Sunday, April 19, 2015

A second encounter

A while ago the D&D Adventurer's League ran a contest for new writers. I did the excercise but never submitted my encounters. I figured I'd at least share my notes. They might not be that clear, but hopefully they provide a cool look into how I think about encounter design. This encounter is primarily based on experiences I had while on vacation in southern Italy. Here is the second of two.

Viterome's Potions and Poisons

The shop is nestled between the desert dunes on a solid rock platform. A few small wind eroded spires and crags rise from the rock. The shop abuts the crags, partially carved directly into the stone and partially built out of stone bricks and old, weathered wood. Two short flagpoles stand next to the entrance. Small, purple triangular flags hang lifeless from the poles. Two skeleton guards, spears in hand, stand motionless in front of the entrance.

Inside, a very old manticore lounges on a large red daybed with various gold, blue, and other colored pillows. It sits like a cat upon the bed, its bat wings folded, and its scorpion tail wrapped around itself. The stinger sits menacingly next to its massive front paws, gently swaying back and forth. Its multiple sets of razor sharp teeth glint obviously in the candle light. Grey tufts of fur are peppered through its otherwise red mane.

When a potential client walks in, the manticore will lazily open its eyes and introduce itself as Viterome.

The back of the shop, partially covered by an opulent screen, is a small alchemical laboratory and shelves of various potions, oils, unguents, powders, solves, and all other manner of valuable wares. Three skeletons move around, tending to experiments and rearranging goods. These skeletons will also present the various goods offered for sale.

Standing next to the day bed is a skeleton holding a medium sized cage with a few rats inside. At his leisure, Viterome will occationally open the cage, take out a rat, and with a great flourish toss it into the air and catch it in his terrible mouth.

Two other skeletons stand to the left and right of Viterome's day bed, spears in hand, prepared to defend their master.

Negotiation is an important aspect of dealing with Viterome. To average customers, he presents a very standard yet heavily marked up product list. If the customer is able to impress or haggle with Viterome, he will present an additional list of rare and potentially illegal potions, unguents, poisons, and more. Additionally, his reaction to the PCs has major effects on price.

Negotiating with Viterome. Default check is Persuasion (Charisma), but player creativity should not be ignored. - DC 5: price x2, no special list. - DC 10: price x1.5, no special list. - DC 15: price x0, special list (no discount). - DC 20: price x0.5, special list (no discount).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Encounter at la Cattolica

A while ago the D&D Adventurer's League ran a contest for new writers. I did the excercise but never submitted my encounters. I figured I'd at least share my notes. They might not be that clear, but hopefully they provide a cool look into how I think about encounter design. This encounter is primarily based on experiences I had while on vacation in southern Italy. Here is the first of two.

la Cattolica

La Cattolica di Stilo, my major inspiration for this encounter.

A ruined temple is perched on a ridge that looks over a fishing village and the sea. The temple dates from when the sea level was much higher, reaching almost to the temple itself. It is one of several ruins that dot the hills along the coast. The temple is in a traditional cross-in-square design dividing the temple into nine bays. There is one entrance to the temple which faces the road to the west. There is a narrow ground level window on both the north and east sides. Three small windows face to the south, looking towards the fishing village. A dome covers each of the corner bays as well as the central bay. The walls are made of light brown-red bricks with white mortaring and is approximately 30ft per side.

Age and lack of repair has caused the temple is be partially collapsed: one of the bays has completely collapsed with rubble covering the ground and another bay is missing its dome. The four columns at the intersection of the different bays still stand strong. (Note: columns provide 1/2 cover).

Standing on a small raised platform in the middle of the central bay is a bronze statue of a human, approximately 7 feet tall. It is missing one of its arms.

Riace bronzes, my inspiration for the statue.

An overgrown path runs from the temple to a nearby road that cuts through the hills between the fishing village and another village specializing in olives. There is a clumsy spiked pit trap (passive Perception (Wisdom) DC 10) hidden on the path leading to the temple. Visible from a distance (Perception (Wisdom) DC 15) is a thin plume of smoke rising from both next to and from within the temple.

A group of orcs have set up camp in the ruins. Four orcs are sitting around a small camp fire, cleaning their weapons or cooking food. They are only passively keeping watch. While they are not actively looking for a fight, they will attack anything they perceive as a threat while calling for the group in the temple.

Inside the temple are 2 more orcs accompanying an Eye of Gruumsh. The original shrine in the temple has been converted to one of Gruumsh. A captured, unconscious elven noble is held prisoner by the Eye of Gruumsh.

If the temple is searched, a successful Perception (Wisdom) DC 10 reveals the broken arm of the statue in the rubble of the missing bay. It is holding a spear. Reattaching the arm to the statue causes a secret switch in the statue to be activated, causing a series of mechanical grinding noises. Slowly, one of the flag stone moves to the side revealing a secret passageway wide enough to fit a human. To find the secret door without the aid of the statue is a DC 20 Perception (Wisdom) check.

