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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to the Beholder

In this article, I am going to attempt to take all of the relevant lore about beholders, and put them in one place for your convenience. This should allow us to have a good base understanding of what a beholder is, and how a beholder should be run.

The 5th edition beholder is in the Monster Manual. You can buy it on amazon here:

Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook)

The thing I have noticed while working on this is that beholders are really deadly. It's hard as a DM to figure out how to run them. In the older editions, they just fired off ten deadly eye rays every round. In newer editions, the use of eye rays has become more limited.

The Essential Information

Here's what you need to know about beholders:
  • They are spherical creatures that hover. They have eyestalks that fire off deadly beams that do everything from turn people to stone, to disintegrate them.
  • The beholder has a central eye that emit a cone of anti-magic.
  • Their ability to hover is not a magic effect that can be dispelled.
  • Beholders hate each other and despise variant beholder races.
  • They may be from the Far Realm.
  • They create lairs with their disintegrate beams.
The Real Life Origin of the Beholder

This goes all the way back to the original greyhawk campaign, run by Gary Gygax (which I've written about quite extensively here). Terry, the brother of Rob Kuntz, came up with the idea for the monster. He was quite dismayed when Gary unleashed it on him and his adventuring buddies.

AD&D 1st Edition

Let's see what the 1st edition Monster Manual has to say about beholders:
  • The beholder is also known as an "eye tyrant" or a "sphere of many eyes".
  • It has a globular body with a large mouth full of pointed teeth and floats slowly about as it wills.
  • It has 10 eyestalks and an 11th central eye.
  • Eyestalks that are cut off can grow back in a week.
  • A beholder's hit points are allocated in a weird way. You get to choose where you attack the beholder. You could try to stab an eyestalk, ot the cetral eye, or an eyestalk. Each holds a certain percent of the total hit points. To kill a beholder with 45 hit points, you can do 30 points to the main body, and it will die.
The big thing with beholders is that they shoot beams from their eyes that do different spell effects. Not all of their eyestalks can attack the party at once, unless the party has completely surrounded it. So if a party all stands in a clump to one side, only 1-4 eyestalks can attack.

This is odd considering the old vague rules in 1e about a round being a minute and that a combat includes lots of assumed movement and back-and-forth. I assume the idea here is that if a beholder is easily able to fire off all ten eyestalks every round, then most parties won't stand a chance.

Here's what the eyes do:
  1. Charm person
  2. Charm monster
  3. Sleep
  4. Telekinesis
  5. Flesh to stone
  6. Disintegrate
  7. Fear
  8. Slow
  9. Cause serious wounds
  10. Death ray
  11. Central Eye: Anti-Magic ray
They can fire off Death ray, flesh to stone and disintegrate all in the same round! Unreal.

Dragon Magazine #76 - Ecology of the Beholder

This is by Ed Greenwood and Roger Moore and it is a fantastic piece of work - short, easy to read and packed full of great ideas. Seriously, Ed Greenwood has to be considered as one of, if not the best D&D designer. The only other D&D article writer that I ever enjoyed as much would be James Jacobs.

This is written in short story form, with a sage teaching students about beholders.

Levator Magnus: Beholders have a magical organ called the levator magnus located in the center of its body, surrounded by the brain, that causes the beholder to float in the air. This means that the levitation can't be dispelled. In the appendix to this article, it is noted that beholders can "...levitate themselves without limit, to the height of the breathable atmosphere".

Anti-Magic: The anti-magic field projected from the central eye is a faintly-visible beam of grayish light, extending out up to 10 feet wide in a cone up to 140 feet away. In the monster manual, the range is done in inches (as in, you put your beholder mini on a map and use a tape measure). The beam focuses on one target at a time. 

Laying Eggs: Beholders lay eggs! From their mouths?! Every year, beholder lay 1 to 4 eggs. The beholder deserts them. When an egg hatches, the baby immediately grows (in a year it is full-sized), eats the shell and has full use of its eyestalks.

Strategy: There's some strategy, too. The beholder will hover high in the air, focus the anti-magic on a spellcaster and go to town with the eye rays. This is.. scary. I feel like I've never run a beholder correctly after reading this.

Other fun facts:
  • They eat raw meat in vast quantities. Beholders are at the top of the food chain. 
  • They live for "nine hundred seasons". Sheesh.. so complicated. That's what, 225 years?
  • The article includes a chart to randomly determine where you strike a beholder. You roll a d100, and on a 1-75, you hit the main body (which has an AC 0 - in 1e, a low AC is good). 76-85 is the central eye (AC 7), 86-95 is an eyestalk (AC 2) and 96-100 is a small eye on an eyestalk (AC 7). Any hit on a small eye immediately destroys it. That sounds like a lot of fun.
  • Every beholder's arrangement of eyestalks is different. The DM should pick where they are located on its body prior to running the battle " determine which eyes may fire in which direction since the small eyes cannot point in just any direction."
What a fantastic article. It looks like part of the reason this was written was to clarify how certain things worked, and to stop players from using dispel magic to make the beholders roll around on the ground in what would be a pretty pathetic scene.

AD&D 2nd Edition

The Monstrous Manual has a massive pile of versions of beholders, known as beholder-kin. I will focus on the main ones, and I'll compile a list of the variants at the bottom of this article.
  • It is now official that beholders have different armor classes for different parts of their body.
  • The central eye anti-magic cone now covers a 90 degree arc and extends out 420 feet! No magic, including the effects of the eyestalks, will function inside the cone. Well, that's quite a wrinkle. Further, spells cast in the anti-magic cone, or even ones passing through, cease to function.
  • Beholders are hateful and aggressive. They attack or dominate other races, due to a xenophobic intolerance - they hate all creatures not like themselves.
  • This book claims that beholder reproduction is a mystery - they may lay eggs or they may give live birth. 
I, Tyrant

This is a 96 page supplement all about beholders. I have never looked through this book before. I really don't like the cover art and I guess it scared me away all these years.

