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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Rise of Tiamat - The Maze

Xonthal's Tower and the hedge maze
After a couple of shaky weeks, we had a good session of The Rise of Tiamat tonight at the game store. A player's dad has joined us permanently, maxing the table out at 7 players. For the rest of this season (which ends in a few weeks), he'll be playing the mezzoloth that the party befriended a few weeks ago. I cooked up some stats for him and gave him some cool magic items from the computer game Planescape: Torment, which I played quite a bit of while recovering from an illness.

Tonight we started episode 7, which involves an extra-dimensional hedge maze. I was concerned that the PCs would figure out the secret of the maze and fly right through it, but they found it quite tricky.

The Party
  •     (Harper) Elf Sorcerer: Played by a 4th grader, she is Dark the Dragon Sorceress   
  •     (Zhentarim) Elf Rogue: In real life, played by Dark's dad.
  •     (Zhentarim) Gnome Rogue: Middle Schooler. We joke that his character lives in a garbage can.
  •     (Zhentarim) Elf Rogue: Middle Schooler. Often does "combo moves" with the gnome, throwing him at stuff to get Inspiration.
  •     (Order of the Gauntlet) Half-Elf Paladin: Middle Schooler. Oath of the Ancients.
  •     (Order of the Gauntlet) Half-Elf Fighter: The player is about 25 years old, knows the rules pretty well. 
  • Mezzoloth: Played by the fighter's dad, who played old D&D and is new to 5e.
The Third Council Meeting

We started in Waterdeep - it was time for the third council meeting. The council was none too happy with the heroes making so many concessions to the metallic dragons, including handing over a number of shares of Tiamat's Hoard. Dark's response to them? "Too bad!"

I linked Cheela, the cultist woman they rescued/captured last session, to Iskandar, the cult defector who needs extracting from Xonthal's Tower. Lady Laeral Silverhand gave the heroes some background on the wizard Xonthal, who is either long dead or a lich. Then they headed off.

The deal with this episode is that the PCs must pass through a magic hedge maze to get to the tower. In the tower is a cultist who supposedly wants to betray the cult and hand over one of the five dragon masks.

The Maze

Spoiler alert.. obviously. The maze works like this:

The PCs keep coming upon a sundial. It casts unnatural shadows which provide a clue as to which of 8 paths to take. Basically, the PCs need to go to the path between two shadows.

When they take the correct path, they come upon a sundial and eight paths with different shadows pointing in different directions. The heroes have to figure out 5 different sundial configurations to get to the tower.

Each time they take a wrong path, they come upon an encounter area. They will keep wandering into this area endlessly until they find a magic gem, which will allow them to return to the sundial to choose another path.

The solution to the maze is not at all obvious, so our heroes ended up quite confused. They went through each and every encounter tonight.

Chuul Pool: After finding the sundial and taking a wrong path, the adventurers came to a black pool with a gem hovering over it. The gem is needed to return to the sundial, though the PCs didn't know this. Dark cast water walk and touched the gem with her foot. 4 chuuls rose from the water and attacked. The heroes made quick work of them (I am noticing that monsters aren't much of a threat to the 12th level PCs... they take little damage and aren't hit often).

The heroes found treasure in the pool and freaked out about it. We ultimately decided to divvy up the treasure at the end, because the younger players were becoming unhinged with excitement. The heroes really got stuck on the sundial, and took the wrong paths over and over.

Cyclopes' Pasture:  I love this encounter! Basically, a cyclops chucks a boulder and challenges the PCs to make a boulder roll farther. The adventure suggests a number of solutions, both magical and mundane. Dark immediately used animate object to send the boulder rolling all over the place. The cyclops could only high five her in awe. I wish more of the encounters in here were like this.

Pagoda: I used this one next because it was the other encounter that I thought was really cool. A silent man makes tea for our heroes using a tea kettle with an angry face on it. The man is actually an earth genie, and the "tea" he is making will actually create a poison cloud! The genie's plan is to trap the heroes in a wall of stone, where they will suffer 30 rounds of poison damage!

But the genie was not prepared for our wacky young heroes. Dark was delighted to have tea with the guy, and she showed me how she drank the tea - pinky up. The paladin took a look at the herbs used in the tea, and recognized it as a foul concoction known as Drakeswort. The dashing rogue suddenly decided, on his own, that the kettle must contain the guy's soul and attacked it. He was right! The dao panicked! The heroes shattered the kettle and caused the genie to flee! Inside the kettle was a gem to return to the sundial.

Gorgon Maze: This is a maze-within-the-maze that conatains a gorgon! Dark was able to hypnotize the beast. The rogue was on fire tonight, perceiving everything. He saw that the gorgon's breath condensed into a diamond - the gem needed to return to the sundial. The heroes fled before the gorgon came to.

Carnivorus Garden: This encounter involves a fountain, animated flowers and some pearls. This one in particular I felt could have been really cool, but it's basically a combat. Too many combats in this place for my liking.

Statue Gallery: The heroes basically have to destroy 6 animated armors. Piece of cake.

The party had a heck of a time with the sundial. They eventually picked the right paths both by accident and by way of elimination.

The fourth sundial challenge involves spinning shadows. The solution is to actually stand on the sundial. I think you can see how this might frustrate some groups, but my players took it in stride.

The final sundial sequence is quite tricky - shadows point to each of the eight paths. The heroes have to walk into a hedge! They were stumped. I started to have their baby black dragon sniff a hedge, and immediately the fighter figured it out.

The heroes stepped through the hedge and were at the base of Xonthal's Tower.

I really enjoyed this maze. I wish I had changed some of the encounters to more role-playing kind of things, as the group really excels at it and some of the fights were boring. The animated armors in particular are just no match for the heroes and felt like a waste of time.

The store was packed and everyone seemed to be having fun. We are rocketing towards the final encounter with Tiamat, and then we will begin the new season - Elemental Evil.

Dungeons & Dragons - How To Get the Most Out of NPCs

This article is a compilation of things I've learned about handling NPCs in Dungeons and Dragons from running games over the years. Some of these ideas might not work for you. Everyone has their own style. Obviously, do what you feel comfortable with.

