The most difficult time for a DM is dealing with characters level 9-20. The odds of them missing any attacks is now so rare that it hardly ever happens. Now, you cannot contain them, but that is okay because they can go anywhere in the world that they want to. BUT, how do you challenge them? Dungeons and Dragons is about danger, and mystery. How do you make a powerful character fear for their lives? Though this post, we will deal with different ways to challenge the most unchallenged heroes in the game.
The easy thing to do, is grant land and property. Serving others is the natural progression of the game, but this is not for everybody. It takes a very talented Dungeon Master, and very dedicated players to make the entire thing work! Many players openly express that they don’t want land, and they don’t want to be responsible for this aspect of the game. THEY WANT TO ADVENTURE!!!!!
Well, the best way to do this, is to use your head, but there are some tricks that will help you maintain the balance of the game, and best of all, WE DON’T NEED TO CHEAT!!! So how awesome is that?
BEWARE THE DICE
As a DM, the dice are no longer your friend. This has to have consequences, in low levels, the characters were ignored and under estimated. Mid-level they are taken seriously and battered pretty heavy. Now, at high-level, they are definitely considered threats! Now the players are true heroes. They don’t miss in combat, they kill things very quickly, and possess magics that threaten the Gods themselves!
You have to change the way that you run the game. Don’t depend on the dice, but at the same time, you can threaten them with Save or Dies, they have very little odds of actually failing the roll, but do keep in mind that my rule of THE DM ISN’T ALLOWED TO KILL CHARACTERS still applies. It must be their decision, but don’t worry, the more powerful that they are, the more risks that they are going to take. Level Draining monsters are also available, however you want to drain the party down evenly. THEY CAN TAKE IT!!!!
However, for the most part, we want to avoid using the dice. We must come up with situations were combat isn’t the only option, in fact, there is nothing to gain from doing it! The very powerful masters of the world will be gunning for them now, and they will hide behind weaker minions, they will use the parties morals against them.
Increase your traps, traps are a good way to endanger a character. Thieves have the ability to find/remove traps, however that does not include all traps. A trap could be found, however it could be of a type that cannot be deactivated or defeated. Now they KNOW that a trap is present, and while the Thief might be able to sneak past it without setting it off, who is to say that the rest of the party will be able to do the same thing?
One thing that a DM that I played under did to me at high-levels, is require that my thief uses tools to accomplish my goals, if while picking a lock, I fail then the tool is broken and I can’t pick again until I purchase or construct a new lock pick. Depending on the quality of the Trap, or lock, applies modifiers to a thief’s base of success. A well made lock will impose a -50% modifier to my lock picking ability. As a thief I would be able to see this at a glance, and it would be up to me to decide if I am going to try anyway, failure of course would destroy my lock pick. The lock itself may be trapped as well, which could only be detected by first checking for traps, if the trap is really well hidden, then this too could impose a negative modifier to my roll.
This applies to more then just thieves, you need to start thinking in percentages! The enemies of the characters will be the kind that are more aware of their skills, and will set up things to kill them, as well have better terrain where they set up their bases.
In the past, an ability check was not modified, but now they will be traveling in area’s that men aren’t meant to, for example the mountain road to a dark castle will be dangerous, else everybody would go there! Perhaps the bridge is rotten, requiring not just basic DEX checks, but so warn and crumbling that it imposes a -5 penalty every five feet. Thus, a bridge that spans 10 feet would require two checks, failure would mean that the player falls threw the bridge, a roll of a twenty could mean that the entire thing collapses.
Applying modifiers skillfully and in the right balance for your party does take some practice, but our goal here is to get the players to focus on intelligent methods of doing the things that they use to take for granted. For the example of the rotten bridge above, this problem could be solved by having the most dexterous character to do it alone with a rope which he could tie on the other side of the bridge, thus allowing their companions to safely traverse the bridge.
