DM Resources: Running Your First Game

Watching D&D livestreams like ‘Critical Role‘, ‘Dice, Camera, Action!‘, or ‘Acquisitions Inc‘, can make Dungeon Masters seem like masters of storytelling. The deep, nuanced and colourful worlds that Mercer, Perkins and Holkins have created are as intimidating as they are immersive and awe inspiring. So obviously, as a brand new DM, this is the cost of entry – a complete world, filled with meaningful and interesting NPCs, each with engaging backstories and unique voices.

Except, no. That’s ridiculous.

“How Do I Get Started?”

Getting started in DMing is as easy as getting started as a player. Really. Why? Here’s why.

Simplify the rules.

Dungeons & Dragons is by far the most popular role playing game in the world, followed closely by systems such as Pathfinder (itself based on D&D’s third edition), Call of Cthulu, Shadowrun, and many other games. The common factor between these games is the relative complexity of the rules. Dungeons & Dragons basic rules, for example, are 177 pages long, over two PDFs, while their complete core set trifecta is close to 1,000 pages. That is a ridiculous amount of reading to play make-believe. Thankfully, there are other rule sets on the market that can give you valuable DMing experience, without having to remember the rule for every little thing that will happen.

Index Card RPG

The bestselling brainchild of Hankerin Ferinale, of Runehammer Games (née Drunkens&Dragons) fame, ICRPG is an amazing game for DMs who want to master the game design element of the craft. My full review of the game’s first edition (the second edition was recently released, and contains a tonne more content) can be found here, but I want to quickly summarise why I think it should be one of the first games you look at before hitting the table.

  1. It’s short.
    ICRPG’s core rules cover about 6 pages, and the very basic rules are free (click here). It’s an incredibly short read, and the complete rulebook tops out at just over 200 pages long. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that, rather than the traditional American Letter size of RPG books, this tome is 6″x9″, and mostly written in a larger font, making it easier to read at the table. It also contains all of the rules on character creation, two world primers, monsters galore, and enough adventures to keep you going for a couple of months.
  2. It’s malleable.
    More than any other game I have encountered, ICRPG is designed to built by you, the DM. This might sound scary at first, but the rules outline the creative process, giving you the tools to go and build monsters, traps and even whole new rules for yourself. Using Hearts and tags, it gives you, the DM, the means to build anything on the fly. Need a new monster? Choose a dice modifier, a number of Hearts, and whatever you feel it’s defining feature it, and go hog wild. Need a troll? Well, how about 2 Hearts, +4 to all rolls, a club which deals Weapon Effort, and a vomit attack that all CLOSE characters have to avoid with a Dex check, but that can only be used once every 1d4 rounds.
  3. It’s quick,
    More complex games can very easily get bogged down. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it can be difficult as a new DM to know how to make these points interesting. ICRPG doesn’t have that problem. Keeping things in a traditional boardgame turn order, the action keeps moving along, and it is absolutely possible to run an adventure that would take weeks in D&D in the course of an afternoon.
  4. That damned Game Mastery section.
    I don’t care if you played Tunnels & Trolls in the ’70s, or don’t know what RPG stands for, the ICRPG Game Mastery section is a must read. It breaks down the very essence of running a role playing game, and all of the concepts within it are system neutral. Reading this will make you a better DM, whether or not you ever use anything in it.

Dungeon World

Dungeon World is another small press title, itself a mod of the Apocalypse World system. The value of Dungeon World, in my honest opinion, is not so much in the rules themselves (though they are incredible), but more in the collaborative nature of character and world creation.

While the rules are free, I don’t recommend going to them first. Check out videos of the game being played, and you’ll see a master class in how to DM well. To quickly summarise, though:

  1. Always ask questions.
    One of your players decides they would like to be an elf. The very first question you ask? “What are elves like?“. Well, in this world, elves are four feet tall, with scaled skin, and eyes which burn like embers. Their affinity for magic was stripped for them in eons past by a vengeful god, and they have strode to rekindle their arcane nature ever since.