I am using art from Pathfinder and D&D artist Eva Widermann in this column. She's pretty awesome and very overlooked, in my opinion.


This is stuff I use to help cook up NPCs:
 Non-Player Characters

An NPC is a non-player character - an individual not controlled by the players. The Dungeon Msater controls them. They are bartenders, elves in the forest, sea captains, villains, you name it. In this article, I am going to focus on friendly NPCs for the most part.

Let's kick this off with a couple of things that, in my opinion, you want to either avoid doing or exercise extreme caution if you go for it:

Mis-step #1: Using Your Old PCs As NPCs
Often, new DMs really love the idea of having their characters from other campaigns show up in their own campaign. Sometimes, the campaign even revolves around your old PC and the stuff he or she did.

This generally doesn't go too well. If you want to play, be a player. Your campaign should be about the exploits of your players, not a celebration of your hero. It doesn't take much to get the players to start to resent your old PC, especially if he's some legendary hero that everyone talks about all the time.

Your PC could show up and make a cameo or something fun like that. But that's usually only compelling to you, the DM, and you also run the risk of the PCs trolling you by embarrassing or beating up your treasured PC.

In general, you should keep in mind that the stars of the campaign are your players, not your old PCs.

Mis-step #2: The DM PC

That brings us to the scourge of dungeon mastery: The DM PC. I bet most of you have a horror story involving this topic.

It might seem like a cool idea for you to run a character in your own game. Maybe you never get a chance to be a player and this is your best shot. Maybe the party has a role (healer, usually) that needs filling.

I have never seen a DM PC run well. Ever. The DM PC is often a super-badass with plot invincibility because, well, his player is the DM. The PC knows the answer to every riddle, has secret relationships with the world, and almost always has astonishing success in their romantic lives. The other players just roll their eyes and the campaign becomes "DMPC and His Amazing Friends".

The Support NPC

Here is my suggestion. If the party has a role that needs filling, make a "support NPC". They don't need full stats, just monster stats and a couple healing stats or class traits. The support NPC can be a loyal friend who you can use to give players clues when they get stuck, or to lead them to a secret door they overlooked.

The support NPC can also be linked to a particular organization or entity that you want to feature in your campaign.

The support NPC should never outshine your heroes! I can't stress enough that this game is about your PCs getting to be Indiana Jones. You are Steven Spielberg, not Harrison Ford. You run Short Round and the nazis. It's fun and fulfilling all on its own. Leave the player stuff to the players.

Have Random NPCs Ready
Coming up with NPCs on the fly is very hard. You should have a stockpile on them at the ready, either on a piece of paper or on your tablet or whatever. You don't need stats, just a few basic notes. You need enough to make the NPC stand out, that's all.

It happens quite a bit - the PCs suddenly want to pull a random citizen off the street or pick a fight at a bar or get to know their local potion dealer. At the very least, have a list of cool names ready to use.

Picking Names

When choosing NPC names, make sure to pick names that are easy to say out loud. Some names look good on paper but are very awkward to vocalize (I never liked saying "Driz'zt"). Try to find names that are cool and fun to say out loud, like "Ebonbane" or "Cataphract".

Joke Names: Be careful! Your players will make joke names if the opportunity arises. Make sure you don't name your epic campaign villain something like "Major Thrallstack", because your players will be giggling about different ways to shrivel "Major Ballsack" for months to come.

Variety: Players have a hard time keeping the names straight. Try to give your NPCs different types of names. Some might be referred to as a single word, such as "Ava". Others are always referred to in the full name, like "Phineus T. Greymantle". Another might be "Lady Shadowborn".

Make sure to try to use different first letters for each major NPC's name. If you have three NPCs named Sandra, Sandoval and Serindal, it might be extra tricky for your players to keep them straight.

Portraying an NPC

In general, your NPCs should be helpful and kind to the PCs. It is a common mistake for DMs to have most of the NPCs in the campaign world be stingy or cruel to the PCs. Remember, the PCs are special - they have status, they have wealth, they have power. They also likely have made the world a better place and the legends of their exploits are spreading. Most NPCs won't want to get on their bad side at all. Most NPCs will want to show their appreciation, through gifts of food or shelter, or a simple thanks.

I've said this before but it bears repeating - when the NPCs treat your PCs kindly, it makes the PCs love your world and want to keep it from harm.

Coming Up With Unique NPCs
Use Books and Movies: A lot of times, you might get an idea for a cool NPC from a book or movie. It is fine to rip stuff off, as long as your players aren't familiar with it. You should be up front about where you got the idea from, in case they stumble upon the source weeks later.

It's often best to take a cool character from a book, strip elements from it and modify it to make it your own. If the source is especially obscure, then you could take it whole cloth.

Developing Voices: You can also end up with a classic NPC through developing a new voice or accent. If you hear a cool or funny voice, imitate it. Work on it with friends or alone. It's OK if it's terrible, as long as it is fun to do. A character will grow out of it, and these characters usually end up becoming PC favorites because of how you have brought them to life.

A good NPC needs to feel real. If your players talk about an NPC between sessions, wondering what she meant when she said X, then you are doing a great job.

Threatening the Life of an NPC

You have to be very careful. If you constantly have bad guys kidnap the PC's favorite NPC, the players will begin to resent you and feel like you are using NPCs as a way to mess with the players. It can come off as "cheap".

The players went out of their way to make a connection with your NPC. Do not discourage them or give them a reason to feel that your NPCs are a meta-game "trap". Players should often be rewarded through investing time to build a relationship with an NPC. Your players need to be able to trust that you aren't trying to arbitrarily trying to screw them over at every opportunity.

Gender Equality
When I populate a campaign with NPCs, I try to make 50% of them male and the other 50% female. In my Skull & Shackles campaign, some of my players were taken aback when they saw that half the pirates on most ships were female. The traditional depiction of pirates in movies and TV is a bunch of sweaty dudes with anchor tattoos. But everyone took to the mixed-gender crews in a big way.