Logic is key here! There must be a reason why the ability has a negative modifier to it, you must be able to explain why this task is more difficult then what it should be, if you can’t do this, then you are cheating!
Combat at this stage can become dull, fighting in battles, while good for mid-level heroes, is now below them. They’re goals need to be different, and more up to par with what a true heroes should be! The characters need not be afraid of their lives, however you can build tension by adding elements that do scare them! Escorting children through a goblin infested forest, saving a princess from a time activated trap. Just because they have more hp then their enemies, doesn’t mean that their goal does! Failure must also have severe consequences for them. They are now epic heroes, they must have truly epic goals, which will come up in more detail later.
You don’t want to eliminate the dice completely, we just want to adjust the difficulty and increase the danger involved in failing it. Of course the enemies will change as well. They will deal with less minions, and more powerful monsters. Things that lesser parties can’t handle, epic heroes are rare!!!! They should be allowed to pick and chose what missions that they will take. They will have a bigger say in the world as well, with this respect comes a lot of responsibility. They aren’t obscure anymore, and if they kill somebody or something that may or may not deserve it, then now they are objects of public opinion!
For example, a fighter is magically controlled by an evil wizard with orders to take a city, if the epic heroes simply kill the fighter this could get them into huge trouble once the truth does come out! Fame comes with a huge price, and there will be no doubt about how famous your heroes will be.
We played last night, but admittedly, it wasn't very good. I am going to skip over the last playing session, which turned out really well! It took place on the Orient Express, for that session was light, I just had to create a train full of NPCs, and create a few mini adventures if the PC's solved my story quickly . . . which of course they did. The PC's reclaimed the stolen gem, which was their objective. The lady who originally stole it was murdered on the train, and it was up to the PCs to find clues and determine which NPC on the train murdered the woman and took the stone for themselves. It turned out to be Fu Manchu's second in command, Karamaneh disguised as a Geisha. They fought her, and she was forced to escape empty handed. They also encountered the writer Percival Lowell and an African Hunter named Augustine Hall who are both members of "Der Watchmen"
Like I said, that adventure went off without a hitch! I was fully prepared and knew exactly what I was doing. This time around it was a terrible mess. The game was just disorganized, to my credit, I didn't know about the game until Friday, and by that point my work schedule was too crazy to do any prepwork what so ever. To make matters worse, I was under the impression that only 2 of my 3 players would show up. (I did not call my forth player as I had given her an objective to complete on the Orient, she was running an NPC and I needed this NPC to infiltrate the Players and spy on them . . . instead she chose to stay in her cabin the entire time, all the while doing nothing but disrupting the game)
My objective was to get the players up another level so that they could survive the next part of the storyline. I had no idea how I was going to do this, as if it was just the two of them, then I'd only have 7 total party HD to work around, as it turned out, my 3rd player DID show up, so all of my plans for playing with just the two of them was thrown right out the window. I HAD NOTHING!!!!
I did have some story objectives to work with. Mr. Lowell and Augustus met Abraham Van Helsing at the depot, meanwhile two members of the evil party which they will eventually have to face were also waiting at the depot to meet the lady who stole the gem from them in the first place (whom was now dead) Van Helsing quickly spirits them away with his party, as he is interested in the story that is taking place, and the PC's really need an ally in this story.
He takes them to a secluded cabin in the Romanian mountains, and we do a nice role-playing session with him. The PC's learn the facts on the cabal known as the Black Hand, and find that they fight the Red Death, but there methods are insane, to save the world they feel that they must destroy it.
Van Helsing identified the gem, it is the battery that powers an artifact that if it falls into the hands of the Six Fingered Hand, they could use it to destroy the world. Lowell was traveling to meet with Van Helsing in regards to reporting Fu Manchu to his attention, nobody is quite aware of what he wants with London, however Helsing is already too preoccupied with studying a certain vampire who he is convinced is the Prince of Darkness himself.
