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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons - Downtime Playtest

A few weeks ago, they posted a new version of the downtime rules right here. I tried it out with my Planescape players and I figure we'll go over these rules and see what we think. You can get the original carousing rules right here.

These rules don't really work for me, but I like a lot of the ideas.

It might work for you, though. I love downtime. Downtime is a huge part of some of my campaigns. For whatever reason, the most rich and enjoyable part of my sessions are the time that the group spends in town and I get to further all sorts of fun little side plots. Those sometimes grow into full adventures.

This set of rules is 14 pages long, but in most of these scenarios, really we're just making a couple of die rolls.

In the beginning, it talks about how this is a way to give players things to do between sessions. I've noticed that a lot of players don't want to do that. I'm sure many of you have tried resolving little things through email between sessions, and it takes so long to get one response that you never get anywhere.

I think that, in order for this to be something people want to participate in, it needs to be exciting. It needs to be a thing where, when you sit down together to play again, the players ask each other, "so what happened to you since last session?" and the player tells a funny story that has put their character in some amusing condition/situation or they obtained something new and cool. Or maybe they learned something that sheds new light on their goals and gives them either an advantage or direction that gets people excited.

Foils

These are downtime bad guys. You'll either use NPCs from your campaign, or, if none fit, make them up.

I think that it might be useful to draw from character backgrounds and incorporate them into downtime. I have found it really hard to work backgrounds into campaigns, because each player's background is so different. Players do get disappointed when their story that they came up with doesn't really get used, and this seems like a great way to utilize it.

It might be a good idea to have each player create one foil and one ally from their background. Then, you don't have to make them up. They're already made, and you know the player is interested in them, because they created them.

I think the foils should be more directly baked into the charts. It seems like a bit of work to fit them in with some of these downtime activities.

Complications

There is a 10% chance that there is a complication in your downtime task. There's tables for them. It seems like a lot of work was put in to something that is not going to happen very much. I think that there should always be a complication or  development. There should be good things, bad things, or interesting things. I think it should always take a logical step that surprises the player.

For example, with buying a magic item:
  • Good: The item has an extra power of some kind.
  • Neutral: Somebody else wants the item, and the seller will give it to the highest bidder. The player can try to negotiate with the other person, or undercut them. The other person might be somebody really cool, like a famous NPC or person with clout in the city. It could be the foil! Maybe they need the item for something really important, and they'll tell the character they'll give it to them for a discount once they've used it for what they need.
  • Bad: They have a whole list in this document already. Let's go with.. the seller is murdered before the sale.
Carousing
This is my favorite, and it's always been my favorite. I love running sessions where the heroes are out to have a good time. There is so much you can do with it.

D&D tends to be very dark. There's a lot of killing. It is so refreshing to run a session fueled by joy. The quest for shenanigans! To me, that's really what D&D is about. Players love it and you can come up with all sorts of ridiculous events. Drinking contests, getting hit on, arm wrestling, gambling, drunken debauchery, you name it.

My group did this one. Bidam went carousing. He paid 500 gp to spend a week carousing in high class places, which, in the city of Sigil, is the Lady's Ward.

We actually rolled a complication. He promised to go on a quest, which I had to make up right there. It ended up being that Bidam promised someone he'd try to get the Lady of Pain to forgive Fell, the fallen dabus. This is a ridiculously difficult quest coupled by the fact that the group hates Fell.

Contacts: What this version of carousing comes down to is making a contact - an NPC ally. If you roll really low, you end up with an enemy. Roll high, make a friend.

It just wasn't enough. It's two rolls. Roll for a complication. Roll a skill check.

I mean, what happened over the week? Where did he go? What did he do? These rules don't cover any of that, it's up to me to make it up. I think you should roll for things that happen every single day of carousing. The way it is right now, it feels flat.

Crafting an Item

Making a magic item, that's cool, right? I've always loved the idea of it, but it has never really worked out in practice. I give my group magic item formulas but they don't really do anything with them. For a while, Theran was making and selling javelins of lightning, but the group's other businesses make much them much more money. I mean.. they have dwarves mining gems for them.

In this version of the rules, you need the right kit to make the item. As in, a herbalism kit, leatherworker's tools, etc. Right there, that's a hurdle. I think they should include an NPC for each of these things that the PC can hire. Most people are only proficient with one kit, it just seems like this isn't going to work. They just won't bother with it because it's already too much trouble.

You'll need ingredients, which involves dealing with a monster. That's cool. The more powerful the item, the more powerful the monster.

Theran was going to make a rope of climbing. I declared that he needed a hair of an annis hag, a monster from Volo's Guide to Monsters.

The heroes know a bunch of hags, so they had no trouble finding the location of an annis. They went to her hut and wow, annis hags are creepy. They skin babies! The group was appalled and a fight broke out. The hag bear-hugged the party's rogue sidekick and threw her through a table. Theran lightning-bolted the hag numerous times, pretty much destroying the hut and the hag. They plucked a hair from her.

Looking at the chart, if takes 5 workweeks to make this. It takes 100 workweeks to make a very rare item!

Too Long: To me, that just doesn't work. Most campaigns that I've seen don't take years in game time. In real life, 6 months might go by and in the campaign just 2 weeks passes. Heck, I've seen groups be in the same dungeon for 6 months of real life time.

This is discussed in the beginning of the document. It requires you to adjust your campaign so that months pass between sessions. I don't think that's bad, I like it. But I think that most people don't do that.

I can see situations where a player will go, "Hey, let's not go fight the dragon until I've made this staff." The group will ask how long it will take. "Two years."

Shortening the Time: They're not going to wait. That staff will never get made. It think the time needs to be shorter. This could be explained by getting other wizards or casters to help you make it. Together, you enact a ritual over the course of a week or something. Maybe it involves calling on your god to bless the item, or you have to pour a portion of your lifeforce into it, maybe draining you in some way for a few weeks. Maybe putting your lifeforce into it means it is imbued with your personality to some degree. Or maybe you are bonded to it, and if it is destroyed, you are mortally wounded. If you die, it is destroyed.

I just think that the timetable absolutely kills the chance that people are going to bother with this.

Crime

What a cool idea. This involves three checks: Stealth, Dex, and then either Investigation, Perception or Deception.
  • All 3 Fail: You're in jail. Possible outcomes:
  • 1 Success: Fail but escape
  • 2 Successes: Partial success, half the payout.
  • 3 Successes: You get the payout.
The DC depends on how much money you're gunning for.

Punishment for getting caught is paying a fine equal to the amount you tried to steal. You're jailed for one week per 25 gp value. OK.. just trying to steal 200gp, that's eight weeks in jail! And 1,000 gp, that's 40 weeks!

Again, that can mess up a campaign and it might cause problems. The rest of the group won't want to wait for that person to get out. They'll just tell the player to make a new character or something.

A lot of these increase the DM's work load. You have to make up a place that is being robbed, you have to make up the victim and if the character is in jail.. then what? What if the group goes on an adventure without them?

Someone should make a bank robbery adventure, that would be a lot of fun.

Buying a Magic Item


You spend 100 gp and spend one work week (5 business days, basically). Make a Persuasion check. The higher the check, the better the items found. The DM then has to roll on one of the magic item tables.

The hero is probably looking for a specific item. It seems extremely difficult to get it. You have to roll the exact table it is on. I'd probably just say that if you rolled high enough, and the item is on a table that is found on the list of results lower than your roll, you find it, or at least have a good chance.

The way it is now, the character will be spending weeks and weeks to find it and they're going to get bored or feel like it is a waste of time.

Gambling

You can bet up to 1,000 gp. This one involves three checks. The DC is 5 +2d10, rolled for each of the three checks. The best result is for you to double your money.

I like it, I guess.

Pit Fighting

This one's odd. You roll three checks to determine how the battle goes. I think a lot of players would be disappointed to find that they don't get to roll out the fight or anything. The reward is just a bit of gold. You can make up to 200 gp per week.

This one is just too abstract for my liking.

Relaxation

This is an interesting idea. You gain advantage on saves vs. disease and poisons. At the end of the week, you can end an effect that stops you from regaining hit points or you can restore an ability score if it was reduced.

There's no complications, no nothing. Relaxation is amusing, there should be something. Maybe you have a deep thought that changes your perspective. Maybe you realize something about an ally or an adventure. Maybe you gain weight!

Religious Service

You make a check. You can earn favors and promises of future assistance. You could get spells cast for you more cheaply, or gain nebulous support.

This is too vague for me. Again it feels like I have to come up with everything for this.

Research

You spend money and you roll. The higher you roll, the more pieces of lore you learn. This seems like a cool way to learn about a monster you might have to face. In the Eberron campaign, we did research on rakshasas and this would have helped.

It's always weird when it comes to monster lore. I know what the monster does in real life, but does my character know? As a DM, I say that anything a player knows, a character knows, at least as far as monsters. It's a benefit earned by playing a lot and investing time in the game.

We can say that your character heard about it. I'd imagine that in the campaign world, people talk about monsters a lot. In our world, people talk a bit about bigfoot, so I'd imagine a world full of dragons and orcs that are right there over the next hill are going to be studied and discussed a lot.

Scribing a Spell Scroll

You pay money depending on how high level the spell is. Making a scroll of a 5th level spell takes 8 weeks and 5,000 gp. I just don't think that will work. That's too much time and I think players would recoil in horror at the idea of spending 5,000 gp to cast a spell one single time.