In general, it is very fun to switch up traditional gender roles in RPG games. We are living in a time when all of this gender stuff is still being ironed out, so it is a touchy subject.

I am a big fan of Ronda Rousey, the UFC women's bantamweight champion. It's very disheartening to see people make comments online that say things like "only idiots pay to see women fight".

For the record, up to 600,000 people pay to see each of Ronda's fights (at $55 a pop), and she was named the biggest box office draw of 2014 in the Wrestling Observer, which covers boxing, wrestling and MMA.

Sometimes in your games, the greatest fighter in the land should be a woman.


Some of my most popular NPCs are the ones that come with the heroes - lantern-bearers, talking magic items and intelligent animals. I use these a lot to help guide the PCs when they get lost, to share lore they may have missed, and for comic relief.

Treat them with care! They will likely become a central part of your campaign. Henchmen and hirelings can be especially fun. Again, make sure to have these NPCs react realistically to the PCs.

Often, one PC will be a jerk to them. The hireling should avoid that PC or even flee the party if it turns into abuse. Conversely, a PC who treats the hireling well will earn enduring loyalty from the hireling, who might go on to great things (maybe the hireling ends up as the captain of the guard in a large settlement).


Giving NPCs a secret, big or small, really goes along way in bringing the game to life. The secret can be anything from being a kleptomaniac, to being in love with the married neighbor, to being the cousin of the campaign's bad guy.

The NPC's secret should at times motivate them. The PCs might wonder why an NPC reacted in a peculiar way. Once the PCs uncover one secret, they wonder what else is lurking beneath the surface of your campaign. It gives your world depth and gets the players thinking about your game between sessions.

Garbage Magic Items
Your PCs "garbage" magic items - like, say, a +1 dagger or a potion of plant control, mean so much to an NPC in the game world. If a PC hands one off to an NPC, the NPC should use it in a way that affects the world in some way, big or small.

The potion might be used to create a special garden in the village. Or it might be stolen and used by someone to commit a murder.

The magic dagger might make the NPC a feared and respected entity. Rumor spreads that she has this magic dagger. Any altercation in the street would be settled just by the dagger being drawn, its' runes glowing brightly. After all, these mundane NPCs can only guess at the power inside of that magic dagger.

This will help convey to the heroes how special magic items, and how truly awesome their powerful items are in the campaign world.

The Usual Suspects

When developing your campaign or preparing for a session, there's certain types of NPCs that come up again and again:


Bartenders are tricky! Almost every bartender in every D&D game is a bald guy with an eyepatch who doesn't take any guff. It gets old after a while. Try something like:
  • A bard who struck it rich with a hit song that everyone is sick of. He bought a bar and talks endlessly about his days as a big star.
  • A dwarven lady who can out-drink and out arm-wrestle anybody. She knows more about booze than most.
  • A retired pirate/sea captain with an utterly filthy mouth and maybe a magic parrot.
Town Guards

Don't make them all jerks! The town guards are trying to protect the town. At least some of them should be portrayed as noble and heroic, unless you're running a city that is vile and corrupt. You can have some jerks, but there should be some nice ones, too. Here's some examples:
  • A master of polearms, a whiskery fellow who sneaks a drink now and then.
  • A coward at heart who could become a hero with a bit of encouragement by the PCs.
  • A detective-type with a keen intellect and incredible deductive skills with a trusty hound always at her side.
Potion Vendors/Town Wizard
  • A shady orc selling stolen merchandise in an alley
  • A wizard always experimenting with new spells and potions, and wants to use the PCs as a guinea pig
  • A sorceress obsessed with dragons. She will pay handsomely for dragon parts like bones or a heart of a dragon. She may be a dragon in mortal form?
  • A kind and pure agent of goodness who adheres to every law, to a fault.
  • A hefty, hairy fellow who is a best buddy, always ready with a joke or encouraging word.
  • A woman who receives dreams sent to her by a divine source, or perhaps a trickster enemy.
  • The town drunk, always picking a fight. Has a terrible past where a loved one was turned to stone.
  • A member of the thieves' guild, eavesdropping on the PCs to learn of what treasure they've scored.
  • A seductress trying to find someone to use and manipulate for social standing.
Rival Adventurers

One of my favorite tropes to use is the "other" heroes. They could be enemies of the PCs, or kindred spirits. These adventurers can go on adventures that your PCs bailed out on. Or they can go into a dungeon and save the PCs from a TPK.

The PCs might hear of their exploits, and see them building a stronghold. This could motivate the PCs to build their own, cooler stronghold. You can use the rivals to demonstrate the cool things PCs can do with their characters.

Don't Force a Favorite

Once you've got your NPCs ready, you'll probably have some favorites. That usually shines through when you run them, and the NPC becomes a major part of the campaign. But sometimes your pet NPC just doesn't click. Maybe the heroes just never even interact with them. That's part of the game! Sit back and see how it all mixes together. That's a lot of the fun of D&D.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Rise of Tiamat - Metallic Dragons, Arise!

This evening we played through an episode that I've been looking forward to for a long time. Tonight we did episode 6, a scenario where our heroes had to try to convince the leaders of the metallic dragons to join the council in the fight against the cult of the dragon.

The Watcher

When I got to the store, I learned of a wrinkle. We had... a watcher.

You've probably had this experience. A friend of a player is in town and doesn't want to play - they just want to watch. In my experience, the watcher almost always ends up as a distraction.That's mostly because watching D&D is really boring. I always try to get the watcher to play an NPC with simple stats, mostly just to keep them from being a problem.
If you remember last week, Dark the Dragon Sorceress made friends with a mezzoloth assassin. I had the watcher play him. This worked pretty well. The watcher was still a bit of a distraction, as he was young and had to be taught table etiquette.

This episode is super-short. It just lists the five dragons, who they are and what they want. It's up to our heroes to negotiate with them. The DM is left to "unpack" and flesh it out.