Through this session I did learn a few things about how my players were feeling towards the game. They are feeling severally over-whelmed, the great race has just started, and they are already feeling that they need more help then what I'm willing to give them. They were hoping to recruit Van Helsing to their cause, which is something that I DON'T want to do. I don't want an NPC to win this game, that is the Players job. I do have to rethink my methods, and outside of the game I let them know what this whole thing was about, which I have kept a secret from them. The game is a task that one would expect from an Indian Jones adventure, an ancient artifact of great power that wants to be discovered, and 3 seperate parties (two of them evil) fighting to claim this object.
I did decide that Van Helsing could become a more important part of this quest, none of the characters are experienced with monsters, and Van Helsing can give them experience with how to handle things confidently.
I had recently picked up a Ravenloft module which is consisted of 8 or 9 stories that take place with the character of Van Richton, it took very little effort on my part to turn him back to Van Helsing, whom he is based on. Unfortunately I had only gotten a chance to briefly skim through the mini story, and didn't have any grasp on it what so ever.
Players can sense this kind of stuff too, my disorganization and having to flip through books all the time really screwed up the game. The action scenes were awesome!!! But everything in between sucked big monkey balls. Players spent more time talking among themselves then playing. BAD DM!!!!
Meanwhile . . . back at the Ranch! Smoke could be seen in the distance, everyone got into the carrage and raced to the smoke to see if they could help put the fire out but it was too late. A farmer could be seen crying as his house was consumed by fire, his wifes dead body as well as his two daughters were dead and burned.
The Farmer said that gypsies did this because he had caught a gypsy boy stealing one of his chickens and he had gave him a thrashing. Now they have burned his house to the ground, killed his wife and daughters, and to make matters worse, stole his son!
The party helped the man bury his dead, and vowed to help him get his son back. They found the gypsy caravan camped in the road at the bottom of a valley. The caravan was HUGE!!!! About 30 members all told. The players had to devise a plan to steal the child back, there were about 9 different wagons, Van Helsing suggested that the boy was probably being held in the center most wagon.
My PC's were smarter then what the module gave them credit for. They didn't attack, it would had been 30+ gypsies vs. the 7 of them (The farmer refused to attack, but sure as hell wanted them too!) They devised a plan were the gunslinger (Shannon) hid under the carrage, Van Helsings two assistence drove the wagon, and the Detective (Ricky) and the Medium (Tala) pretended to be newlyweds trying to find their way to Bucharest. Percival and August worked their way down the valley to cover the PC's with their rifles in case something happened.
It didn't, the players infiltrated the gypsies, who were suspicious and discovered that they had been double crossed, there WAS no child kidnapped by the gypsies, and now, the farmer who said such was gone. The gypsies had nothing to do with the house fire, or the death of the woman and her daughters. The female leader of the gypsy tribe told them about a darkling named Largo who means to destroy their tribe. She charged the PC's with hunting him down and killing him, as now he was no longer a gypsy, but a monster, a creature of darkness.
Darklings are pretty kick ass villains, they are gypsies who have made a deal with the devil for extra power. VERY dangerous! Thankfully, this Darkling hasn't been a darkling for long so his powers are kind of muted.
The PC's made their way to an ancient graveyard where the Gypsy lady told her that he was staying (the gypsy said that she was forbidden from hunting him down herself, as it would destroy her soul, but other then that she would say nothing as to why she refused. In fact, this Darkling is her son!)
It was during this phase of the adventure that really shocked and excited me! I had always been under the impression that these Masque Characters were really weak compared to their core rules counterparts, but this is the first time that they really proved their destructive capabilities!