Anatomy: We kick the book off by getting a look at beholder anatomy. They can hear, but not well. They have two skull layers. In between the layers is a gas called tiusium that allows them to levitate. They outright threw out the "organ inside the brain" thing from the ecology article. Beholders don't have hearts, and they have one lung.

They have male and female reproductive organs, so they can self-fertilize. They give birth to 3-6 live young out of their mouths, in an "appalling" process.

Beholders love to eat rodents, roast beef and flower petals. They enjoy wine and blood. They hate hard-boiled eggs and eyes.

Diseases: Some beholders suffer from certain diseases:
  • Spasms (Diohurr): As they get older, beholders begin to lose mental coherence and levitate in random directions.
  • Mania (Edorakk): Has violent mood swings, thinks all creatures are beholders.
  • Meat-Rot (Malohurr): This is a type of food poisoning, they gain pustules and blisters on their skin.
History: Beholders worship the Great Mother, whose first spawn was named Kzamnal. Kzamnal gave birth to the mortal ancestors of the beholder race and instructed them to gather knowledge.

Some beholders, known as "the traitors", spawned beholder-kin that did not resemble the Great Mother. This sparked a genocidal was among beholders which continues to this day.

Deities: There are a few beholder gods:
  • The Great Mother: A giant beholder that travels the lower planes. She is devoid of any logic. She devours creatures on her endless journey and lays eggs (spawning beholder variants).
  • Gzemnid: This beholder spies on mortal wizards and steals knowledge from them.
Blindness: There's a note on blindness. Even if blinded, a beholder can still use its eye power with a -1 penalty.

Psychology: Every beholder thinks they are the ideal specimen of their race, and that those who are different from them should be destroyed.

Sometimes beholders will group together, led by a hive-mother. This is known as a "hive". When two or more hives unite, they create a city comprised of a few hundred beholders of different types. Some cities contain thousands of beholders.

There's even a FAQ. We learn all sorts of things:
  • Most beholders have eyelids
  • If you obtain a newborn beholder and try to rise it as a pet, it will see you as flawed and try to kill you no matter how kind you are to it. Their paranoia is present from birth.
  • Their levitation is not magical, so it can't be dispelled.
  • Throwing a blanket on a beholder is a dumb tactic, because it can use telekinesis to remove it or just disintegrate it. I assume this came up in some games back then.
There are a trilogy of adventures about beholders as part of the "Monstrous Arcana" series. Let's take a quick look at each one.

Eye of Pain

This adventure seems like it has a lot of problems. There's a hive of beholders in some caves underground.. A beholder wants to overthrow the hive mother by tricking the heroes into killing her. There's this whole thing where the heroes are supposed to meet a wizard in a town, but the wizard never shows up, and the adventure expects the heroes to do research rather than just go home. The only thing that really stuck out to me as cool in this was a "time bomb" magic item - an hourglass that explodes like a fireball when the sand runs out.

Eye of Doom

A human settlement is on or near a beholder holy site. A beholder uses a thieves' guild to try to take over and destroy the town. The heroes have to infiltrate the guild. There's a marked lack of beholders in this beholder trilogy.

Eye to Eye

The City of Ilth K'hinax
This adventure is 64 pages, and features the heroes finally actually going down to the beholder city and possibly killing the beholder hive mother. Ilth K'hinaxs is a city with over 2,000 beholders in it. The city is loaded with all sorts of weird monsters, like olive slimes, intellect devourers, xorn and mind flayers. Somehow the heroes encounter very few beholders in this beholder city.

If I was writing an adventure about a beholder city, it would be pretty high level and it would be loaded up with beholders and beholder-kin of all types. That's the whole point, right?


This is a spelljammer adventure wherein the heroes fly their magic ship through a massive asteroid complex. It's basically a space dungeon full of beholders. Each "room" of the dungeon is over two miles long.

Each of the ten rooms has an "eye" of the beholder queen in charge of the hive. The "eyes" are gems in the shape of a d10 that are about 150 in diameter. Each eye has become sentient and plays a part in the bigger story.

Here's some of the flavor from the very first room:

"...the light fades, leaving an amber glow that settles all around you. It surrounds you with a glittering aura. It also surrounds a tall, handsome man in white robes lined with gold. You feel that this man is the closest friend you have in your world or any other. He smiles angelically and opens his upper robe, above the belt. Embedded in his pale chest is a huge, red, withered eye."

In the final part of this gigantic adventure, a huge miles-long sentient ship/artifact called The Ravager becomes active. It is in the shape of a beholder and apparently it can destroy worlds. This adventure is insane.

D&D 3rd Edition

  • We continue to get beholders that can only aim a certain amount of tentacles in a given direction. All the rays can shoot every round, but only 3 rays can reach targets in a given 90 degree arc.
  • Beholders naturally levitate and fly at the speed of 20 feet per round. They also have a permanent feather fall effect going. There must have been a real swath of players trying to dispel the beholde levitate ability back then.
  • The antimagic cone is 150 feet long and it still shuts down the beholder's own powers. I guess the beholder does a lot of turning around. I'm not clear on whether it can close its central eye, fire rays, and then re-open the eye in the same round. Seems like it could, right?
In this ENWorld thread, the general consensus is that the eye is either "off" or "on" for the round. You have to pick one. Also, the beholder can't fly up, turn upside-down and launch all ten eye rays on the party at once. Good gawd!

One person notes that the beholder could use telekinesis to cause a hero to hover above it, in full range of the other 9 eyestalks... wow.