The Party  

  •     (Harper) Elf Sorcerer: Played by a 4th grader, she is Dark the Dragon Sorceress   
  •     (Zhentarim) Elf Rogue: In real life, played by Dark's dad.
  •     (Zhentarim) Gnome Rogue: Middle Schooler. We joke that his character lives in a garbage can.
  •     (Zhentarim) Elf Rogue: Middle Schooler. Often does "combo moves" with the gnome, throwing him at stuff to get Inspiration.
  •     (Order of the Gauntlet) Half-Elf Paladin: Middle Schooler. Oath of the Ancients.
  •     (Order of the Gauntlet) Half-Elf Fighter: The player is about 25 years old, knows the rules pretty well.

Our heroes flew on the back of the silver dragon Elia aka Otaaryliakkarnos. It's a two day journey. I had a pair of chromatic dragons attack, so that the adventurers could have a pretty epic battle on the back of a silver dragon. I used a red dragon (Thraxata from the first assassination attempt) and Arveiaturace, the insane white dragon mate of Arauthator. Dark and our paladin figured out who Arveiaturace was very quick. I was very impressed!

The battle was ok. I have learned now to always start dragon fights with frightening presence. Leading off with the breath weapon is deadly, but at this level the PCs have a lot of ways to mitigate the damage. They slew Arveiaturace and Elia killed Thraxata.

The Metallic Dragons

There's five dragons of different shades: gold, silver, bronze, copper and brass. I was worried that this open-ended scenario would bore the group, but they were quite engaged with it.

Obviously the first issue they had to overcome was the fact that the group has a baby black dragon with them. It actually says in the text that one of the dragons believes that all metallic dragons are made in the image of Bahamut and thus they must be good, which means that they believe that all chromatic dragons are in the image of Tiamat and therefore must be evil.

How did the heroes overcome this? Dark's dad asked Sparky, the baby dragon, to offer the metallic dragons his hoard. Sparky has been collecting stuff like beer coasters in a little sack. What a great idea. The metallic dragons were shocked to see a chromatic dragon do something so selfless. They decided to go ahead and meet with the heroes.

There was a nice bit of debate which never dragged. The heroes had to make some concessions in order to get the dragons to join the council. It went like this:

Gold Dragon: Was promised a share of Tiamat's hoard and an apology from the elves for the dracorage mythal (basically, it's a spell that the elves had used in the past to cause the dragons to periodically go insane and battle each other).
Brass Dragon: Was promised a share of Tiamat's hoard.
Silver Dragon: Was promised an apology from the dwarves for slaying a silver dragon during a "dragonmoot" (a dwarven dragon hunt).
Bronze Dragon: Was promised a share of Tiamat's hoard.
Copper Dragon: It turns out a PC had a dagger of venom stolen from her hoard. The PC, our gnome who likes trash, graciously gave it back along with some gold.

The metallic dragons were so impressed that they gave the PCs three arrows of dragon slaying.

Captive Cultist

I modified this "drop-in" encounter from page 7. Dwarves have captured a high-ranking cultist but are in peril. Our heroes are flying on the silver dragon and see a few dwarves being chased by an army of cultists. The heroes first had to convince Elia to help the dwarves (she doesn't like them). The dragon scattered the army while our heroes defended the dwarves from some ogres and a half-red dragon.

I felt like this didn't challenge the PCs enough.

Death at the Council 

This is another drop-in encounter that I modified. It is supposed to be an encounter where the heroes can follow a trail of clues to discover that a succubus agent of the cult is seducing and murdering council members.

The Yawning Portal
My group is a little young for seduction, so I overhauled this. I had an incubus secretly kill Leosin the monk and replace him. When the heroes returned to Waterdeep, "Leosin" takes them to the Yawning Portal bar for drinks. The idea was for him to charm a PC subtly and make him attack the others, then summon barbed devils to do the rest. It's another assassination attempt.

To try and throw the PCs off the scent in a meta-game way (after all, why do I have a poster map of a bar on the table and why are we playing out this innocent night out on the town unless there's an encounter?), I placed another group of adventurers in the bar, drunk. This way, the meta-game players might think the intent of this encounter is to have a barfight with rival adventurers and will be caught unaware when the subterfuge takes place.

For the other group, I used heroes from another DM's campaign, Australia's own Merric Blackman. The heroes:

Flint - Paladin
Mordacai - Fighter
Music - Tiefling bard
Ice - Ice sorceress (she casts ice spells. Dark immediately sensed she was a rival!)
Darius - Monk
Kai - Warlock

The heroes were drunk, and music was warbling loudly off key. The heroes took the bait and began to interact with them. "Leosin" charmed the gnome rogue and summoned the barbed devils with a consumable charm.

The PCs loved the bar fight that they had in Hoard of the Dragon Queen and were overjoyed to play through the sequel. Here's some of the highlights:
  • A barbed devil tried to slide the gnome down the bar, but Dark saved him and slid the devil down the bar instead.
  • A devil pummeled the mezzoloth with a stool, rolling a critical.
  • A devil used hurl flame with a shot glass to create an enhanced jet of fire.
  • A devil swung on a chandelier and dropkicked people. The paladin pulled him down..
  • Dark's dad and the fighter continued to drink, watching the battle, bemused. Dark's dad bet the fighter 10 gold that he could jump up on the chandelier, cut the chain, and drop-stab the devil. He did - the devil was killed.
  • A devil tossed the poor gnome into the bar wall lined with liquor. Then a devil used hurl flame to shatter the liquor, igniting it and causing a massive explosion. The gnome jumped into a trash can for safety, and like in the infamous Indiana Jones refrigerator scene, the can was hurtled across the bar and the gnome stepped out unharmed (his thief abilities pretty much staved off all of the damage).
  • As the place burned, the other elf rogue grabbed Music, the drunken tiefling bard, and carried her out to safety. He gave her a potion of healing. He asked me if she could join the party. I doubt that, but I'm sure we can do something cool. I doubt the other party would like the idea of this group "stealing" the bard.
That's where we left it. The heroes questioned the wearer of purple that they'd rescued from the dwarves. She told them all sorts of things, including some details about the blue dragon mask and a dimensional hedge maze, which we will get into next week.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Rise of Tiamat - Neronvain the Green

I missed last week's session of The Rise of Tiamat due to a severe illness. Another DM filled in for me last week, and from what I had heard, he was flying by the seat of his pants. He is a guy who is really fun to be around. Coming in to tonight's game, I was prepared to steer the party back on course if he'd taken them in some odd direction.