Selling a Magic Item

I like this one. If you roll high, you can actually sell an item for more than it is worth.

Training

There's really nothing to this. It takes at least 10 weeks! I don't see this getting much use. I guess it might be interesting if you run a game where the group has to train before they gain a level as then you could use this and maybe make up some events that happen during the training involving learning their new spells or abilities.

Work

Get a job! What a funny idea. This can be used for bards who want to perform. There should probably be a "Perform" downtime, and you roll to see how your performance is received. Low means people are throwing tomatoes at you, high means you're becoming a local celebrity.

Overall

I think this is still a work in progress. It's hard to figure out how to handle it. People like me want details, lots of details, but if you're trying to use it as something to do between sessions, then it should just be a few rolls. That said, I think they need to spice it up and make sure that something interesting always happen during downtime.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Dice, Camera, Action: Episode 44 - Storm King's Thunder

Episode 44: Animals in Heat
Holly made a puppet of her cranium rat and it attaches to her shoulder. I don't know how she does this stuff, it's really great.

The Party

(Anna) Juniper - Mouse
(ProJared) Waffles - Baby Owlbear
(Holly) Mr. Stinky - Cranium Rat

Last Time, the Waffle Crew got cornered by a pair of fire giants. Their animal sidekicks fled in terror. In this session, the players play as their animals.

The animals can communicate as long as they are within 30 feet of Mr. Stinky, due to his telepathic powers. Stinky is always angry.

I would like to see how Chris runs a cranium rat hive. They all share a single mind. Does that mean that the entire hive in Sigil has a personality like Mr. Stinky? I think that would be pretty funny.

They're in a vent. They come to an intersection. Holly and Anna are always worried about Waffles dying. Jared trolls them by claiming that today is the day that Waffles is going to "heroically sacrifice" himself.

Juniper is plump and doesn't exercise much. She climbs on Stinky and takes a nap. They smell food. It is coming from a room nearby. Stinky and Juniper go in through a grate.

Six Goblins enter the room. The group bails out and goes back into the vents.

They're in a tunnel... there's a light a ways off. It is making squishy noises. They want no part of this.

The group flees to the kitchen where goblins are working. The group hides in an overturned bowl and try to creep across the room.

After a bit of wandering, they hear a really loud clanging noise. They decide they want to find the Waffle Crew. They end up in a vent heading toward a grate connected to a room.

In the room is Paultin, who is sleeping or unconscious. Next to him is the dao (earth genie) and the golem. Something is trying to bash the door to the room open.

Stinky doesn't like Paultin. Juniper wants to go to him, figuring Evelyn will find him. Nope.. they leave him to his fate.

They end up in a hallway and they are spotted by a hell hound. Good gawd. Anna tells Chris to think long and hard before he kills Waffles.

Oh no.. a second hell hound. Roll initiative! The hell hounds charge down the hallway.

Stinky stays in the hall while the other two scamper into the vents. Stinky uses his mental powers to try convince them a demon is coming. They slow down and circle Stinky. They don't buy it.

He tries to flee, but one of them puts a paw on Stinky's tail. Stinky bites the paw and is able to scramble into the vent. Waffles distracts them and they all flee into the vents.

They are rolling incredibly high today. It's all 19's and 20's.

A hell hound breathes fire into the vent! Waffles rolls a natural 20 on his save! They evade the flames.

They escape the hell hounds and end up on the bucket/conveyer belt thing. It takes them through the room with the massive golem parts. The players call it a mech and consider checking it out, but they keep riding along.

They see that this bucket journey ends with orcs smashing the contents to pieces, so they bail out.

Waffles sniffs the air to find Strix, who is very smelly. Waffles rolls a natural 20. Maybe Waffles should throw Diath's daggers.

Stinky ends up on the "mech" and it doesn't go well. Stinky is pinned in the machinery inside the mech. The hell hounds are here, at the base of the mech.

Waffles climbs in and gets stuck. Juniper goes in and pushes a lever, but she is too weak to move it. She gets a piece of cable, wraps around it and hands it to waffles, who pulls.

The whole thing falls over, crushing the hell hounds. Stinky rolls bad, but lives! Chris point out that everyone in the complex hears this noise.. and that's where we stop.

Overall

I was quite leery when I heard about the premise of this episode. I felt like it would be a waste of a session. As it went, I liked it more and I think that Chris found some cool things for them to do. Ironslag is a good place to do an adventure like this. The mech, the bucket chain and the hell hounds added a lot. I can't believe I didn't think of the hell hounds as foils. It was pretty perfect.

This episode brought me back to things I saw as a kid (a parakeet literally flew into our house and we kept it, but that's another story). There are two movies that I saw when I was really young that basically fueled my interest in D&D: The Dark Crystal and The Secret of Nimh. Nimh in particular made a huge impact on me. Years later, as a pre-adolescent DM, I ripped off everything from that movie a few times over. I always tried to capture the coolness of Nicodemus and the interior of the thorn bush, but I never got too close.

Good show! Different, but worth seeing, I think.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Planescape: Blood War VIII. The Blood Storm

It’s always cool when things go in a direction that you didn’t expect. In this session, the dice decided that there would be a change of plans and the players also decided that one of the next few sessions needs to be about achieving a goal that is important to them.

The Party

(Jessie) Bidam - Platinum-Scaled Dragonborn Fighter
(George) Theran - Elf Wizard 

We picked up where we left off last time. The group was sailing on the River Styx. They had just messed with Lilith and freed all of her prisoners – clerics and paladins of good gods.

The heroes got as far as Phlegethos (the 4th layer of Hell) when she caught up with them. Malcanthet, Lilith’s succubus rival, was psychically linked to Bidam. Once Lilith understood that, she realized that the group had been charmed.

She dispelled the charm and forced the group to hand over her whip and explained that the chaotic energy of the halo had motivated her again. She realized she was one step away from ruling the 7th layer of Hell. So in a way, the group did her a favor. She made them throw the halo in the Pit of Flame that they happened to be passing by. Then she left.

Sigil


Back in Sigil, we did a whole bunch of downtime stuff with their businesses. There’s a modron and a talking cat in charge of the financials and the day-to-day operations of their festhalls. They went over a bunch of things:

New Employee: Last week Jessie insisted that there needs to be a cow lady who has udders, so this week introduced Mastitia Bovary, a big cow lady who talks like Lunchlady Doris. She’s going to help with the paperwork.

Perks: They decided to give their employees vacation time, and are going to use their two mansions in the plane of elemental earth as a vacation destination. The employees are starting to get competitive offers from other festhalls, so the group wanted to fix things up a bit to make sure they didn’t lose any workers.

Employee Reviews: Then the group did employee reviews, which was hilarious but probably not something fit for print. Theran was thoroughly exhausted and sustained an injury due to an employee rolling a 1 at the worst possible time, but in the end the employees who performed poorly were giving workshops run by the employees who scored the best.

Downtime Playtest: That took a long time in real life. Once done, we took a stab at using the new playtest downtime rules. These rules are slightly more involved than the ones in the DMG, but ultimately they were not nearly detailed enough for me. I guess these rules are made for people to do stuff between sessions so they don’t really work the way I want them to.

Even so, some of the categories have almost nothing to to them. Training just has one tiny little chart detailing things that go wrong. That’s just not enough to go on, you need more than that.

We tried it anyway:

Bidam: He did some carousing in the Lady’s Ward the rich part of town. He paid 500 gp and actually rolled a complication. His result: He promised to go on a quest. I dug out an NPC from Faces of Sigil who is linked to Fell the fallen dabus. While drunk, Bidam actually swore that he would try to get the Lady of Pain to forgive Fell. That should lead to fun stuff.

Theran: We did the craft a magic item thing. Theran was making a rope of climbing. The first thing I noticed is that it takes so long to make a magic item. It just feels like nobody’s ever going to do it. It takes one year just to make a rare item. A year! How many campaigns last a year in game time? Not many.

He needed a hair from an annis hag. They hunted one down (these hags skin babies, not cool) and the hag almost hugged Tibba, their swashbuckler sidekick, to death. But Theran killed the hag with a series of lightning bolts that destroyed the hag and the hut. He got the hair he needed.

I feel the need to completely revamp these rules because they just don’t work for my style. I use downtime in the game, it’s a big part of my campaign and these rules aren’t meant to be used the way I want to use them.

Allagash: Then the group checked in at Bidam’s demon-making farm. This time, they had produced a unique demon named Phenex. He’s from the Teratic Tome, he likes to eat creatures and he attracts ghosts who swirl around him. He’s a cool guy.

Tornbend: Then the group checked out Theran’s earthmote in the Abyss. They had sent some Agonist (new type of demon) spies to Samora, the settlement that my Trump NPC rules. His name is Gonard Flumph. The Agonist reported to Theran, and gave the group some new info. It’s stupid, but here it is:
  • Gonard has a new wife. Her name is Mel Narnia.
  • They have a kid, who was immediately declared to be a Baron. So.. he’s Baron Flumph.
  • The Agonists also learned that Flumph was being propped up by a mysterious demon lord, who has provided resources and ideas to keep Flumph in power.
  • Also, Flumph liked to communicate via magic mouth spells. Throughout the city, mouths would appear on walls and utter dumb proclamations that were no longer than 25 words or 140 characters.
My Trump NPC has been waging a sort of propaganda war against the group. Last week, the group killed his son, Gonard Flumph, jr. and made him Theran’s zombie servant.

