DM Resources – Education

To kick off this short series of ‘articles’ (I shudder to use the word; it makes me feel like I’m weighed down by my almost-three years of 5e DMing experience…) on the various DM resources I use, I thought I’d tackle the topic of education and self-improvement. As the DM it is often our choices that decide whether or not our players had fun. The words we choose to describe the player’s surroundings, options and action; the monsters we choose to throw in their way; the plot twists we choose to spring upon them. Every moment we make choices that can make or break the fun your players are having.

Now while that’s all very dramatic, and not always 100% true, it should get the point across that your job is, surprise, surprise, difficult. And if your job is difficult, you’re always likely to get something wrong from time to time. That’s where these resources come in. They are designed to teach you the lessons of what must account to almost 100 years of D&D experience. Watch them, read them, absorb what you love, and put aside what you don’t.

1 – Matt Colville. Seriously, like, do I even need to say this?

Matt Colville is probably the best DM to watch online. Really. Regardless of how you feel about his DMing style, what he has to teach you in his Running the Game series is freakin’ gold. Wanna know how to control the flow of information? Here. Wanna understand the sociology of D&D? Here.

Matt has a wealth of experience, and puts it forward in such an infectiously energetic way that you immediately want to go and play the game. His videos, from the campaign diaries, to his series building a fighter in the early versions of D&D have inspired so much of what I run today. It’s incredible stuff, and I thoroughly recommend watching it from start to finish.

2 – Matt Mercer. King of the Geeks.

Yep, the other no-brainer. The obvious start point is his GM Tips series on Geek and Sundry, or Critical Role, but simply Googling his name and watching almost any video that comes up will do. Where Matt Colville has taught me the game, and how to run it, Matt Mercer has taught me the joy and the skill of roleplaying. This is his real strength, born from his career as a voice actor. His ability to drive narrative, switch between NPCs at the drop of a hat, to roleplay the good guys and the bad guys with such realism, all of this is truly inspiring to someone who has, only recently, attempted giving his NPCs accents, or even speaking in character. This literally changed my game.

All that is to say nothing of the man’s preparation. Whereas everything else on this list is specifically designed to educate, Matt Mercer is best watched and absorbed in his natural habitat; behind the screen. Seeing his prep, his ability to create new characters of the fly, his encyclopedic knowledge of Alexandria, and even the way he orders initiative, it is all a master class in DMing.

Lastly, I feel like a DM’s weaknesses are every bit as useful for teaching as their strengths. Matt’s constant use of certain words (I’m looking at you, Brackish, Energy, Entity, et al) has made me aware of how quickly someone can have their suspension of disbelief shattered at the jarring realisation that they’ve heard a word a lot in the last few minutes.

3 – Kobold Press’s Guide to Worldbuilding. 190+ pages of total genius.

This is something I literally discovered in Travelling Man Newcastle earlier today, so I don’t know a huge amount about it. What I do know is that after flicking through it and finding the essay on how to build realistic worlds that have a fantastical flair to them I needed to own it.

Truthfully, that’s about all I feel qualified to comment on, though I think you’ll be hearing more from me on it in the near future. Until then, go check it out.

4 – Drunkens & Dragons. The opposite of Matt Colville.

Hankerin Ferinale is a very different DM to the guys I usually watch. That isn’t a good reason not to give him a watch, though. Drunkens & Dragons is a much more mechanical game, where the DM screen is stripped away, where DCs are left out in the open for players to see, and where, often, big monsters’ actions are judged less by roleplay on the part of the DM, and more by predetermined reactions to certain stimuli (much like a series of If/Else statements in programming). The overall feel is more akin to a computer game in it’s mechanical fidelity than a shared narrative experience.

That said, there is so much depth and genius in here. From concepts like ‘room DCs’, where the DC for every challenge in a room is set to a specific DC, to countdowns, to creating video game-like patterns that the players can learn and use against the monster they’re fighting, there are mechanical wonders throughout these videos.

But there’s also a freedom to Hank’s game that was a breath of fresh air to me. Videos such as his Lair of Knowledge series introduced me to new rules systems, books on English landscapes and fiction that has had a lasting influence on the worlds I build. He doesn’t really play D&D. Sure, 5e is the backbone of his game, but stuff like DCC RPG, and his own Index Card RPG have made their way in, as he cobbles together all the rules he likes and just makes them work together through sheer force of will.

5 – WebDM. Thanks Andy, for this damned rabbit hole.

Again, I assume you already know about these guys, but they really are amazing. Good, long, 20 minute videos discussing a single topic, regularly things I’ve never really put much thought into. Lawful Outsiders, for example. Damn.

This one’s pretty cut and dry. They talk in depth about stuff, throw out ideas, and various ways to implement these monsters and concepts into your campaigns. They have a depth of knowledge, and they know the game incredibly well. They’ve played across a number of editions, and have all that lore to draw on. It’s amazing to sit and watch, and to learn from.

6 – Chris Perkins. The DM of all DMs.

The master himself, Chris Perkins has been writing and talking about D&D for decades. He was the lead developer on the Monster Manual, and is in charge of D&D story. The man is a creative genius. The Dungeon Master Experience is an amazing history of Chris’ home campaign, detailing his successes and failures, and how you can learn from them. Acquisitions Inc. is incredible. Until I saw Critical Role, Chris Perkins was the DM I emulated, and his various panels, games and articles are still teaching me to this day.

Honourable Mentions.

Without going into much detail, here are a few bits and bobs I think are worth investing some time into:

  • Dragontalk – The official D&D podcast (especially Lore You Should Know and Sage Advice)
  • Mike Mearls and/or Jeremy Crawford interviews
  • Well Met, Adventurers – One of my favourite fellows here on WordPress. Lovely guy. Check him out, and tell him I said hi.
  • The DMG. Really. I overlook it so much as a reference document, and ignore so much of the amazing content in there. Same goes for every other release. There’s something in every one of them.