    By asking that question you have done three things. 1 – You gave the player creative control, meaning that immediately they have a clear idea of what their place in the world is, and what their culture looks like. 2 – You found out what the player wants. Over the course of the campaign you know that the elf character wants to rekindle the arcane spark which has long laid dead. Gives them opportunities to move towards that goal, and to either succeed or fail in it. 3 – Your player has built a part of your world, and that world’s history, for you.

    Never stop asking those questions. Of course, make sure they hold a consistent logic, but allow your players to build the world around themselves, and use the things they tell you to craft adventures they will immediately engage with with ease.

  2. “Draw a map, but leave plenty of blank space”.
    One of the bits of DMing I love most is crafting worlds. Talomire is one of my true loves in life. But even this world, designed to be published for other DMs to use, is filled with blank space for players and DMs to fill.

    Draw yourself an outline of a map (or check out some of the resources below), and give it one or two major landmarks that you would like to use; a mountain range, a natural port, or a major city for example. During the first session, when players are creating their characters, and you’re asking questions, discuss what the world looks like. What is the climate? Who lives here? Where is the town you grew up in, and what is it called? Fill in the map over the course of the campaign, through the answers your players give, and the adventures you lead them on.

Outsource your prep.

Preparing a game can take time. For some of my more serious games I’ve spent tens of hours prepping a single 2-4 hour session. You do NOT need to do that. Prep enough for a single night of gameplay, around 3-6 encounters or rooms, and have enough content to one side to allow you to improv a game (trust me, DMing is like herding cats) if you need to. The resources I discuss below are all things I use at my table all the time, and I highly recommend you make the most of them.

  1. Predrawn maps.
    Drawing maps is not easy. Crafting dungeons or towns that have character, while still making sense, is time consuming work. Of course, there’s no need to use maps at all, you can simply mind map how the rooms in your dungeon link together, or how the buildings in a town relate to one another. If you do want to use maps, however, check out Dyson’s Dodecahedron. With over 500 incredible maps, there is enough here to never need to draw a map in your life. I regularly print out six or seven of them, just incase my players decide to ignore what I’ve prepared!
  2. Index Cards/Magic the Gathering.
    The Index Card RPG Volumes (seperate, but related to, the ruleset I mentioned above) are a great resource for a number of reasons. They’re fantastic tabletop resources, providing visual aides for players, but they’re also an important adventure-crafting tool. Here’s an exercise. Draw three cards, one after the other. The first card denotes the location, the second the obstacle, and the third the goal.

    I drew a bear trap, a waterfall, and a cave entrance which looks like the gaping maw of a dragon. So, my location is a beartrap. What could that mean? Well, the location could be a trap, somewhere we were lured by those who mean use harm. It could be a hunt, one we were invited upon by a local noble. It could be a torture chamber, from which we must escape to our freedom. The waterfall could be a literal waterfall, one we must cross to achieve our goal, or it could be a metaphorical one; a torrent of enemies we need to avoid or dispatch. The gaping maw, to me, dictates an entrance to something far more dangerous beyond.

    There. That could be a full night of gameplay, where the waterfall is at the end of a river you have to navigate on your escape from prison, or it could be the first room of a dungeon, where you have to escape your bonds and flee down a waterfall into the prison proper. Magic the Gathering cards work just as well. Imagine drawing Sulpher Falls, Jace the Mind Sculptor, and Sword of Feast and Famine, for example.

    Actually, that M:tG example was pretty pricy…anyway!

  3. Two Minute Tabletop and Paper Minis
    Miniatures and battlegrids are not compulsory. Theatre of the mind is a wonderful way of telling stories, and one I have enjoyed playing and running for years. If you enjoy tactical combat, or want to take some of the weight of remembering where everyone is in relation to one another, you needn’t buy 3d minis and craft beautiful maps. Paper minis are incredible. Cheap, easy to make and customise, and free with each ICRPG book and volume, they are a great choice for any DMing just starting out. The simpler the aesthetic the better, too, as it allows players to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, with the mini simply informing their interpretation of the character or creature.

    As for maps, Two Minute Tabletop is a goldmine for battle maps, and a few other bits and bobs. Best printed on A2, it’s easy enough to have these printed on decent paper, and kept in a roll tube for when you need them at the table.

Closing thoughts.