I came in a little early and most of my players were already there. The store gave each of us a "Freebie" from a 4e underdark encounters season - a box with the rise of the underdark logo on it. Free stuff!

The players told me that last week, there'd been a lot of "arguing". I was a little taken aback. They explained further that by "arguing", they meant that the game got bogged down by a seemingly endless debate.

Last time I ran the game, the heroes had come to the entrance of Neronvain's lair (Neronvain is one of the five big bad guys in the adventure). They drove off the green dragon at the entrance in an epic battle.

The Fill-in DM

Then, last week with the new DM, the heroes went into the caves behind the waterfall. They found a secret passage that led to three ettins arguing amongst themselves in a room filled with garbage.

Apparently, for one hour of real life time, the group debated over what to do. When they explained it to me this week, none of them seemed pleased about it.

The replacement DM was happy to let them debate. I crack the whip in situations like this, as I want to get through a certain amount of the adventure each session. This DM was content to let them do whatever (he might have seen it as a way to fill time, as I don't think he had time to read the adventure). So they argued for an hour, and ultimately didn't engage the ettins at all. Some of the party found elves who had been forced to work for the dragon. The heroes freed them.

Then they came upon a shrine which they prayed at and received a magical blessing.

The players didn't like how there was no combat at all the previous week and were happy I was back. It's good to hear... I was a little worried the other DM would sweep them off their feet and make me look like a 2-bit amateur.

Dragon Orbs

Our heroes continued to explore the cavern complex in search of Neronvain and maybe the green dragon mask.

They came upon some cultists and made quick work of them. One of the cultists ran and warned Neronvain. The adventurers didn't try to chase him.  One cultist, a "dragonsoul", had an orb that he fired spells from. The heroes keep these things and want them to be magic items. They're not. I'm trying to think of some cool use for them. Maybe in the final chapter I can use them as "keys" to doors in the tunnels leading to the Well of Dragons,

The adventurers looted a bit and came upon Neronvain's room. They were hit with a glyph of warding trap which has no saving throw or anything. You just take 22 damage. At least, that's according to the module. I probably should have looked it up.

In Neronvain's room, there's a trapped trunk. The poor rogue got hit with a needle trap and failed his save. 54 points of damage! He dropped instantly. The paladin revived him.

They found Neronvain's journal, which explained that the green dragon mask was already at the Well of Dragons, and that it could be combined with the other dragon masks into a uber-mask.


They came upon the dragon's cave, full of his loot. I'd decided that once warned, Neronvain had swam through the underwater tunnel and got the ettins. He'd be back with them soon. But for the moment, our heroes got to divide up the green dragon's hoard... which is pathetic as written. It totals about 1,000 gold and no magic items! Though it does say that I am free to toss in some potions or scrolls. They are 10th level heroes and all they get are potions and scrolls.

I ended up placing magic items in the hoard that they'd missed in other sessions. They found a cloak of elvenkind, white dragon scale armor and +1 chain mail. Dragon scale armor is no joke. Advantage on saves vs. breath weapons and frightening presence!

The heroes decided to take a short rest in the cavern, which was interrupted by Nerovain and the three ettins. A massive battle broke out. Neronvain dropped a poison cloud which gave almost the entire party disadvantage.

I had been wondering if the ettins would be too tough, but the heroes had no problem with them. Neronvain got trounced. The fighter and the paladin have very high ACs and the party smartly hides behind them whenever possible.

They cut off Neronvain's ear to bring back to the council (King Melendrach, Neronvain's father, was mortified), and they noticed one of the ettins was wearing a belt... a belt of hill giant strength. It gives the wearer a 21 strength! The players rolled off for it. The paladin won.

Waterdeep Assassins

The heroes made the trek back to Daggerford and on to Waterdeep. There, I planned to run the second assassin encounter. The adventure suggests having this one in Waterdeep. One possible idea in the book is for the heroes to be in a building. A dragon rips the roof off and attacks along with some cultists.

The list of monsters possible to use for this encounter included some yugoloths bound by red wizard and recruited by the cult. They have no loyalty. I decided to go with this.

Mezzoloth Ambush
So, our heroes returned to Waterdeep. They wanted to sell some stuff, including a suit of +1 chain mail. They also bought all sorts of mundane equipment. I had Leosin Erlanthar (the monk harper from chapter 2 of Hoard) and Ontharr Frume (of the Order of the Gauntlet) there with them. One of them noticed that Elia was watching them from the crowd (she's the disguised silver dragon that will be taking them to meet the metallix dragons next week).

A beggar in tattered robes approached the heroes and asked for coins. Dark immediately gave him 7 gold. But it turns out this fellow is a cultist! He threw off his robes and held up a consumable charm. It glowed and summoned forth 4 mezzoloths (insect demons) and a Nycaloth (a powerful winged yugoloth).

Dark (dragon sorcerer played by a 4th grader) knew what these creatures were. She immediately decided that the mezzoloths were "cute" and tried to hug one. The mezzoloth was utterly taken aback. She knew they were mercenaries and opened negotiations. This is actually noted in the adventure. The suggested price is 2,000 gp per mezzoloth.

She paid off the mezzoloth, who she wants to "keep". She also paid off the Nycoloth, who she said was too ugly to "keep". The nycoloth had cast mirror image on himself.  The cultist was furious at the yugoloths. The other mezzoloths attacked the heroes.

The paladin used his oath of the ancients turn ability - he can turn fiends! He turned all of them except Dark's new friend. The cultist saw that his ambush had failed utterly and tried to flee, but a rogue fired an arrow into his knee (rolling a natural 20).

Elia transformed into a silver dragon and helped the heroes mop up.

I had planned on this being a fun battle with NPCs helping them out, doing cool maneuvers, but Dark figured out the alternate solution. Not bad for a 4th grader!