Retaliation: This week, Flumph upped the ante. He made a missile strike! A meteor swarm, to be exact. The group doesn’t know this, but Flumph got a simulacrum of Iggwilv to cast the spell. You can cast it from up to a mile away! It does 20d6 fire and 20d6 bludgeoning!

Bidam survived, Theran did not. None of the buildings were destroyed, but they were damaged and the tieflings who lived in Tornbend died.

Bidam revived Theran using his… urine of positive energy.. and a magic mouth appeared on a wall. It proceeded to tweet say: “Tornbend is looking for trouble. If Graz’zt decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without him. Samora!”

The group declared that they wanted to go kill Gonard Flumph for good. We’re going to do that in one of the next few sessions. So I’ll have to come up with the D&D equivalent of Steve Bannon and Breitbart, the biased and failing mainstream media (who I guess would be praising the meteor swarm strike), and we’ll definitely need to work in the pee pee tape somehow.

I kind of don’t want them to kill Flumph because I enjoy working the Trump stories of the week into the campaign, but I don’t want to cheat them out of their revenge. If there’s some way to defeat him without killing him, I will definitely throw that out there. Maybe he can take take the group to the D&D equivalent of Mar a Lago and schmooze them over 18 rounds of golf.

The Plain of Infinite Portals


Then it was time for the actual adventure. The group and the devil army had taken a layer of the Abyss called Onstrakkar’s Nest. It has a portal to the first layer of the Abyss, which has a bunch of names, including Pazunia and the Plain of Infinite Portals.

From that layer, you can get to almost any other abyssal layer, including Thanatos. Thanatos is the layer that the devils want to take. The pit fiend general secretly wants to rule that layer, betray the devils and become a demon lord. The group knows this and is helping him.

March Through the Abyss: So the heroes led thousand of devils – legion devils, shocktroop devils and hell knights – on a march through the first layer of the Abyss. It was a dim, barren plain with red dust and bone powder swirling about. A bloated red sun hung in the sky. The land was dotted with holes in the ground (portals), iron fortresses (homes of powerful demons) and lakes of molten iron (which are used to make the iron fortresses).

They marched for hours. To their right was the Abyssal Rift, a massive chasm that supposedly had no bottom. A weird yellow and red mist swirled in it, preventing them from seeing too far down.

Their luck ran out. A demon army came at them from the side, so that the devils’ backs were to the chasm. This army was led by Pazuzu, the demon lord who rules this layer of the Abyss.
 
Pazuzu

I cooked up his army based on some info from his Demonomicon entry and monster I thought would fit. So he had Abyssal ants, Demon harpies (Harpies and Pazuzu, seems like they go together IMO), demon birds, and demon rocs. I had been thinking of having the group fight a roc, but I looked at their stats and they are way too powerful. I decided to leave that for some other time, possibly never.

The harpies flew forward and began singing, charming a massive portion of the army, who ran to them, swooning. Bovina failed her save and was among the throng.

Bidam tried to use his horn of blasting, but he finally rolled low. It exploded.

Theran launched a fireball into the massive swarm of hundreds of harpies, injuring a great many of them. Other harpies flew at those who weren’t charmed and attacked. The group mopped the floor with their harpies, with Bidam cutting one in half with his word of sharpness and Theran dropping the other two with a lightning bolt.

Then, a wave of abyssal ants charged forward, tearing into the devils and pressing them to the edge of the rift. Again, the group slaughtered the enemies near them.

Codricuhn


Suddenly, both armies were blindsided. Long ago they’d learned of an entity called Codricuhn, a giant demon who was climbing up the abyssal rift. Supposedly, once Codricuhn got to the top, he would destroy all of the abyss and maybe all of creation.

So wouldn’t you know it, Codricuhn made it to the top right at this inconvenient time!. He’s surrounded by a massive storm. Theran got sucked into it and was swirling around, orbiting Codricuhn along with many flailing devils and harpies. He was hurt and tried to eat a goodberry, but it blew out of his hand due to the powerful vortex winds.

Codricuhn grabbed the ground, trying to pull itself fully out of the rift. Doing so caused massive cracks in the ground, earthquake-like rifts that devils began falling into. Codricuhn raised his other hand, grabbed dozens of devil and harpies and flung them into the rift.

The group was panicked. They had no idea where Bovina was, or if she was even still alive. Theran reached into his shirt to try to activate his jar with Lord Stillborn in it. With that jar, he can teleport to his throne room in Tornbend. He had to make a roll to see if it blew out of his hand. He made the roll!

He vanished. He was safe in his throne room.

But Bidam was in big trouble. A massive rift opened up beneath him. He fell in, but was able to grab onto the side after falling about 2 feet.

His wife, the demon lord Bazuuma, had sensed his panic through their ring of joining. She appeared, saw Codricuhn, and fired her 20 eye rays at him. She was joined by the group’s friend, Bechard the demon whale.

Bidam caught a glimpse of them, but there was no way to get their attention. He was unable to climb up due to bad rolls. Then, the rift shook as Codricuhn caused tremors. Bidam failed his save (he rolled a 2) and fell. He rolled again to grab the side of the wall. He rolled a 3. Bidam fell into darkness.

We had to stop there. We were out of time, and also I need to think about what happens now.

First of all, Bidam has the armor of invulnerability. He can activate it and become immune to non-magical damage. So if he falls, activates it and then he hits the ground, does he take damage? It’s non-magical so I think he does now, but how do you explain that? Even if he has a force field around him, he’s still hitting the ground with great force. I don’t know how to flavor it.

Second, we’ve done an adventure where the group goes through the interior of an abyssal layer. It’s like going through the organs of someones body and contains all of the demons who tried to take over the layer and failed. I could have Bidam go through that.

I should note that Bidam also has a jar attuned to Allagash, his demon farm in Azzagrat. I'm not sure if Bidam will use it or not.

I could have Bidam fall out the side and plunge into the abyssal rift. He’s falling and falling, and, like a parachuter who hasn’t released their chute yet, he can sort of glide about in the air. In the side of the Abyssal rift are portals to abyssal lairs. So.. he could be falling, and glide in to a random Abyssal layer.

That last option seems like the most fun to me, but it will mean that the group is split up, at least for a time. I don’t think it will take too long for Theran to use magic to locate Bidam, but there will be some time to do encounters and things.

The other thing is with Bovina, the Cowlady. And Drokkarn, the pit fiend general! What happened to them? Did they fall in the rift? Did they die? Are they captured by Pazuzu?

One other thing I should note. Pazuzu is Bazuuma’s ex-boyfriend. This was actually established in the Blackmoor campaign I ran at the game store years ago. Bazuuma used to live in the Plain of Infinite Portals, she knows this place very well.

It seems to me that the most interesting idea is to have Drokkarn and Bovina be imprisoned by Pazuzu. Then the group can go to Pazuzu’s place and rescue them, which should be a lot of fun. In the end, maybe they can get Bazuuma to convince Pazuzu to let the devils march (although that’s a pretty ridiculous request) through sly flirtation.

I had planned on having Pazuzu get a look at Bazuuma in her fully-realized demon lord form, and it’s like seeing an ex-girlfriend who got her stuff together and she looks really good. He’d want her back. That seems like a funny thing to do, and interesting to see what Bidam’s reaction is to it.

So it was a very fun session. We're on a real nice roll. Even though it's been something like 70 sessions, it still feels like we've barely scratched the surface.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

How to Run Tales From the Yawning Portal

I am going to take a stab at two things right here. First I’m going to try and explain this book to people who are new to D&D. Then I’m going to give an example of how to link all of these adventures together and make a campaign out of the whole thing. You can buy Tales From the Yawning Portal right here.

The content in this column is part of the pdf version of my Guide to Tales From the Yawning Portal:

http://www.dmsguild.com/product/210109/A-Guide-to-Tales-From-the-Yawning-Portal??affiliate_id=301495

This book is a collection of 7 adventures. They were originally made for previous editions (with different rules). These have all been updated to the 5th edition rules.

Famous: Some of these adventures are very famous in D&D circles. White Plume Mountain is known as a “funhouse” dungeon, a place full of weird and wacky rooms. The Tomb of Horrors is a dungeon full of traps (and almost no monsters at all) designed to kill almost anyone. Gary Gygax himself made this dungeon and it is meant to be the ultimate challenge.

Start with Sunless Citadel: If you are going to start a group, you’ll want to use the Sunless Citadel first. That’s for brand new, 1st level characters. This adventure came out right when 3rd edition was released. 3rd edition was really popular at the time, and a lot of people played it.

It’s a good dungeon for new players and DMs, because it was designed for them. It starts out a bit basic, and grows in complexity as you go on. You begin by entering a dungeon that’s inhabited by feuding kobolds and goblins. At the bottom of the place is a druid and a tree tainted by the blood of a vampire.

Preparing: If this is the first adventure you’ve ever run, you need to read the whole chapter. I wrote a guide to this book, and I prepared the adventure as best as I could for you. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to look up monsters and stuff beforehand. If you look up everything at the table, everybody will get bored. It is important to be prepared. You want people have fun, not fall asleep or wander away.