Lords of Madness

This book has an entire chapter on beholders.
  • Beholders weigh around 4,500 pounds!
  • They have no sense of taste at all.
  • They detect scents through thousands of tiny holes in their hide, known as "spiracles".
  • A beholder and its organs are buoyant like a balloon.
  • It drools its own waste, which is frothy and pink.
  • It lives about 100 years.
  • It reproduces only once in its life. The womb is below the back of the tongue.
When it gives birth: "The parent observes its young and decides which look most like itself. The others are eaten by the ravenous parent, along with the discarded womb, and the surviving young are forced from the parent’s lair within the hour to fend for themselves."

As if beholders aren't scary enough, we are given some beholder magic items!

  • Lens of Ray Chaining: Allows a ray to bounce to a second target.
  • Lens of Ray Doubling: Splits a ray so it hits two targets.
  • Lens of Ray Widening: Turns a ray into a cone! The saving throw is a bit lower, though.
D&D 4th Edition

There's a few different types of beholder in the Monster Manual of 4e. The 19th level "Beholder Eye Tyrant" seems to be your classic beholder.
  • It has an aura. When an enemy starts its turn within 25 feet of the beholder, the beholder can shoot an eye ray at it. I like that.
  • The beholder's powers are greatly "nerfed" for 4e. It can only shoot two eye rays on its turn, and each ray must target a different creature.
  • The disintegrate ray just does a bit of damage, and the death ray has to hit a bloodied target to have a chance of killing them (they have to fail two consecutive saving throws to actually die).
  • It does have a recharge power where they can fire four eye rays, but only when bloodied.
  • In the Monster Manual 3, it is claimed that beholders come from the Far Realm, and that they have come to the world "...seeking to swallow up everything with their greed and ambition".
D&D 5th Edition
  • The beholder shoots 3 eye rays per round, and the eye rays are determined randomly (!). 
  •  "When a beholder sleeps, it closes its central eye but leaves its smaller eyes open and alert."
  • A beholder's lair is likely to have space for the beholder to hover above the heroes to fire down eye rays on them. It also has lair actions, like causing the walls to sprout stalks, or even an eye that shoots a random eye ray.
Other Notable Products

Beholders appear in a pile of D&D adventures and products. While I can't read them all, I scoured the internet for mentions of cool, official beholder stuff.

The Fell Pass: This is an adventure in Dragon Magazine #32.. It's about a beholder named Xorddanx. It has 8 gargoyles at its beck and call. If a fight breaks out, Xorddanx hovers over a molten pool and abuses the PCs. Here's a quote for you:

"The handling of Xorddanx must be left mainly in the hands of the Dungeon Master, but it is intended that Xorddanx be a very dangerous character, so the referee is encouraged to show no mercy. A low-level party has no business thinking it can take on a menace as obviously great as Xorddanx. High-level parties often need to be taken down a peg. Be strong!"

Labyrinth of Madness: In this super-deadly adventure, there is a room called "Abode of the Eye Tyrants" that contains three beholders. Some of their stalks are snakes. Not only do the snakes shoot eye rays, but they also have a poison bite that kills you. One beholder can actually strap in to a suit of magic plate mail. Insane.

Beholder Dome: The 3rd Edition Book of Challenges has a trap in it called a "Beholder Dome". The floor is wobbly, and a failed DEX check will send a hero careening into a trapped door. Each one has a magic spell trap that emulates one of the eye rays.

The Shackled City: There's a beholder villain that plays a major part in the Shacked City adventure path, but I really don't want to say much about it because it's a pretty major spoiler.

Trial of Eyes: In the 4th edition Dungeon Delve book is a series of short adventures. 30 adventures, in fact! The adventure for level 17 characters is about a beholder who has come through a portal from the far realm and has claimed a magic item off of some dead adventurers.. There's these far realm insanity portals. They're orange and they "seethe with anger". They do psychic damage and they slow you.

The Xanathar

This is perhaps the most well known beholder NPC in D&D lore. He's a crime boss in the Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep. He runs a thieves guild and only a select few know that Xanathar is actually a beholder.

Xanathar has four humanoid lieutenants who handle different aspects of all the illegal goings-on. Xanathar is into all sorts of stuff, including extortion, smuggling, burglary, and slavery.

There's a really good article on The Xanathar here.

Beholder Variants

Here's a list of all the other types of beholders I came across while working on this:

Death Kiss: This beholder-kin has no mouth, and the eyestalks are actually tentacles with hooks. It feeds by attaching tentacles to a victim and draining its blood.

Eye of the Deep: This water-breather has crab pincers, and it shoots cones of blinding light from its eyes. The eye of the deep has two tentacles which can create illusions and hold people and monsters.

Gauth: This beholder-kin feeds on magic. It can fire off different spells, and it can drain charges from magic items. It actually eats magic items.

Spectator:A spectator is a guardian of places and treasures. The central eye can reflect spells back at the caster! Spectators are summoned from Nirvana and are actually quite friendly.

Undead Beholder (Death Tyrant): These abominations have milky film covering their eyes. They are slow and strike last in every combat round. They are mindless servants of powerful masters.

Hive Mother: The "Ultimate tyrants", they are twice the size of a normal beholder. They can swallow people whole on a critical hit. A Hive Mother has no eyestalks, the eyes are embedded in the creature's hide with hooded covers! They can control other beholders, usually 5-10 normal beholders or up to 20 beholder-kin.

Director: These insectoid beholder-kin breed specialized mounts (?). The mount is usually a centipede/spider type of creature.

Examiner: These are scholars ad clerks who study magic items..

Lensman: This thing actually has a humanoid body. Instead of a head, it has a whip-like tentacle. OK, now we're getting really random.