She wants to somehow keep this mezzoloth. I'm going to read up on them and see what would work without breaking the game. Maybe I'll have her make some kind of infernal pact, or a financial arrangement.

This is smart on her part for another reason - in these games, there is nothing to spend gold on! So why not use it to pay off a fiend to help you?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Optimizing the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurer's League

In this column I am using art from Howard Lyon, a very under-rated D&D artist. The more I searched for his art, the more awesome stuff I found.

Public D&D Games

I started this blog for a number of reasons. The main one was to discuss running games in a public setting. I've been running D&D in a game store since 2008 and I have been running D&D Encounters since the very first season (Halaster's Lost Apprentice).

I saw that Jason Denton wrote an article on the Adventurers League site called "This Is Not Your Home Brew Game". It is a very well-written article with an interesting viewpoint. Jason talks about how Adventurer's League games are intended to be run, and I was struck by a number of comments he made. Some of the things he says contrasts very sharply with my own experiences.
I can say that our store has a solid base of about 25-30 players who show up every week, and it's been like that for quite a few months now. Prior to that, we had a single table. 5th edition has been a big hit here in New York.

Tooling With Characters

Denton says:

"Home brew games follow the ongoing adventures of a single party, but organized play is the episodic adventures of a rotating cast. "

He goes on:

"In a home game, you only get to play one character. But if you play Adventurers League games on a regular basis, you will quickly find that you need multiple characters as adventures repeat. Take the opportunity to play unusual characters. Rotate through them, and do not be afraid to try new things."

In my experience of running games in a game store, almost nobody wants to do this. Nearly every single person who comes to play in our store is there because they don't have a home game. D&D Encounters is, for all intents and purposes, their home game. They all want as close to a "real" D&D experience as possible, and they really don't like weird rules restrictions such as magic item book-keeping or XP caps.

Almost none of them like the idea of playing the same adventure twice. They want to take their character (such as our store's legendary hero, Dark the Dragon Sorceress) to the highest of levels.

Pretty much every player in the store has a close bond with their character. They do not switch their character out for another build or make a wacky one-off PC. This is their ultimate character, the one they've wanted to make since they heard about D&D. They are skulking rogues, noble paladins and gothic-but-friendly spellcasters.

Switching Groups

Denton says:

"Just as you should take advantage of the D&D Adventurers League format to play many different characters, you should also take advantage of the opportunity to play with many different people. Many groups are large enough to run at least two tables every time they meet. This gives players not only a choice of adventures but also a choice in who they play with. Resist the temptation to always play with your favorite people and take the opportunity to play with other D&D Adventurers League gamers.

The number one thing that drives players out of public play in our store is other players. We have lost dozens and dozens of cool people from in-store games due to the behavior of other players. It doesn't take long for players to scope out the problem people, and they avoid them at all costs. When a player ends up trapped at a table with a problem player, they stop showing up in very short order.

The problem player, of course, keeps showing up. The public game is the only game they can keep attending because no one in the "real world" wants to play with them.

To me, this is the biggest hurdle in all of public play. The Adventurer's League guidelines have great rules for moderating behavior issues, but the trouble is in enforcement. The store owners sometimes really don't want to tell a problem person to leave, even when multiple DMs complain (we have DMs who flatly refuse to DM for certain people).

The problem person might be a great customer who spends a ton of money in the store, and the owners don't want to lose them. The store owner may also hate the idea of excluding someone just because they're a little eccentric. After all, many D&D players are a little eccentric.

But the fact is that problem players drive people away from public play in droves and those people never come back. They also tell other people not to go to that game store.

DMs can be a problem, too. One incident in particular bothers me. Back in 2009, I was running the 4e Scales of War adventure path in the store. The game got so huge that I actually had to recruit a second DM to run another table for a while. There was this quiet kid who showed up a few times. He was really nice. I warned him that I needed to know in advance if he was coming, so I could get the second DM or scale my adventure properly.

He showed up without advance notice. I had like 8 or 9 players already. The table was too big, and I didn't have a second DM ready. I told the kid that he didn't warn me like I asked, and that I couldn't fit him in.

He got this quiet, sad look on his face and disappeared. That kid never came into the store again.

I should have just added him in, but 4e combat rounds took so ridiculously long that I felt the game would grind to a halt. I was obsessed with getting through a certain number of encounters each night.

I think that I drove that kid out of the store and probably out of D&D altogether.

The Players Generally Don't Know The Rules

Cobalt Dragon
Denton says:

"The other players at the table will all be familiar with the rules, and will be thrilled to help you if you have misunderstood a rule or failed to keep up with the FAQ published an hour before game start. Many of them will have played the adventure before, and there is a strong likelihood that some of them have run it before and can help you should you encounter any problems."
In my store, players don't know the rules. In 4th edition, we had the hideous combination of players not knowing the rules and not owning any books! They'd just take them off the shelf, refer to them, then put them back. It drove me crazy.

In 5th edition, they all buy the books, but they don't know the rules very well at all. They certainly couldn't help a new DM run a game. I don't mean this as a criticism, I'm just pointing out an observation.

None of them have played an adventure more than once. As I've stated earlier, playing through the same adventure multiple times is an idea that does not appeal to them at all. They like a solid continuity in their games.

Bolstering The League

I think most people would agree that the Adventurers League is cool. But it feels like it could be better. The question is whether it is possible to make it better. I am seeing three issues that the League needs to come to terms with:
  • Enforcing behavior guidelines.
  • Preventing "illegal" characters from participating in a way that doesn't penalize everyone else.
  • Getting DMs to run the adventures unmodified.
Monitoring Behavior

Nobody likes the idea of kicking people out of a game. The whole point of the league is to draw new players in, not reject them. Also, bouncing people is not an easy or fun thing for most organizers to do. I personally have a hard time with it, but I do the best I can.

There needs to be a culture within the league, a common knowledge of what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Bad behavior can not be tolerated, because it can and will kill the game. One obnoxious, loud or pervy person can ruin the game. And what that group disintegrates, that one person will slide over and infect the next table.