You might want to get a piece of paper or something and write down stats for a kobold, goblin, and a twig blight. Also, write down what some spells that are in the adventure do. That way, when you’re running the game, all you have to do is look at that sheet and you can just keep right on going with no break in the pacing.

Also remember that every DM makes mistakes every single session. It’s no big deal. Just roll with it. It doesn’t matter, all that matters is that everyone has fun.

Keeping the Game Moving: If your players are new, certain things can slow the game down. Make sure everybody knows their plus to hit, how much damage they do, their spell attack bonus and the DC for their spells. It gets real old when the same player keeps having to figure out their bonus to hit and it drags the game down.

Setting up the Adventure: Check out the hooks on page 10. You might want to talk with your players before the game to see if they have any ideas as far as their character’s backstory. The missing adventurers could be relatives or mentors to a character. A character might need the magic apple to heal a sick loved one who is going to die soon without it.

If there’s a player that is into vampires, you could play up the story of Gulthias and work that in. What might be cool is to say that if you make a stake out of the wood of the Gulthias Tree, maybe it does special things to vampires. Normally a stake paralyzes them, maybe this obliterates them or turns them into petrified wood or something. Or maybe a character knew Gulthias and through the tree they can get something from Gulthias that they need, like a drop of blood or the answer to a riddle, or the location of a lost family heirloom/magic item.

Meepo: On page 16, there is an NPC named Meepo, who is something of a famous character. Most people who play this adventure have some weird or funny Meepo story to tell. Sometimes Meepo joins the group and goes on many future adventures with them.

Meepo is an opportunity for you to showcase your style – your brand of D&D. Every DM does something different. Sometimes he’s a traitor, sometimes he’s a coward, sometimes he’s a brave but weak ally. You might want to put some thought into how you want to run Meepo. That’s the cool thing about being a DM, you’re like a director of a movie. Tim Burton would portray Meepo very differently than Quentin Tarantino or Michael Bay. You get to to do whatever you want.

Pacing: This is a big dungeon. It might get boring. Do not be afraid to junk rooms or move things along. If exploring a certain section is becoming a drag, make some of the rooms empty and get to the end of it. There’s no “right” way to run a dungeon. The authors expect you to change it, so don’t feel like you’re doing it wrong. It’s impossible to do it wrong. You can change it however you like.

Forge of Fury: Let’s say you’ve been running your group through a bit of Phandelver from the boxed set, or maybe you’ve just been making stuff up on your own. The group is 3rd level and you want to run the Forge of Fury.

If you can, set it up a bit in advance. While you’re running whatever you’re running before forge, slip in some mentions of the legendary black dragon Nightscale, have someone find one of those ancient dwarven weapons crated by Durgeddin. Maybe you can have the group go to Oakhurst and fight some orc raiders who actually came from the forge.

It’s always good to plant seeds ahead of time if possible. If the group has been hearing about Nightscale the dragon and how terrifying she is, they will be much more pumped up when they actually realize that they are going to have to fight her at the end.

Warn the Players: I also recommend telling your players before they start that the monsters in this place don’t act like monsters in a video game. The whole dungeon will attack them at once if the group isn’t careful. We are specifically telling them this because the very beginning part of this dungeon has a very involved encounter with the orcs, who have a detailed strategy on how they handle intruders. If the group is not careful, they are going to get their asses kicked.

That beginning part is not easy. They’ll need to be quiet, cautious and smart. They probably won’t survive if they just barge in. It’s fair to give them a warning, especially if they are new and don’t understand how the game works. The monsters can do whatever they want just like the characters can. The monsters aren’t tethered to a room.

Pacing: This dungeon is really big and it is likely that it will start to drag and feel stale/boring. Do what you have to do to move past it. Get rid of boring encounters altogether if you think it’s going to make the game suck. The point of the game is to have fun. Bottom line, the players aren’t going to want to play anymore if it’s really boring. Nothing in this book is written in stone, DMs change stuff all the time.

Rivers: The trickiest part of this adventure is the fast-flowing rivers. The explanation is spread out over a few pages and it can be a little difficult understanding how everything fits together. Make sure you get a good handle on that and jot down some notes beforehand if you need to. That river goes from bad to worse and it is very deadly. You want to make sure you run it right, because if a character dies, you don’t want it to be because you forgot something or made a mistake.


Tamoachan: This one is hard to prepare. The details of the rooms are very intricate, you’ll need to set some time aside to make sure you understand how some of the rooms work. It’s very easy to forget that the whole bottom area is full of poison gas, so make sure you note it somewhere if you can. That gas is there in part to put pressure on the players. They can’t just keep taking rests! They’ll die. That’s part of why it’s there, to prevent groups from just taking a long rest after every room.

White Plume Mountain: This is just an epic adventure. If you can, plant legends about the artifacts well ahead of time. Blackrazor in particular is just a ridiculously cool weapon. They’re all extremely powerful. Maybe the ancestor of a character had Blackrazor and eventually got their own soul sucked out.

Maybe a character is the descendant of Keraptis, the bad guy who made this dungeon. Snarla the werewolf wizard has always stuck out as a memorable NPC. Maybe the group knew Snarla before she became a werewolf. You could work that into a prior adventure, where in the end she becomes a werewolf and runs off with Burket (page 101) to the mountain.

Dead in Thay: There’s actually an adventure that sets up Dead in Thay. It’s Scourge of the Sword Coast for D&D Next, which is the playtest version of 5th edition. You might have to change a few things, but it had some cool stuff in it.

Dead in Thay is really big. You might want to streamline it a bit and have the glyph keys take the group to the areas you want to run.

Against the Giants: This is really high level, so I would assume you don’t need much advice on this. I think that part of the key to bringing this to life is to make sure you emphasize that the giants are "giant." Their footsteps shake everything, the door handles are way up in the air, just getting onto one of their chairs requires a climb check and maybe a rope and grappling hook. Even their loot is gigantic.

Killing them means their massive body falls to the ground, causes a big tremor and kicks up dust. You could say that the group needs to make a DC 10 acrobatics check when a giant dies to see if they fall prone. Also, there’s a chance the dead giant falls on a hero, right?! That would do damage! Dex save DC 10. Fail: 7 damage and restrained? Need a DC 10 escape check to free themselves?

That could add a lot to the game, but make sure that you don’t use it against them. Keep it fair and random. This is meant to impress upon them the “giantness” of the giants, not a weapon to use against them. It’s just something to add to the fun and danger. The uniqueness of battling a giant. The scale of what they’re doing is enormous (ho, ho) and thus they are that much more heroic and impressive when they defeat the giants.

Tomb of Horrors: Technically you could run this for characters of any level. But low level characters have absolutely no chance whatsoever of defeating Acererak. They could, however, get pretty far into the tomb just by being clever and cautious. The thing about this dungeon is that it’s somewhat random and arbitrary. In some cases, you can’t figure out the “rules” of the room because there are no rules. This is a cruel place that messes with your head.

Not For Everyone: Also.. I can’t stress this enough. There are a lot of players who will not enjoy this adventure. There are plenty of D&D players who really hate the lethality and cruelty of this place. To some people, it feels like it’s the DM vs. the players, which is never a fair battle because the DM can do whatever they want. Some players just do not handle it well when their character dies or they suffer some kind of horrid setback (like losing ALL OF YOUR ITEMS and appearing naked at the start of the dungeon).

Nobody wants to lose all their magic items, that does suck. So generally, sending characters who have clawed their way up to 12th level or whatever aren’t a good choice to send here unless the player is cool with it. They need to know that their beloved character is probably going to have horrible, horrible things happen to them.

Some players will love it. Some will hate it. Make sure you know before you decide to run this, because one unhappy player will ruin the entire session. Everybody has to know what they’re getting into and they should definitely be allowed to make up a character to go in rather than use their normal one.

You could have each player make 3 characters, so that way if one dies, they can bring in another one. Or, maybe you could have it where an NPC owes them a wish. That way, if something terrible happens to the group, they can use the wish to undo it and wash their hands of the tomb (or courageously decide to return without the safety net of the wish spell!).

Making a Yawning Portal Campaign

I’m going to take a stab at placing all of these adventures into one cohesive story. It’s just meant to be an example of how you could do it.

Let’s put all this stuff in Undermountain! I mean, why not, the entrance to Undermountain is in the Yawning Portal, right? The one tricky thing here is that it seems a bit unfeasible to put the giant lairs down there. You could, but it doesn’t feel right. The glacial rift in a dungeon underground? We’ll work around it.

First Session: So let’s start off with the group at level one. They are in Waterdeep. It’s entirely up to them if they know each other or not. All that matters is that it’s night time and they happen to be in the same general vicinity.

Suddenly, shouts and explosions. Waterdeep is under attack! The red wizards have gated in to the city and seem to be going after certain targets. So we’ll start off a bit like Hoard of the Dragon Queen started – the heroes are in a settlement under siege.

The most difficult thing here is that they’re going to rub elbows with high level bad guys that they have no chance of defeating. We’ll have to be real careful. The true purpose of this is for the players to get a look at all of the bad guys they are going to have to kill in this campaign. We are going to build anticipation so that the group will be extremely excited when they finally get to try to take them down.

1. Twig Blights: The group sees a bark-skinned guy (let’s make this Karakas the Ranger, who is on page 21). The bark-skinned guy orders some twig blights to swarm a lone guard of Waterdeep. The guard has no chance without help. Hopefully the group helps, if not the blights are coming for them next, anyway. If possible, Karakas runs away.