If you have any other resources you love learning from, please comment and let me know. I wanna learn as much as I can so that I can give my players the best experience I can give them.

Quick Announcements!

Also, in other news, I recently launched my Patreon campaign. If you enjoy what I’m doing here, and want to contribute towards my time (and pick up some rewards in the process), then head over to https://www.patreon.com/SundayNightDM and see what’s on offer.

Finally, on Monday, myself, @the.dank.dm, Liam Lowery and Declan Keane recorded the first episode of our Talomire podcast. I ran Baldun, Ezikiel and Ethos (respectively) through their first steps in my world, and boy did it go interestingly…I’m looking to have that online this Sunday, assuming all things go well, otherwise next Sunday (14/5). That podcast will hopefully be uploaded weekly. I have plans for a second, irregular podcast, the first episode dealing with me and two of my friends, and how we DM. Really looking forward to recording that one.

Anyway, thanks again. Feel free to follow me on my various social media accounts (links below…Instagram is bae), and drop me a line if you wanna chat.

Cheers!

Instagram – www.Instagram.com/chris_hately
Twitter – www.Twitter.com/SundayNightDM
Facebook – www.Facebook.com/SundayNightDM

The White Fist of Torm – Part One

Now.

Time had slowed to a crawl. The night air stung at her face as she drove her celestial mount on, the heavy plates of her armour beating noisily against each other with each movement of the strange mount. But now was not the time for stealth, or uncertain action. Her face was set towards the horizon, and whatever doom lurked over it. Tyrol was there, or so the Waterdhavian guard had said. So too was Yuki, in  carriage destined for the beast’s lair.

Arveene settled into the familiar movements of the horse, the motions lulling her like a child’s song into a sombre meditation. She thought back to her childhood, to the old clerics of Red Larch and the kind years spent with them…she reflected on the sacking of the Sumber Hills, of the ruins of ancient Myth Drannor, and of the eight-winged solar Arius, terrible in his splendour, great in his mercy, and Inevitable in the telling of the doom held for her. Arveene bristled at this last memory, and the solar’s words came to her as clear as if he was whispering in her ear. The hairs on her neck bristled, and a shiver ran down her back. Settling once more Arveene closed her eyes, her steed knowing her thoughts and intentions, and slipped into her recollections. Maybe this time she would find the seed of inspiration, the key to understanding her doom. And if not, she would do what she had been taught to do all her life; protect those too weak to protect themselves, and smite those who would seek to do harm…

Then.

The Abbey at Red Larch – 13 years ago.

“Aasu-imarr, a Celestial phrase meaning ‘new-birth’, which has its roots set firmly in the draconic language. It also finds it’s way into the eastern tongue; Aasil Marai, ‘doom child'”. The old man closed his eyes sagely, nodding almost imperceptibly to himself, proud of the knowledge he had acquired over his long years. The small, blonde girl before him looked up at him, abject terror in her young face,
“Doom child?!” she wailed, “Doom child?! Abbot Diarmaid, what doom?!” She glanced hurriedly around, as if looking to bolt. Her older companion opened his eyes again and studied her. He quickly realised her confusion, and his error.
“Arveene, quiet yourself girl. I do not mean ‘doom’, as if you were to cause the end of all things. I would barter that you shan’t even end this village, never you mind this nation or world…no, no, no…’doom’ is an old world, heavy laden with meaning and subtly. It is fate, purpose. It is given by one with authority, or it is assumed as a mantle. A quest is a type of doom. Paladins of yore took their dooms from the divine soothsayers who called themselves avatars, when the world was young. Such practices have fallen away, however, so I should not worry. But, many had said the same of the Aasimar…” He looked into the small girl’s eyes, the burden of his many years weighing heavy on his tired frame. He smiled, and the girl smiled sheepishly back. “Come now, let us go to Master John and see what treats await us in the kitchens”.


Master John was bent over the blackened, iron pot when Arveene and the elderly abbot came silently into the tiny room. The air was hot and humid, and the space cramped. A decently sized table dominated the centre of the room, with racks of utensils, not to mention the overbearing fireplace and huge, iron stewing pot, scattered around the edges of the room. Raven glanced questioningly up at the abbot, who nodded slyly, gesturing with his cane to the unsuspecting master.

A moment later there was a high pitched scream, the sound of metal clattering across stone, and the hearty laugh of two young souls putting aside the burdens life had placed upon them.

The Stables Outside Waterdeep – 1 hour ago.

The armoured figure came at her again. She ignored the pressing danger and pressed her hand against the wound in Mellifluent’s side, the healing vitality spreading from the snow white gauntlet encasing it. Mellifluent gasped, her eyes snapping open. The old tiefling woman looked into Arveene’s eyes, then over her shoulder. Her mouth opened to scream a warning, only to be cut off as Arveene rolled her forcefully away, shouting a divine invocation to shield her from the blow aimed squarely at her head.

It worked. The weapon lost its way in the folds of her cloak, landing viciously on the shield affixed to her arm. She cried in pain, falling to one knee. Al, the foreman from Woodsmere, stood above her, his brutal, spiked armour glinting slightly in the moonlight, a cruel smile playing across his face. Arveene’s cry of pain morphed into a scream of primal, animalistic rage. She surged up at her foe, her warhammer, The Loyal Fury, bursting into white, ethereal flame as she swung it wide towards Al’s head. He dodged back, the swing catching his breastplate and staggering him. He caught his fall, but too late. The hammer carried its momentum and swung down again, catching Al square in the shoulder and shattering bones with the force of the blow. He fell hard to the ground, coughing blood as he felt his insides move in ways they shouldn’t.

