to allow them to rest in the Seclusion Crypt whenever they like, at the cost of aging two years. They rest literally every session, so the humans are getting up there and approaching middle age, which I find very cool and different. This dungeon is taking its' toll on them in a very unique way. Yes they will defeat Szass Tam, but it is literally taking decades off of their lives.

I told the new players they did a great job and told them the different games I run in the store and that they were welcome to play. I did the best I could.

I almost forgot. A guy came up to me while I was running the game. He had played in encounters years ago and he and his girlfriend want to jump in again. This guy was not exactly a team player back then and pretty much single-handedly caused a TPK in a fight against the black dragon in Keep on the Borderlands: A Season of Serpents because he absolutely insisted on hitting the dragon and the party with area burst attacks. The group was furious at him and he got the message and stopped coming. That kind of thing will go over like a lead balloon with this group, so I guess we'll see if he shows up and if he does, whether he's grown out of that kind of thing.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dead in Thay: Free RPG Day

Yesterday was Free RPG Day. Each year at the game store, they handle the distribution of the products differently. Sometimes they're plopped out there for anyone to take, and other times they are locked away in a vault and rationed to a handful of people who know the secret code.

So going in, I just assumed the worst. I had been given the DCC RPG free rpg day adventure already so hey, I made out just fine. I did want the Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure if possible.

This was one of the good years. I was handed not only the Lamentations adventure, but also an LoTF rulebook! I was bowled over. The store manager told me that all sorts of extra stuff had come in the kit - including a 13th Age hardcover and.. a Dungeon Crawl Classics rulebook!

My mind was blown! Because of this, one of my players got the DCC RPG book.. for free. He was beyond happy. It was awesome.

We ended up with three tables running at the same time. Wizards of the Coast did not provide anything this year, so that meant we had two Pathfinder tables going while I ran some more of Dead in Thay's Doomvault for two regular Encounters players and two new people.

The new people were nice and had played a lot of older editions of D&D.

My players were ready to explore a new section that looked cool to them - the Predator Pools. When preparing them, I was very underwhelmed. It was just a series of rooms with a bunch of fights with aquatic trolls, aquatic ghouls, etc. Some rooms had hovering globes of water 15 feet in diameter that the heroes and the bad guys could move around with an intelligence check. If you get sucked in to one, it is tricky to get out.

74. Kraken Pool

OK.. I must be missing something here. If the PCs look into this pool, a kraken attacks. This thing has 174 hit points and 3 attacks at +11 that do 21 damage each! This adventure is for characters of levels 6-8! This kraken can kill some PCs in one round. I thought this monster was way too powerful.

I had two new people with level 7 characters. I decided ahead of time I'd play it by ear. I halved the bonus to hit, the damage, and the hit points. The encounter became more of a story thing where the PCs would get snatched up in tentacles, and the others would run over and cut off the tentacles to free their buddies. It worked out really well, and I ran it as a "soft" intro to the rules.

Telling people how this edition works is very easy, by the way. You say:

- You get one action and a move on your turn
- Your saving throws are keyed to your stats. So you make a DEX saving throw, a CON saving throw, etc.
- Sometimes you get Advantage, which means you roll twice and take the higher result. Disadvantage means you roll twice and take the lower result.

That's about it! Each class has a few gimmicks. When I looked at the halfling rogue pregen, I was really impressed with their abilities, including getting to re-roll natural one's.

75. Dragon Turtle Prison

In this room, two dragon turtles are on long chains. They lurk in a pool. There's two hovering globes of water. The heroes sent the rogue in with her cloak of invisibility active. She still made a stealth to avoid making noise.. rolled natural 20's each time! She listened at one door and heard screams (the Naga who rules this area was eating a prisoner) and nothing at the other door.

The heroes eventually used the globes on the dragon turtles, trapping them (sort of). I played this very loose with the rules as well, opting to go with fun ideas over what the adventure says should happen.

I should note that again, I thought the dragon turtles were wayyyy too powerful. There is some text in the adventure about the turtles just wanting to leave the place, but still...! Two of them?!

76. Naga's Den

There's a naga in here with ten dominated prisoners. I guess the prisoners aren't consequential..? The adventure was vague on them and their role in all this.

We ended up having a huge battle that spread into the previous room. The naga moved one of the globes with the dragon turtle to trap the rogue in it with the turtle! So our rogue was floating in the globe fighting with the turtle.

These rooms were very big, so there was a lot of double movement going on. Eventually, the rogue was freed by an NPC ally (Aphrodite, the half-drow/half-tiefling that the PCs saved from the black dragon mewling last Wednesday).

The naga was killed and the treasure was looted.

77. Scrag Pool

Just a couple of Sea Trolls. They were easily killed. I liked this because I got to use my favorite minis - the Pathfinder Skull & Shackles Sea Trolls.

That's it! It was an above average session. All in all, Free RPG Day was great and everything worked out pretty well. People around here aren't well-informed about D&D 5th edition at all, so I'm not sure how it is going to be received upon release.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Dead in Thay: Sloppy Dice

Lose your grip and pay the price
Last Wednesday we jumped back into the Doomvault. It went fine, I guess. It was an average session.

I've been a little swamped with work and all these games I'm running, but so far I'm keeping my head above water.

Today is Free RPG Day and I'll be heading into the store in a couple of hours to run more of this adventure. Free RPG Day is different every year, here. Sometimes it's crowded, sometimes it's dead. Sometimes the free stuff is laid out on a table, sometimes the stuff is distributed like it's the last slices of pizza on a.. uh.. ninja turtle planet. Yeah there you go.

I want one thing: The Lamentations of the Flame Princess Free RPG Day book. And the Shadowrun thingie, if possible. I will remain cautiously optimistic that I have a chance of obtaining one or either.

I also threw it out there to the store owner that if there are any free dice in the Free RPG Day kit, that my players sorely need them. The dice shortage among these youngsters has reached critical mass. Hack and Slash Guy lost his free black d20 that he got for playing this season. It was the only die he owned.

We now have three players sharing one set of dice. I don't know why or how this is, but I'd say that about 25% of the time when they roll dice, the dice fly off the table. Sometimes it is because when they roll, they flip it in the air backwards - towards themselves. It is a phenomenon I like to call "Sloppy Dice". There is a song you can sing when it happens as punishment:

"Sloppy Dice! Sloppy Dice! Lose your grip and pay the price!"

The price being, of course, the singing. You should sing it like you are a British villain with a deep voice delivering a sinister monologue.

