Table of Contents - A handy way to check out my articles by topic
Follow me on Twitter
Check out the Power Score RPG Youtube Channel here.
You can reach me at
: powerscorerpg@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Baba Yaga's Dancing Hut - The Soviet JS-1 Tank

This is the second session of the adventure. You might want to read the first one in case you missed it. I am running the 1e Dragon Magazine version enhanced by the 4e version, which fills in details and has great maps.

The Store Was Very Loud and Annoying

We got through a bit more of Baba Yaga's Hut last Monday, but wow were there some problems.

Usually the game store that I run this campaign in is pretty full of Magic players going through a tournament. This time, there wasn't much Magic going on at all, but there were a lot of board games. Loud, loud board games.

It was brutal. I told them to be quiet, and they were for a few minutes, but then it went right back up again. I ended up just shutting the game down early as I couldn't take it any more.

The Dancing Hut is Too Sandbox-y
 
I had prepared the rest of the hut in the week leading up to the session. What I found was that this dungeon has a problem: It's too wide-open. A lot of the rooms just have a fun little note about a hag sweeping the floor, and not much else. The hut seems to be meant to be a place to send the PCs to go on a mission in. Exploring it like a normal dungeon is going to be very uneventful.

Plus, if you consider the fact that the PCs are probably being watched by Baba Yaga through her magic mirror, she could just pop up and destroy the PCs whenever she liked (her stats are insane - she is like a demigod).

The 4e version fixes this by expanding on it and making many of the rooms full blown encounter areas. This works for 4th edition, because that is what 4e does. 4e is all about encounters. I am running this for DCC RPG, however. I want some encounters, but also lots of exploration and tinkering with motivation.

Baba Yaga's Apprentice

I have set this scenario up with an evil double of a PC being an apprentice of Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga has allowed him to lure the PCs to the hut, and to use the hut to kill them. She is watching and finds the whole thing entertaining, as well as a test for her apprentice.

There is a pool in one of the final rooms of the hut that makes doubles. I have decided that the apprentice has mastered the pool, and can create doubles of himself that do his bidding. So basically, when PCs enter certain rooms, a double is waiting to do some nefarious deed. The PCs are going through the hut trying to find the real apprentice.

Room 6. Grand Throne Room

We left off in Baba Yaga's audience hall. A PC came very close to attacking her but decided against it. Baba Yaga explained to the PCs what was going on.

The heroes made their way to Room 6, which is a throne room. There's 4 giant skulls that shoot paralyzation beams, and a magic throne that has powers. It can create a prismatic sphere, cast rulership (I had this just dominate a lone PC) and creates a globe of invulnerability to protect the person sitting on it.

I had a double in the throne cackling as the PCs were pelted with skull lasers and a prismatic sphere. I did a gimmick where when a skull was destroyed, the globe flickered. PCs could ready and stab the double when a skull was destroyed. They caught on and eventually stuffed a barrier peaks grenade in his mouth and shot him with a laser pistol.

During this battle, the dwarf tried to use her pulse rifle and it malfunctioned. It blew up and almost killed her and a cleric.

Once people were healed (the cleric had to be rolled over... he made his luck check) the thief tried to pry a gem off the throne. Those gems are protected by a save or die effect! She pried one, seized up, but made her save. These crazy old school adventures and their instant death traps... good gawd.

Room 9. Fungus Gardens

There was some more exploring, and our heroes came to the fungus room. I like this one. It has a magic fountain that, when you drink from it, issues random magic effects. That is one of my favorite D&D tropes. The 1e version of the adventure leaves the effects up to the DM, but the 4e version has a fantastic list that I modified and used.

What ended up happening was that the PCs drank from the fountain and rolled very well. They kept getting the best result: one of their items becomes a sentient +1 magic item. The cleric had his sniper rifle (which he got when the heroes went to 1986 New York) enchanted. It was hilarious.

Room 10. Grand Museum
 
More exploring eventually led to one of the most memorable rooms in the whole dungeon: The museum. This room has a world war 2 soviet tank in it, as well as a steam-powered cannon taken from some steampunk world.

I had a double of the bad guy hiding in the tank. When the PCs entered and began exploring, the double fired an explosive shell at the PCs!

There was a massive explosion and the PCs were hurt really bad. I figured they would use the cannon, but instead they just kind of panicked (and remained in a clump, which made them great targets for a follow up blast.

The party thief bravely ran up to the tank, opened the hatch, and battled the double. This prevented him from firing again. He tried to hit her with force manipulation (the most feared spell in DCC RPG) but it fizzled. She stabbed him to death with Luna, the blood-drinking blade from Slaughtergrid.

The Breaking Point

It was at this point that it just got too loud in the store and I decided to just shut the game down for the night. The players were openly discussing playing this game somewhere else. I do not want to do that. I'll talk to the store about figuring out a way to move us to a quieter spot.

I think next session, if the PCs are amenable, I will have Vladmir the cat lead them to the notable rooms so we can bypass the uneventful rooms and get to the good stuff. There's so many doors and secret hatches that the constant choosing grinds the game to a halt.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Finding Your Style as a Dungeon Master

In this column I am going to blab about playing to your strengths when being a Dungeon Master. Down at the bottom of this page I tacked on what I think makes for a good player.