Arveene surveyed the field. Mellifluent was caring for the cleric they had picked up on their last adventure, while Maljape and Mirabelle put their assailant out of his misery. The party was spent, injured, and desperately needed rest. Arveene sighed. Oyuki was on her way to Tyrol’s estate on her own. There was no doubt in her mind that Yuki would kill Tyrol, it was a skill of hers, but Arveene could not imagine a way in which Yuki would make it out alive. Speed was key, and information needed. She bent down, laying her hands on the exposed left shoulder of the prostrate foreman, the broken armour not so much as scratching the paint from the shining white gauntlet. Bones knit together beneath her touch, and bleeding slowed. There was nothing for it. Maljape and Mellifluent would have to remain behind to interrogate this prisoner. With any luck the rest of them could reach Yuki’s carriage before she arrived at the estate. In the worst case scenario the could provide some aid to her as she tried to escape. Once again the burden of doom laid heavy on Arveene, her white gauntlet shining in the moonlight, reflected against the plain, steel plates of her armour. So much death these past weeks…so much pain. For a moment the age old temptation to run rose it’s ugly head. To cast aside her weapons, her armour, to run far from this forsaken coast and back to the ruins of her home. To the Dales, to the broken stones of Myth Dranor…

Arveene stood, her warhammer held loosely at her side. She shook the heaviness from her, exorcising the bone-deep desire to flee, and set off back to the party, dragging the fallen figure who’s life she had so readily saved.

The Halls of the Archmage Aesolyn – Part 2

I my last post I began my run down of the Halls of Aesolyn. To go check that out, click here! But now, on with the rooms!

Area G

Behind a secret door (a stone wall which can be pushed backwards and moved aside), which can be discovered on a DC15 Intelligence (Investigation) check. The room is diamond shaped, with an alcove directly across from the door. In the alcove stands a leering demon statue, 6 feet tall and standing on a large, high dais. In it’s hand is a scimitar made of blackened steel, with a crossguard of bleached bone, and a human leather grip etched with golden script too ancient to understand. The scimitar is a +2 weapon with the following special rules:

  • Bloody Wound:When you hit a living creature with this weapon, you can choose to make a superficial but bloody wound. The attack deals no damage, but the target suffers 1d8 slashing damage, minus their Constitution modifier (to a minimum of 1), at the beginning of each of it’s turns until it or an ally makes a DC10 Wisdom (Medicine) check as an action, or until it receives magical healing.
  • The Devil’s Curse: You gain the ability to speak Abyssal and Infernal. Each time you speak one of these languages, all neutral and good creatures around you must make a Wisdom saving throw (DC = 10 + Charisma (Intimidation) modifier), or be frightened of you for 1 minute. (Recommended: DM only should be aware of this until it becomes apparent).
  • Emnity of Halsh: Halsh, a Chain Devil in the service of a Lord of the Hells, becomes aware of the character attuned to this weapon. He will seek to take the weapon from the wielder, and kill them. He will then take the weapon back to The Hells, and there torture the devil that resides within, eventually destroying the weapon. (Recommended: DM only should be aware of this until it becomes apparent).

Area H

This room is the home of a Spirit Naga. As the party walk in they see a lush, but over grown room with a floor carpeted with various sizes of writhing snakes. The snakes are a clever illusion, which will be noticed by any character with a passive Intelligence or passive Wisdom of 15 or higher, or any character who rolls higher than DC15 on an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Lavish couches line the walls, paintings of lascivious men and women, intertwined with massive snakes with human faces. Snakes carpet the floors, and even seem to be used as keys by the individuals in the paintings. The party can make Intelligence (Religion) checks to recognise the bizarre, snake-like creatures:

  • DC 20: Nagas are the legendary, immortal guardians of Stycian myth, that protect knowledge, rituals, magic items, and magical locations.
  • DC 25: Neither starvation nor old age will ever claim a naga, but it can be destroyed. Some nagas abandon their roles as guardians to achieve personal power, setting themselves up as the rulers of primitive tribes of reptilian humanoids.
  • DC 30: Different nagas guard different types of knowledge. Guardian nagas usually guard arcane secrets, rituals, and powerful items. Bone nagas guard necromantic secrets or the places of the dead—particularly tombs, sepulchers, and catacombs
    where the remains of powerful evil creatures reside. They also guard portals to the Shadowfell. Dark nagas guard prophecies and oracles, along with relics and rituals related to the same. They also protect magical locations in the Underdark.

A Spirit Naga, old long before the elves took Talomire from the orcs and dragons of ages past, lurks in the deep shadows of the rafters, hidden from all sight. It will wait for an advantageous moment to strike.

There are two doors leading from this room. Both are locked, and require keys to open. The keys are, in fact, enchanted snakes. The door to Area I is opened with a small, green and black adder, and the door to Area J is unlocked with an evil looking King Cobra. When a character finds one, and picks it up, it stiffens, and twitches itself into the shape of a small, intricate key. These two snakes are the only real snakes in the room, aside from the Naga. They can be found with a DC20 Intelligence (Investigation) check, although other options (such as, for example, dispelling the illusion spell) will make this far easier.

Area I

This room is made up of a small, round room with a very high, domed ceiling, and three, hidden, rooms. Each of these rooms contains a spell scroll. Either decide which spells are in each room, or randomly decide on the spell scroll levels using the table on page 200 of the 5e DMG.