So, because of their sloppy dice-rolling tendencies, often when they try to pass the dice to each other the dice go rocketing off the table - through the air, off an old NES game and into some dusty crack in the store. The game comes to a halt as the player gets on all fours and rummages through stuff to find the one d8 that all three of them collectively possess.

If I focused on this too much I think I would lose my mind. I don't understand people who can't just do a little die flip in a controlled space for their die rolls.. or how they can't LEARN to do it after playing for months and months and months. I had this one guy a few years back who would just launch his d20 as if he were skipping a stone across a pond. It would ricochet off of glasses, chairs and people. Ridiculous! Let's put a stop to sloppy dice once and for all, OK, everyone?

23. Dead Garden
 
In this room, there's vines that snare you if you move more than 10 feet. It is funny how I am running all these games and sometimes the dungeon room concepts overlap. I just ran The Emerald Enchanter for DCC RPG on Monday and there's a room just like this, except there was a hovering sun orb and an emerald ogre. In this room were zombies and wights. Yes, Hack and Slash Guy ran in and got hammered with magic missiles again.

24. Pale Garden

There's 12 skeletons who are collecting plants in baskets in here. They pay the heroes no mind. There's three shambling mounds lurking in here.I didn't like this room. Well... to be more accurate, I'm pretty sure I ran it wrong. I didn't quite remember when or how or even if the mounds attack. Something about touching the pillars? Each mound has 93 hit points! I guess I can't blame the room for my poor reading comprehension.

25. Dreaming Garden

This room is loaded with wights, zombies and dread warriors. There's a "mewling" black dragon eating a lady (my group decided she was a half-drow/half-tiefling named Aphrodite and she has red hair). Also lurking in here was a Red Wizard named Thuria. He got dropped right away by the hack and slash guy.

The dragon was a bit too weak. I think this is the first dragon the PCs have come across in the last three Encounters seasons, and it was underwhelming to say the last. I do like how it was chewing on a slave. It's a memorable encounter. But it felt too weak and kind of a waste.

That's it! That's all that we got to in two hours! I don't know why they are progressing so slowly. Sloppy dice can really add up. Plus it was really nice out and everybody was a little giddy. The more time rolls on, the more I believe in Seasonal Affective Disorder. It makes me want to move to Florida.

The dungeon is cool but I am starting to feel like it needs more traps and variety. A lot of the same monsters get repeated over and over. It makes it easy for me to prepare but I am starting to have to try harder to keep their interest.

Seeing how we obviously won't get through the whole Doomvault in the 5 or 6 weeks remaining in this season, I had them pick the next section to go to. They chose the Predator Pools.

I am actually running the Pools for some of them today in the store for Free RPG Day. The pools are.. well... underwhelming. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Pillar of Skulls and Other Planescape Hell Stuff

(Excuse to post Tony DiTerlizzi art)
We continue to explore D&D Hell! There's quite a bit of good information spread out through many books. Maybe someday somebody can take all of the printed material and compile it into one hardcover definitive book.

This time out we're going to go through another Planescape book - Well of Worlds. It is an adventure anthology which includes one adventure set in hell. I ran this back in the 90's as an add-on to my Rogue Mistress campaign (which I declared one of the best adventures of all time). It went over very well.

This is one of the Planescape books loaded up with Tony DiTerlizzi art. That means I get to bedazzle you, the reader, with some of his most awesome work. His art is so good that it really fueled my desire to run these adventures, and made me especially excited to run the encounter with the pillar of skulls. The adventure in question is the first one in the book, entitled "To Baator and Back". Remember, Baatezu = Devils!

1. Avernus
 
My favorite depiction of the Lady of Pain
We actually kick off the adventure with a lengthy description of Avernus. The sky is dark red and the screams of the damned can be heard in the air. "Random fireballs burst furiously from the ground, weave about the landscape, then flare into brightness and explode in a rush of heat and energy." I prefer fireballs falling from the sky but this is a cool description.

Our heroes check out an abandoned wizard's home and stumble through a one-way portal to hell. Love this sentence: "You're lying supine within a glowing lattice." That's right up there with James Jacobs' "Heaving birthflesh" and Ed Greenwood's "Blood of the Lady!".

There is a lone devil guarding this area, who they can question and/or pummel. Time to wander and hope to find a way home. Here's some of the cool stuff PCs come upon:

- River of Blood: A red sluggish stream with images of tormented faces springing up in the foam. In deeper sections, there are giant bloodworms. They latch onto PCs and suck their blood. They are up to 20 feet long and may try to drag the PC down under the blood.

- Hexla the Mad Witch: She's got white hair and red robes. She got to hell by a magic accident and is stuck here. She knows the "spell key" for the plane. In Planescape, planar portals are activated by keys. Often, the "portal" is just some random door, but when you carry the key through it (which is usually some random item like a skull or a piece of razorvine) poof - you're through.

The Spell Key for Hell: A chunk of obsidian from an exploded fireball.


- The Pillar of Skulls: A 20 foot tall, 10 foot wide column of living heads of humans, dwarves, elves, etc. They argue among themselves constantly. If the PCs address it, all heads fall silent. Once the PCs speak their piece, each head tries to win the favor of the heroes.

The Pillar is an eternal punishment for mortal sages who cheated their customers in life.

The pillar can... absorb people. If someone is pressed into it, the victim is covered in digestive juices and is consumed over the course of 10 minutes. There's a few heads high up in the pecking order:

The Ogre Head: It calls the shots unless the PCs knock it unconscious
The Elf Head: More sensible
The Chubby Head: Likes to devour people
The Gnome Head: Wants to know things, like what the spell key is.

It's pretty much impossible to "kill" the pillar. If a head is destroyed, a new head emerges from the interior. If the whole thing is destroyed, it reforms in 100 days. The severed heads roll back into position.

Bel's Keep: This is the home of Bel, who these days rules Avernus (In Ed Greenwood's article it was Tiamat, but it has changed over time).  There's a 30 foot high fence topped with howling skulls. It is teeming with lemures, abishai and an aura of "dark ecstasy". Well..!

Awesome
This scenario all boils down to the PCs pulling an obsidian brick off the Great Avernus Road (I prefer "The Road of Good Intent" from Fires of Dis). 50 abishai (dragon-devils) notice and chase our heroes.

The adventurers run to the place where the portal is - a cool, weird rocky hill depicted in a truly awesome piece of art. There's a lone guardian and a kind of lame bit where he'll let the PCs go through the portal (the portal goes to the extra-planar city of Sigil) if they take an orb of his with them. The guardian thinks the orb will mess with Sigil, but he's wrong. It crumbles to dust as the heroes arrive.

A really fun adventure! To me, it's all about the Pillar of Skulls, one of the coolest details I've found so far in Hell.