Overseer: These guys are like fleshy trees with 13 limbs, each of which has an eye.

Watcher: Watchers have large eyes all around their body. They have true sight, ESP, and can teleport.

Beholder Mage: These guys actually blinded their central eyes so that they could cast spells.

Elder Orb: Ancient beholders of god-like intelligence.

Orbus: A pale white beholder with great magical ability.

Gas Spore: These things look like beholders, but they're just full of gas.

Doomsphere: A ghost-beholder created by magical explosions.

Kasharin: An undead beholder that can pass on a rotting disease.

Astereater: A boulder-like beholder without eyes.. ummm..

Gorbel: A clawed beholder, without magic. Explodes if attacked!

Eye of Flame: These beholders serve more powerful beholders. They have fire rays, telekinesis rays and fear rays. When they die they explode in a fire burst.

Beholder Spawn: These are 4th edition minions (they have a single hit point). They fire a single eye ray that does 11 damage of a single type (fire, force, etc).

Eye of Shadow: These beholders spent too much time in the Shadowfell. It has eye rays that blind, do thunder damage, and immobilize. It can also teleport and become invisible. 

Other Links

How much is an eyestalk worth?
4e beholder cartoon
The beholder from the '80's cartoon

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dungeon Master Horror Stories

I jumped back on to reddit a few weeks ago and asked dungeon masters to send me horror stories. I wanted to hear about people's experiences in games gone wrong. I figured it would make for a fun blog post.

I don't want to sit here and make fun of them. I want to read them and see if I can glean any insight from them, to navigate the minefield to better myself as a DM. 

The point of this is ultimately for self-reflection - to identify our own bad tendencies and to try to keep them in check. I think that by reading about what others have done, we can identify the pitfalls to avoid.

Full Disclosure

Seeing how I am about to tap dance on the graves of some DMs who committed the horrible crime of running a game gone wrong, I figure I should fess up to some of my own worst moments running games. I think all of us have made major blunders, right? The fact that we learned from them and still run games is a good thing.

Here's just a fraction of my hall of shame moments
  • I had a player who played a "jerk" character - he'd be nasty to the other characters and use his psionic powers to mess with them. I ran a session that he couldn't make it to. During that session, the other players took the opportunity to throw a hat of stupidity on him and throw him off the side of a ship and into the ocean. At the time, it was hilarious. There was a scene where he was tied to the mast and whipped, and the laughter was deafening. I knew I should have waved the whole thing off, but for some reason I let it happen. I tried to make it right the next time we played, but the player ended up just making a new character
  • I have often run adventures that were simply too high level for the characters. I always figured that they could handle anything. Well, I ran this published adventure about vampire mind flayers, and the whole party had to flee the very first encounter.
  • I have my own "DM PC" moment. Way back in high school, my players were being spastic and jokey. I couldn't get them to focus on the game. So I had my favorite character show up (A silver-haired elf named... Konami). He used made up psychic powers to pummel the heroes and use telekinesis to send them hurtling into the sky.In retrospect, I should have just told them if they weren't in the mood to play, we just wouldn't play.
I think that once you've realized you made a mistake, the key thing to do is to say you are sorry, make every effort to fix it, and move on. Always try to remember what it is like to be a player. It's very easy to lose perspective.

Here's some other DM horror stories:

The Unconscious Debut
A friend of mine invited me to join his group, so I went with him and made a character. The DM acted pissed off that they had to wait while I made the character and couldn't play, even though I told them to go ahead. 

I made an elven fighter/mage, and my first action was to run around the back of the barn where the bad guys were holed up and cover the back window with my bow. The DM handed me a note that said 'You are unconscious, don't say anything', then proceeded to play with the group for about 2 hours, resolving everything that went on in the barn. 

After the session was over she told me 'Sorry, I had written in my notes that they would try to escape out the back window, so they cast sleep on you and then killed you. There was nothing I could do'. 

1) I was an elf so I was immune to sleep
2) I can't remember the details, but my character level also made me immune to sleep
3) "There was nothing I could do" is bullshit coming from a DM. I didn't return for a second session.

As a DM I am very wary of having a player sit at the table with nothing to do. In this day and age, it seems almost rude. It is hard enough to get people to come to your house to play games on a regular basis, to go aead and bore them like that seems like a recipe for disaster.

I understand that PCs go unconscious or die on occasion, but if a player has nothing to do at the table for any length of time you need to involve them somehow. Even if it is cooking up some afterlife visions the dying hero is having, at least the player is engaged and not regretting coming over, or becoming a distraction.

There is no Shadow in the Desert

3.5 Campaign. Had one DM who told us to specifically not make paladins but a mix between good and evil characters. Why no paladin? Because we made fun about the picture of the paladin in the 3.0 players handbook having 2 knees and she did not want us to make fun of a character in play. 

Why a mix of good and evil characters? No idea. It never came out because there was a godlike DM PC who would stop any interaction with anyone by the evil characters. 

We only faced undeads and constructs with 2 rogues, a blightcaster and a mage with focus on illusion I think I attacked a single time in the whole adventure. The only one doing damage was a min/maxed werebear who was neutral (yeah, good thing we went through with only good and evil characters). 

All doors and sealed hallways had anti-teleport-protection, we could not use shadow walk to get to a desert because there is no shadow in the desert. In the last fight against the endboss who was the madking that was even feared by the gods, he stunned all of us for 10 in-game minutes when we entered the room (absurdly high saving throw no one succeeded on). 

I think our wizard player was already sleeping at this point. Then one character was freed and the DM said to the player "pull this one item out i gave you and say die". At this point we all just wanted to go home, I had tossed my character sheet and was playing with the backside of a chocolate bar, the blightcaster had at some point crashed his chair and was playing wii on the couch, the not-stunned character told the mad king to die and he did and we went home.