As the party enter, the notice a new, lithe, female figure amongst them. She walks ahead of them, and stops, looking at them. She speaks, and each character hears her words in their own native tongue. She tells them that there are three spell scrolls in this room, hidden behind the walls, and she tells them what those spells scrolls are, but not which door they are behind. She then points to each of the hidden doors and asks the players to choose one. When they have chosen, she picks one at random. The door she chooses opens, the scroll levitates towards her, and she informs the players which scroll she is holding. It bursts into flames, and is destroyed. Finally, she asks the players if they are happy with their decision, or if they would like to change their choice. The door the finally decide to choose opens, and the spell scroll levitates towards them, and is theirs to take. The scroll they do not take is destroyed at this point.

If the party attempt to cheat the process through magic or sleight of hand, the woman will warn them. If they try a second time, she flies into a rage and attacks the party, becoming a Ghost. She will attempt to use her Horrifying Visage on her first turn, and then will simply attack the party. She can also, as an action, summon one of the spell scrolls to herself, and can then attempt to cast it later, as an action.

Area J

The room is incredibly dark. In the centre stands a Yuan-Ti male, with a cobra head. He gives the party a choice; in one hand he holds a small, wooden owl. In the other he holds a golden apple.

The owl represents wisdom. In Aesolyn’s mind, the wise thing to do is to turn around and leave. These halls are not for the meek. Only the reckless and the ambitious can truly attain greatness in magic…

The apple represents knowledge, and a desire for power.

If any member of the party chooses the owl, they are instantly teleported to the entrance. The door closes, and the Halls vanish, reappearing in 1d6 months, within 3d12 miles. If a party member takes the apple, however, the Yuan-Ti smiles, then slowly vanishes, his gleaming grin disappearing last, like the Cheshire Cat. The secret door leading to Area K opens, light streaming into the room down the passageway.

Area K

Area K is a simple corridor, ending in a long, spiral staircase down into the next layer of the Halls, where Aesolyn’s true powers, and dangers, lie…

Closing Comments

I hope this dungeon has given you some ideas to run with. It is by no means a complete dungeon, but that’s kinda the point. Take what you like, get rid of what you don’t, and make the dungeon your own. If you use this map, or any part of this dungeon in commercial work, then please do include credit, and a link to this blog (my name is Chris Hately, by the way!), and feel free to fire me your content, and I’ll happily review it on the blog!

Anyway, thank you as always, and I’ll speak to you soon.

The Halls of the Archmage Aesolyn

When I started building Talomire one of the things I wanted was an open world, ready for the players and the DM to make their own. My main thrust, therefore, has been building overarching concepts and motivations, rather than individual stories (something I’ve tended to rest on in the past). It also means I need to have a whole lot of maps and locations hanging around for when my players decide they want to wander out west towards The Spine Mountains, and not to the plot hook set up in Northtower or Briarwood. So I thought, why not try to bat out a map or two a week, and stick them up here for people to use however they want?

The Halls of Aesolyn

The map I’m working on at the moment is the first level of a two floor (so far…) dungeon. The infamous archmage Aesolyn, the arcane mistress of the ruined city of Anghath, is rumoured to have store houses of knowledge through out the world, relics from her days of wandering the earth for lost arcane knowledge. These halls are one of those early storehouses, abandoned for decades to wither and rot…or so the rumours would have you believe…

Concept

My wife wants to play a wizard for the first time. Now, I’m houseruling the DCC RPG rules (see my earlier post) to make magic rarer, more volatile and to add an RP element to the learning and using of magic. Wizards do not simply learn any spell they wish when they level up; instead they must search for magic, kill other wizards and conduct their own research into their arcane art. This dungeon is designed to give her wizard a time to shine, and rumours to hunt down while, at the same time, challenging the whole party. It is designed for level 5 players, although I am not hugely interested in perfect balance.

The Map

Aesolyn's Halls

The Unmarked Map

Aesolyn's Halls (Labelled)

The Labelled Map

I’ve included (as you might have guessed) a labelled and unlabelled version on the map. That way you can either use the same basic concepts as my dungeon, or create your own rooms, traps and encounters.

The Dungeon

Area A

This room is designed to do two things. It’s opulent couches and decor are meant to tell the players that this place is filled with riches. They may not be the riches some players are thinking of, or wanting, but there are wonders held within these walls…

It also offers the players a choice. There are two, heavy doors (requiring a DC13 Strength check to open). The left hand door is decorated with a large, bronze devils head. The right hand door is the same, but with a leering Cobra with cursed rubies for eyes (dealing damage to any player who touches them with the specific intent to take them). Both lead down different paths, with different types of encounters. The Devil’s Road (rooms A-G) is filled with traps and encounters, bizarre puzzles and deceptions. The Snake’s Road, on the other hand, appears safe to begin with, but hides a lethal nature.

Area B

Aesolyn originates in the desert regions far, far south of Talomire. This room is the first real hint of that. It is also the first true deception. The room is lined with sandstone bricks, and two oak doors stand opposite the entrance. When opened, any player within five feet must pass a Dex save or be knocked prone and take damage. At the same time, the wooden boards holding the ceiling up crack and splinter, releasing a torrent of sand into the room. The players are on a timer from that point (I recommend either a 5 minute sand-timer (very thematic and evocative, considering), or entering initiative and giving the players 1d4 rounds to find their way through. After the first round (or the first 30 seconds, if you’re using a timer), movement is halved. If the time runs out, the room is completely filled, and players must pass Str saves in order to act, taking damage every turn they’re in the submerged room. Movement is halved, and checks are made at disadvantage.

There are, however, two secret exits. Both are simply thin sandstone with nothing behind them, where the rest of the walls are backed with natural stone. They are not easy to find; knocking on the walls and listening for echoes, or crawling on the floor, feeling for a breeze will discover them, but there is no secret latch or button to discover.