Here's my other blogs on D&D Hell so far:

The Nine Hells by Ed Greenwood - Ed has been so sharp for so long
A Paladin in Hell - Monte Cook's under-appreciated classic
Fires of Dis - With the most annoying encounter area ever

Friday, June 13, 2014

Fires of Dis aka How To Ruin A Campaign

Nuff said, true believer
Our exploration of D&D Hell continues! Today I have an adventure that made me very angry. Don't get me wrong, there is a ton of cool and useful information in this book. But there's one part.. well, you'll see.

Today we are looking at an AD&D second edition adventure for the Planescape setting called Fires of Dis. It is about the heroes going to hell to recover a stolen holy sword. The art in the Planescape books is awesome when it's DiTerlizzi. But when it's not... yikes. Take a look at the depiction of Dispater over there. That kind of says it all.

Now what do you say we dive into this thing and mine it for interesting, fun or useful material for any D&D game? Fun fact:

Baatezu = Devils
Taanari = Demons

Our heroes are shopping in the extra-planar city of Sigil, buying things like:

Spirit candy - Hardened bits of various sweet meads that are said to contain the spirits of beings from far-flung prime worlds.

The adventurers end up agreeing to go get this stolen Holy Avenger back. They pass through a planar gate town (I never liked those) and follow their cool little compass through Hell.

1. Avernus
 
Feels like a glaucoma test
They follow a thing called The Road of Good Intent. Along the way they encounter..

The Pillar of Skulls: A 20 foot high tower of disembodied heads. The heads talk incessantly. This was also detailed in Well of Worlds, accompanied by an epic DiTerrlizi drawing. My PCs loved the pillar and came back to talk to it on multiple occasions.

Firefungus: The only local food source edible to non-devils. It wiggles and is marginally nutritious. These are the fun, cool bits I am looking for to use in my campaign.

There's a bunch of encounters with devils trying to grab lemures and other dull stuff.

Then the heroes go to.. Tiamat's Lair! In the lair is a door to the second layer of hell, which apparently is where the sword is. Remember, this is an adventure for characters levels 6 to 9. Please read this quote:

"One tunnel leads to the Cave of Greed and the gate to Dis. The others lead to Tiamat, the power of evil dragonkind, and her five dragon consorts - the most powerful male Great Wyrms of each chromatic color (red, black, green, blue, and white). Each consort resides in its own cave and revels in its own horde of treasure. The treasure hasn’t been specified - the PCs shouldn’t muck around with it - but the DM’s free to fill the lairs with any coins or objects desired."

Tiamat is in Room 5. The Gate to Dis is 8.
Honestly. You really think the PCs are going to pass up this treasure? So you don't detail it?! I bought this adventure so I wouldn't have to detail anything, pal.

The red and green dragons are on another plane. Their hordes of treasure are just sitting there (rooms 1 and 3). The red dragon's horde is "hot" and does d10 damage per round and won't cool down for three days. Seriously. It takes me two seconds to think of a solution: Portable Hole. And yet I have no description of the horde.

In the green dragon's lair there is "oppressive humidity" that cuts movement and number of attacks in half. Yes. Number of attacks are cut in half... by humidity. There's insects that do d8 damage per round. Do you really think this is a challenge that the PCs won't try to overcome? If you don't want the PCs to engage the dragons and their piles of treasure, why did you send them DIRECTLY to the place full of dragons with the piles of treasure?!

The black dragon's cave is room 2... Deep breath. The PCs take some damage for breathing the poison air. There's a pool of acid that drops your AC permanently when you end up in it. "While in the cave, the PCs are unable to keep their eyes open". And this:

"The black dragon nesting in this cave won’t stir unless the PCs approach the pool - in which case he’ll warn them to leave and kill them if they ignore his advice."

OK. You dangle an awesome scenario in front of the PCs: Kill Tiamat's boyfriends and take their truly epic loot. But then you don't actually want them to do that, and you deter them with a lame idea like "it's so poison-gassy in here that you can't keep your eyes open."

But then... the dragon is "nesting". You honestly think they're not going to try and creep up on it? What the hell?! I can't imagine the number of times this adventure was run and went completely off the rails. And the DM has no stats for anything other than direct orders from the author to kill the PCs.

He just read the Tiamat's Lair section
Here's another quote: "6. White Consort's Lair : A smaller cave leads from Tiamat’s lair to the cavern of her most favored consort - currently, the white dragon. However, to get there, the PCs’d have to march right past Tiamat’s nose, and that ain’t going to happen in this adventure."

Oh yeah?! Have you never played an RPG before? Who is this guy? Heaven forbid the heroes do something crazy and daring! Let us refer to a Gygaxian Quote from The Temple of Elemental Evil:

"With care and cunning, luck and great deeds, caution mixed with boldness and daring, you and your associates can win through to achieve exploits of the stuff of legend!"

Or how about: "It is certain that both vast treasure and horrible death await, so you must gain the one while cheating the other."

Gary Gygax told you to GAIN THE ONE. The "one" being TREASURE. But this module says: "Slink on by! Don't look at that gold! What are you, stupid?! DM, you kill him if he takes one step closer!" And then, even when you do slink on by, soul crushed, an angry freaking boulder makes you CRAWL to your destination. Wait, sorry, we're not there yet. First let's look at the pond full of middle fingers.

So then you get to this Cave of Greed (Room 7) where there's treasure on the far side of a pond. Make a wisdom check. Fail: run at the treasure. You must wade through the water. "No flight, levitation or teleportation magic works in the Cave of Greed...". Of course! Every round spent in the water saps one point of Wisdom.

This is atrocious. What is the point of D&D, adventure writer? FUN. Your players are going to quit your game if you slingshot them into the sun 20 times in a row.

I am not saying everything should be easy, or that the PCs should always get their way. I'm saying that plopping the PCs down into a place where any type of adventuring is literally certain death sucks. In order to be successful in this area, the PCs must keep their heads down, walk by a bunch of dragons with a cool story with piles of awesome treasure and just move on to the next area without a peep. To be successful they must not adventure in this adventure module.

Wait! There's more! In the pool, the PC won't even notice the Wisdom drain until they are on the other side. Testing the water with your hand won't reveal its' Wisdom-draining properties, either.

Then, the generous author says that the drained wisdom will return at the rate of one point every two days. Thanks so much!

So what happens once our poor heroes are forced to wade through the pool to get to the treasure? Let's read on.. Aha! OF COURSE: "..the treasure is, indeed, real. However, each item is cursed or suffers from a disastrous flaw: weapons hit at -3 or worse, goblets turn any liquid to poison, gems randomly burst into handfuls of spiders, etc. Even the coins bring woe to their taker - each weighs as much as one hundred similar coins, making it difficult at best to transport them away."