I hope this post has cleared up some of the mystique of DMing. Rather than the labour-intensive slog it can often appear, I like to see it more as an improvisational story, built on the back of the desires your players have voiced, and where game mechanics serve the story and get out of the way, rather than becoming the defining element of a session.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or complaints, fire me a comment or an email (sundaynightdm@gmail.com), and I’ll make sure to get back to you!

Until next time though, thank you!

Chris.

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Welcome to Talomire

“Three generations have passed since King Hinton I ascended to the throne, fresh from his brutal campaign against his half brother and triumphant return down the Kings’ Road. King Hinton II, son of King Albert IV now sits upon the Autumn Throne in Arantal, his courtiers and clerics whispering foul poison in his ears and bending this weak-willed cumberworld to their own, selfish desires…” 

Brandon sat, seething. The three adventurers sat across from him, their brigandine ancient and decrepit, their steel helms either too small or too large for their young heads. Not one of them looked old enough to bother a maid, never mind  wield the spears and axes they carried. Hell, one of them looked a maid, not that it’d be the first time he’d seen a young lass flee the beating of her father or husband for a life of coin and violence. He looked them over one last time, his eyes lingering on the smallest figure with the hooded face. He could guess that one’s past, but knew better than to ask this close to Terracrios…

“Listen. History is all well and good, but all you need know is that a man with documents and supplies destined for the Northman’s cause leaves early on the morrow. I need fit and able escorts for this cart, and you three are all I have to hand. We expect no trouble, but the Kings’ Road is never a safe place this far north. It’s three days travel to Northtower. Two nights you’ll send camped on the road, one night you’ll likely be whoring your way through Low Briar’s wenches. Half payment now, half on arrival. How does that sound to you?”

Brandon knew the answer before he even finished the question. Still, even with these three ‘adventurers’ standing guard, he prayed to almighty Barachiel and all his angels that the Kings’ Road would be safe. He laughed mirthlessly. That would never be the case in the Northwild…

How Will You Make Your Mark?

Talomire is a low fantasy setting designed for use in any RPG system. It is a world where magic is outlawed, dangerous and secretive. It is a world where Kings command with an iron fist, while nobles and bishops rule from the shadows. It is a world of danger, intrigue and opportunity, where bold adventurers can seek fame and, more commonly, fortune. Seen as threats, as much as they are defenders or saviours, the adventuring parties of Talomire work for themselves, their loyalty only lasting as long as the coin does. Some fight for more philanthropic reasons, but they are rare and last only a short time. Infamy is all that awaits those with careers worth speaking of, those careers that don’t end at the hands of some terrible creature, in a long forgotten crypt…

Getting Involved.

Talomire may be my own creation, but it is ours to build. If travelling the dirt roads of the Northwilds sounds exciting; if walking the fertile plains and hills of the Terracrios stirs the soul; if the politicking of Arantal, or the fugitive-seeking patrols of The Spine set your imagination ablaze, then take my world and make it your own. Tell your stories, build your towns, rule your Baronies, or delve into the secrets of Talomire’s ancient past. Build the world with your fellow players and storytellers.

Learn More.

At present, Talomire is represented solely in the Talomire Campaign Primer, available for free on DriveThruRPG (click HERE to head there now), with the Talomire podcast expanding on the elements in that document in-game. This podcast is available on Apple iTunes (linked just above), as well as Google Play, Anchor.fm, and YouTube.

Over the next year, and hopefully longer, I aim to release more detailed sourcebooks for those of you who want to know more about the culture, geography and history, as well as ‘canonocal’ adventures set in Talomire. The first of these adventures “The Barrows of Northwild” is already well underway, and should be out soon. On top of this, the Campaign Primer is an ever-evolving document, with the information, art and background I feel gives DMs and players the best insight into my view of Talomire.

Please, Feedback!