Area C(i) + C(ii)

This passage way is the time for rogues to shine. There are two traps, though one appears a couple of times, and all appear in the right angles of the passage. This is deliberate. The first trap is potentially lethal, depending on your party make up, and will (hopefully) drive a feeling of paranoia into the players. The subsequent traps, once the players work out the pattern, should be easily defeated, giving them a sense of satisfaction at having a) worked out the pattern, and b) beaten the trap.

C(i) is a fairly complex trap to explain, so let me do my best. There are three parts to it:

  1. The pressure plate. The pressure plate is in the first right angle of the corridor. The first time a character steps on the plate, it primes the trap, but nothing happens. The second time the pressure plate is depressed, however, springs the first part of the trap…
  2. The walls, and the rot grubs. As soon as the pressure plate is triggered for a second time, two walls fall from the ceiling, enclosing the player on the plate in a 5ft x 5ft space. Ideally, this will mean that one player is trapped, alone, on one side of the trap (herein called Player One), one player is trapped within the trap (herein called Player Two), and the rest of the party are behind the trap (herein called The Party), with no means of moving forward. The walls can be attacked, and have an AC of 15, and 20 hit points. To add injury to insult, the ceiling above the Player Two cracks, and a shower of Rot Grubs falls onto him/her. He/she has to make Dex saves each turn (its worth moving to initiative here, to make life easy for yourself), or have rot brubs bury themselves into their flesh. They deal 1d6 piercing damage in the turn they burrow into the character’s flesh, and deal 1d6 necrotic damage each subsequent turn. The necrotic damage also lowers the character’s hit point maximum. If the HP max hits 0, the character dies. Fire destroys the infestation in the character, though the character will take the full brunt of the fire damage. Lay On Hands can treat the infestation as a disease, and either Greater or Lesser Restoration will destroy the rot grubs.
  3. The crossbow trap, and optional combat encounter. Player One, having avoided the trap, will likely wheel around to see what has befallen his/her friend. While this happens, a delayed fuse ticks away. In the second round of combat, the trap triggers, firing a crossbow bolt at Player One, who must make a Dex save (at disadvantage, if they’re concentrating on helping their friend). Now, if you, as the DM, feel that The Party will break through the walls of the trap too easily, you can have one or two Dust Mephits attack from the ceiling. They’re 1/2CR creatures, and no threat to The Party…but they’ll be attacking the squishy members of the party, meaning whoever is on this side of the trap has to decide whether to attack the Mephits, or the walls. This could end with a PC death, however, so be careful.

C(ii) is relatively simple. At each right angle there is another crossbow trap, triggered by a thin tripwire at chest height. The tripwires are triggered as the characters turn the corner, with the crossbows firing down the length of that section of the passage. I haven’t marked every one on, but my assumption is that every right angled corner on the Devil’s Road has one of these traps.

Area D

If the players head through the other door, they enter a comfortable bedroom. On the bed sits a blind man, covered in a cowl. The man is a devil, held here by Aesolyn. He sits in silence, and if the party ask him any questions, he simply ignores them. If they attempt to touch him, he recoils and lashes out at them. His eyes are hidden in the room, one in a portrait of Aesolyn herself (the eye is two dimensional to look at, but one eyes looks significantly different to the other…out of place. If the party reach into the painting they can pull the eye out), and the other is on the bedside table, in amongst a set of small marbles. Once his eyes have been returned to him, the pit fiend, now in his true form, vanishes, throwing the room into a magical darkness. A single point of light in the distance leads the party through the. now open, secret passage which leads out of the room.

Area E

This room is fairly straight forward. The party walk in, and after a short period of investigation hear a low pitched growl, which is taken up by multiple voices around the room. Then, bursting from the cells, come six Hell Hounds. Now…that’s a truly deadly encounter…so I plan on halving the HP of each dog to around 20, and roughly halving their damage output. The fight will still be hard, but won’t be impossible.

Area F

The last room I’m going to go into in this post (it’s 22:45, and my wife is downstairs). I’m still a little unsure about what exactly to do with it. There will be one big baddy, and at the moment I’m leaning towards a chain devil, although multiple basilisks are tempting. The room will also be very dark, with sight reduced (magically, or course) to half distance. Also, and I’ll go into more detail in the next post, Area G will contain a cursed magical item which is very good at killing demons…but may also work to make you sell your soul to it. But we’ll get there, probably tomorrow.

Let me know what you think of the dungeon so far! I’m pretty happy with it so far, especially a couple of those traps. Also, huge props to @the_pickled_dragon for reminding me about rot grubs. That made my day.

Part Two is finished now too! Go check it out!

Cheers!

Prepping For Talomire: Part Two

“When last we met our heroes…”

In my last post I talked a bit about how my preparation for D&D games has changed and evolved over time. In this post I’d like to go a bit more in-depth with my latest campaign (Curse of Strahd notwithstanding), in my Talomire setting.

Context

Best to start off with exactly what I’m preparing for. With Talomire I’m aiming to run a few campaigns, with different parties, all in the same continuity. My folder needs to reflect that, and be built in a way that makes it easier for me to do that. I want these campaigns to be open ended sandboxes as well. I have a few plot threads in my head, in terms of what is going to be happening in the world around them (what the elves in the north are doing, what is happening in the frozen tundras of the very far north, and the political manoeuvring in the south), but it’s up to the players how they want to interact, or if they want to interact, with these events.

So, my folder needs to be easy to navigate, and have enough content to satisfy my players’ desires and actions, while not requiring me to write the backstory of every single NPC in every single tiny village…thankfully there are tools that allow me to do this, such as my DM screen. I’ll go into a bit of detail on each of these, culminating in the contents of the folder itself.