ME!!
You took something awesome... Tiamat's lair! Tiamat!! And turned it into utter tripe.

The gate to Dis is a set of big iron doors. A spider immediately jumps out and tries to drag a PC in toward two more spiders. Ugh. We are in Tiamat's lair and we don't fight dragons, or even "mewlings". We fight freaking SPIDERS.

Further down the hall, a boulder tells the PCs via magic mouth: "Those who would enter Dis must crawl!". The PCs have to go back to the door and crawl through. It's the only way to actually get through to Dis. Just to humiliate them a little more!

2. Dis

A road paved with skulls leads our heroes to the city of Dis. In the city, there's raw heat, deafening screams and collapsing buildings. That's cool. It is so hot that PCs in metal armor suffer penalties.

Some businesses in the city use flayed skins of low level devils as carpets and shades to keep the interiors cooler. Dispater's Iron tower looms high, always changing shape. The sky is ash-green.

- Work is always being done on the streets. Slaves scream and burn as they labor.

- Walking toward Dispater's tower doesn't work. You can't get there. But when you turn around, somehow there it is, a block away. The only way to get there is to close your eyes, think about anything but the tower, and succeed at a wisdom check -10.

See.. that's cool. Dispater's tower should have a unique gimmick like that.

- There's an encounter where gloopy lemures (low level devils) are being herded to their next construction site. It's like a tidal wave that the PCs need to avoid.

- To actually get inside Dispater's tower, you have to focus on Dispater's Magnificence. Trying to climb the tower is a bad idea. It is hot, and it melts and reforms itself every round. I don't quite get how that works but it's cool.

- The tower is 999 miles tall.

- There is one way for visitors to move room to room. There's these things called the flower of holes Each has twelve petals - one for each room. You pluck a petal and it's like a portable hole. You can climb through to go to a different room.

- There's a bunch of pretty cool rooms. There's a prison room which is a white sphere. There's a torture room with some guys chained up who volunteered to be tortured. There are spiral stairs which are an endless loop. There's a skin cube room which immediately contracts and tries to encase the PCs in a layer of skin.. weird! There's a library that includes books on the PCs lives.. magically updated as they progress through the adventure as it happens. There's a room of mirrors where a pit fiend appears inside the mirror and.. kills their reflections. Crazy! Then there's...

Your bath tub needs a good scrubbing, lady
 - A room where there's this woman with blades sticking out of her head. It's part of an experiment. Dispater is trying to figure out a way to kill the Lady of Pain of Sigil. If a PC pulls a blade out of the poor woman's head, roll a d6:

DIE ROLL CURSE
1 Gender changes
2 Hair on head turns to worms
3 Body weight doubles (clothing fits accordingly)
4 Skin becomes transparent
5 Skin reeks of vinegar
6 PC becomes mute

- The PCs are eventually met by Dispater himself. He is inclined to let the PCs have the holy avenger they are searching for. It is noted that Dispater can't be harmed in any way. If they stab him in the chest, he pulls it out and hands the weapon back, saying "be more careful with your toys". Here's a quote: "Not even a wish spell can disturb the archduke's avatar."

Dis has some cool stuff. Love the tower. But I am not a fan of some of the stuff in this book. Not so much the content, but the philosophy behind it. It might be "realistic" for Tiamat to have truly messed up traps in her lair. It might also be "realistic" to have the heroes be forced to crawl to get to Dis. But too much of this kind of thing in a single session leads to the players trying to revolt, or becoming irritated, or just not caring about the game any more. There has to be a more balanced approach, allowing the players a certain amount of enjoyment and satisfaction, otherwise they are not going to want to play this game because the main underlying goal was not met: It was not fun.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dead in Thay: Monster Eggs

I prefer clicky pens
I've been getting more comfortable running this adventure pdf off of a tablet rather than relying on a print-out. Today, I got to the store... and I forgot to bring the adventure.

I did have my notes with me, and a printed-out map. Instead of driving home and coming back, I decided to see if I could run it with just that stuff, kind of to test my note-taking ability. I am proud to say it was utterly seamless. I didn't even need the pdf.

We had 7 players this time, which is a lot for us. It's so odd, the ebb and flow of player involvement. As a DM, my first thought when we have a bad turnout is that it's my fault. I assume that I've been running a lame game. But over time I've learned there is a much bigger picture. Low turnout could be because of a million things, most of which have nothing to do with me.

One trait I've noticed that seems fairly common among many D&D players is social anxiety. A lot of us are not comfortable around people - and playing a game in a store is definitely not ideal for people like this. Players are wrestling with a lot of things that have nothing to do with my presentation of the module.

So, for whatever reason, we had almost too many people today. There was a new guy from Long Island who is in town for a week and decided to try Encounters. He plays 4th edition. It is fascinating to meet real life people who run games. They always want to tell me their campaign story but I am more interested in their group dynamics and, in this guy's case, how his players feel about 4th edition.

This guy is running a version of Reavers of Harkenwold and he has a rules lawyer problem. Also, the fights are running slow (surprise) and a few players have complained. DMing is not easy and often very thankless! Poor guy.

He had a hat on it that said "Lesser Gnome". He said something about backing one of their kickstarters. Seemed like an interesting guy.
 
YEAAHH!!
On top of that, the Free RPG Day stuff came in. The store handed me the DCC RPG Free RPG Day adventure - "Elzemon and the Blood-Drinking Box" so that I can prepare it to run on that day. It looks awesome and it should fit right in to what the group is doing.

I can't believe how slow our group's progress is through Dead in Thay. Once again, we finished only 3 rooms! I think it just has to do with the fact that some of the party is content hanging back and firing off a single crossbow shot each round, missing often and doing no damage. Another factor is the fact that these encounters are all sprawling fights with many opponents. The combat flows fine, it doesn't feel dull. It's just shocking when I look at the clock and see that we need to wrap up.

Room 20. This is a butchery. There's a dozen warriors and one wight slaughtering the pigs (from last week's epic room 19). There's two doors. The PCs did not expect the bad guys to come at them through the other door, effectively trapping them in the tiny adjoining hallway.

Room 21. Players LOVE monster eggs, and this room was full of them! There were skeletons and red wizards. To keep things simple, I just have the red wizards use a couple spells - magic missile and blight. That may sound like I'm going easy on them, but the fact is these are new players and they go down constantly. As I've mentioned before, they never learn from a mistake. The Hack and Slash Guy runs in, alone, every single time, and he gets swarmed and dropped every single time. The poor cleric spends every fight doing nothing but healing.