Best thing was everything had in-game reasons. She later explained everything and we agreed that it would have been a great book to read...just the typical small mistake that players usually want a bit of agency ;)

As a DM it can be very scary to run a game for players who have a lot of spells and power options. In this DM's case, she decided rather than to try and "ride the lightning", she clamped down and forced the heroes down a particular path. I think you have to know your players and know what they can do when you cook up a scenario.

This is why I always try to start campaigns at level one. That way I get to know the character, I know what they can do, and I will understand their capabilities as they grow. So then, when I'm designing a scenario, if I know a PC has a mass teleport spell, I know that it is likely the heroes will just teleport where they need to go, and I shouldn't waste time making encounters on a road they won't be traveling.

In fact, what's best is to write adventures that depend on the PCs having certain spells and magic items. Though that might become a problem if a player can't make a session at the last minute.

DM Regret

Usually a good DM, if a little batshit insane. One campaign we were playing he suddenly decided that he wanted to undo so many cool things we had earned. We had painstakingly acquired a flying ship, crewed by, and I quote "badass dwarven mercenaries." 

We park it about 60 feet above ground to go run a quick errand, we come back about 2 hours later, and immediately get fired on. I, being the only person who can fly (armour) head up to see what kind of fuckery is about.

The ship had been taken over by a group of 40 orcs. We managed to take it back through a combination of brute force (great cleave is a hell of a drug) and setting the deck on fire, but all our dwarf buddies were still dead, and I'm fairly certain that the DM didn't intend for us to take the ship back at all.

He also took away everyone's magic items through use of an enormous anti-magic wall.

Usually a great DM, but this campaign went sour pretty quick because of stuff like that.

This is another tricky spot for DMs. The party gets their hands on a cool magic item that makes it harder to write a good adventure. In this case, the DM was probably worried that the ship was cutting out the overland journey section of adventures, which makes it harder to write adventures that can fill a session.

Also, having 40 dwarven mercenaries can be problematic, because the heroes could theoretically march them into battle with them.

The concept of bringing NPCs into battle will come up in every campaign (we call them "Trap Bait" in my games). In my games, I would tell my players that if the NPCs joined in a battle, then they got a cut of the XP. So, if you take on an encounter with 40 dwarves.. you're getting no XP, and you'll probably have to split the treasure. That goes a very long way in discouraging this behavior.

Not that it necessarily needs to be discouraged. You can make a lot of cool encounters for the heroes and their 40 dwarf badasses. That might make a really cool campaign, actually.

The World is About to End

He was pretty damn terrible but his last session took the cake. He decided to blow up the world except for 3 buildings, have his weird npc send us to god knows where for god knows what, and when we got to the final boss, he said he couldn't be fucked doing the encounter and said we beat it. Then one of his gods decided to restore the world to what it once was. The plot made no sense at all.

I have no idea what was going on here, but I think the idea of a campaign where the whole world is about to be wiped out except for a single city is awesome. Everybody would be racing to that city, which only has so much space. Maybe when you get there, they're not allowing anyone else in. 

The Maid Did It

Once I played with a DM that was so excited to lead a game he prepared a campaign weeks beforehand. The bad thing? He had made a great big world, but made a linear story we were supposed to follow.

As you all know, players doesn't do what you've planned and this DM learned that the hard way. He thought we, the players, would figure out a mystery in the beginning of the campaign quite quickly (we didn't! It took ages, and you could see him getting irritated about it). 

It was something about a murdered noble. We were supposed to figure out it was the rival noble that was the murderer, but we suspected the angry old maid! So instead of declaring war with that noble, as our DM had planned, we rushed down to the kitchen and arrested the maid.

It's here the DM shuts down the game and says "if you're not going to play the way it's supposed to be played I will walk out of here!"

Fun guy....

I have run into many DMs who expect players to think the way they think. They'll set up a situation, and the only way out is the way they thought of. Even if the players come up with a viable alternative, the DM is baffled they can't think of the "simple" solution he or she had in mind.

I think you have to shed that mentality when DMing. You have to be loose and impartial. If the PCs come up with an idea that would work, let it work. If it throws off your adventure, ask for a 10 minute break so you can brainstorm enough material to fill the session.

The Dreaded DM PC

So I get invited to a Pathfinder campaign by a couple of friends, expecting the first meeting to be about making the characters and being introduced to the world.

We get an hour to make a character, all of them are bland and their only personality is their class. This one I admit might be a bit on me for not asking beforehand how they played the game.

Anyways, we get introduced to each other by the DM and given a quest to go explore a haunted mansion nearby. We get up to the mansion, it's the usual haunted mansion stuff, dead quiet, nothing there. We get up to one of the rooms and the door is locked so our skill rogue decides to lockpick for a collective of 2 hours of in-game time, about 2 minutes in real life time of continuous rolling the die, and finally get the door open. As we walk inside the door shuts behind us and giant maggots come out of the ground and walls, our gunslinger who is ranged dies immediately because there is nowhere to move in this tiny room, and the rest of us come out unscathed.

We decide to go back to town because we're down one member and the DM brings in a DM PC who's a Paladin, probably a couple of levels above us, with a Bag of Holding to babysit us because he made his encounter far too hard.

I talk to the other players and learn that this is commonplace for this GM, he loves killing his players and hates story.

The DM PC is the worst. I have never ever seen it done well. Just give the party a sidekick NPC to fill the role and let the players be the stars. You have enough to do as it is!

The Laugher

Played with a guy I found online, he was nice but his laugh was so loud and frequent that it would silence everything. It stopped game play every time. We'd have to wait 5 seconds for him to stop laughing, it was distracting and awful. I stopped playing with him after that.