1 – The DM Screen

I love DM screens. I’ve always thought that the actions of the DM should be hidden, and that a good DM can gain the trust of their players without making each and every die roll public knowledge. I feel it adds mystique to the game; a lack of knowledge that is entirely accurate, and which I feel makes role playing easier and more dramatic. That said, the official screen from WotC is in no way suited to my style of DMing. 50%-75% of the screen is given over to things I either don’t use or need, things I already know, or things I regularly homebrew anyway. I tend to run a number of campaigns anyway, in different settings, so the information I’m likely to need from session to session is different, so a static screen is unlikely to be much use to me. For ages my screen was simply something to block my notes and my rolls from my players.

A few months back I decided to build my own screen. My first mock up was built using 3mm artist’s backing board, sandwiching sheets cut from a magnetic whiteboard. Thes panels were held together using a hinge made from duct tape, and reinforced using electrical tape. It wasn’t perfect, but it meant I could use magnets to attach print outs to my screen. All of a sudden I could have party trackers, region maps, initiative orders and even magic item cards on my screen, able to be switched out at a moment’s notice.

With my MkII build I adapted the original concept slightly. Still built from 3mm backing board, I cut out sections of the inner board to expose the whiteboard inner. Now I can write on that layer, take notes or jot initiative orders, as well as change all of that information whenever I need to. IMG_1543The white boards I used also came with pens and, more importantly, clips. I currently have three attached to my screen. One is currently surplus to requirement (although I do have a couple of ideas for it), and one holds my whiteboard pen. The third, though, allows me to switch out party trackers incredibly easily. I mounted thin plastic sheeting to the clip, which is large enough for four player-tracking sheets. The plan is to have one of these clips per party.

I also built a small, magnetic shelf to put visual aides on for my players…which is by far my favourite thing about this screen right now…

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The screen, eventually, is going to have five panels; one for party tracking, three with whiteboards exposed, and one similar to my original build; magnetic, but without the whiteboard exposed. The middle three are designed to be used for session specific things, with the final panel given over to rules I often forget.

2 – The Journal

Drunkens & Dragons introduced me to the concept of a DMs journal. This idea of a repository of information is literally what began Talomire. Instead of building concepts in my head, everything was thrown on paper and built on. Numerous dungeons, traps, financial and religious systems have been born in my journal, and are there now for me to call upon should I ever need them.

During sessions, my journal’s use is two-fold. It’s there for note taking, and remembering what has happened in sessions previously. It also contains ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet. If the players decide to travel north, they might run into the small coastal town of Falas Londé, or the ruined watchtower of Duvain Maegorod.IMG_1577

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A couple of dungeons I didn’t use in my last campaign.

The journal, therefore, is something I can plot campaign progress in, as well as reference things that I hadn’t committed to PDF yet, but that might fit nicely with where the party are headed.

3 – NPC Face Cards, Weapon Cards, and Other Handouts.

I’ve played about with a number of different concepts in my previous games, regarding combat, equipment and NPCs. My first campaign was completely theatre of the mind, for example, while in Curse of Strahd, I have experimented with using Index Card RPG and 2.5d terrain, both of which work nicely, but don’t give the feel I want from Talomire.

I found a couple of great resources on Drivethru RPG, which I feel can help me as a DM in NPC and item generation, while giving the players the visual aides I’m been looking for. The NPC deck and weapon cards are fantastic. My plan is to have a bundle of both behind my screen. If the players meet an NPC I haven’t planned, I can grab one of these cards and write the character’s name on, taking notes on the back. The same applies for the weapon cards, which can be handed to the player who owns it, creating a tactile sense of ownership of these weapons, and giving even mundane weapons a sense of importance in a world where magical weapons are incredibly rare.

 

4 – The Folder.

I use a standard sized, two ring, lever arch file, and I don’t use pockets (with the exception of character sheets and handouts). My folder is arranged into several sections, designed to allow me to skip to the parts I need easily. Broadly, they are arranged as follows:

  1. Locations
  2. Adventures & Sidequests
  3. Random Events
  4. Stores & Equipment
  5. Spare Adventures
  6. Spare Maps & Locations
  7. NPCs
  8. Rules

Each tab will then have a number of tabs within, so I can get to exactly the right place at the right time.

My locations tab is for areas I plan on using in my game. For example, I have maps and descriptions of North Tower, Low Briar, and other areas I created. I also have a few I lifted from other sources, such as the Village of Hommlet (the intro adventure to the original Temple of Elemental Evil), and one of Dyson‘s village maps for Briarwood, an area of my own that I haven’t had time to draw yet.

Adventures and sidequests is designed for adventures I know I am either going to run, or am likely to run. Here I’ll have my notes, for ease of access. Finished adventures will likely be put somewhere else when done, but I’m not sure about that yet.

Random events are the life and soul of a sandbox game, in my opinion. They make the world feel real and dynamic, so I make sure to have a number of different encounter tables and random event tables. The Dungeon Master’s Handbook volumes one and two are great for these.

Stores and equipment is something I loved about my Forgotten Realms folder. It shows the prices and availability of equipment in different types of location, adjusted for Talomire’s economy. Rather than  gp, cp, sp, etc, Talomire uses a version of medieval England’s currency. As such, all prices are adjusted to better suit that currency and economy (meaning full plate armour now costs the equivalent of around 19,000gp).