2. Black Dragon: With that done, and hopefully with the guard saved, the group hears the flapping of wings over the screams and clatter ringing throughout the city. There is a black dragon, Nightscale, swooping down toward them! It’s not going for them, it breathes acid on a building. The building partially collapses. The group hears the cries of those still trapped inside. They can try and rescue them before the place collapses completely.

3. Centaur Mummy: With that done, they see a surreal sight. The centaur mummy from Tamoachan is leading a few zombies (the zombies from page 73) toward a band of brave but skill-less citizens trying to protect their city. We should have the mummy touch one of them, so the group can get a look at the mummy rot effect. The group can take down the zombies, they’re just zombies. The mummy has bigger fish to fry and rides off down a street.

4. Wight Wielding Blackrazor: On a rooftop, the group can see a wight wielding Blackrazor (the wielder’s soul has been drained, Blackrazor controls the wight). Guards are coming at Blackrazor, but they’re getting cut down left and right. We want to play up the ridiculous badassery of Blackrazor here.

The group is safe, and they can use range attacks or clever ideas here to help the guards. They could try to knock Blackrazor off the roof, or collapse a portion of the roof. Actually, it might be really cool if the heroes see that the building that Blackrazor is on has a bunch of barrels of elemental fire in it. The store sells magic unguents or residuum or something. They can blow the whole building up with a fire spell or flaming arrow. Blackrazor’s fate is unknown. That would be fun.

5. Red Wizard: At that point, the group’s luck runs out. Tarul Var, the red wizard, come upon the group. He is clearly one of the people in charge of this assault, calmly issuing orders to sub-ordinates. He tells one of them to “Tell the giants to attack.”

Nearby, an old woman is holding the symbol of her god, praying for aid. Tarul Var looks down at her..

The group could hide and observe. If they don’t, Tarul (stats on page 244) can address them. The group is no match for this guy. He can counterspell and paralyze like crazy. He might paralyze one character and then detect thoughts on them, curious.

Whatever happens, suddenly, a shaft of light appears and from it steps a deva. Lumalia (page 153) shows up, answering the woman’s prayer. Lumalia starts kicking ass and urges the group to help, either get the woman to safety or take some some shots at the red wizards.

6. Giants: Whatever the group does, the giants are outside the city and they rush the walls and chuck boulders. A massive boulder hits a building that collapses, kicking up dust everywhere. Any characters who look for her see that Lumalia is down and the wizards have her. She’s gonna be a statue in room 92, page 152.

7. Acererak: Before the group can do anything else, another heroic figure appears – Elminster the legendary wizard. He tells the red wizards to unhand the deva. Tarul Var craps his pants. The group is more than welcome to stand with Elminster and maybe get some shots in or nasty words. But what they don’t know is that this attack is all about drawing out powerful individuals, so that they can be put in the shrines (dead in thay, temples of extraction page 155).

A flash of light appears behind the group. It’s a floating skull with gem eyes. Acererak! The demilich drains Elminster’s soul into a gem. Then perhaps Acererak looks the group over – a chance for them to interact with the ultimate villain of the entire campaign. Then he’ll tell Tarul Var, “We got what we came for” and they all teleport away.

The group can catch their breath, and hear cries from a nearby building – the Yawning Portal. There’s some twig blights in there, twig blighting it up. The group can run in and save the town drunks, earning the appreciation of the owner, the mysterious Durnan (page 6).

As a reward for their help, Durnan can offer the group a room to stay in for free. Let's make it a cool suite kind of thing to maybe entice the group to accept the offer. There’s a few wounded citizens that could use healing. The group can interact with the NPCs here and realize that they can live here if they so desire. They’ll see the well and we’ve got our setup for the campaign.

Yawning Portal: We’re going to have some NPCs, regular customers, here in the Yawning Portal for the group to interact with.
  • Pencheska: She is an entertainer that really likes to drink. The truth – she’s one of the succubus spies who report to Acererak (Pencheska’s in room 5, page 120). We’re going to try to keep her deal secret for a long time, so play it cool. If the group figures it out, good for them! There’s another succubus spy elsewhere in the city. She is Idalla, the dark-haired woman from room 49 on page 56.
  • Endroth Knag: Member of the city watch being pressured to retire. He ponders unresolved cases as he sips ale.
  • The White Lady: An elderly elf wearing plain white robes. She comes in every night and whispers cryptic statements over and over.
  • Brother Sepulcher: A bald priest who wears grey robes and long, white gloves who likes to stare at a skull he keeps with him. He worships Jergal, the exarch of proper burials. Brother Sepulcher likes to record the name and description of each person who enters Undermountain.
  • Old Stannoc: An elderly halfling who is a gambler and odds maker. He tries to evaluate each adventurer before they go down so he can set proper odds.
We should also make it a point to note that the adventurers who went to the Sunless Citadel are:

Karakas the Ranger (pg 21), Talgyn (pg 25), Sharwyn (pg 30, stats pg 242), Sir Braford (pg 30, stats pg 243)

They went into the Yawning Portal well a week ago and haven’t been heard from since. We changed Karakas, so have it where the group does not find his body or his stuff on page 21.

Next Day: The next day, the city is in extreme disarray. The group learns that the bad guys specifically targeted the Harpers (a vast, secret organization of good guys). They killed as many Harpers as possible.

The heroes don’t know this, but Idalla and Pencheska, the succubus spies, have spent the last year identifying as many harpers and harper strongholds that they could. The bad guys want to kill all the heroes to draw out the most powerful heroes so they can stick them in those shrines in the temple of extraction (we’re getting rid of the Chosen and doing this instead).

Meeting: All adventuring types of the city are gathered together. The giant army must be defeated. Durnan knows more than most (he’s practically immortal). He knows the real problem is down in Undermountain, not out in the giant lairs. Their lairs aren’t too far from Waterdeep. It’s assumed that the red wizards are operating from there as well. If the group goes to the gathering, they are not accepted as part of the giant-slaying force. If you want, have Acquisitions Inc be there, ready to lead the charge.

The point here is to answer the question of “why are we dealing with this rather than higher level heroes in the city?” All NPC heroes of level 3 and higher are out hunting the giant army or are following orders to guard and protect the city. Nobody is going to indulge Durnan’s wacky ideas. And anyway, Durnan knows the deal. He knows the group can do it, that’s how this adventuring thing works.

Durnan's Story: Durnan tells the heroes that he once went down into Undermountain (he was in there for two years). He faced off with Acererak – he tried to get into Acererak’s tomb alongside his friend Mirt. Durnan says that the tomb was like hell. They entered a hallway full of horrible traps. They came into a series of rooms where darts kept flying at them. They had no choice but to flee. Let’s have Durnan show the group his scars. His chest is covered with over a dozen holes/scars.

We’re saying here that the Tomb of Horrors is so deadly that Durnan and Mirt only made it through the first area, and then they had to run away. That way, when the group gets there, they’ll say: “This is that hallway. Oh no.” And they’ll be looking for the darts, which is good because that area is really brutal and they deserve a warning.

Black Gates: Durnan explains that Undermountain operates through glyphs and glyph keys. These are from Dead in Thay, we’ll use them throughout the whole campaign. We’ll put black gates in every dungeon in this book. This is how Acererak and Tarul Var communicate and coordinate with their allies.

Durnan urges the group to go down below. He offers up some of his old gear – an ancient +1 sword (with the seal of Durgeddin from forge of fury on it), maybe some dust of disappearance or something, and two potions of healing. He tells them that he has a friend in Downshadow who can help them.

The group goes down below. The patrons cheer and bet on whether the group will survive. The group is free to bet on themselves.

Downshadow: Downshadow is this collection of poor people who live in Undermountain close to the well. They are detailed in a number of places, including a novel and this issue of Dungeon magazine.

Let’s stick an NPC linked to each dungeon here so the group can get clues and learn a little about them if they want.
  • (Sunless Citadel) Bianca: A woman who was a thrall of the vampire Gulthias and misses him. She’s crazy, creepy and spaced out. She still has the fang marks on her neck and she wears gothic clothes.
  • (Forge of Fury) Shakla: A half-orc who abandoned the orcs in the forge of fury. She is quite happy in Downshadow
  • (Tamoachan) Xiyatyl: A mysterious woman who claims that her parents, Cipactonal and Oxomoco, have been asleep for centuries and she is waiting for them to wake up. Then, it will be her turn to sleep. Her parents are the sleepers in room 22, page 75. We should have it where she plays Pelota (page 78) with the scamps and sad sacks of Downshadow. Any characters who take the time to learn the game and play a bit should get special bonuses once they get to room 29 of Tamoachan.
  • (White Plume) Geddi: A dwarf with horrible burn scars. She once wielded Whelm, but it was taken from her by Nix and Nox, the efreeti of White Plume Mountain. She suffered permanent injuries and now spends her time beating people in drinking competitions. She is a direct descendant of Durgeddin and is the rightful owner of the Forge of Fury.
  • (Dead in Thay) Bart the Beggar: Let's say that Bart was a red wizard who really didn't like the things that were happening in the Doomvault, so here he hides. Maybe he has a glyph key?
  • (Against the Giants) Ruby: A powerful, red-haired half-giant. She’s an unwanted daughter of King Snurre. She also likes it in Downshadow and is the unofficial protector.
  • (Tomb of Horrors) Adenian: An ancient elf who went into the tomb of horrors and has never gotten over it. He’s shellshocked still, muttering about a green devil face. When he trances, he has flashbacks. Every time the group visits him, he gives them another clue to the tomb of horrors. We’re going to use him to help the group get through that adventure. He should tell them that they NEED the gem of seeing from the gargoyle statue and he’ll hand them 10 gems. He'll also tell them to make sure to extinguish all fire near the adamantine doors and that healing the doors is the key, and do not approach the lava pit - there is nothing there but death. Add more, whatever things you think the group might need to know. It’s up to them to take this advice, but we want to give them a real chance to get through the tomb. It would suck for this campaign to end in a TPK and we want to help them in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. This way makes sense. Adenian survived the tomb. He can give them clues.
Then a few utility NPCs:

Shara Shaana, cleric of Amaunator. She can heal the group, maybe.