Oh he was also just a boring DM.

Well. I don't even know what to say about that. Maybe ask the guy to mute himself when he laughs?

Avoid the pitfalls and carry on, my good friends!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Great Modron March - The Flower Infernal

We are just about done with this adventure! Tonight we tried some watermelon twizzlers, which tasted like a chemical bath.

The Party

(Jessie) Bidam - Platinum Dragonborn Fighter
(George) Theran - Drow Wizard 

Paladins in Gehenna

The heroes were sailing on the River Styx in Gehennea, using their planar compass to find a portal back to Sigil. Vaimish Crasad, the paladin lord, spotted them. Crasad and his knights were hunting the evil knights known as the Tacharim, who had a base in Gehenna.

Crasad directed the heroes to the portal and gave them the portal key - heartwine, a wine made with razorvine.

I had thought this actual adventure was very short, so I cooked up a lot of downtime stuff in Sigil. But it turns out I made too much and we didn't quite finish the adventure.

Revenge on Aach

Last time, the adventurers had been betrayed by the red-haired rogue. She'd left them to die in Undermountain. So the heroes set up a plot to find her and take her down. They staked out the locations of Sigil's three main information brokers - Rule-of-Three, Shemeshka and Estavan of the Planar Trade Consortium. They figured she'd try to sell the portal information to one of them - and they were right.

They confronted Aach in Shemeshka's gambling hall Fortune's Wheel. They chased her, tackled her in the street, and brought her to their home. They were able to bluff passersby to avoid trouble.

Then, once she was in their home and tied up.. they fed her to Theran's grey slaad!

The Heart of the Lady of Pain

During the extensive planning, the heroes met with Vrischika, the alu-fiend who ran the Curiosity Shoppe. She once again read Bidam's mind with detect thoughts and saw that Bidam now didn't want to kill the Lady of Pain, but she wanted to find the Lady of Pain's heart.

Vrischika told Bidam about an artifact known as The Heart of Aoskar, and told Bidam maybe he could create The Heart of The Lady of Pain and give it to her as a gift.

Things Bidam will need (this is a long term project):
  • The heart of a large, special creature.
  • The formula for a philter of love.Godsblood, which is found on the stone corpses of dead gods floating in the astral plane.
  • 3 sensory stones, each containing an experience that exemplifies the three traits that comprise love: Acceptance, Understanding and Appreciation.
Faction Meetings

Factol Erin Montgomery
Bidam visited the Civic Festhall and met the Factol of the Sensates - Erin Darkflame Montgomery. She's a major NPC in the Planescape boxed set, and I figured she'd have heard of Bidam's encounter with the slaad lord Renbuu and would want to hear about it.

After the meeting, Bidam tried to find a wizard to help create the Heart of the Lady of Pain, but got sidetracked. He met a woman, an NPC I took out of Planescape: Torment. Her name was Sarhava Vjhul. In Torment, Sarhava is really drunk and insults the heroes. She wears "translucent silk clothing" and exotic jewelry.

Bidam seduced this lady. I thought it might be cool for the heroes to have a wealthy friend, and I had cooked up a tragic backstory for her, but Bidam lives by the philosophy of "Hit it and Quit it" so poor Sarhava might never get the spotlight again.

The Free League

I based Rodina's treasures on this list from an old Dragon Mag
Meanwhile, Theran visited the home of the Free League - the Grand Bazaar. I wanted to show him what his faction was like and flesh out some NPCs. Stewart Seven Fingers sells spell components and is researching a cure for the burning wizard in the smoldering corpse bar. Rodina the rilmani makes monogrammed handkerchiefs. Theran bought some.

Browsing the Bazaar was Herion Lifegiver, the wizard from the very first session. He was shopping. I wanted him here so he could casually mention an evil sword he once made called Craggis. Craggis is involved in the last chapter of this adventure.

I also wanted Herion to be here in case the heroes wanted to pick his brain in both the curing of the burning wizard or to help create the Heart of the Lady of Pain. Theran did ask Herion about a possible cure for the burning wizard. Herion mentioned a ritual involving a decanter of endless water.

Theran wracked his brain, and remembered that a few sessions back a dabus had used a decanter to put out the fire in their home. The dabus also had a magic sword (Ffazablur, a sword that will play into the Chris Perkins adventure "Nemesis").

Return of the Modronoids

All of that stuff took up a lot of time. It was pretty late when I dropped the hook on them. It turns out Crasad and his knights had failed in their assault on the Tacharim. Greir, sister of the paladin lord, arrives at the heroes' home with modron parts fused to her. She begs the heroes to go to Gehenna to rescue her brother, and to burn the Tacharim stronghold to the ground.

She died hours later. The adventurers brought her to a temple, in the hopes she could be raised. Then they set out for Gehenna. Theran brought his grey slaad with him.

If you read the 5e monster manual, you'll see that slaads and modrons are now mortal enemies. That makes the slaad a very interesting NPC to have in this adventure, so I stepped up my efforts to keep the slaad in the spotlight. A lot of times, we all forget about animal companions and NPC sidekicks as an adventure progresses.


The adventurers went to the gate town of Torch, which has two gates to the plane of Gehenna:
  1. This portal is high in the air. You have to climb a tower and jump through. If you fail your DEX check, you fall and take 20d6 damage!
  2. This one is in the blood marshes, a disease-infested swamp.
The heroes decided to search the blood marshes for the portal. Both of them fell ill almost right away. They began to cough uncontrollably and suffer from the shakes. This disease gave them, among other things, a -2 to hit!

They searched for 6 hours and finally found the portal. They passed through, but realized that they were too sick to take on the Tacharim. They sought out the river Styx, summoned their demon pirate ship, and rested.