This leads to another situation. The adventure doesn't want the heroes taking long rests. The adventure has a few mechanics for punishing the players for taking long rest, through aging them 1 month for every hour they spend in their "safe house" demi-plane (The Seclusion Crypt) and some other stuff. I kept the aging and tossed the rest of the stuff. Our group pretty much has to take a long rest after every session. So they just age 2 years each time we play. I think it's really cool. I know it doesn't make sense within the context of the story, as the heroes are supposed to be tearing through the dungeon as fast as possible. But this is a "loose" game for young newbies with short attention spans.

Today I started having the red wizards cast magic missile using higher spell slots. 5 missiles that do d4+1. It adds up real quick! Through in some blights (8d8! Save for half!) and yeah, the "tank" goes down real quick.

The new guy used charm person to help cut this fight short, which was fine with me. They even questioned the wizard, who told them about the next few rooms, including one that holds a named red wizard - Thuvia.

Room 22. This one has magic cages full of young monsters like hook horrors (a monster that doesn't get used enough, IMO), wyverns (same), and basilisks. Tending to the cages are.. more red wizards and Thayan warriors. By the time this battle was over, the paladin and fighter had been dropped repeatedly. It was fun.

Everyone in the group is getting along. They are all pretty into the game. All in all it was a solid, above-average session. Not too shabby!

I am really impressed with these dungeon rooms. It seems like this kind of thing would get boring, but each dungeon section has its' own gimmick and almost every room has its' own slant. I wish we had time to do the entire dungeon! I'm going to have to keep my eyes peeled, and jump into the final section of this adventure once there's about three weeks left before the end of the season.

Oh yeah, players would never do something like that!
I am working on another "Hell" blog post. I am going through a Planescape adventure called Fires of Dis, and wow there is a section that made me really angry. I can't fathom what the author was thinking. There's a lot of cool details though, should be a fun one.

A Paladin in Hell

Come on people, be pulled into my diabolical rigidity
The heroes in my D&D Next campaign are heavily involved in the Blood War - the eternal battle between demons and devils. I've been doing research on D&D Hell. The other day we looked at Ed Greenwood's great "Nine Hells" article. Today, I'd like to look at Monte Cook's AD&D second edition adventure, "A Paladin in Hell". This is an adventure inspired by a couple of old AD&D illustrations.

This adventure doesn't seem to get talked about much, and I don't know why. It might be because it is so high level that few people ever got to use it. Or maybe it's because it was released during the "dark age" of 2e - the black border "skills & powers" era. At the time of this adventure's release, Magic the Gathering had all but annihilated my D&D group. The only thing they cared about was black lotuses and mox pearls.
 
Catalina Wine Mixer
Well, enough is enough. This adventure is awesome. I am going to go through the Hell section and single out all of my favorite details. We are not even going to get into the first half of this module, which involves Emirikol the Chaotic and his glass tower surrounded by a storm of metal shards. And we will barely touch on Demonwing - the evil boat that contains a demonic layer of the Abyss inside of it. That's right: Our heroes sail the river styx on DEMONWING. This adventure is awesome.

Monte confirms this in the intro to the adventure. His summary of this adventure: "The player characters must travel to Hell aboard a demon ship to rescue the wrongfully condemned soul of a paladin and restore a trapped temple and its' innocent inhabitants to the Prime Material Plane."

Things we learn during our heroes' journey through Hell:

5. Stygia

I can't imagine how long this took to draw
- Plunging into the waters here means you make a saving throw or lose all your memories (even if you make this save, you lose all memories and knowledge gained in the last year of your life!). If you fail the first roll, make another save. Fail it: Lose basic motor skills and speech!

- To travel underwater, the heroes can use one of Demonwing's diving spheres, or a cube of force, or an apparatus of kwalish, etc. There's massive giant sharks down there.

- Citadel Coldsteel: A fortress built inside an iceberg. We have to go through it to get to our imperiled temple!

- Apocalypse Clocks: Inside the citadel, there's clocks counting down (30 turns.. that's 300 minutes aka 5 hours). Once it counts all the way down, it opens a portal that hundreds of lemures (low level devils) pour through and over-run the whole citadel.

- Gurdansk: A devil whose flesh is encased in green armor that absorbs magic missiles and blocks lightning.

- Some devils have coldstaves, which do a bit of cold damage. They also are coated in dormant brown molds! They can slop the mold onto your PC, who will have all the heat drained from his body. Good gawd.

- Amon, a former Duke of Hell is here! He is nine feet tall and he has the head of a white wolf. He has a winter wolf named Soulfang that breathes ice blasts, and Amon can cast limited wish in times of peril.

- Tapped in a glass cube is... Cozbi! Remember her from yesterday? With the frazzle and the snazzle? Monte thankfully declares that her full name is Cozbinaer, helping to rescue her from joke-name-never-to-be-taken-seriously-NPC status.

"Her nine foot tall, white-skinned body is now covered in scars, stitched-on skin grafts, and withered flesh. Once beautiful, she is now hideous and terrifying."

She can leave her prison for short periods of time in this sort of magic power armor filled with yellow gas that poisons people except for her. What an awesome encounter. There's so many ways your heroes can go with this!

- There's a hollowed-out bullette that is now a lever-operated digging machine/tank.
 
The tongue.. what a way to go...
- Geryon the Arch Devil (!): He's got a snake lower half. He wields Sever (an evil, intelligent battle axe that cuts off limbs) and Tonguelash (a shield with a blazing red tongue which attacks as a whip that paralyzes). He's got other cool gimmicks in the room, like pit fiend statues that hold magic mirrors and weird black curtains that transfixes mortals that stare at them ("..be pulled into the rigidity of its' diabolical order").

- Tlaac-mol, a devil who guards a prison, has one withered arm and one arm with the strength of a cloud giant that is made of steel.

- Let me tell you about Hell-Tugging. A trapped floor emanates this tug. "It does not attract metal, but pure thoughts." Those of good alignment are pulled to the floor. then the ceiling becomes magnetic and pulls all metal from your body. That sounds ridiculously painful!

Then we get to the temple, which is in a "nether-realm" between the fifth and sixth layers of Hell.

- There's a chart that shows tasks the PCs need to do to free the temple from hell. Some of the good NPC temple-dwellers have died and become undead - if the PCs kill them, the NPC souls are damned! The PCs must bless and resurrect these undead. Cool...