There was a period a few years ago when I'd be out in the real world and I'd tell someone I just met that I run games at the store. The person would perk up and immediately share a horror story about playing in that very store one time and how there was this horrible person there and they'd never go back. I would know exactly who they were talking about. What could I say?

Character Database

This is just an idea. It seems to me that there are a ton of D&D players devoted to the cause who volunteer to help for free. There's hundreds of people online who make and post D&D content on sites just because they love doing it.

It would be nice if we could organize these people and put them on a mission to make the Adventurer's League something truly special. 
Fire Giant

D&D is big, but it's not that big. Instead of trying to micromanage individual campaigns, I'd like to see broader rules. As an example, have a rule that says that a PC's stats cannot exceed a total of 72 points (giving them an average of a 12 strength, intelligence, etc).

Also, have a rule that a certain level PC can only have X amount of magic items. For instance, maybe a 4th level character can have 3 uncommon items and one rare, or whatever. And most importantly, maintain a list of legal magic items.

Then we can develop a worldwide database where PCs stats and items are placed. When you go to a con, your character is pulled right out of the database. Your character may have other weird items in your home game, but for the purposes of a fair and fun con game, the character in the database is what you have to run.

Herding DMs is Impossible

I don't think you can get DMs in game stores to run an adventure without modification. It's just what they do. They are not getting paid for this, and one of the main draws of doing it is to express yourself creatively.

Everyone has their own style. I consider myself a stickler when it comes to running an adventure as written, and even I added a few encounters in Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

The DMs are already doing this for free, and they are navigating the myriad of hurdles in their game stores. It can be a very annoying, thankless job. When you give them strict guidelines as far as how the adventure must be run, I think it just turns them away. That's not good, because most people don't want to DM to begin with.

Celebrity Characters

If you ever read Knights of the Dinner Table, you're probably familiar with the "Hackmaster Association". This is their Adventurer's League. In the HMA, GMs are certified, their campaigns are monitored, there's paperwork. The thing I like about it is that events in campaigns are known to the organization at large. Certain people and characters are legendary or notorious. The twists and turns of individual campaigns are discussed by gamers like the world at large talks about the newest episode of The Walking Dead.

A dragonborn in Sigil
Most of all what I'd like to see is for some way to create Adventurer's League legends. I want to hear about the cool things other groups have done. I want to read about great characters with a unique or dramatic concept.

I'd really like it if there was some way, each storyline, for a few actual characters to be immortalized in official D&D lore. The character would be in an upcoming product as an NPC, or a magic item would be named after them, or a spell is named after them, or a D&D artist depicts them in a published supplement.

This gives players something to shoot for. I love reading about legendary real-life characters such as Gary Gygax's Mordenkainen or Monte Cook's Malhavoc.

Player creativity and devotion deserves to be rewarded. It helps make the Adventurer's League feel worthwhile.

Those are just some thoughts I had. I am running Rise of Tiamat tomorrow, so we should finish Episode 3. I will have a full report.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to Imix, Prince of Evil Fire Creatures

In this article, we're going to take a look at a creature who has appeared in many D&D products throughout history. He is Imix, an evil fire lord who is often linked with the Elder Elemental Eye, also known as Tharizdun.

I will attempt to collect the relevant lore to give you a basic outline of what Imix has done, and what you can do with him in your own campaign. I feel like I may have missed some things, but this should give you a nice foundation to work from.

The Art

For whatever reason, a lot of the depictions of Imix are less than inspired. The artists also seem to stray from the author's description. Most times, Imix is described as a humanoid column of flame. To me, this means he doesn't have legs, just a twisting column of fire. But most times, Imix is drawn with legs.

AD&D 1st Edition

Fiend Folio
In the "Elemental Princes of Evil" section of this book, it is noted that the Princes have all sorts of at-will powers like teleportation, detect invisible, and dispel magic. Traits:
  • Appears as an 18 foot pillar of fire
  • +2 or better weapons to hit him.
  • Can summon 1-3 efreet every day!
  • Once per day he can cast a fireball that does 20d6.
  • He hates Olhydra, princess of Evil Water Creatures.
Egg of the Phoenix

You can pick up the pdf of this adventure for cheap here. I've barely flipped through this adventure prior to this article. There's so much to say about it that I don't even know where to start. There is a thread that discusses it at length here.

This adventure is actually four linked scenarios. They were originally four unrelated convention adventures by Frank Mentzer. Paul Jaquays was in charge of putting them in one book and Jaquays rewrote them to some degree.

There's some really inane stuff in here. There's time travel. There's a sitcom family of fire giants. I assume this was a Mentzer idea. He's the one who wrote that basic D&D adventure where you go to New York City and fight a gang on a subway, and you travel to a dimension full of talking music notes.

One of the Egg of the Phoenix scenarios has a demiplane where a skull-faced moon tries to kill you! I feel like I could write an entire column just on this adventure.

The basic story in this is that the Princes of Elemental Evil want the Egg of the Phoenix, a powerful magic item. There is a possibility that the heroes have to actually fight all four of the Princes! Imix is in the form of a 20-foot tall red bull.

The Egg is a magic item that allows casters to cast spells without memorizing them or losing them. It also allows non-casters to cast spells! The higher level of spell you cast, the more the egg damages you.

I love the first paragraph of the Egg's description: "Ancient legends describe the the hero Delcinous as having an 'Ybonee Ygg swoddled in fyre' which 'did Ynchante the armees of Yvl as one.'"

AD&D 2nd Edition

Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix 3

 I did not expect this art to appear in a Planescape Monstrous Compendium. Those books are usually full of awesome stuff by Tony DiTerlizzi. Here, all of the archomentals are in a single image, all colored a variation of brown or mustard yellow. Here's what we learn:
  • Imix rules the Elemental Plane of Fire.
  • He is an archomental, which is like a demon lord, in that they are one step removed from being a deity. They can grnt spells to worshipers (only up to 3rd level).
  • The Archomentals are said to have a relationship with the mysterious being known as the Elder Elemental God.
  • Imix lives in a volcano that contains portals to the planes of earth an magma.
  • He strives to destroy creatures who refuse to worship him.
  • Imix was once at war with Zaaman Rul, the Prince of Good Fire Creatures. Imix won.
  • The powers of Imix are practically identical to the Fiend Folio.
D&D 3rd Edition

Monster Manual 4
Holocaust disciple
This book has a lot of cool stuff in it, including some new ideas on the connection between the princes and Tharizdun.