They ended up resting for four days due to horrible dice rolls. Skeleton pirate captain tended to them as they lay in bed. He sang them dirty pirate songs and put washcloths on their heads. The players found all of this to be hilarious and wondered if the Tacharim had finished their evil plan - whatever it was - while the heroes were out sick.

Attacking the Tacharim

Healed and rested, the heroes made their way to the Tacharim base. It was called the Flower Infernal. The building was a giant rotating silver flower surrounded by a moat. The bad guys could lower petals to create bridges that crossed the moat.

In the adventure, it is said that the best thing for the heroes to do is to take out a couple of Tacharim, put on their gear, and then creep through the base in disguise.

But our heroes had a slaad servant (Theran controlled him with a slaad control gem) who could teleport and turn intangible. Theran ordered his slaad to go thorough the base and find the prisoners, if there were any. He ordered it not to kill anything.

Off it went, teleporting over the moat and passing right through an exterior wall.

The heroes didn't know this, but there's a number of rooms with modrons in them in the Flower. Also, one bad guy is inhabiting the body of a modron! So the slaad began to explore, spotted modrons, and was filled with the urge to kill. But he'd been directly ordered not to kill, so the chaotic creature roared in rage.

This alerted the Tacharim to his presence. The slaad fled the base and ten Tacharim chased him out into Gehenna.

The adventurers decided to cross the petal-drawbridge while it was down.

Valran Reborn

Most of this adventure as published is just room descriptions of this building. Many of the rooms are pretty dull. I decided to run this in a cut-to-the-chase kind of way. I had all of the doors have labels, so the adventurers could see what the rooms were before they went in.

There's really three main encounters in here:
  1. Running into the modron, who is actually an old bad guy who has found a way to inhabit a modron body.
  2. The prison, where the knights have been turned into modronoids.
  3. The control panel of the whole base, which can be used to basically cause the place to self-destruct.
So the heroes entered the base and ran into the modron. He's one of the really freaky modron types. He's got tentacles and eyestalks.

Way back in session 5, the heroes had battled a wizard named Valran. Theran put his finger in the wizard's ear and cast firebolt, killing him.

The Tacharim found Valran's body and paid someone to cast a resurrection spell to bring him back to life. Valran continued his research, found a way to inhabit a modron body, and now is slowly being overcome by the modrons logical and lawful nature.

Last time Valran saw Theran, he was an elf. Now Theran is a dark elf. So at first, the modron/Valran assumed he was a member of the Tacharim. But once Theran spoke, Valran recognized his voice, went into a rage and attacked. He snatched the wizard up with his tentacles and threw him into walls over and over.

The heroes had a hard time hitting Valran's high AC. Eventually they bloodied him, causing oil/blood to spray out. They figured it might be flammable, and hit him with a burning hands spell. The modron, on fire, staggered toward a petal. It lowered.

Bidam immediately realized the petals were controlled by heat.

Theran was down to a single hit point. They decided to flee and rest. They'd have to come back later to try to rescue the paladin lord and his knights.

Click here for more of the assault on the Tacharim.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Great Modron March - Sidetracked

Paellistra and Cryvistin
Tonight we plowed through another chapter of The Great Modron March, which continues to be thoroughly enjoyable. This one actually features a trip to the legendary Forgotten Realms dungeon known as Undermountain. It has some really old school, deadly traps.

I have continued to plan out this campaign, and right now this is the plan once we finish this book we're going to do:
  • A session based on exploring the actual dead gods floating in the astral sea, based on a Dragon magazine article by Monte Cook. There's just too much cool stuff in there. I must put it to use!
  • "Umbra" by Chris Perkins, a well-regarded Planescape adventure.
  • Dead Gods, the sequel to The Great Modron March. This is an entire book of scenarios and will take many sessions to complete.
  • "Nemesis", another Chris Perkins Planescape adventure centered around a trip to the abyssal planes that mariliths come from.
The Party

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

Last time: Our heroes had gone to Limbo. Bidam the dragonborn had his scales changed from black to platinum. Theran the elf was transformed so he appeared to be a drow, with black skin and white hair.

Downtime in Sigil and Zerthadlun

We played through three months of downtime.

Crafting: Theran had been awarded magic item formulas by the githzerai. He could make javelins of lightning and tan bags of tricks. He got to work making javelins to sell in the Curiosity Shoppe owned by Vrischika the alu-fiend. It took 20 days per javelin.

Selling Magic Items: We tried out these rules. Basically, you roll an INT check to find a buyer, then you roll on a chart to see how much they offer. Being that Theran paid so much money to create the item, he needed a roll of 90+ to find a buyer willing to pay enough for him to make a profit. This actually worked out fine for him. He sold two javelins.

This is definitely Theran's thing. In real life, Theran's player George is very good with financial stuff.

Killing the Lady of Pain: Last time, Bidam had tried to use a wish to kill the lady of pain. While that was not possible, his mind was flooded with information on how to kill the lady. He learned most of the stuff that I wrote in my Guide to the Lady of Pain.

Bidam had an interesting idea. He learned that the Lady had a hole where her heart was, and that it was the source of all pain and anguish in the multiverse (material I gleaned from Troy Denning's novel "Pages of Pain"). Bidam thought maybe he could either find the lady of pain's heart, or find someone to create one for her.

This could somehow be tied to the heart of aoskar, an actual artifact. Maybe it could be used as a prototype.

Vrischika used detect thoughts to read the minds of the heroes , and was utterly horrified to find out that Bidam had it in for the Lady of Pain. The alu-fiend strongly urged Bidam to drop the whole thing.
Training in Zerthadlun: The heroes also spent 4 hours a day in a monastery in Zerthadlun, training under a githzerai monk named Belthomis. We did a skill challenge training montage of the heroes breaking boards, meditating, striking a foe while blindfolded, that kind of thing. At the end, they passed their test and gained a permanent bonus to initiative.