I decided to use artwork from the great Wayne Reynolds for this one. While I am more of a Larry Elmore/Clyde Caldwell guy, I think there's a strong argument to be made that Wayne is the greatest D&D artist of all time. 

I try to follow a few high-profile DMs that blog regularly on being a DM. Some of them include:
These people are our kin! They run stuff every week, and they have a lot of valuable information for us to sift through.

I was reading a post by Merric about Hoard of the Dragon Queen a week or two back. In it, he made a passing comment about how he felt like he wasn't good at role-playing and was more of a numbers guy. The way he said it made me think he doubted himself.

Merric is clearly a good DM. He always has a full table of players. He's had them for years. He likes the game, he knows the game, and is respected the world over for his skills as a Dungeon Master. Why would he doubt himself?

Multi-tasking

We doubt ourselves for this reason: Being a DM is ridiculously hard. It's like having a second job that you don't get paid for. You are responsible for so many things at the same time:
  • Be properly prepared to fill a session
  • Know the rules of the game
  • Entertain the players
  • Have a sense of pacing - know when to gloss over and know when to focus in on a scene
  • Know your material
  • Be ready to improvise
  • Make sure your players are the stars
  • Manage the table dynamic to keep things running smoothly
  • Remember that the ultimate point of the game is to have fun
Play To Your Strengths

Nobody is perfect. Everyone is better at some things than others. None of us are the perfect DM. What we can do is follow this simple credo:  
Accentuate your strengths and hide your weaknesses.

I personally feel my strength lies in portraying NPCs. My weaknesses include knowing rules and keeping numbers straight. So my style of game is full of wacky NPCs and stupid voices and maybe some goofy song I came up with (I ended my Skull and Shackles campaign with a terrible, profanity-laden end-credits rap).

A lot of times I describe scenes as if they are in a bad special effects movie, using words like "fog machine" and "you catch a glimpse of a hand manipulating the mouth of the dragon puppet". I make lots of sound effects.

That's my style. It's a bunch of goofy crap, but when it's time to get serious, we get serious. But I know where my bread is buttered - I try to make them smile and in turn they make me smile.

I am up front with them about being bad with rules. Usually there is a player in my group who jumps in on rules questions and looks stuff up if needed. Sometimes I have a group that doesn't care about the rules and is along for the ride. 

Identify Your Weaknesses

How do you identify your weaknesses? Get feedback from your players, to start with. The problem there is that it can be painful, and your players may not want to say certain things that might hurt your feelings.

If you're really serious about this stuff, then here is what you do. Record your session on your phone/camera/digital recorder (I use a digital recorder). Make sure your players know you're doing this, and that you aren't going to put it on the internet or anything. Listen to it. You will hear so much that you missed while administrating the game. You will immediately catch things you can do better. 

To keep yourself from getting depressed, make sure to skip to the parts where somebody made some funny jokes. That's the most important part. I have a few audio files of hilarious crap from old D&D sessions saved on my computer that I listen to from time to time to give myself a boost when I have a bad session.

Develop Your Style

As Chris Perkins has said, a DM is like a director of a movie. You have your own vision of the game and you get to present it. Your players are your stars and your audience. You should think about what your vision is. Think of great or popular directors and what traits describe you:
  • Alfred Hitchcock (Sharp plots and building tension)
  • Quentin Tarantino (Edgy, intense, profane)
  • Michael Bay (Giant explosions and sweaty bare midriffs)
If you are a "numbers" person, there is nothing wrong with that. Most people don't like to act or do voices. That is the great thing about D&D - you can shape it to fit what you like.

I can remember my friend telling me about a game he was in, where the group played out every minute of every day in the game. Most of the campaign seemed to take place in a single town. They played out every purchase, every interaction with an NPC on the street. They played this game for a year or two, and at the end they were 3rd level. The DM made gaining a level this truly epic achievement.

There is a guy at the game store I run in who runs a Pathfinder game. He's been playing since the D&D white box. He always has a table of 10 players. He insists on running his adventures completely improvised. I could never do that. It sounds terrifying. But this guy makes it work. His players are loyal to the campaign and have been playing for years. It's a lethal old school game with no regard to scaling of any kind.

The rules are just a guideline. As long as your players are OK with it, make it your own. Use the game to express your vision, but allow your players to tap dance all over it. That's the fun of the game for you - to see what your players do with the scenario you concocted.

How to be a Good Player
  • Show up on time
  • Be polite
  • Don't look at or use your phone during the game.
  • Bring food or chip in for food.
  • Have your character ready and know what your character can do
  • Don't do negative things in the game and then claim "that's what my character would do". Don't make that character.
  • As always, don't deal with out of game issues in the game.
  • When you roll bad, deal with it. It's just a game.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Baba Yaga's Dancing Hut - "The Dancing Hut" Dragon Magazine #83

I've been branching out in my Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG World Tour game lately. The DCC RPG is great for running fantasy adventures of any system. I ran SlaughterGrid with it, and it worked great.

I have this shelf of D&D adventures I want to run some day. Some of the adventures on this shelf include:
The Dancing Hut
 
In that magazine is the original "Baba Yaga" adventure: "The Dancing Hut", by Roger Moore. I ran the 2nd edition version by Lisa Smedman, but people always say the original is the best, so I put it on my shelf.