There is a section on "Avatars of Elemental Evil", which talks about how Imix and the others want to use the Elder Elemental Eye to extend their influence into the Prime Material Plane.

The Eye is trapped in a void between the planes. The Princes are trying to free it. They are unaware that The Eye is actually Tharizdun, who seeks to annihilate all of reality.

The worshipers are divided into elemental temples. The fire clerics wear amulets and bracelets with continual fire cast on them. Fire giants, salamanders and efreets also worship.

Imix created an elemental avatar, known as a holocaust disciple. It's a fire monster that relishes spreading destruction and misery.

This thing can cast fireballs every round and can even summon a meteor swarm once per day! It has a heat aura and can generate waves of flame that hit all within 60 feet for 13d6 damage.

Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil

In this adventure, cultists uncover the entrance to the fire node from the original Temple adventure by Gary Gygax. In the original adventure, the fire node is only partially detailed. The rest was left for the DM to design.

Lareth the Beautiful was able to call on Imix for aid. Their hope is that Imix can free Tharizdun.

Imix dwells in the fire node in a long hall of circular, flaming pits. He has a throne of glass that is filled with roaring flames.

The adventurers actually fight him. He has a colossal flaming swor and is accompanied by a half medusa/half-fire elemental named Maliskra.

Dragon Magazine #347

Issue 347 has a lot of elemental evil stuff in it, including an article on the archomentals. In it, it explains that there were wars between Law and Chaos. In these wars, the good archomentals sided with the Wind Dukes of Aaqa (who were in the Rod of Seven Parts boxed set adventure and the Age of Worms path). The evil princes sided with the Queen of Chaos (the villain from the Rod of Seven Parts).
They gave Imix some nice flavor:

"This pillar of red flames crackles and hisses with life as flaming tendrils stretch out to grasp and feel. This roughly humanoid column stands as tall as three humans and radiates waves of intense heat."

Imix lives in a volcano on the Plain of Burnt Dreams, which rises from the liquid flames of the Blazing Sea. He has a pyramid fortress known as the Temple of Ultimate Consumption.

Imix is passionate, intense and easily infuriated. He is also vain, jealous and quickly frustrated.

Imix cannot enter water or any non-flammable liquid. He is 18 feet tall and weighs... 6 pounds.

His greatest servant is Asgeroth, a pit fiend who is loyal and power-hungry. His job is to destroy Zaaman Rul.

Dragon Magazine #353

Zaaman Rul
They actually detailed the good archomentals in this issue, one of a million reasons why Paizo is so awesome. They fleshed out the lore of D&D so much and did it well. Here's what we learn about Zaaman Rul.

He is courageous but naive, and has built a fortress called the Hidden Heart.

When Zaaman's assault on Imix failed, he was left for dead on the scorched battlefield. A phoenix came and restored his body and mind, giving him inspiration and newfound hope. The phoenix is now his ally. It has given Zaaman an army of phoelarchs and phoeras to use.

He has allied himself with a bronze dragon called Rolothere, who is linked to the fey Court of Stars. Through the court, Zaaman has recruited devas, asuras and eladrins.

Other allies include Raziel, lord of archons (who I believe appears int he Great Modron March adventure) and Amaimon, king of the azers. 

D&D 4th Edition

Monster Manual 3

To me, this is the definitive depiction of Imix
Imix has his own entry in this book. Here he's a "primordial far older than the world". He "serves" the Elder Elemental Eye, and is still unaware it is Tharizdun.

Imix promotes rash action, wanton violence and arson.

He lives in a volcano in the Elemental Chaos. His palace is a black inverted pyramid that hovers over magma, its tip tracing the symbol of the Elder Elemental Eye into the rock. That's a great new detail.

Imix lives like a prisoner inside the pyramid. He is level 32, and he has an aura that shuts down fire resistance. Yikes.

There's also an entry for Imix Cultists. They're, you know, crazy people who set fires. Sometimes they'll have a temple in hidden ruins, or infiltrate communities.

Some bigger temples use rituals to summon a Conflagration Orb, which is an "avatar of Imix and a manifestation of the Fire Lord's approval". It is a "miniature sun that hurls flames from it's super-heated mass".

The orb has little regard for Imix's servants and will incinerate them along with enemies.

That is a really great idea. It helps make the cult more unique.

Heroes of the Elemental Chaos

This book talks about how the Princes had to go into hiding after the Dawn War (the ancient conflict between the gods and the primordials). It mentions that the good archomentals - Ben-Hadar (water), Chan (wind), Sunnis (earth) and Zaaman Rul (fire) actually fought alongside the gods in the Dawn War.

Imix "was the first to emerge from the chaos at time's beginning". Ever since the end of the Dawn War, he has been trapped in a volcano's fiery heart, unable to escape the bubbling magma and noxious fumes confining him.
The good prince of fire, Zaaman Rul, is Imix's son. The mother is the late Bristia Pel, a princess of elemental fire now dead. Lamentations of the Flame Princess...!

There's a section on Zaaman Rul that gives a bit of insight. Imix had a "tryst" with Bristia Pel. Zaaman "inherited his mother's virtue" (umm... she had a tryst with a supremely evil being) and sought to avenge her death - she died in a massive battle that led to the defeat and imprisonment of the Queen of Chaos.

Zaaman led an army against Imix, but was defeated. His army was enslaved, and Zaaman fled. Zaaman is 10 feet tall, has crimson skin and long black hair.

There is a temple to Imix in the City of Brass called The Mosque of Blistering Atonement.

That's where we're at. It seems likely that Imix will have some involvement in the imminent Elemental Evil storyline, so it will be fun to see how 5th edition handles the villain.