I love to hear back from you guys. A recent survey I sent around to my customers directly led to two things; 1) development of a History of Talomire, from the point of view of someone in the world, called “The Death of Magic”. This is designed to be used by both players and DMs to help bring everybody into the same, shared, universe, as well as giving them a springboard for their own creativity. 2) I am currently working on splitting the Campaign Primer into a DMs document and a Players’ document. This will allow me to give players more thematic, in-world information and maps, not all of which will be entirely accurate, while giving DMs unfiltered access into Talomire’s ancient past, the dangers lurking in the unknown parts of the world, as maps with locations no man or woman has ever seen…or at least survived to tell of…

If you want to be a part of this, then please email me at sundaynightDM@gmail.com, or follow me on Instagram (@chris_hately), Twitter (@SundayNightDM), or Facebook, and tell me all about your character’s exploits, the town they were born and raised in, and the people and creatures they’ve met.

Last Words.

Thank you. Whether you spent a fiver on the Campaign Primer, got it for free, or haven’t even checked it out yet, the very fact that you’ve read this far means the world to me. Having people respect my content, often enough to call me out on what I can be doing better, is what makes this all worth doing, and I truly hope it continues. So thank you, and I hope to meet you in the taverns of Northtower…hopefully before the Kaimel Aioki returns from ancient slumber…

The Art of Adventure Prep

In my time running D&D games, there is one constant that has plagued me – bad prep notes. Try as I might, getting all the information I need into a form that leaves me able to accurately run the game I planned has eluded me, leading to one of two outcomes; a game where I feel strangled by my notes, or an entirely improvised game that is fun to play, but overly complex to build over multiple sessions.

Here, I’m hoping to spend some time critiquing my various prep methods. I hope this is useful to you (and myself), planning games in future. Also, please let me know if you prepare your notes differently. I’d love to learn from you guys too!

The DM Folder.

Of all the methods I’ve used, this is by far my favourite, but by the far most unwieldy. In the Sunday Night games I ran (after which this blog is named), I had a lever arch folder split into various sections. These ranged from a section devoted to the city of Waterdeep (maps, charts for shops, detailed descriptions of areas of interest, etc), a section devoted to NPCs (name scratch sheets, stat blocks for NPCs the characters had met, or could meet), and a section devoted entirely to pre-built adventures and spare maps.

This method was wonderful for a number of reasons. I had everything at my fingertips, all in bullet pointed format and easy to rattle off. I could make notes to my heart’s content and print off additional material when I needed. Flicking to the place I needed was made easy by good sectioning, and good labelling. The method’s huge downfall is the sheer amount of space it takes up. Before even beginning to worry about DM screens, dice trays, handouts, minis, 3d terrain and maps, and the rest of those things that we DMs love to use, the majority of our gaming table was dominated by my folder, even on a 6’x4′ table.

This method is something I use outside of the game now. My Talomire setting is wrapped up entirely in one folder, giving me all the resources I need to build adventures and plan nights of gameplay. It’s not something I can use at the table anymore, unfortunately.

The DM Journal

This single item is responsible for the vast majority of my RPG related creativity over the last few months. Constantly carrying a journal that is dedicated to maps, concepts, mechanics and lore means that so much of what would once have been lost to the aether has instead been codified and kept. The rampant creativity, the ability to riff on ideas over time, the ability to come back to ideas and maps down the line; these are all invaluable, and I recommend it unreservedly.

When it comes to running games from a journal you gain a lot of the advantages of a DM folder, but without the ability to properly organise it. It also requires you to be disciplined in your creativity, writing what needs to be written in order. With the way my mind works, this makes it difficult to run anything beyond a one-shot from my journal. Truthfully, this is entirely down to my own lack of discipline. My second journal, I’m hoping, will be much more organised, but I’m not really too hopeful.

My Notebook

With my latest campaign I decided to try and combine the two methods I’ve tried before. I bought a ringbound notebook and took notes on the published adventure I was running. Edge of Darkness is a free Dark Heresy adventure, designed in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. I took bullet point notes on each of the areas, cutting out the descriptive elements from the adventure and highlighting all the elements of that section that I felt were needed. My issue with published adventures has always been making them my own. Reading from the book I feel I need to keep to their vision, and as a result I stop improvising and creating. With this adventure I felt I was able to tear out the things I needed, shave off the parts I felt were surplus, and really make the adventure my own.