I decided to run "The Dancing Hut" for my group. I sat down and began to prepare (I take handwritten notes to help me absorb and retain the details). As I got into it, I was shocked to see that tons of details are glossed over.

Basically, the hut is home to a sort of demi-god witch. On the outside, the hut looks tiny, but the inside is a massive extra-dimensional space (like the TARDIS from "Doctor Who"). There are 48 rooms in here, arranged like a tesseract.

A lot of these rooms contain trophies, monsters or people from many different dimensions. One room even has a soviet tank from Earth. This wacky stuff is part of the reason I felt this would fit perfectly with DCC RPG.

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons to the Rescue

But I got to room 2 on page 39, where the are 6 glass statues that each have a different color. They have powers relating to the prismatic sphere spell. The details are not given. We have to look it up and figure it out on our own.

OK, well, no big deal. I can look that up. Then in Room 9, there's a fungus garden. There's a fountain. The adventure says: "Anyone who drinks from the fountain will suffer some strange effects from each drink; the DM can invent a random-roll table of peculiar effects..."

Click for full size
I was appalled. It's an old adventure, so this kind of thing was more common back then. Now I think the prevailing mindset is that an adventure does not give you homework. The homework is done for you. That's the whole point of buying an adventure.

I knew what to do. There was a 4th edition version of this adventure published in Dungeon #196. I dug it up, and by gawd the author Craig Campbell filled in all the details. All that is needed is some slight game rules translation, which is no problem. The 4th edition fungus room has a giant table for the magic pool!

Even better, this adventure has full color maps by mighty Mike Schley (my favorite map guy) for every single room .

So basically, I am running the 1e version with details and maps stolen from 4e.

The Adventure Begins
 
We started this adventure last Monday night. We had a newb join us - the group is almost getting too big. I had to do some story stuff involving a cleric and androids before we started the hut. The end result was that the PCs got their hands on some blaster pistols, grenades and a rifle from Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

They also stole the bad guys' little spaceship/pod. I wanted this to happen, just to see what the PCs would do with it.

With that out of the way, I dropped the Hut hook on them. An evil double of a PC is an apprentice of Baba Yaga, blah blah blah. The hut is a few miles to the north of the PCs' home (the fortress from Sailors on the Starless Sea).

Outside Baba Yaga's Hut

The exterior of the Hut is a very elaborate encounter. There's a ton of details:
  • It is surrounded by a fence topped with 24 talking skulls that can shoot fireballs if the PCs jump the fence rather than using the gate.
  • The hut is on chicken legs and spins. The PCs must figure out how to make it stop spinning.
  • The hut has a mouth instead of a front door. The PCs must issue a passphrase to be allowed to cause a door to appear. The hut's mouth makes it a point to warn: "Spies and thieves will be eaten."
Since this is an RPG game, the PCs did something I didn't expect. They tried to fly their spaceship over the fence. Fireballs were launched, the ship exploded and our heroes barely survived. They had to rest and come back.

They made their way in to the hut (with the aid of a mysterious raven familiar that one PC acquired during Blades Against Death),

Room 1.

This is just a normal-looking hut interior. In here is a talking cat named Vladmir. The adventure kind of lets the DM use Vladmir in any way they wish. Vlad explained some things to the PCs and took a shine to the party cleric, who is a cat-man (thanks to a potion from The Emerald Enchanter).

Room 2. Entry Hall
This is a room with incredibly valuable tapestries made of gold, silver adamantite and platinum wire. Each is worth 40,000 gp. They are guarded by the six glass statues that each have a prismatic sphere power.

The party rogue tries to steal everything, but the heroes begged her to leave the tapestries alone.

Room 5. Recreation and Dance

The heroes took a left door and ended up in this weird room which has a lot of hobby-oriented stuff. There's a table for playing cards, there's sewing stuff, and in the middle is a performance area. There's a performer nervously practicing for a gig in here. Baba Yaga has told him that he must perform for her, and if it is not up to par, she's going to eat him.

I made him one of those guys with an accordian and a helper monkey who collects tips in his little hat. I did this mostly so I could do my bad Russian accent.

The group took a liking to the guy and convinced him to come along with them. They are going to try and help him escape the hut.

Not sure why the PCs wouldn't just go out the exit, drop him off at home, and come back. I also wonder what the skull-fence and the hut itself would think of this.

Room 4. Art Gallery

This is the art gallery with a lack of description. I placed art from my old D&D campaigns, references the players wouldn't get but I would. I do stuff like that just for me - I like having a continuity among my campaigns. They all exist in the same cosmos. Baba Yaga has appeared in many of my old games, so I included references to all the other times I used her.

I took an idea from the 4e version of this room, and had a medusa in here. She was veiled and acted like a pleasant museum guide. There were many statues of terrified adventurers in here.

The group immediately realized she was a medusa and panicked. Ekim's Mystical Mask was cast (it can aid against petrification attacks). Somehow, a PC ended up making out with the medusa with the mystic mask on, don't ask me how.

During this panic, two PCs fled through a door...