Bidam's Platinum: People of Sigil and elsewhere were in awe of Bidam's platinum scales. Some thought he was a child of Bahamut, god of good dragons.

Theran's Dark Elf Skin: Theran, conversely, ran into some problems. The adventurers went to The Smoldering Corpse (the tavern from Planescape Torment with the floating guy who is on fire in it) with some NPC friends. A drow priestess was there, having just bought slaves.

She spotted Theran. Drow males are subservient in Drow society. She called him over to her table and began to question him about what drow house he was with. It took mere seconds for a bar fight to break out, with her trying to use her fang whip to punish him for his insolence.

A bunch of Mercykillers jumped in, smashing people with chairs. Her two recently-bought slaves tried to make a run for it. In the end, the drow fled through a portal with her slaves from whence she came.

Let's Go To Carceri

Aach the Traitor
With all that downtime stuff out of the way, we got into the adventure. It turns out that the modrons had used some new, unknown portal to exit the plane of Carceri. The location of a new portal was valuable information in Sigil, especially when it's in the prison plane. Vrischika told the heroes about it, and they decided to go check it out.

Aach the Traitor: The adventurers appeared in Carceri and met a red-haired rogue named Aach. The heroes took a quick liking to her, as I did a really bad irish accent for her voice which was described as "half-Canadian".

The deal with Aach is that she is going to betray the heroes in this adventure, leaving them to die so she could sell the information and keep all the money to herself.

Aach has a hot air balloon made out of skin..! The heroes rode in it to another "orb" of carceri that the modrons had flown to. The modron tracks led to a pool of quicksand, which was indeed a portal.

The quicksand portal brought our heroes from Carceri to the Forgotten Realms! Undermountain is a vast dungeon underneath the city of Waterdeep, built by the insane mage Halaster Blackcloak.

Harpies: They came upon a room with a pair of harpies in it. The harpies sang and entranced Bidam. The harpies did a bit of damage before being slain.

The Drow Priestess: In the next room was a drow sitting on a throne, guarded by giant spiders. She said her name was Paellistra. The heroes chatted with her a bit and were honest in explaining what had happened.

Paellistra questioned Theran about what drow house he was with, and this time Theran was more diplomatic in his response.

Paellistra warned them that this was "her" section of Undermountain, and that is was quite deadly.

The Pillar: There's a huge cavern (Area H - "The Pillar of Gates" on the map). In it is a tall pillar/tower, which has seven sections. Kind of like a vertical stack of cans of tuna. Some of the sections rotate. Muddy modron tracks lead right into the door at the base of the tower.

Aach figures out the tower's deal right away: Each section of the tower has a portal to a plane, and the portals are powered by the rotation of the sections. She notices that the top two sections are no longer rotating, and she realizes that the magic of the tower is waning and it will soon stop working completely.

The Guardian: There's a guardian of the tower - Cryvistin. In the book, he's a vampire. That's too powerful for my 4th level heroes, so I made him a wizard who was cursed by Halaster to stay and protect the place.

Cryvistin gave the heroes some BS story and cast fly on himself. He asked them to follow him and pass a "test" of his. He was actually leading them into a really nasty trap.

The Trap: This is brutal. It goes like this:
  1. The heroes follow Cryvistin into a corridor. Bats fly out of a side door and harass them.
  2. Just as the bats fly out, a pit trap pens up beneath the heroes. No saving throw! They just fall in.
  3. The pit trap is 30 feet deep. The lid closes.
  4. A ball of energy appears and begins zapping the PCs, doing damage and draining their constitution with every hit.
  5. The ball of energy cannot be harmed in any way!
I knew this was a really messed up trap, and I wouldn't have used it on most groups. But these players are laid back and they trust me.

They climbed on each other's shoulders and used a ten foot pole to open the lid. Then Aach climbed up and dropped a rope for the other two to climb out, while the ball of energy zapped poor Bidam.

Cryvistin's Really Red Room: Angry, the heroes had seen Cryvistin go through a door further down the hall. They went in. The front area is full of black curtains that obscure your view, and once you move them, you see that everything in Cryvistin's room is the same shade of red. This effect is so disorienting that PCs get a -1 to all die rolls while in the room. I found this to be a very amusing idea.

Cryvistin decimated the party with a cone of cold spell, dropping Theran. Aach and Bidam rushed him and cut him down. Theran was healed with a potion, but the party was hurt badly.

Cryvistin had a nice pile of treasure, including a red spellbook loaded with spells written in light red ink on dark red pages.

The Pillar of Gates: The adventurers realized they needed to get into that pillar, as they were hurting badly. Getting up from one rotating section to the next was tricky. The hole in one section's ceiling had to line up with the hole in the floor of the next section in order for the PCs to pass through.

So basically what happened is that Aach got the PCs up to the 4th section, then heard a rumbling noise indicating that the section was about to stop rotating, and she jumped back down into the 3rd section, shouting "See you, suckers!".

The heroes were baffled. They had no idea what just happened. There was a good chance they would have been stuck in there forever, but they realized that the section above them was still rotating. They only had one choice to escape - go up there and go through the portal in there.

Gehenna: They appeared in a plane that reeked of sulfur. Nearby was a river with screaming faces in it - The River Styx. They called forth the demon pirate ship Beham's Cyst, and sailed around, utterly baffled how to get home.

They eventually realized they had a mimir that could tell them where they were, and a planar compass that could direct them to the nearest portal.

They headed for the portal, determined to get back to Sigil before Aach could get there. They wanted to ambush Aach in the city and get revenge....

Continue on and read how the heroes tried to get their revenge on Aach.