The problems I found were mainly due to my failings as a DM, rather than the method. I found myself reading the descriptive text, rather than using it as a guide. As such my descriptions were two-dimensional and lacking a certain something to really make the city immersive. Which leads to…

Prep Moving Fowards

Moving forwards I have two games that I’m planning, and I’m planning on preparing each game in different ways.

  1. Warhammer 40,000
    My 40k campaign is designed to be an open world, investigative game. As a DM that means I have to have all of my information in one place. If the players decide they have a lead on one planet that leads to a completely different planet, then I need to be able to flip to that information. The idea is to condense all of the preparation I need to run the campaign into bullet point format, and run from a ringbound notebook. Each NPC will have a specific motivation, and their movements will be jotted in sections at the back so I can keep track of them. Rather than large block of descriptive text, I plan on filling the book with artwork that depicts the scene I want to portray, with notes on each of the five senses to add flavour (no pun intended).

    A lot of my conceptual preparation for this campaign will be done in my journal, then  moved across to the notebook fully formed.

  2. The Monthly Brew Dog Game
    The Brew Dog game is going to be made up of a series of one-shot games. As such, this game will be run entirely from my notebook. A single map, with each room named to give flavour, and a quick rundown of the mechanics of the encounter within will cover a double spread or two, allowing me to improvise as much as I want without having to worry too much about continuity.

Final Words

I hope any of this is helpful. I plan (when my PC decides to start working again) on making a video detailing how I prep adventures, which should make a lot of what’s written here make more sense. I’ll post that up here when it’s done.

If you’ve got any thoughts, fire me a comment or a message. I’d love to hear how you prepare your games, so please teach me your ways!

Cheers!

The Chamber Of Red Fang

“Birthed in the belly of a demon, an ancient and terrible blade awakens. Across Alfheim heroes are drawn to the depths of Dur Moro, their Doom to seek amongst those ruins of old…”

001

1) The Pool of Lost Heroes, and the Tree of Death.

A dark pool fills most of the cavern. The water is stagnant, but shows no sign of the life associated with that state. Totally opaque, it reflects the scene like a mirror, giving no clue as to what lies beneath the surface. A tall willow tree rises from the centre of the water, it’s drooping branches terminating beneath the glassy surface. It’s leaves are grey, but show no sign of loss or decay. The stench of undeath is cloying…

As the party look into the pool, one of them makes eye contact with their reflection. The eyes begin to dim, becoming glassy. The flesh around the sockets shrinks and turns to grey. A dead face breaks the surface, staring idiotically into oblivion. Above, the willow begins to move, it’s branches rising from the deep. With them come the bodies of lost heroes, terrible unlife given them by powers beyond comprehension…

2) Hidden Depths and Terrible Sigils.

Darkness. Complete darkness is all the party can see in the depths. Like an axe wound dealt by a vengeful god, the crevasse goes on forever. A single, sturdy looking but ancient bridge crosses from one side to the other. Beyond that a huge sigil sits in the cavern floor. The angles are deeply wrong, and seem to shift and change, subtly, before the eyes. The whole circle is carved of red stone, the deep channels running downhill to the centre, each one of them stained a deeper red. The circle demands blood, drawn by the giver’s own hand, and it will have it’s red toll.

3) Tunnel of Cracks and Circle of Stones.

A narrow ledge leads to a broken corridor. The rocks hold tentatively, and any wrong move could cause a devastating cave in…

Beyond, a circle of stones ring the figure of a dwarf. He breathes not, but he lives. As his eyes open, he sees you. He knows you. He cannot let you leave. Doom and Ruin are his weapons, Fate wielded as a blade. The future is his gift, and his burden.

4) The Chamber of Red Fang.

You look on, unsure, as your friend and companion walks certainly towards the sigil. Standing at it’s apex, directly in front of the wall behind it, he lifts his head. “Devour me, Lord; for your queen, She Who Seeks Ruin, I shall be your Fang, and you strong arm!” From nowhere a red, ethereal blade flashes into existence, as your friend raises his arm. As you cry out in anguish, he drives the blade deep into his own neck, tearing it out with gurgle of horror and awe. He falls, his life blood leaking out and filling the channels of the sigil around him. As the life finally fades from his eyes, the wall before him shifts and dissolves to nothing.