- Wandering Monsters include: "The wafting stench of brimstone" and "Foul whisperings of misdeeds". I would get quite a kick out of whispering misdeeds to a slightly uncomfortable player at the table. Actually you might spice up your significant others' day by uttering some foul whisperings, eh there, chum?

- There's these four black obelisks. If you touch one, chains shoot out and constrict you against the obelisk. The only way to escape is for the obelisk to be destroyed!

- Wiinsor the Blue Dragon: He's a new follower of Geryon. He spends his time chatting up an erinyes named Minga.

- A golem made of HUNDREDS OF UNHOLY SYMBOLS. Make two saves.. fail both and you die from fright.

- This is like that crappy second level of Castle Greyhawk but not: "...a semi-intelligent retch plant drops its' globe-like fruit down on them (one per PC) forcing them to spend the next three rounds doing nothing but vomiting and retching, no saving throw..."

- Yeah, I ran the second level of Castle Greyhawk last Sunday. It was horrible. Animated, dancing, cooked seagulls dancing at a party for Asmodeus, Overlord of Hell... ugghhh. Our heroes had to fill everyone's glasses of water.

- OK get a load of this. A pit fiend who has merged with the interior of a cubic gate. It can suck a PC inside the cube, where the PC looks at the pit fiend's face which bears a scarab of insanity. The gate closes in 5 rounds. The interior of the cube is made up of the pit fiend's bones. Ice runs through its' veins. What an insanely awesome encounter.

- There's pit fiend treasure stored in an air bubble surrounded by hardened hot stone. I think it hovers above a lava pool. There's a trapped set of stairs that leads to it. The treasure inside includes two sprigs of desert's night, a magical bloom that can cure memory loss from the river styx. Also, a staff of power, etc.

At last we get to...

6. Malbolge

- Here is where the paladin is indeed in hell fighting devils. "Against the inexorable odds, Klysandral hews down with Quest, his holy long sword, and the grim knowledge that if he falls innocents will die."

Klysandral the (spirit) paladin is holding off the devils until the PCs can get enough "restoration points" to return the temple to the prime material. He will not leave this area until then. 

There is no way on the planet earth that you can't find something from this to use in an upcoming game.

I ran portions of this way back when as a solo adventure for a character who was overloaded with powerful magic items (he almost single-handedly looted this Ravenloft adventure, to the point he somehow ended up with a -11 AC - which is very good, in AD&D terms). I mostly ran the Demonwing section for him. He loved it. It was awesome.

Because I've never run this entire thing, I didn't include it in my list of The Best Adventures of All Time. If I did, I probably would. This adventure is what D&D is all about.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hell in Dungeons & Dragons

Hell is other people, amirite?
I repeat this almost endlessly to my D&D players: "Demons are chaotic and live in The Abyss; Devils are lawful and live in Hell." You have to drive that home when you deal with these creatures. It's confusing to a new player and hard to keep straight, especially when there's so many types of devils and demons.

In my D&D Next game, our heroes are involved in The Blood War - the battle between the devils and demons. My source material for devils has been primarily the D&D 3rd edition Fiendish Codex 2 and the Pathfinder Book of the Damned: Princes of Darkness. They are both fantastic references.

But I've always heard about an article from an ancient issue of Dragon (Dragon Magazine #75, to be precise) by none other than the mighty Ed Greenwood about The Nine Hells. I finally snagged a copy and... wow.

It even has art by Larry Elmore. That might as well be Sturm Brightblade standing there.
 
Ed starts off with a page or so of notes on how he went through all of the published products and gathered the scattered information on Hell from them. He thought it was a good idea to keep deities out of hell (sort of, not really). He lists a pile of literary sources on Hell, everyting from Dante's Inferno to William Beckford's "Vuthek".

It says "Vuthek" in the article, but it is actually "Vathek". I looked it up. Here's a description of the book: "The novel chronicles the fall from power of the Caliph Vathek (a fictionalised version of the historical Al-Wathiq), who renounces Islam and engages with his mother, Carathis, in a series of licentious and deplorable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers. At the end of the novel, instead of attaining these powers, Vathek descends into a hell ruled by the demon Eblis where he is doomed to wander endlessly and speechlessly."

I am going to go through and give you some of the most interesting points of each of the Nine Hells, and summarized the various Dukes and Princesses found on each. What's weird is there's another article in this issue, by Gary Gygax, that lists other NPCs from Hell and has abishai stats and stuff. This column will just focus on Ed's article, because it is gigantic - and it only goes through level 5. Apparently there is another article in a future issue of Dragon that lists the rest of the layers of Hell!

1. Avernus

- It is ruled by Tiamat! So much for keeping deities separate.

- Tiamat has 5 dragon bodyguards that she mates with often. When she mates with one, the other four form a protective ring around them while they... do it. Geez, Ed always brings the dirty stuff. I salute you, good sir.

Anyway, she bears litters of 1-4 dragonets (aka "mewlings" - another great Greenwood phrase).

All of this is interesting to me. In the final adventure of the 4e Scales of War adventure path, the heroes raid Tiamat's lair and must defeat a huge dragon of each color. The monster stats were too weak, but the idea was cool. The story had something to do with how Tiamat couldn't bear children, though, if I remember correctly.

- Fireballs form spontaneously from vapors and explode. In newer versions, the fireballs plummet from the sky.

- There's a pile of NPCs which I will gleefully snatch and use for my own purposes. It is so clear that Ed put an insane amount of time and thought into this article. As much praise as the guy gets, I feel that his talents are actually under-appreciated.

Amduscias: He's a duke who can shape change into a dirty yellow unicorn with eyes of flame and a purple horn! I am going to die of thrills, that is so fantastic. He has other forms, too. He can be a hawk-headed man in robes of red or black. His favorite form is that of a wolf with a serpent's prehensile tail. He is a skillful negotiator.

Malphas: He's a "dark-complexioned" man in lack velvet robes with 333 gems on them. He also takes the form of a large crow. Tiamat orders him around.

Nergal: He is a lion-headed winged toad enveloped by magical darkness. "His mottled pinkish-grey, warty sking is covered with sore which ooze a clear colorless ichor" (don't drink it, it's poisonous to humans). He is a schemer who hoards information.

Bist: She is like a hellcat and a selfish master of duplicity. She can't leave the Hells without being summoned. She is invisible except for her fiery eyes. Awesome.

Caim: A gossip and a sneak. Loves to eat elves and men. He often appears as a thrush with a belt.

2. Dis
 
- Dis has the city of Dis, on an island in a lake of poison water.

- Erinyes devils are more powerful here, and are the loyal eyes and ears of the ruler, Dispater.