Spare adventures are simply adventures I can pull out at any time. The players decide they want to travel west, and they discover a small town at the base of the Spine mountains. I feel they need something to do, so I grab a spare adventure and throw the plot hook their way. I’ll then move that adventure into my ‘Adventures & Sidequests’ tab, and run it from there. Spare maps and locations is pretty much the same, but is filled with maps and locations I’ve drawn from other sources (mostly Dyson, who’s maps are mostly free, and absolutely amazing).

The NPCs tab is just somewhere I can hold my NPCs, and keeps notes on them, their goals, and what they’re up to when the players aren’t around.

Finally, the rules tab is where I keep all the non-standard rules I want to use. At the moment these are the Stonghold rules, the rules for dragons in the DCCRPG, rules for magical research from DCCRPG, and (Not So) Legendary Actions.

I also have a campaign calendar and a region map in the front of the folder so that I can mark new locations for future reference, as well as make sure important dates in the life of Talomire are observed, and time can be kept properly within the world.

Closing Thoughts.

None of this is really tested in it’s current iteration, but I’m very hopeful. Please, let me know what you think, and what you like to have prepared; I love to learn from other people and steal their ideas! When I start running my campaign(s) I’ll do an update with what has worked, and what has not.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

Prepping For Talomire: Part One

Dungeon Masters prepare their campaigns and their settings in a myriad of weird and wonderful ways, and usually flit between prep methods depending on their intent, or what they feel will work best. This post is going to break down how I’ve prepped in the past and how, specifically, I’m preparing my Talomire campaign setting.

Since getting back into D&D, just over two years ago (March 30th 2015 for those interested), I’ve run a total of four campaigns:

Eloch Loria

Eloch Loria was a world I created, based on a setting I created when I was still at school. The driving concept of Eloch Loria was that the world had been created millennia before for two powerful deities to fight in. After centuries they tired of their fight and created orcs and elves to fight each other in their stead. Eventually and extra-planar creature in the form of a blind beggar approached them both, offering them a way out of their eternal conflict. He took a large part of their power, and usurped them, created humans and dwarves to spread across the lands. A final, climactic battle saw an end to this creature, leaving the world open to god-like creatures, hungry for power. Over long years the world begins to die, and we pick up within years of its demise.

The campaign saw the players discover an ancient tiefling girl in the temple of a long forgotten god. They let her go free (as well as naked, and without food). The next time they saw her she was executed by a blind beggar, who ascended to become the creature who had tricked the Old Gods out of their powers. The arc developed into one which led them around the world, finding the Old Gods and killing creatures claiming to be gods. The finale was meant to set the players against Uktar (the blind beggar) himself. In an unwinnable  battle, the party would die to a man, coming to consciousness in a throne room, outside of time and space. They see the rise of Uktar, of his deceptions and his fall from grace. They summon the young creature that became Uktar, and decide whether or not to eliminate him from existence. They, now acting as gods, remake the dying Eloch Loria in their own image. The characters they create next, entering into the second age, live in the world the players have built, and are able to worship the characters they played during the first age.

This is a long (and kinda ‘pat-my-self-on-the-back-ey) way of saying…

“Eloch Loria was a narrative driven, mostly railroaded campaign where me and my friends learned how to DM and play both the Dungeons and the Dragons!”

There. I said it.

I prepared my sessions by typing out my notes on where I thought sessions would go, including complete stat blocks from enemies. I still have the documents lying around! Generally though, I made stuff up as I went along. Since the whole campaign was homebrew, I had a better idea of what was happening in my own head that I did on paper. This approach, I feel, has coloured my preparation ever since.

Omicron-Gamma-33f

I have loved the Warhammer 40,000 world since I was eight years old, so of course I ran a Fifth Edition game set in the Imperium of Man, using heavily homebrewed rules. It’s maybe the most fun I’ve ever had in D&D; I played a one off game with my best friend and his wife, and ended up playing the part of a planetary governor…flirting with my friend’s wife (with whom I am also good friends), who was trying to get information out of me.

The campaign was planned in my head, and I put a TONNE of work into handouts, character creation, and homebrew rules. The sessions were completely improvised though. Knowing the NPCs, and committing everything to memory I ran a game of intrigue and subterfuge off-the-cuff for 3-4 hours each Sunday night. IT WAS A BLAST! Rather than worrying about my notes, and plot progression, I simply gave the party orders, then asked them how they wanted to complete them. The result was incredible creativity and immersion on the players’ part, and some of the best fun I’ve ever had DMing.

Friday/Sunday Night D&D

Andy is a common factor in my D&D games. He was Varis Darkcloak, half-elven ranger, in Eloch Loria, and Krenn Attori, Imperial Interrogator and latent psyker, in Omicron-Gamma-33f. Andy found Critical Role (long after I’d seen it and ignored it…I wasn’t much of a Geek and Sundry fan at the time, so I assumed it was gonna be crap…), and waxed lyrical about it. By this point O-M-33f had petered out in the way games sadly have a tendency to do, and we were both hankering for some role playing goodness. We decided to throw open the gates and create a game where people could turn up as-and-when they wanted, enjoy a couple of sessions, and try out new characters. I stood up and DM’d, setting the game Faerûn, on the Sword Coast.

This game was big, pretty much from the off. By week four I had a party of nine people, and was running combat for a total of 15 characters (three of mine to bump up party numbers in previous weeks, and three NPCs). The setting was great though; I never knew Ed Greenwood’s world was so ridiculously in depth! My prep for these games began really simple. I had an idea to mess about with a zombie dragon, and have a pitched battle underground. I threw together some bits and bobs, stat blocks, very basic notes, stuff like that. After that my drunk tiefling friend got to try his hand at DMing (which was real cool. Soft furnishings. If you get that reference, then hello fellow Sunday night member!). The last arc I ran was the one which involved the most research, and the most prep. The idea started with the high elf quest giver in my friend’s sessions. I wanted to flesh the NPC out…so I made him a polymorph, spellcasting, adult blue dragon. I had the elf set up a number of situations to destabilise Waterdeep, culminating in an epic encounter with the stupendously powerful dragon; Kovash Vant, Demon of the Skies.