Room 3. Audience Chamber

Those two PCs stumbled right into Baba Yaga's audience chamber. The great witch was sitting on her ruby throne.

One PC, a chaotic wizard, was about to attack her but he saw the look on my face, meta-gamed, and backed down. I didn't mind... I mean, she'd kill them. I guess she could have just gave them a curse or something. In the 4e version, there's som detailed curses which are fantastic. Maybe I'll do that next week.

She has two hill giant skeletons in here and there's a trapper on the floor under their feet.

My intention here was to have Baba Yaga declare the whole gimmick I had in mind for this adventure:

Her new apprentice, an evil double of a wizard PC, asked her to lure the PCs to the hut and kill them. She decided that her apprentice would have to kill them himself, to prove he was worthy of being her apprentice at all.

So this adventure is meant to be a jaunt through the hut where the apprentice messes with the PCs and uses the rooms to try to kill them.

For example, when the PCs go into the prison room, I am going to have him free the hydra. When the PCs come to the trophy room, he's going to be in the tank and will fire the cannon at them.

We had to stop there. We'll do more next Monday.

So far I like the adventure. It's very much a "sandbox". I do not appreciate the lack of details in the original, but the 4e version solves that problem and then some.

Continue to the second session, where the heroes face off against a world war 2 tank.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Hazirawn

Azbara Jos
5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is doing extremely well in our store. We have four tables going and every one of them is filled to capacity. There is literally no more room in the building.

Factions

I was a bit worried coming in to tonight's game. I am not too good at using factions in dungeons. I decided to just take it one step at a time and to try to roll with it. There's so many moving parts, it is difficult to juggle everything.

The adventurers had allied themselves with the lizardfolk and were set to take out the bullywugs in Castle Naerytar. My main concern in scenarios like this is that sometimes the PCs expect 30 NPCs to come with them from room-to-room in the dungeon. That makes the dungeon fairly useless and brings up all sorts of issues.

Planning to Finish the Campaign by March
 
Before we started, I asked the players if they were willing to do some extra sessions over the holidays. Looking at The Rise of Tiamat, I am worried we won't get to the end. It would suck for use to get to 12th level in March and then have to decide whether to finish Tyranny of Dragons or start the new Elemental Evil storyline. I want us to be done and ready by the time the new season rolls around.

The players agreed to do a couple of bonus sessions on Sundays over the next few weeks. Hopefully it all works out. They seemed happy about it.

The Lizardfolk Raid

The heroes waited until night and led 30 lizardfolk allies into the barbican. The bullywugs questioned the heroes. A couple thieves crept up to the roof and got the bullywugs up there to come downstairs. Then the lizardfolk attacked the bullywugs.

Thus began the scenario where our heroes explore Castle Naerytar to the backdrop of lizardfolk slaughtering bullywugs.  It was a quiet operation in the beginning - this was intentional on my part, as I wanted something special to happen a bit later.

The Dagger of Venom

The adventurers went into the chapel (1l.) and killed some dragonclaws. There was a wooden statue of Tiamat. I hate missed treasure, and there was a magic dagger in a secret compartment in the black dragon Tiamat head.

I tried to give them a clue by having Sparky the baby black dragon claw at the black dragon head. A rogue picked up on it, and found the dagger of venom.

The group, made up mostly of kids around the age of 13, freaked out. This is only the second magic item found so far. The first one was a lousy +1 bow. There is something about handing out the certificates that really gets them excited about getting a magic item.

Stealth Gone Wrong
 
After some excited rolling-off, the heroes searched some adjacent rooms. I decided that all the loud arguing alerted the cultists upstairs. The cultists came down and were also slaughtered.

Two rogues crept up the tower alone, snooping around. Split the party, they did! We have a party with 3 rogues, a paladin, a fighter and DARK THE DRAGON SORCERESS so there's a lot of sneaking, hiding and creeping in these sessions.

The pair of rogues went up to the third floor and found Rezmir's room. They didn't check for traps or anything. They set off her wardrobe trap. Both rogues were sprayed with acid (the damage of which was whittled down thanks to rogue abilities) and the acid destroyed the contents of the wardrobe.

The adventurers regrouped and went back out into the courtyard. They decided, to my delight, to go to the Great Hall...

Showdown in the Great Hall

1Q. is the Great Hall. It's a room where there's a ton of stolen treasure and a lot of guards - cultists, dragonwings and drakes, depending on the time of day.

When preparing this, I had decided that if possible I wanted the heroes to have a chance to encounter the uber-bad guys. The idea in the adventure is that once chaos breaks out, Rezmir (she's the big villain of this book, more or less) and the red wizard Azbara Jos flee through the portal in the basement.

I wanted the heroes to stumble on a meeting between Rezmir, Azbara and the two Castle Naerytar leaders - Dralmorrer (the elf) and Pharblex Splattergoo (the bullywug leader).

I had the idea that the PCs could see this meeting, maybe do some eavesdropping and then decide what to do from there. With the meeting over, I'd have the bad guys retire to their rooms. The PCs could theoretically follow Rezmir to her room. I was kind of amused just to see what they'd do given this scenario. I couldn't guess.