Izzy the Appraiser, an elderly gnome. He can appraise stuff and identify magic items.
Let’s say that the group has to pass through Downshadow to get to the Sunless Citadel.

Sunless Citadel: So the group goes to the sunless citadel, goes through all that stuff. Maybe you should change the white dragon wyrmling to a black dragon – it’s the spawn of Nightscale, of the forge of fury.

The heroes defeat the druid and the tree. They see a black gate down there. The druid has a glyph key. Durnan or Bart of Downshadow can explain how it works. It leads to the Forge of Fury.

Resting: I would say that when the group sleeps at the Yawning Portal after this, bark-skinned Karakas the Ranger tries to kill them in their sleep. How did he get up the well? Pencheska. The group won’t know this for a while, ideally.

The next day, the giants and Nightscale the black dragon attack Waterdeep again. Nightscale is here to take out to take out some straggler Harpers and to hopefully draw out another powerful hero that they can put in a shrine in the temple of extraction. It works.. this time they get Farideh the tiefling warlock, the star of the Brimstone Angels novels.

Durnan: If we can, let’s also show a clue that Durnan is really old and potentially really powerful. Maybe they notice him lifting something that only someone with giant-strength could lift.

Also, let’s establish that Pencheska is the one who operates the winch that raises and lowers people in the well. She just likes doing it. That’s true, but we’re setting it up for her to sabotage this thing later in the campaign.


We go through the forge of fury. Epic battle with Nightscale. When Nightscale dies, try not to mention her bones. We are hoping that the bad guys can make an undead dragon out of her. If the players mention her corpse at all, we should say that her hide has been mangled by their spells and blades and there’s no dragon parts left worth harvesting, except maybe the heart and eyes. The hide is too damaged to make armor out of.

Remember, if the group ever comes here again – the corpse is gone. The bad guys have stolen the remains of Nightscale. They’re animating her and making her the guardian of the Phylactery Vault.

Once the group has slain the dragon.. now they have the attention of the bad guys. The group also finds a deed that shows that Geddi of Downshadow is truly the rightful heir to the forge. If they give it to her, she gathers up dwarves from Waterdeep and starts the forge back up, perhaps making weapons and equipment for the group.

We find another glyph key and black gate. That one leads to strange caverns which ultimately lad to Tamoachan.

Back at the Inn: At the Yawning Portal, the group has a visitor. It is a beautiful, silver-haired woman named Elia. She is secretly a silver dragon named Otaaryliakkarnos. She works with the Council of Waterdeep, and she got word that the group took out Nightscale. She hated Nightscale, is impressed and wants to get a look at the heroes and see exactly what they are doing down in Undermountain.

But right when the heroes have made friends with her (or whatever), there is a ruckus. Yup, the bad guys are back. It is Blackrazor, Nix and Nox, and more of those tamoachan zombies. Elia assumes her dragon form to fight them off. Maybe the group takes out the zombies and fights a few terrifying rounds with Blackrazor. Then, once again, Acererak appears and draws the soul of the silver dragon. Mission accomplished – they are teleported away.

At this point, Bart of Downshadow is looking for the group. He wants to admit to them that he knows the plan of the red wizards. But before he can get to them, Pencheska kisses him and kills him. The group will find his shriveled corpse and can be told that he wanted to talk to them.

Tamoachan: Then we go through Tamoachan. In that room on page 91, if you sit on the throne, you have visions of the past. Let’s have it where the character who sits on it sees an ancestor, a hireling alongside Mirt and Durnan. This is over 1,000 years ago. The character watches them dig out an entrance to the tomb of horrors (one of the false ones). Then the vision is over.

At the end of Tamoachan, another glyph key, another black gate. Each black gate takes us down a level of Undermountain.

Durnan's Story: At this point, the group might question Durnan. He’s got quite a story. Maybe he spills the beans and confesses that he became immortal through a wish granted to him by an efreet (one of the trapped efreeti in Dead in Thay).

A messenger enters the Yawning Portal looking for the group. Their presence is requested right away at the town square or something. It turns out that a solar (angel) has come to Waterdeep looking for Lumalia, the deva. The group can explain what happened to her.

Recognition: At this point, there is a crowd and Waterdeep officials here. The ruler of Waterdeep, Lady Laerel Silverhand is here as well. She is very powerful in her own right. We have a discussion where Laeral realizes that the group is a bunch of badasses and that they are on the right track. So the whole city knows now that the group killed Nightscale and they might be the city’s best hope to end these attacks. The beautiful Idalla is nearby. She tries to catch the eye of one of the heroes. She’s the other succubus spy, and she knows that the group needs to die.

Suddenly… a portal opens up and a horde of bad guys pour through. It’s a chaotic melee in the square. Red Wizards everywhere, Nix and Nox, Blackrazor. The group can fight some wizards, or Blackrazor. Don’t worry too much if the group grabs Blackrazor. We can just have it injure and reject the wielder, but do it in a way where it is clear that Blackrazor could change its mind down the road.

White Plume Mountain: OK.. time for White Plume. It’s underground. In Undermountain. It’s an underground volcano, I guess. Who cares, it’s an awesome dungeon.

The group goes through White Plume Mountain. If the wight wasn’t destroyed, we can have it be in the room with Ctenmiir. The group loots the place and defeats the bad guys. Another glyph key, another black shrine.

Whelm: Whelm wants to defend the forge of fury. That’s what it did long ago. The group can hand it over to Geddi, or they can keep it. A character in the group gets Wave, the artifact nobody in my groups ever wanted.

As the group returns from their successful mission and are heading down the tunnel to the well that leads up to the Yawning Portal, they pass by a weird thing – a panther. It’s a famous panther, but they probably won’t know that.

Trap: The spies have laid a trap. Idalla is ethereal at the bottom of the well. Pencheska operates the winch and cranks the heroes up. But she’s pre-sabotaged it. Once the group is up 120 feet of the 140-foot well, the rope snaps. The heroes plummet and take 12d6 dmg, or none if someone has feather fall or a clever idea. The idea here is that they fall and then Idalla surprises those who are still conscious, and kisses them to death.

We have a failsafe here. The panther is owned by a fellow named Drizzt Do’Urden, the famous drow adventurer. If necessary, he emerges from the shadows and helps them fend off and defeat Idalla the succubus.

Durnan can fix the winch and attach a new rope. He’ll get the group up in no time. Pencheska will act sad and will bolster the idea that Idalla must have messed with the winch. She sees Driz’zt, her eyeballs explode and she knows Acererak needs to get here ASAP. But she’s got to play it cool for at least a few hours to smooth things over, if necessary.

Drizzt: Drizzt wants to sit down with the group and go over what they know. He can commend the group on the work they’ve done. He’ll be incredibly alarmed if one of the group has Blackrazor, but hey it’s a cool item. Let’s have the panther, Guenhwyvar, befriend a hero, preferably a ranger or druid. It will provide a handy clue for them soon.

The group probably knows the deal by now. Acererak is going to snatch Drizzt. So let’s let them think that and do something goofy.

Sylvanna: Let’s introduce Sylvanna, the rebel red wizard. She’s against what Tarul Var and Acererak are attempting. She meets with the group covertly in some dark location of Waterdeep. Unfortunately, she’s being watched. Portal opens, in comes the red wizards and that adult red dragon from the Hall of the Fire Giant King!

The roof gets blown off the place if necessary. The group is in an epic battle. They see something in the night sky flying towards them.. then, nearby, Acererak appears. Oh no, he’s going to get the soul of Drizzt! Wait, that thing in the sky is the Acquistions, Inc airship. Jim Darkmagic flings a bunch of autographed portraits and gets ready to launch spells. Acererak assumes Jim is a powerful wizard, sucks his soul, and the bad guys bail out. Acererak is soon after disappointed in Jim, but sticks him in a shrine anyway.

During the battle, let’s have Drizzt really get his butt kicked. The dragon breathes on him, all sorts of stuff. The rest of Acquisitions Inc, Drizzt and the group go back to the Yawning Portal. The Acq Inc guys talk about the giants a bit. They foreshadow Snurre and the Frost Giant Jarl.

Dead in Thay: Now it’s time for the big one. Dead in Thay. In our version, the Doomvault is acquiring souls for Acererak, not Szass Tam. Acererak is the one trying to become a god. Remember that Pencheska is not down here, so take her out of the room.

The group will have the chance to rescue Lumalia from her transformation into a statue. If they do, she’ll join them and become a trusted ally.