A clear pool of water, deep enough to submerge the tallest Hillman sits in front of the entrance to this new cavern. Behind it, on a tall plinth, is an altar. A body, wrapped in a black cloak and holding a res-bladed greatsword lies in state atop it. As you enter, the body shifts, then turns and sits up. Rising, it descends the stairs, stopping at the pool. Your watch as the friend you just watched die removes the cloak, flinging it into the pool, and raises the greatsword in a patronising salute to you. The cloak begins to sink, the water around it turning a deep crimson.

As your friend stalks towards you, you see a shape rise from the pool, now filled entirely with blood. Soon, a tall, lithe figure stands before you in a black robe. No body is visible beneath the hood, except for a trail of blood dribbling sickly from where the creature’s maw would be. One decrepit, decaying hand holds a jet black obelisk that seems to absorb the light around it. A red aura links this thing and your friend. Together they attack, and desperate battle is joined.

The Hall of the Tarrasque

“You enter the dank cave entrance, damp dripping down the walls. The passageway seems to go on forever, extending away into the darkness, your steps echoing into oblivion. Finally, after what seems like hours, you see a dim light reflected against the tunnel wall. You reach the opening, and look out into the vast cavern…”

The Map

Hall of the Tarrasque

The Hall of the Tarrasque

The Hall of the Tarrasque

The hall consists of six areas, each designed to test the party in some way. I’ll give a brief description of each room, but for more details on how I ran the mechanics, check out my Patreon page; the full run down will be up there by the end of the week.

Area 1

Area one consists of a narrow ledge, overlooking a terrifying drop, and a large, but empty, room containing two levers. Each of these levers open one of the secret doors which block areas 3 and 4.

Area 2

Area 2 is simply a circular, stone room. When the levers in area 1 are pulled, however, two large stones ascend into the ceiling, revealing areas 3 and 4.

Area 3

Area 3’s major feature is a deep, wide pool, riddled with semi-sentient vines. Deep in the pool is a melon-sized sphere, which glows blue. If a party member enters the pool, the vines attack and hold the player beneath the water…

Area 4

Area 4 is the scene from Temple of Doom; an altar stands on a plinth, with a melon-sized yellow sphere sat on top of it. The altar is trapped, and releases a rolling boulder which will hit players in its way, finally blocking the exit from the room as it begins to fill with sand…

Area 5

Area 5 is the ‘bridge’. The bridge consists of two posts with a small dent in each, extends a few feet over the abyss, then ends. The abyss itself contains an antimagic field. The field is dissipated, and the bridge completed, when the two orbs from areas 3 and 4 are placed on the two posts.

Area 6

As the antimagic field dissipates, the monster hidden high in the cavern awakes. The party must flee to across the broken masonry and rubble of the procession, and make it down the stairs, into the dungeon proper, all while the Tarrasque brings parts of the ceiling down on them, eventually stepping into the cavern and seeking the party out…

Further Thoughts

This cavern acts well as the entrance to a larger dungeon, and is based entirely around skill challenges, and thinking outside the box. I increased the difficulty, not by increasing the DC of the challenges (this would render the map subject to luck, which can be frustrating), but by utilising timers to give a feeling of suspense, and to focus the players’ thinking. Encourage the players’ creativity, and reward it.

I hope this gives you some ideas for running this map, or similar encounters, yourself, and hit me up with how it went! Until then, cheers!

Draft Cartography: Lair of the Xanathar

The final arc of the game I ran in the Forgotten Realms involved the party (11 people in total, at that point) returning to Waterdeep for Midsummer. In the midst of the festivities, Dexter Halebrakt, the renowned illusionist of Baldur’s Gate, displayed his incredible skills. As the show ended, the screaming started. The children of the Sea Ward were gone…

A series of investigations, fights and Skullport-related shenanigans the party fought Dexter, in the illusory guise of a two-headed, golden dragon, and the Ulitharid controlling him. After a brutal fight that the party won, they found the children, only to be approached by a Beholder, representing the Xanathar organisation of Skullport…

The Premise of the Dungeon.