Rezmir's Evil Sentient Sword

Rezmir is loaded with magic items. She has the black dragon mask, Hazirawn the evil sentient sword, and some magic gloves.  I wanted them to have a chance to interact with the bad guys in any way they choose. At the very least, we could foreshadow who the big bad guys were and build to big battles down the road.

The heroes smartly peeked in the hall and listened to the conversation. I dropped a lot of factoids that they could learn from Talis the White in the next chapter - there's a flying castle, the cult is working with a white dragon called Glazhael the Cloudchaser, etc.

The heroes excitedly convened and plotted. The plan was for two PCs to burst into the room, posing as cultists, and warn that the lizardfolk were on a rampage. Then once the guards were away, the heroes could pick off a leader or two.

I made sure to describe Rezmir's badass items. The players demanded to see the art of the bad guy NPCs.

Dark is played by a 4th grade girl. I showed everyone Rezmir's picture and said: "Rezmir is a black dragon lady and she is a super-evil bad guy!"

Dark excitedly and earnestly shouted: "I am a super-evil good guy!"

The plan didn't go so well. They burst in to the room and yelled that there was an attack. Azbara Jos immediately recognized the heroes from the caravan journey. And also... the heroes rolled a 1 on their deception check.

A massive melee ensued. Some heroes were by one entrance, most were at the other one. Rezmir and Azbara decided to head downstairs and head to the portal.

The Fateful Disarm

The party fighter would have none of this. Rezmir had LOOT! He fired a range attack on her - a disarming strike. She dropped Hazirawn. He ran over, taking some opportunity attacks and snatched it up.

He and the PCs focused on Rezmir, all of us rolling natural 20's. It was crazy. Rezmir was staggered by a critical, then she responded with a critical (she has 2 legendary actions per round). She dropped the fighter with her acid breath.

The PCs started dropping. One of the rogues ran across the courtyard where lizardfolk were slaughtering the bullywugs in 1G. He started leading them back, telling them that their hated enemy Pharblex Splattergoo was there.

Rezmir has 90 hit points. She was down to 26. She and Azbara Jos fled as Dralmorrer fired off magic missiles and Pharblex readied a thunderwave.

About 3 PCs are down. Lizardfolk are on the way. We had to stop there, as we ran out of time.

Overall

It was a great session. I was wondering if the PCs would get their hands on the black dragon mask. It looks like it's going to get away. They'll have one more chance to snatch it in chapter 8, but that's a tricky proposition.

Very good game!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Castle Naerytar

The store was brimming over with players tonight. 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is doing fantastically well around these parts.We had four tables, each with 6 or 7 players. New people are popping up every week and sticking around. The store is literally full of people playing D&D.

Tyranny of Dragons Minis

I realized over the week that I should be using the new minis for this game. I should have bought a bunch of cultists from the new set for the early episodes, as well as a few guard drakes (which are very cool minis). I picked up 3 minis tonight - a drake, a red wizard (to use for Azbara Jos and Rath Modar) and the Rezmir mini.

I plan on grabbing the dragons to use as they appear in this storyline.

A lot of characters hit level 5 last week (thanks to me overloading them with XP). There is a big difference between level 4 and level 5. The rogue can take half damage from one attack each round, and the paladin now has 2 attacks per round.

My goal for tonight was to get the PCs to Castle Naerytar and to begin playing out that scenario. I also wanted to inject some of the cool Mere of Dead Men concepts I came upon in this article by Ed Greenwood.

Snapjaw

The heroes came upon a resting area with lean-tos used by the lizardfolk, who are transporting all of this treasure to the Castle. The adventurers decided to lurk in the swamp and watch the place. This paid off. Nine lizardfolk showed up in canoes to camp for the night.

The deal here is that one lizardfolk named Snapjaw begs to be spared. He wants to recruit the heroes for a sort of civil war in Castle Naerytar. I wondered going in if the group would just kill him or not.

They slaughtered the lizardfolk in a well-executed ambush and then they heard Snapjaw out and let him live. He told them about the situation at Castle Naerytar...

Sweet fancy moses, it took a long time to prepare this episode. A full castle with 3 floors and a basement dungeon, 4 major NPC villains and multiple factions. I will add more thoughts and cautionary tales in my Guide to Tyranny of Dragons.

But basically, as a DM you need to know this place like the back of your hand to run it the way they want you to. It's meant to be a location that the PCs can deal with how they wish - sneak/infiltrate, create friction, or hack through. The true goal here is that there's a portal in the basement that the PCs need to go through.

A lot of times as a DM I am just not up to the challenge when it comes to these kind of scenarios involving factions and a large locale. Often I kind of bail out and only really allow one route - usually hack and slash.

The Map

But in this instance, I gave the castle a lot of time and thought. I even scratched out a hand drawn map before I headed to the store.

So what happened was that I showed the players the map as Snapjaw told them all about Castle Naerytar, and how the bullywugs were lording it over them and blah blah blah. He answered their questions about the layout of the castle.

The group, mostly kids, loved this. They seemed to be genuinely shocked that they could deal with the castle in any way they choose. They started comparing it to video games (Assassin's Creed, I think).

One of them got up and asked the store to photocopy my map so each player could have one. I was really not prepared for that. Then they put their heads together and excitedly plotted various routes.