- Dispater has a bodyguard force of malebranches called "The Iron Guard"

- The city is dismal. There's zombies, garbage-choked streets with rot grubs and black puddings, iron-barred cells full of chains and torture implements.

- The palace of Dispater has trees of iron. There's caverns underneath known as The Pits of Dis, where prisoners fight for "edible garbage" that falls down through shafts from the palace.

Prominent NPCS:

Lilis: Dispater's consort. She has orange skin and looks like a short, plump "well-preserved" female of human middle-age.. except for the horns, wings, etc. She can cause insanity by touch! She is a clever strategist. Huh.. kind of an odd choice for Dispater's girlfriend.

Arioch: He is in charge of avenging slights to Dispater's honor. He has a flat, reptilian head with a lion's mane. His skin is dark red and he has bat wings.

Biffant: He is a portly, blood-red devil who always smiles. He's an administrator-type.

Merodach: A winged wolf who leads 21 companies of barbed devils.

Alocer: He is a lion-headed humanoid who can blind you just by looking at you. He leads 36 companies of Erinyes.

3. Minauros

Owlbear wins the 1982 Heisman Trophy
- There is an amusing ad featuring 4 young D&D players being menaced by an owlbear mini. Goofy!

- Nothing of value lasts long here before either being destroyed or snatched by Mammon. Mammon lives in a black fortress built on pillars that is constantly sinking into a bottomless ooze.

- The layer is a marsh where it constantly rains dirty water and hail. People are chained to rocks in watery pits and are tortured by barbed devils.

NPCs:

Focalor: He is Mammon's bailiff. He is thin, silent and a master strategist. He looks like a human with feathered wings and cloven hooves.

Caarcrinolaas: He is a dog-headed humanoid with red bat wings, hooves and a forked tail. He's in charge of 36 companies of barbed devils.

Melchon: He's a dude jealous of the other dukes.

4. Phlegethos

- This realm is full of volcanoes, fires, hills of ash and "pits of smoking dung". There's something to put on a map.There is also a river of liquid fire that salamanders live in.

- There are "firefalls" (fire-waterfalls) which are great places to make magic items. "The best flame tongue swords are made in such places; one account of the making of a helm of brilliance mentions one such site..." Awesome.

- Belial lives in a hollowed-out shell of a dead volcano called Abriymoch.

Princesses and Dukes:

Not in this Hell, young lady

Naome: She is Belial's consort. She is good at resolving disputes and bargaining. She is short, burly and middle aged. Why did Ed make all of the female devils 45 year old librarian ladies? It is more interesting than a standard hot chick with wings, a whip and a g-string, but when I imagine a princess of hell, I do not picture "burly" (?) middle-aged women. If he's going to go that way, I'd like it if he added in some cool details like smoking sockets for eyes or monster claw hands or something. Make them more monster-y, maybe. 

Chamo: This guy is Belial's "legate". He's got a staff that has skulls of sixteen paladins. He's a red-skinned, white-haired middle-aged guy with horns, hoovers, etc

Balan: He is violent and unliked. He's a giant yellow-skinned man with a beard.

Bathym: Wears all black armor and rides a nightmare. His skin is a "dead fishbelly-white" color.

Gaziel: Some dude who leads 11 companies of bone devils.

5. Stygia

- The River Styx fills this plane in the form of a vast salt swamp lit by "cold fires" - weird freezing white flames. This place is ruled by Geryon from his huge castle, Tantlin.

- Lemures, the lowest form of devil, are tortured here constantly by styx devils. Underneath the swamp is a vast ocean, where a great white shark called Sekolah lives.

NPCs:

Cozbi: No, she doesn't have jello pudding pops. She is Geryon's consort. She is quiet. She is an unnaturally tall woman with chalk-white skin and long pale green hair.

Gorson: Geryon's bailiff. A quiet schemer.

Herodias: Geryon's magistrate. He thinks he will one day rule the nine hells. He is portly and has tiny, useless wings.

Agares: He commands 31 companies of bone devils. He looks like an old man who has a hawk on his wrist. He likes to train hawks.

Mavhalas: Commands 11 companies of barbed devils. He has black scaly skin and a red head that is ugly and batlike.

Phew. Ed went to town on this thing. What an incredibly useful article! I'll see if I can get my hands on part 2.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Greatest Dungeon Masters in the World: Chris Perkins


I found the archive of DM Experience articles. Go here, click on "Narrow by" and scroll down to The Dungeon Master Experience.

Chris Perkins has been referred to as "The best DM in a building full of good DMs." He has a waiting list for his campaigns. He has worked for the D&D brand since 1997. He is the guy who runs the insanely popular Acquisitions Inc games.

Chris even played in Monte Cook's original Ptolus campaign way back when.

He has mentioned some of his major campaigns: "My 3rd Edition campaign, Arveniar, was built around the idea of a kingdom in the sky. My 4th Edition campaign, Iomandra, was built around a draconic empire scattered across islands on a vast sea. My D&D Next campaign, Valoreign, is about a chivalric kingdom transformed by a mysterious magical event."

The Origin of Chris Perkins

Dungeon Magazine issue #200 has a long piece written by Chris about his beginnings in the RPG business. Here is what we learn:

First Published Work: He submitted a Top Secret adventure to Dungeon that was ultimately never used: "Operation: Ice Capade." His next submission did make it: "Wards of Witching Ways," published in Dungeon #11. He wrote it at the age of 17.

Submission Overload: He sent so many submissions that editor Barbara Young told him: "“I’ve seen so much of your work that I’m starting to say, ‘Which of these Perkinses should I take?’ You’re competing with yourself by sending too much at once.”

Real Life Job: In his 20's, he was teaching English classes to adults who had gone back to school to get their high school diplomas. In 1997, he was called by Wizards of the Coast to be the new editor of Dungeon Magazine.

Rejected Dungeon Adventure: "Kevin Wickerclock's Whimsical Adventure": An AD&D adventure that included a World War I flying ace, ninja assassins and more. 

Problems at the Border: Chris was headed from Canada to his first Gen Con, but he got stopped at the border. The patrol officer thought his Wizards of the Coast paperwork was a forgery and threatened to confiscate his car. Chris actually missed Gen Con because of this dude.

Job Perk: Artist Tony DiTerlizzi gave Chris the original painting from his Dungeon #55 adventure, "Umbra." It hangs in his bedroom.

Dungeon Master Expertise

During the 4th edition era, Chris wrote a series of columns called "The DM Experience" which ran for a few years on the wizards site. They are extremely popular and have become difficult to find. There was a working link for it but for whatever reason, as far as I can tell, these columns have been removed from the site.