Monday, April 6, 2015

PCs and the killing there of

So recently I started participating in the GM Roundtable of Doom blog ring/discussion. In it, a bunch of blogs all post about the same topic around the same time in order to understand the breadth of experiences people have had and new ideas on how to better run your own games.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and
why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

Over the years, my games have grown a reputation of being deadly, grim, and taking place in be-shitten worlds. And for the most part, I'm inclined to agree with this.

I'll just go back as far as mid-way through undergrad, so about 7 years ago. I was running an episodic Iron Kingdoms game where the players were undergoing a perilous quest to save the world from some existential threat. The catch being that they all had to sacrifice themselves in order to truly imprison the horror for another long period of time. The campaign wasn't deadly but instead created a very dark and grim attitude where death was inevitable. I consider that campaign my first major foray into my current style.

Subsequent campaigns have slowly ratcheted up the deadliness. I remember that I started almost gleefully killing PCs in my RAW tactical minis/rogue-like Fantasy Craft game, Myths and Legends: the story of the Pimps at Sea. It was a really glorious campaign, where player death created the roleplaying tensions mid-combat. The players were heroes fighting against almost impossible odds in order to shape the world to their liking. They raised armies, united the races in a region under a single confederacy, became pirate kings, and invaded and conquered another sovereign state with an army of brass automatons, pirates, and orcs!

One of the many ridiculous battles from Myths and Legends: the story of the Pimps at Sea

Effectively, the true possibility of death made the players always feel like they were earning their victories. This worked particularity well in a system like Fantasy Craft because it is rules heavy with an emphasis on multiple kinds of damage and resistances interacting together with the PC's large set of abilities. I don't really play this style of rules system any more, but I would really enjoy bringing this larger than life experience back to the table. Possibly with Barbarians of Lemuria/Heroes of Hellas.

Another over the top battle up the steps of the enemy capital (Myths and Legends).

Henchmen are my secret for increasing the lethality of the campaign without ever killing the PCs. I like to make up weird and silly henchmen, give them personalities, make them fun for the players to interact with. Then I kill the henchmen. Brutally and mercilessly . And I describe it. This way death is always real and lurking around the corner. No PC may actually need to die, but beings they knew and cared about did and they felt it. One of the best examples recently was in Planeatary Express when I killed the PCs' employer Balial. I was hearing grief about it from my players for weeks! It was awesome.

In terms of dealing with actual character death in a game, I like to make sure there is an "in world" plausible reason for adventures/scoundrels/couriers/etc. to exist. I attribute a lot of the success of my Planeatary Express campaign to that. The PCs had jobs that required that they were adventurers.

Similarity, one of my most lethal campaigns Dungeonship the premise was that the players were all people traveling to a new colony across the sea in order to strike it rich/escape something/see the new land. New adventurers were constantly arriving from the home country and the main town was set up with an Adventurer's Guild and all the basic adventuring needs. This helped with introducing new PCs on the fly. For example, the new character might already be in the dungeon or is new in the tavern 'cause they just arrived off the boat. This also meant that it was really easy to hire henchmen.

Here's a list of other blogs in the GM Round table

Friday, April 3, 2015

Wrapping up campaigns

Planeatary Express recently wrapped up. The campaign lasted approximately one and a half years in real time, however we only met rarely for the last 6 months. The campaign had an episodic delivery service structure, where the players served as employees from the Planeatary Express courier company.

The adventures varied greatly, with the players visiting almost every Outer Plane or its corresponding Gate Town. It was a great voyage that tended to veer towards the silly or over the top, though with some amazingly powerful emotional turns surrounding the owner or Planeatary Express Balial and the mad scientist/murderer Valran. I consider it one of my more successful campaigns.

The last Planescape session. Notice the Acheron poster!

It is always strange to end a campaign. A lot of emotions and desires build up, and as a GM you're trying to deliver the perfect closing experience. It just comes up so rarely because most campaigns tend to die by about the third session.

I've been lucky and been able to successfully begin and end multiple campaign. A simple strategy I've used to get experience accomplishing a complete campaign is designing campaigns with limited life spans. For example, I would only run 10 week campaigns. This was exactly the length of a quarter at my undergrad university.

Because I tend to design episodic campaigns, I initially struggled with figuring out a satisfactory way of providing a satisfactory ending. What tends to end up happening is that I create a negotiation scenario with the PCs. Try and figure out something that bothered them about the world or their previous adventures that they wouldn't mind going deeper in to. Most of the time I can intuit what this is, but some times I have to ask the players to go along with me in order to actually end the campaign. The latter of these has really only happened when the campaigns had to end because I was moving countries.

Do you, reader, have any ideas about how to best end a campaign?