Bullywugs
 
The journey continued. I added in an encounter as the heroes were canoeing through the swamp. A bunch of bullywugs riding giant leeches attacked!

I highly recommend adding this encounter in. I placed some swamp islands on the map and the heroes were in three separate canoes. The PCs had to decide if they wanted to spend an action rowing their canoe to dry land, or to try to fight on their shaky canoes.

It was a very good battle. The players were still consumed with the castle map, and plotted when it wasn't their turn to go.

There was a moment when Sparky the baby dragon was hit by a spear and attacked by a leech. The group freaked out.

The Baby Dragon

We are really getting somewhere with the baby dragon, "Sparky". He eats "swamp sticks" for fun, and especially likes them when Dark the dragon sorceress makes them cold with her icy rays spell.

I made sure to play up how she fears one PC (Dark's dad, who at one time almost killed Sparky..!) and likes Dark and another rogue who treat him nice. Now the group sees that how they treat the dragon has consequences, and they're all trying to get Sparky to like them... except Dark's dad, who just wants it dead.

When Dark's player showed up tonight (she's a 4th grader), she showed me two drawings she did. One was of some chicken-person from some cartoon she likes. The other was of Sparky. She colored it grey, but the wings were multi-colored.

Recruiting the Lizardfolk

From there, the heroes met with some lizardfolk at a guard station on the way to the Castle. Snapjaw made his charisma roll and the lizardfolk signed on to this plan.

The group went to the castle and made their way to the lizardfolk lodges outside the Castle. The rolls were poor. The lizardfolk were not convinced that the heroes could help them defeat the bullywugs and their hated villain with the great name: Pharblex Splattergoo.

Then the PCs (with a bit of a hint from me) showed them the baby black dragon. The lizardfolk were in awe. They agreed to the plan.

Next week, the heroes are going to set the lizardfolk loose on the bullywugs in Castle Naerytar. They don't know it, but they'll have the opportunity to interact with the main villain Rezmir and/or Azbara Jos.

Overall it was another classic night. Every time I show up, everyone is already sitting at the table waiting for me politely. They pay attention and genuinely enjoy the game. I am hoping we can get all the way through this storyline before the next one starts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

SlaughterGrid

SlaughterGrid is an adventure made for D&D-type game systems. I ran it using the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules as part of my Monday Night game store World Tour game. Now that I've run it, I'm going to tell you what I think about it!

This fantasy RPG adventure is written by Rafael Chandler, the guy who did the Teratic Tome monster book. He definitely has a unique style. He specializes in adventures with lots of gore and explicit stuff. A lot of the art is also explicit. I'll only be showing "safe portions" of select images.

The Giant Stone Woman

I bought this partly because I like that Chandler has a vision. So few D&D writers have a style that stands out. Most of the time, adventures all have the same sort of creative voice. To me, Raymond Chandler is inspired and he has an actual take on what D&D can be that isn't like everybody else's. I appreciate that.

But it's the concept of the dungeon that sold me. This dungeon is built inside a giant stone woman that was constructed by genocidal halflings. It once rampaged across the land. It is now inert and lying in the earth. All sorts of weird creatures have flocked to live inside it.

Your Character Will Have Mutations
 
This dungeon has a gimmick: When you die in the SlaughterGrid, you are immediately reborn in "The Ovum", a pink sphere. Your character is resurrected with a mutation, which is rolled on a chart. A lot of the mutations are awesome. The party fighter now has a lightning-hand. The rogue had worse luck - she permanently attracts flies.

This proved to work out extremely well. The dungeon wore the party down over the course of four sessions. By the end, they were killing each other or committing suicide just to get out of an inconvenient situation.

This also puts a whole new spin on monsters that force PCs to attack each other. In 4th edition D&D, dominate was best used sparingly (if at all) as it had massive ramifications - mainly what it meant was that the player had to sit at the table for up to half an hour doing absolutely nothing.

But in here, PCs having an excuse to kill each other was fun! They were reborn with weird new powers. A nice touch was that their old body remained. I had one PC reborn with the urge to eat meat every hour. He feasted on his own corpse. Very odd!

The Treasure is Awesome

The treasure is fantastic. There are lots of creative items (the party rogue loves her ring which gives her super-muscles). It's a very interesting idea to place so many items in the dungeon that only have 3 or 4 charges. And I love the idea of an item exploding when the last charge is used.

I should also note that this adventure has a lot of extras. The book includes thirty two new monsters, as well as a page of NPC names (which always comes in handy).

The Exterior HexCrawl
 
Getting to the dungeon involves a hexcrawl. I read it over and I didn't really like it. In general, I don't like long lead-ups to the dungeon. They're usually boring. There's enough material in the dungeon, no need to drag it out!

So I grabbed the one encounter from the hexcrawl that excited me and threw that at them on their way to the Slaughtergrid. It involved a genital-eating red-skinned unicorn who hated virgins. It went off extremely well!

Our heroes battled the red unicorn and found the SlaughterGrid. I'll give you three guesses as to where the dungeon entrance is located on the giant stone woman's body.

The Gold Whores

The dungeon has a gimmick that didn't come in to play much. There's these monsters called "Gold-whores". When gold is left out in the open, they come out of the walls and go into a frenzy. The denizens keep any gold sealed up tight to prevent attracting them. In fact, there's so little gold in here that this almost never came up at all.