Wish: The heroes can free the efreet who made Durnan immortal. I say the efreet offers the group one wish as per the spell, with one additional choice: One of them can become immortal like Durnan. This doesn’t mean they can’t be hurt, it means they don’t age anymore. Let’s say that the efreet can only grant this wish once every 500 years, as per the orders of the Sultan of the City of Brass. The Sultan reviews all granted wishes issued by the efreeti and he’s already going to be angry that this efreet didn’t put a sinister twist when granting this wish, but will let it go because the red wizards dared to enslave a mighty genie.

The heroes get to rescue all the NPCS – Elminster, Farideh, Laerel Silverhand, Elia, and Jim Darkmagic. They’re all drained and weak, and they will be for some time.

The end is tricky. We can’t have Acererak die in the Phylactery Vault. He’s the bad guy at the end of the Tomb of Horrors. So in the final fight, we'll have the opponent be Nightscale, who has been made into an undead dragon!! Now we’re talking, right?! She could be a skeletal dragon, a ghost dragon, whatever.

The group might wonder why Acererak isn’t here. They’ll find out when they get back to the Yawning Portal.

Return to the Inn: When they get home, the heroes find the place to be trashed. A huge fight took place and there are dead bodies all over. Acererak finally realized the best time to steal NPC souls is when the group is busy in a dungeon. He attacked, maybe with the red dragon again.

The group spots Pencheska leaning over Drizzt’s body. What’s she doing? Kissing him! Draining his lifeforce! The group finally sees that she is a succubus spy. They need to stop her right now before Drizzt is dead forever.

After the fight, the group might wonder where Durnan is. He’s in one of Acererak’s gems. There are no more shrines because the group cleared the Doomvault. That means that Durnan is just an eternal prisoner in the gems of Acererak. The only way to save him is to take down Acererak.

So there’s two things left to do. Take down the giants and then go destroy Acererak for good. The group learns that the giants are the only ones with a glyph key to the Tomb of Horrors.

Against the Giants: We go through Against the Giants. We can change the notes from Eclavdra to Acererak if you want. We can just take the drow out of the final adventure – the dungeon’s way too big, anyway. Or, if you want, keep them in. Maybe they’re looking to finish what Acererak started.

The group kills the giants, kills Snurre, and finds the glyph key and a black gate in the lair of the red dragon.

Tomb of Horrors: The group can use any black gate to go to the tomb. When they’re ready, they go. They brave the tomb of horrors and hopefully destroy Acererak and shatter his gems. Hopefully with the clues Adenian was giving out, the group can survive the most deadly traps. They can rescue Durnan, go back to Waterdeep and be hailed as heroes.

Maybe this incident has spurred something in Durnan. He wants to wander again. He hands over ownership of the Yawning Portal to one or all of the heroes.

There you go! Remember, that's the initial plan. The group will do things that will adjust everything. You'll also have awesome ideas as the campaign goes on, so you can add those in. Remember that nothing is written in stone until it is said aloud at the game table.

Good luck! I hope your games go well.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons - Tales From the Yawning Portal Review

Now that I’ve completed the guide to Tales from the Yawning Portal, I am ready to give the book a thorough review. This is the new adventure for Dungeons & Dragons and it isn’t like the others. There’s no overarching story. The book contains 7 separate, classic adventures updated to 5th edition rules. You could play them in order if you want to and make a campaign out of it with minimal effort, I guess. You can get this book at amazon right here.

I want to give general thoughts, then I’ll talk about each adventure, the presentation, and then I’ll ramble on and on about the adventures that they chose to put in this book.

Short Version: It’s pretty good. I think newer players will enjoy this book. The rules conversion is really well done and they did a great job cleaning up a lot of confusing entries. That said, I am really tired of these same adventures being trotted out in every edition, so this book didn’t do that much for me. Warning: Most of these adventures are absolute hell to prepare.

Initial Observations

The Tavern: The framing device of the Yawning Portal, a tavern in the Forgotten Realms, is a bit odd. I like it, I guess I just wish they gave us a few more pages of detail on it.

Also, the fact that the Yawning Portal connects to Undermountain makes this a little strange, too. This book has nothing to do with Undermountain. You could stick these dungeons in Undermountain, I guess.

The Main Hurdle: The biggest problem with this book is simply the fact that some of the dungeons are way too big. Sunless Citadel, Forge of Fury and Dead in Thay in particular. I’ve found that players like dungeons, but if they’re in the dungeon every session, things get bland and boring. Dead in Thay is really cool, but that is an awful lot of dungeon to crawl through.

You need to break it up a bit with socializing with NPCs, hanging out in town, and exploring a less limited “zone” so to speak.

Backlog: I definitely think that making this kind of book was a good decision because people are still playing through the other adventures. I know this isn’t a big indicator, but right now the guide that people read the most every day on my site is Curse of Strahd. I think that a lot of D&D players haven’t even started Storm King yet.

I have to say that I have become fond of the two adventures-per-year format. It’s fun. I really like how this edition is not relying on a constant flow of sourcebooks. In 4th edition, they burned through  everything so fast within the span of, what.. 3 years? It’s been almost the same amount of time for 5e, and there’s still so much stuff to explore. They thought this edition out really well. The rules are holding up, everything is smooth, it’s awesome.

The Adventures

OK, let’s talk about the adventures. The good part is that these conversions are great. They did an awesome job explaining things and taking weird, arbitrary rules from Tomb of Horrors and translating them into 5th edition rules. It seems like nothing at all is lost in translation, and many adventures actually benefit from the 5e rules.

Sunless Citadel

The most memorable part of this dungeon is Meepo, the kobold NPC. It seems like each group did something a little different with him, but everybody has a Meepo story to tell.

There are a lot of really cool, basic traps. I really like the one with caltrops. Nobody ever uses those things. I love the potion-dispensing statue, and the wyrmling is fun.

Overall, though, I have never liked this adventure. I don’t like twig blights, I don’t like kobolds and I don’t want to get into an epic struggle with a tree.

It’s also a bit of a bummer that the transformed adventurers can’t be saved. Why? It’s just evil bark, scrape it off.

Forge of Fury

This is another 3rd edition dungeon that is way too big. When an adventuring location is this full of stuff, it just feels like a chore to read and play through. I don’t think it’s an accident that White Plume Mountain and Tomb of Horrors are so well-regarded and yet they are only about 20 pages long at most.

I understand that, in the 3e era, they needed to put in enough XP worth of monsters to make sure the group hits the right level for the next adventure, but it’s still pretty excruciating.

I can say that I absolutely love the whole section with the black dragon. It is fantastic. Dragon fights sometimes aren’t what they should be. You definitely want it flying around and generally being the threat that it is, and exploiting its lair fully. This is one of the coolest dragon fights I can remember reading.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

There’s good and bad with this adventure. The good part is that the set-up is awesome. You fall into a dungeon and you have to fight your way out. There’s a lot of really creative, highly-detailed rooms and encounters.

The bad part is that this thing, the 5e version, is extremely painful to prepare. There are so many details you need to juggle. It’s impossible! It’s just too much. You get depressed at the idea of sitting down and preparing a section of this.

The final encounter has always been a weird thing in this adventure. I prefer the 4e version. I mean.. a hyena? That’s it? It feels flat. The group might be so drained and exhausted that they don’t even touch the altar. They just go home.

The main thing I wonder about Tamoachan is whether or not it really is a classic. I ran this in 3rd edition and it was completely forgettable. I also ran it in 4th, and the only parts people remember are the jokes I made out of the talking slug-thing and the werejaguar with six nipples.

I will never understand why the werejaguar has 6 nipples. Why do we need to know that? I had a player use the skin to make a 6-nippled vest/healing potion dispenser, so it worked out for us.

White Plume Mountain

I love this adventure and this conversion is stellar. It’s so short and yet so full of content. It’s amazing.

I am really glad that they went out of their way to make detailed art of the terraced room. That place has always been so hard to describe. It’s such an awesome room, it deserves the full treatment.

The frictionless room seems like it lost just a little something, somehow. It’s still fantastic. They kept the super-tetanus, which is the most important part.

They also did a great job of clarifying that hovering river, which I had a hard time with when I ran the original.They also described the crab room really well. It's a bit tricky explaining the "bubble" to players.

To me, this is the best adventure out of all of the ones in this collection by far.

Dead in Thay

I’m glad this is in this book. This a really fun dungeon and it deserves to be acknowledged as such. One of the things I like most about this is that you can pull out dungeon sections and use them however you like. Basically, you’ve got 7 or 8 dungeons to use as you see fit.

I’ve never fully grasped the glyph keys. Why is this so complicated? What’s the point?

It was only in this reading that I fully understood the phylactery vault. The phylactery vault is fantastic, a truly epic final encounter. I think I kind of blew it when I ran it the first time and I really want another crack at it. I mean.. a place full of lich phylacteries! That’s just awesome.

Also, the rooms where the Chosen are held in magic shrines are fantastic. Each shrine encounter is completely different and they are all either fun or really scary. None are boring. You could grab any one of these rooms to use as a final encounter for an adventure of your own making. Any time a bad guy steals someone to siphon the life force out of them, you’ve got plenty of encounters already made for you.

Against the Giants

I have never run or read this before. Now that I have read it, I guess I have mixed feelings about it.