The DM Experience was full of advice from someone actively going through what all of us DMs go through. His column made me a much better DM and kept me going when I had a terrible session.

I'd like to share with you some of the advice and ideas from this column that helped me the most.

Don't Save Ideas: Throw a cool idea in there and figure it out later. A PC woke up with a magic tattoo and Chris figured out how and why later. Don't squirrel away your ideas - incorporate them while you are excited about them.

What It's About: Chris compares a campaign to a serialized TV show. "It’s about the journey of the characters and the bad things and hilarious s**t that happen along the way."
 
DM goes overboard
Origins: Help players create origin stories for their characters. Figuring out how the PCs meet isn't important. Help them know enough about your world to make an interesting and relevant background.

Spotlight the Characters: Make sure each of your characters gets the spotlight.. have "character episodes" for each of them.

Making a Good Villain: The best villains are the ones that the PCs can interact with. The villains make mistakes, they don't know everything, but they are clever like a player. They'll often have a gimmick, like a deformity or maybe they eat babies (that's what Chris did in his Iomandra campaign).

The Social Contract: After talking about a session that he had to make up on the fly when a PC decided out of the blue to summon and cut a deal with Dispater (a lord of Hell), he has this to say:

"Before you blow up the heroes’ stronghold and start layering on the drama, stop and consider the social contract of your campaign—the unspoken agreement you have with your players whereby you promise to be entertaining and fair, and they promise to respect your campaign and each other’s right to enjoy the experience. Some players have enough drama in their normal lives; all they want is to kill monsters and take their stuff. That’s okay if it’s part of the agreed-upon social contract. Campaigns without social contracts are doomed, and if your game group feels dysfunctional, chances are your contract is not being respected or acknowledged by everyone around the table."


Naming NPCs: Make a list of names before you play. If the PCs interact with a random guard or passerby, you can pick a name and go. The "Bob" joke gets old real fast.

Voices: He has a whole column on doing voices. He has a pile of great suggestions: Imitate a favorite actor, a bad accent is fine, and try changing the shape of your mouth to create a different sound.

How to Handle Problem Players: Chris writes about handling problem players. He suggests handing the following letter to such a player:

"D&D is a game about heroes working as a team to complete quests, defeat villains and monsters, and interact with the campaign that I’ve created. Right now, because of you, our D&D game isn’t working, and I need your help to fix it.

It’s my job as the Dungeon Master to present a world for your character to explore and fun challenges to overcome. It’s also my job to set the rules of the game, be fair to all players, and keep things exciting. I’m hoping the campaign can last a while, and that your characters have a chance to become more powerful and face new threats at higher level. It’s a lot of work—and frankly, you’re not making it easy on me.
 

It’s your role as a player to have a good time, but not at the expense of me, the campaign, or the other players. When we sit down to play, there’s an unspoken agreement that must be respected so that everyone has a good time. You can’t have a rock band if one player refuses to take it seriously or doesn’t allow everyone else to enjoy the experience. The same holds true for D&D games. That’s not to say you can’t have fun, but we need to agree on what’s fun for everyone.

Here’s what I’d like to do: I want to create the best, most fun campaign—not just for me, and not just for you, but for all of us. In return, I want to hear about the things you like and don’t like about the campaign, as well as ways I can make it more suitable for your style of play so that you’re having fun. I also want you to think about what makes the game fun for me and everyone else. Ultimately, we all want to have a good time, but right now that’s not happening."


Dealing With Curveballs: He has some great advice on winging it when a PC has an out-of-the-box idea: "Allow it. Imagine the logical outcome and proceed from there."

Railroading: "One analogy I’m fond of using is that a D&D campaign is like a wagon. The players are the horses, and the DM is the driver holding the reins. As the players move forward, they take the campaign and you along with them, and you can guide them to a point, but they can be stubborn, hard to motivate, or just plain out of control. Sometimes you have to snap the reins, but if you “crack the whip” too often and keep the players running at full speed all the time, they’ll get worn out, so you need to set a pace that’s comfortable for them but also gets the wagon where it needs to go."

Multiple Story Arcs: Chris believes in having multiple story arcs and allowing the PCs to choose which to deal with: "The benefits of having multiple campaign arcs in a long-running or multi-tier campaign are many. First and foremost, it's like having slightly overlapping safety nets; no matter what the players do, their choices have a pretty good chance of landing them smack-dab in the middle of one of your campaign arcs eventually. The arcs are so encompassing and pervasive as to be nigh unavoidable, and if your players are clearly turned off by one arc, they have two others to choose from. Having multiple arcs gives players opportunities to decide which threat they care about the most, and I promise you, each player will have his or her own opinion on the matter, based on which arc ties in most closely with that player's character. Having three arcs also makes your campaign feel less like a "one-trick pony." Finally, there's the benefit of allowing you, the campaign's primary storyteller, to entangle plot threads and create opportunities or occasions when two or more arcs intersect."

Making Memorable NPCs: One of my favorite columns is his tips on how to make a memorable NPC. Here's the five things you need: Name, Secret, Stats, Voice, and Layers. Some of these are self-explanatory, others less so:

"Secret: Campaigns are built on secrets. Without them, players have little incentive to explore the world and uncover its mysteries. "

"Layers: That's layers, not lairs! (Sometimes NPCs need lairs too, but that's a topic for another week.) If all you need is a faceless NPC to remind your players that the world has other people in it, don't worry about adding layers. Layers are what you need to turn a "cardboard cutout" into a fleshed-out NPC as real and three-dimensional as the heroes."


He even provides a chart of "layers" which includes things like:

"Doesn’t like children because they’re reminders of an unfortunate childhood."

and

"Has a “thing” for members of a particular race (such as elves or gnomes)."
 
Bad Players: "Behind every good DM are good players. I've seen good DMs run games for bad players, at least until the paralysis sets in or until they're reduced to shambling wrecks. Bad players are DM kryptonite. That said, I recommend that every DM endure at least one horrendous player experience to remind him or her of the value of great players, of which I probably have more than my fair share."

Most Important Advice: He had a poll asking readers what the most important piece of advice was. Here's the top 5:
  1. Honor the social contract.    
  2. Lighten up.    
  3. Don't be afraid.    
  4. Forget what the rules say about building encounters.
  5. Don't forget to roleplay.    
I could go on forever. Heck, I've only glossed over the first half of his columns. But I think the point is made: Chris Perkins is one of the most prolific, smart and successful DMs going right now, and maybe ever.

For more Perkins-ness, check out my recaps of his online Curse of Strahd campaign.

Here are my columns on the other greatest DMs of all time:

Gary Gygax
Ed Greenwood
Dave Arneson
Monte Cook