At the very end of the dungeon is a statue that turns metal to gold 3 times. I think that should have been placed on the first level so the PCs could mess with it and learn about the gold whores early on.

Level One

In retrospect, the first level of the dungeon is probably the worst of the three. There are a few save-or-die traps, but not enough. My group rolled very well, and didn't die at all in that first session.

One thing I don't like about big dungeons is when there's an entrance to the second level early on. I sat there at home and spent hours preparing this first level of the dungeon. I hate the idea that the party might bypass the whole level and just skip down to level two. I don't blame the PCs for doing it, but I am not interested in wasting my time. I moved the entrance to two to ensure that my party got to go through most of the rooms in level one.

Level Two
  
Level 2 was much better. It's full of goblinoids who serve this pit troll and/or a crazy corrupted wizard lady. The gnolls, orcs and goblins are each a variant. The orcs breathe frost, for example. Very cool!

The Pit Troll is hilarious. She has her alpha male with her and some cool treasure.

One of my favorite rooms here is a lake of acid with an island full of treasure. Crossing it is deadly - there's fumes and acid geysers. It's very fun and memorable. One of the PCs got paralyzed by something in here, and the party decided the best way to deal with this was to kill him. He was reborn in the ovum with bat wings. He made his way back to the lake, naked, and rejoined the party.

Level Three

Level 3 is full of otyughs. They're classic d&d monsters with tentacles, and they love garbage. I never much cared for them, but I love the variants Chandler cooked up here. I especially like the shape-shifting pseudo-otyugh. It is quite amusing to me to imagine a weird lady walking up to the PCs who smells like trash dumbly trying to lure them into an obvious trap.

My favorite area of the whole dungeon is a hallway where two polyps lurk. As the PCs approach, the adventure says "...Polyps chirp and mutter to one another as party approaches, then fall silent". Check the image to the left for details. I find this vastly amusing. It is a fantastic encounter!

There's also a shrunken village of 23 farmers. The cannibal PC ate one little villager, to the horror of the rest of the group. The party wizard successfully enlarged a farmer, and the thief decided to keep a tiny dwarf (who was later squooshed to death).

The final encounter of the dungeon involves a hideous genital-monster called The Progenitor, which I probably shouldn't describe or even show you the full-page art of. It's got five "openings", right? And it has tentacles that end in "the dagger of the male physique", as Ed Greenwood might put it.

The party nearly died fighting the mighty Progenitor. One PC swore a "Bowel Oath" to it. But in the end, the heroes prevailed and escaped the dungeon.

Overall

This is a really good, creative dungeon. I think that you could make it two levels instead of three and not miss anything. On paper, as you read through this adventure, some of it looks dull, but it went fantastic in actual play. The group really enjoyed it and were actually a little bummed when it was over. They liked everything - the feces, the gore, and especially the mutation gimmick.

If you are thinking about running this, I'd suggest checking with your players as to their feelings about some of the more explicit stuff in here and make sure they won't be offended before you spring it on them. But I highly recommend that you buy this adventure, even if just to steal some of the concepts and items.

Pick up SlaughterGrid here. It's a very good deal at $6.66.

Friday, November 7, 2014

How to Recover From a Bad Game of Dungeons & Dragons

I was thinking about the cover art for D&D 5th edition. I'm not a big fan. The best cover, in my opinion, is the one for The Rise of Tiamat. The more I look at it, the more I like it. I decided to fill this column with images by the artist who did The Rise of Tiamat cover, Michael Komarck. My slight beef with his stuff is that it looks either too "real", like a photo, or it somehow has a CGI look, like he made it with a computer program like poser.

I will say that I love his Rise of Tiamat cover and I've always really liked his depiction of the 4th edition githyanki.

The Campaign Killer

I think most campaigns are killed by a bad session, or a string of bad sessions. As a DM, you put a pile of work into this, you got everybody together, and what you thought was going to be Empire Strikes Back turned out to be The Phantom Menace. It is painful, it is awkward. You're not sure if your players even want to come back. You might just want to give up.

Don't! Every DM has bad sessions. Sometimes it just happens. When you have a bad one, go do something else and don't think about it for a few days. Watch cool movies, enjoy some other hobby. I recharge my battery by reading some Knights of the Dinner Table, a comic that really captures what is great about RPGs and really makes you want to play.

Let's go over the causes of a bad session and then we will see what can be done about it.

The Causes:
  • The group abandons your adventure
  • Your encounters are too difficult
  • Your encounters are too easy
  • Your game is boring
  • Interpersonal conflicts
The Group Abandons Your Adventure:

You come into the session with a plan, right? You have an adventure for them all cooked up, and it's awesome. But sometimes the group gets a wild hair up their butt and they want to ditch your adventure. Heck, they might even want to leave the city, continent or plane!

Always have a back-up scenario in your pocket. This is an emergency plan that you can draw on if your PCs take off completely. It doesn't have to be too detailed, just an outline of another scenario that you can drop in. Adapt it to what your PCs are doing and go. When the PCs do this, it is a wild ride. You just grab whatever ideas you have at your disposal and make it work.