Unfortunately, as the group size rose, it became clear we were going to have to split the group. The campaign culminated in a cavern, with the party (now 11 people) fighting an illusionist masquerading as a two-headed dragon. It was epic, and was the first time a player died on my watch. It was fun. By the end of the campaign I’d discovered both the DM folder, and the DM journal. My folder had a full breakdown of Waterdeep, street by street, and a bunch of documents for equipment prices, adventure notes, NPC documents (with stat blocks and space for notes), and DM-handover documents which detailed each session and any potential plot points. It was everything I needed to run a game; I had notes on the story I wanted to tell, and the plot hooks and area maps to let the players do whatever they wanted. It was a great tool, and one I’ve loved building ever since. My journal was where my thoughts and theories were scrawled…and it’s where Talomire was born.

Talomire

Talomire is a culmination of two years of DMing. My folder is growing, my DM screen is built, and the handouts and tools I’m wanting to implement are coming together. But we’re already up to nearly 1300 words, so I’ll leave my folder breakdown for tomorrow…I’ll even have photos!

Till then, cheers, and have a great day!

DCC Magic in 5e

Drunkens and Dragons was the first place to put me onto Dungeon Crawl Classics, in particular, the DCC RPG rulebook. This 400+ page long monster is a love letter to the feel of AD&D, and is filled with incredible art and inspired ideas. One of these ideas is its incredible, and wildly intuitive, magic system.

Whereas D&D 5e’s magic system is what Gygax himself once described as:

“a spell point system whose record keeping would warm the heart of a monomaniacal statistics lover” (AD&D Players Handbook, pg 6,

an opinion that I am, much as I love D&D spellcasting, inclined to agree with. In a world where magic is so commonplace that cantrips are thrown around like petty novelties, such as the Forgotten Realms, the spell slot system works fine. But when I’m introducing a new player to the game (which is, blessedly, fairly regularly), explaining the spell slot system is a pain in my arse.

When I’m teaching new players, the first thing I tell them is that, while the character sheet is complicated, and full of numbers and jargon (I use this incredible sheet, which is even more intimidating than the official one), as long as they know where the basics are I can simply guide them to what they need to roll. This teaches them, through experience, how to play the game. I’ve found it works wonders; players get to roll dice and have fun, with me telling them which dice to roll and where on their sheet the appropriate information is, until finally I don’t need to anymore, after a few sessions or less. The huge bloody spanner in the works is magic.

One of my friends decided he wanted to play at the last minute. It was going to be his first time playing, and I didn’t have time to build him a character. What I did have was a dwarvish bard, designed for another friend who was unable to play. We handed him the character sheet, and went from there. During the session Tim had fun, and even did some great things, but he was unfulfilled by the character. He, in truth, didn’t understand the magic system, and who can blame him? As if learning the very basics of the game wasn’t enough, while also trying to role play for the first time, and trying to be immersed in the story, he also had to learn what eight spells did, and how spell slots worked. In the end he did what so many first time spellcasters do – he spammed one spell until it worked.

DCC offers something I’ve never experienced in D&D’s spells. There is uncertainty as to what they will do, and whether they will work. This might not sound great, but it really is. In order to cast a spell you roll a d20 and add certain modifiers. You compare that result to a chart, and that tells you what happens. Each spell is different, and has effects of increasing severity as the roll result gets higher. Now break that down; rather than making the new player learn another mechanic, on top of the d20 + mod mechanic which anchors the vast majority of 5e, you simply use what you’re already teaching them. On top of that, it makes each casting something to be attained! Rather than knowing the spell works, there’s a chance it might not, and worse, a chance it can go horribly wrong. Each success ends up feeling like an achievement, and the wizard gets to feel the same exhilaration the fighter feels when his blows find their mark.

All of this is amazing, but the thing I love most about the DCC system is the feeling of mystery. When I began adapting the DCC ruleset to 5e for my Talomire setting, the first change I made was to take away completed spell sheets from the players. A player’s physical spellbook is, then, not a sheet filled with spell names, but a physical booklet, with spell names, types, and empty charts below. Each spell must be cast in order to learn exactly what it does. You know to some degree that Magic Missile fires an arcane dart at your foes but, unless you’ve rolled a 28 before, you have no idea that it can fire 1d12+2 darts, each dealing 1d8+1 force damage! Imagine that! You cast magic missile as a first level wizard, and roll a natural 20. Add your +3 Int bonus and +2 prof bonus for 25, and a d6-1 for your critical success (let’s assume +3), and now you have a 28! The four goblins you’re facing explode in a shower of sparking bolts!

There are balancing issues, obviously. My way around this is to seriously limit the number of spells a caster can use. Some players may see this as a bad thing, but to my mind it simply reinforces the idea that this knowledge is not easily come by. You have to seek it out, rather than relying on the two extra spells you gain per level, or the six you start with. And each spell, even first level spells, has the opportunity to be useful at later levels.

You can find the VERY EARLY draft for my DCC ‘conversion’ HERE. Feel free to give it a try and let me know how you feel it works. I’ll be updating it a lot over the coming days, and then more as I begin my Talomire campaign proper. Please note that the document is my attempt to create the DCC system using existing 5e concepts and mechanics, and is not a conversion per se (as a general rule, though, I replaced ‘caster level’ with proficiency, and luck with the Int modifier. There’ll be issues in there, but they should iron themselves out in the long run.

Cheers,

Chris.