This dungeon was designed to cap off an adventure through the middle layers of the Undermountain, specifically Wyllowood. The Beholder (known as Altas Verdax) is looking to overthrow the leadership of the Xanathar, and needs to clear house in order to do it. Fights, danger and moral quandaries ensue, but that’s not why we’re here. The Xanathar’s Lair is a dungeon level designed to test and kill characters, as befits one of the most powerful Beholders in Faerûn. It had trick doors, a sea hag, and a blinded Beholder.

The Dungeon.

The Lair of the Xanathar

My original notes and sketches of the dungeon.

Rather than brush over every aspect of the dungeon, I’d like to focus on three encounters within the dungeon:

The Sea Hag’s Lair

Immediately after one of my favourite traps (regular readers may recognise the ‘one-player-trips-the-plate-then-the-next-player-gets-trapped-between-two-walls’ concept…this is the dungeon I designed it for!) is a flooded cavern, in almost complete darkness. Broken stone stairs lead into the water, too deep to wade through, too high to keep your head above water. This is the Sea Hag’s lair. Now, of course, for eleven level 5/6 players, a CR 2 sea hag isn’t much of a challenge. In obscured conditions, underwater, with very few air pockets, however…

The intention here is to have the players approach the hag secretly, in very small numbers, taking out the hag, then leading the other party members through the flooded cavern. I designed the encounter to test the tactical aptitude of the party, and involved a creepy, evocative monster with enough magical ability to flounder magical attempts to remove the water. It’s about as simple as that, really.

The Blinded Beholder

Of the three encounters, this is my favourite, and the one I want to focus on the most. The concept is to introduce the party to the mechanics of the Beholder, a creature with the ability to annihilate them if they go about things badly, in a way that allows them some degree of leeway.

The room is large, round, and dimly lit. In the centre, chained to a plinth, is a large, scaled Beholder with a milky white eye, rocking fitfully in it’s sleep. Hiding in the shadows are tiny Beholders, dreamt into existence by their larger kin. This is the central mechanic of the room; the central Beholder creates enemies for the party in reaction to various stimuli.

The room contains a number of Gazers, and a new Gazer comes into existence beside the Beholder randomly, assuming nothing else has happened. The Gazers watch the party, and only attack if they see an opportunity to gain an unfair advantage. As the party make their way through the room, they roll stealth checks against the Beholder’s passive perception. If they fail, the Beholder lashes out in it’s sleep. Randomly choose an eye ray, then make an attack roll at disadvantage. If the attack hits, then the ray has hit its target; resolve the ability as usual, focussed on the relevant character. If it misses, then ignore the rays effect. If the party attack the Beholder, there is a 50/50 chance that it spawns a Death Kiss. The end goal is to reach the doorway leading to a riddle, then take the item disgorged from the riddle area to a second doorway in order to escape (PS; I’m a big fan of not letting my players know if they got the riddle right. Hand them a magic item either way, just make it cursed, or otherwise bad, if they get the riddle wrong).

The trick here is to be stealthy, but escort the characters who can solve the riddle, all while trying to avoid tiny Beholder-kin and eye rays. It’s also a good way to beat out murder hobos –  a blinded Beholder is one thing. Multiple CR 10 Death Kisses, on the other hand, with no real way to escape? Nah thanks.

Xanathar – The Death Tyrant

The idea of Beholders dreaming kinda caught me. Any individual so afraid of their enemies that they build the ridiculous, convoluted dungeon we’re looking at must be terrified of their own demise. It makes sense, then, that they would limit visitors, or cut them out entirely. It turns out that Beholders who are obsessed with their own death become Death Tyrants. That’s kind’ve it, really. The big reveal – the Xanathar is not the entity they were expecting, but something else entirely.

Conclusions

I hope this dungeon has given you some ideas for yourself. The dungeon is by no means complete. The story arc was abandoned when I split my D&D group and handed both parts off to other DMs who were in the group, but it was a very formative dungeon for me, one that has bled into several things I’ve written and developed since. If you’ve got questions about anything else in the dungeon (like the ziggurat with the 50ft drop where you have to save against broken bones – something I flipping love), feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line. If there’s enough support for it I might even do up a proper map and PDF, if I get the time.

Anyway, cheers guys!