When you roll with your players when they have an exciting, crazy idea, they love you for it. It becomes a legendary session that they talk about forever.

Yeah, it's a bummer when you prepared a whole bunch of material that won't get used. But you can cannibalize it later. You can repurpose a dungeon, re-skin an NPC and use it the next session.

You can also do what Chris Perkins does - have that scenario that the PCs abandoned play out without the PCs involvement. The PCs may have to deal with the repercussions of this down the road, and it will make the world feel real.

Your Encounters Are Too Difficult

This is a trap I fall into sometimes. I lose perspective. Sometimes you should play in someone else's game just to remember what it is like to be a player. This will help you empathize with your players.

Sometimes a fight should be hard. "Boss" fights. Battles with iconic monsters like dragons or beholders. But not every fight should be hard. In fact, some should be easy. It's fun for the PCs to have a stress-free encounter where they can do backflips and trade quips. Let them have it! The point of the game is to have fun, after all.

One thing I see over and over again is DMs who put their players through the ringer, but then won't let them die. It feels so cheap when your character gets mauled, but then the DM softens up and lets you live through some ham-handed distraction or whatever. That is a very unpleasant way to spend three hours, and not too many people will stick around for it.

Your Encounters Are Too Easy

I am more guilty of this one. If everything is easy, it's pretty dull. Why the need to get XP and gain levels if you can maul everything already?

Handing out magic items like candy is a bad idea, too. They lose their value. And once PCs have certain abilities, namely flight and teleportation, your adventures are about to become very limited.

Worse, when you try to correct this situation, the players will be most unhappy. But if you stay the course, they feel like they've already "won" D&D and get bored.

Boredom

Speaking of getting bored, good gawd. Watch someone else's D&D game. It's boring! People flipping through books, stacking dice, quietly listening to the DM talk to another player.

You have to keep the game moving! Do not stop to look up every little rule. Here are some ways to speed things up:

The Gary Gygax Rule: If someone asks a question you don't have an answer to, roll a d6. 1-3 = No, 4-6 = Yes. Boom. Roasted. Move on!

Roll a d20 and see if it matters: If you're not sure of a modifier or bonus, just have the player roll a d20 and see what they get. If they roll high, obviously they succeed. If low, they fail. Use your judgment on the middle ground.

In general, if it's a crucial moment and the rules question will have major impact, go ahead and look it up. Otherwise, make a note to look it up after the game.

I always tell my players it is their job to know what their characters can do. If they forget or miss it, it's their problem. Be better prepared next time! We have stuff to do! Spellcasters in particular should write down their spells, to-hit bonuses, save DCs, durations, etc on a "cheat sheet". This will save so much time.

Heck, a player can just look anything they need to know up when someone else is taking a combat turn.Now, all that said...

Don't be a slave to skill checks: Let the players describe how they search a room. If what they do logically leads to them finding a secret door, they find it. It is a much cooler game when a PC finds a secret door by discovering that a torch sconce is a lever that activates a swiveling wall that reveals a secret passage rather than rolling a 14 on a d20. Just don't let all the searching take too long. Tell them what's in the room, and let them decide if they want to mess with the objects and poke around or not.

Personally, I think that missed treasure sucks. I don't want them to miss it just because they rolled an 8 rather than a 12.

Interpersonal Conflicts

This is a big one. This is a social game, so when you get people together, things happen. The most common conflicts usually involve clashing play styles or personalities. You have to know who you are playing with if you are going to run a long campaign. When you bring someone into your game, talk to them beforehand to let them know how you run your game, and ask them what they want to get out of the game. Make sure you are compatible before you even start.

There's a million different things that can go wrong:
  • A player has a problem with their temper
  • The DM plays favorites
  • Someone gets a crush on someone else and it leaks into the game
  • A player is being inappropriate/rude
  • Someone is cheating
  • The DM has a super-awesome NPC that does everything while the party stands there
  • A player won't stop making side-conversations
Here's the bottom line on all of this stuff. You talk about the problem, give it a few weeks and see if the behavior changes, and if not then somebody gets the boot. That's all there is to it.

A lot of people say "..but these are the only people that I know who will play". Do you really want to play a bad game every week? It's a colossal waste of your own time. You won't be able to sustain it, anyway. The crappy game will weigh you down and break you.

What you need is to get yourself a pool of players. The two ways I do this:

Recruit real-life friends: Seriously. Most people will try D&D if they have the opportunity.  Buddy up with people at work/school/whatever and feel them out. This may take time. But before you know it, you've brought them into the fold. The key here is that once you get them to try it, your game must be good! Otherwise they will go away.

Run a game at a game store: You will meet a billion players and you will be able to cherry pick your favorites for your home game.

Recruiting players is fun. It's kind of like forming your own justice league or an all star team. Do it! Do not waste time trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Just because someone doesn't fit in your game doesn't make them bad people... you can still be friends with them. Chemistry is a very important thing.

The Bottom Line

Some people want to kill stuff. Some want roleplaying and creative solutions. I have found that if you run your game like it is a movie or TV show, it generally makes everyone happy. They all want to feel like they're the main characters in a story, and that they can do whatever they like. If you can give them that feeling, you have a good game going.