Hill Giants: The Hill Giant lair is wide open. The prospect of running it is unnerving as a DM. There’s so many possibilities that you need to be ready for. I just feel like, if your group recruits those orcs downstairs, how the heck are you going to handle that? I mean.. you can’t roll that out.

Frumpy: Something doesn’t sit right with me when it comes to the descriptions of the giants. Here’s the description of “Frupy,” the fire giant king’s wife:

“She is, if anything, uglier than Snurre. Topped by a huge mass of yellow-orange hair that looks like a fright wig, Queen Frupy’s face is a mass of jowls and wrinkles set in the middle of a very large head that seems to grow directly out of her shoulders without the benefit of any neck. Her body is lumpy and gross, her skin covered with bristles the color of her hair. Her little pig eyes, however, are bright, suggesting intelligence unusual in a giant.”

First of all, there are plenty of us D&D players who have a low charisma (comeliness) and a high BMI. When I run into descriptions like this and then I think about who I’m running the game for, I have to change them because the game is not about insulting the people at the table.

Second, this description basically says, “Man, this chick is ugly. She’s so gross.” There’s too much emphasis on the way she looks rather than the threat that she’s supposed to be. Even her name is insulting. It’s one letter away from “Frumpy.” It feels like all that matters is how the female looks, when in the game it’s almost completely inconsequential. She’s there to be laughed at by all of the “physically perfect” men playing the game of Dungeons & Dragons.

I think this description should have been cut from the book or changed to something else. 

Frost Giants: The Frost Giant lair is pretty great, but I just don’t get the rift. Where am I walking? How do I get down there? This might just be my own poor reading comprehension skills, but it was a thing for me.

Fire Giants: The Fire Giant Hall is really cool. I love how you fight the king right away. Then you wade through the complex to find the real mystery villain of the scenario. I think they did a stellar job with the 5e version of the temple. It is really fun, really crazy.

I love the dragon, I wish a little more detail/personality had been given to it. The big problem with this fire giant section is that the dungeon is just way too big. It’s a quagmire and I can see most groups zoning out for entire sessions while they fight ropers and gnolls.

Agony: This adventure was such a pain to prepare. It was horrible. There is so much stuff to look up, it’s ridiculous. So many poisons, items, monsters, and of course the slimes, which is the most annoying thing to find in 5th edition except swimming/underwater rules.

You definitely need to know that Against the Giants is a real project to prepare. It really does feel like it takes more time to prepare it than to just make your own giant lair, and it shouldn’t be like that.

Tomb of Horrors

I always had a lot of trouble with the 1e version. Things were explained and worded in a very confusing manner. It was a cool dungeon, but it was difficult for me to grasp the more complex areas.

This 5th edition version fixes that completely. Completely! I remember the juggernaut being this big thing, complete with art (and it looked weird) and all these details. In 5e, the juggernaut is one sentence. And it works so much better. Amazing!

Preparing this one was a joy. It took awhile, but I didn’t mind because none of the rooms were that big, there was very little to look up (seriously) and things were described very succinctly. They didn’t change the adventure, they just vastly improved on the presentation.

General Thoughts
 
The Usual: I have the same complaints I always have with these adventures, and the same caveat – if this approach to how they make and present their adventures is working (and I think it is, big time) then they should keep doing it. I don’t like it, but apparently most other people are fine with it.

I really don’t like how you have to look everything up. Every monster, every magic item, every spell. The DM has more homework running a published adventure then just making it up their own. The whole point of a published adventure is so you don’t have to put in a lot of work! I’m paying $50 for homework? When I say homework, I mean a book report that will take you weeks to get a good grade on.

On top of that, they make it hard to look stuff up by not telling you the page number, they tell you the chapter instead. It’s maddening. Finding poison, suffocation and slimes is always annoying. In addition to that, you have the magic items that duplicate the effect of a spell, which you then have to look up because they don’t explain it in the entry.

The Art


I have the same feelings as I usually do when it comes to the art. It’s all good, but nothing is “holy crap” good. There is no modern Larry Elmore. I mean, there is, but that person is not making art for D&D stuff.

If you go on deviantart right now, you will find a pile of incredibly awesome fantasy art. There is a mind-boggling amount of truly talented and inspired artists out there who are making fantasy art for free, just because they love doing it. I don’t get why they are not being hired.

That’s not to say that this stuff is terrible at all. Across the board, the level of quality is high. If you look at, say, the 2e Player’s Handbook, you’ll see art that is really great and other art that is really not-so-great. In 5th edition, we have a consistent level of quality, but it seems like there’s a ceiling when it comes to good art. I still think the best 5e art is the landscape art, which is really weird.

The Maps

It’s hard to talk about D&D maps now in this post-Schley world we live in. Mike Schley is so awesome that you wish he just did all of them. It has gotten to the point where you feel like if you don’t have a Schley map, it’s not a D&D adventure.

Look at the Dead in Thay map. That’s insane. Is that the greatest D&D map of all time? It’s really not fair to compare him to anyone else. He’s been doing this for so long. I would honestly say that I think Mike Schley is the D&D 5e artist.

The Choice of Adventures

I have a beef with the adventure selection. I don’t think that both Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury should be in this book. They’re from the same path. Both of them were selected instead of including a 4th edition adventure.

Now, I know a lot of people hate 4e, but I also know that there are a bunch of awesome 4e adventures that, in my opinion, are much, much, much better than the citadel or the forge.

I get that they wanted to put adventures in the book that could be played in order. So I was wracking my brain to find a replacement for Forge of Fury (I like the forge better, but sunless is pretty iconic to most 3e fans) and I realized that the adventure that I would have liked in here is Siege of Bordrin’s Watch (I can't believe this, but it is available right now for free on the wizards site).

It’s got a classic theme, it details an awesome city (Overlook) and the final encounter, “The Nexus,” is one that my group talked about for years after they played it. They still bring it up today, almost 10 years later.

I get that converting 4e to 5e is a unique challenge, but I don’t think it’s impossible at all.

There’s other worthy 4e adventures. Let’s stick to dungeons because that’s what this book is all about. I think that Last Breath of the Dragon Queen is superb. That’s Tiamat’s Lair. It’s so inspired and so epic, it would be a great final adventure for this book.

Another adventure that could have/should have been in this book is the 4th edition update of Baba Yaga. The 4e update, unlike the 1e original, actually gives you the finished details (for the love of god, thank you) and it has Mike Schley maps. The 4e version is awesome. It is completely overlooked and it definitely deserves to be in this book.

Also, I should point out that I went through the Chris Perkins 4e version/update of Against the Giants and it is fantastic. I really do want to convert it to 5th, I’m just worried about dungeon fatigue.

Paizo Stuff: I am very tired of the remakes of the 1e adventures. There are so many gems in other editions that are completely unheralded. From what I understand, the Paizo stuff won’t be used for legal reasons, but I can think of a bunch of Paizo-era adventures that deserve to be in this book.

The first adventure in The Shackled City is a freaking awesome dungeon. It’s fantastic and it is so well thought-out. Then, further in The Shackled City path is the kuo toa dungeon, which is probably my favorite dungeon of all time.

Now that I think about it, what about Gates of Firestorm Peak? That one is huge and really dense, but that would be a fresh choice to trot out.

While we’re at it, what about Labyrinth of Madness? I have literally waited 20 years to run it. I ran that for some ridiculously powerful characters and they bailed out on that place about 4 rooms in. I’m still waiting to run it again. It is a dungeon in the vein of the 1e classics and it is spectacular. At that time, Monte Cook was on fire. He still is, really. Despite how popular Monte is, I feel like his work is not appreciated as much as it should be.

Why These Adventures were Chosen: I believe that only a few adventures get remade because people haven’t played that many, even people who have been playing D&D for decades. That’s because of a few reasons:
  1. A lot of people don’t play pre-published adventures.
  2. A lot of campaigns fall apart after 6-7 sessions.
  3. It takes people a long time to get through one adventure, especially if they only play once per month. So people haven't played that many.
We have this situation here where there are hundreds of adventures from previous editions which very few people have played. There’s a lot of great stuff that is virtually untouched, and I think now is the time to shine a light on it. There’s all of this D&D lore waiting to be explored and exploited.

People just keep creating new things without implementing the concepts that are already there. To me, it’s a waste. The ingenuity of past designers deserves to be recognized, collected and dissected. It should be incorporated into the overall tapestry of D&D rather than be forgotten.

More Books Like This: Maybe they’ll do another book like this some day that collects adventures that are not dungeon-centric.

I think that if Wizards and Paizo agreed to put out a 5e conversion of Savage Tide or Age of Worms, it would be like a money bomb went off in their pants. Savage Tide is so ridiculously good that I am still picking content out of that Wolfgang Baur adventure (Enemies of my Enemy) a year after I started using it!

Overall 

If you and your group like dungeons, you should get this book. It is nice to take part in scenarios that many D&D players have gone through. You share the experience and have something to discuss and laugh about when you meet new players.

If you don’t like dungeons and you prefer to run a campaign that is more sprawling, event-based and story-driven, there’s a ton of stuff to pull out of this. It’s a good resource when it comes to using or making encounters. Even if you just need a treasure hoard, there’s a bunch of them that are ridiculously detailed in the book.

Thanks for reading! I’ll try and get the “How to Run Tales from the Yawning Portal” done as quick as I can.