I had my high level NPCs stay back, they would stop the darkling from fleeing if he got away, while the two low level NPC's followed the players as monster fodder. One got attacked by a giant spider, but surprisingly made his saving throw and survived the poison attack. They blew the spider away in one round! But that really wasn't what impressed me. The Darkling's main attack is to summon a Grave Elemental, a particularly nasty monster with 40 hit points, AC 0, and does 4d8dmg with a THACO of 15. It was suppose to be only hit by +weapons, however I waved this rule as the party didn't have any and the summoner was very new at it. It was it's first summoned creature. It got to attack first, and chose to cast SINK on one of my fodder NPC's, who sunk into the ground and was instantly lost. To the PC's credit, they rolled AWESOME!!!! When dealing with guns, if you roll a 6 on a d6, you get to add it to your dmg and reroll it again. They were able to blow that badass away in two rounds!!!!! It got only one attack which it missed, because I rolled a 2. It was aimed at Shannon's gun slinger, and it if would had pounded him, he in all likelyhood wouldn't had survived.
With that creature dead, all that was left to do was get the darkling, who blew most of his hitpoints summoning the creature, they found him with a thorn sticking out of his heart (he had a ring of regeneration, so sacrificed himself to summon the elemental) he tried to run, but he didn't get far before Shannon blew him away.
The Gypsies collected his body and took all magical items that he was carrying (certainly wasn't going to just give them. I've got a hard enough time dealing with their talents as it is) and they headed back to the cabin out in the woods, with plans to return to Bucharest soon.
And that was our adventure! It was terrible, I have been focusing too much energy on the blog, but I am going to rectify that! I won't ignore this place, as I really like it, but I have to manage my time better. DMing my games should come first.
The outlook on the game is looking good. My old lady is changing rotations at work, and I may be getting 2 new players out of the deal . . . COOL!!! We might make a full fledged gaming group yet! Currently we are sitting at 3, but 5 does sound like a good number.
THANKS FOR READING!!!
The traveler collapsed upon the chair, “It has been many moons that I have walked, Brother Barthalym.” he began as the farmer’s wife warmed up bacon and a porridge, “Many things have I seen in this time, and many trials I have endured.”
Today I want to talk about an area that is usually over-looked, and it really shouldn’t be, as a part of your job as Dungeon Master, is time-keeper. I have played thousands of games, but an unfortunate thing is that they all appeared to be played during Summer, and it didn’t matter if it took years to accomplish our goal, it was always summer! I don’t think that you need me to tell you how rich and full a campaign can be made by observing the seasons, and YES! Players notice it.
But it is so much work! You say, well there are tricks to properly doing this . . . And you get a chance to play an OLD SCHOOL God! Back in the days when DM’s could be mean and have total control over their games and still get players. This has changed (which I think is a good thing) but there is something fun about playing God.
The first thing that we have to do is figure out how our world observes time. For this essay I am going to base it off of the Norse (AKA: The Viking) world. This system wasn’t perfect, as they based it off of the moon instead of the sun, but I feel that it is more fantastic and colorful without going all nuts creating something that nobody but myself can use.
Measuring Time on Fantasy Worlds
Time isn’t a new concept, it is a necessary evil. It isn’t known when people began to understand that the sun was a very predictable thing that could be relied on to show a passage of time. Typically it isn’t very hard, you only have so many hours of daylight in a day. How many hours you get depends on the season, but I think that that is just too advanced. We don’t need to keep a minute by minute journal of our adventures, however this does get important when going on journeys, it determines how long a person can travel with good daylight, and when they should rest.
Time was kept though the use of sun-dials. Most cities and towns had permanent sun-dials in strategic places where time was important. Churches would want this, as would government officials. As for everybody else, they could just look up at the sky and base a judgment call on what time they thought that it was, they got damned good at it too! Of course, judging time is impossible during the night. For this they had other methods of counting hours, water clocks that dripped a specific amount of water per hour, as well as hour glasses for military use.
Counting time was a business. Typically a professional would observe the time and ring a bell hourly, his apprentice would take his place at night. It would also be this professional that researches different methods of counting time. Not a player character class, but a very important NPC would have this job.
Though unimportant, hours, which is never a fixed thing in D&D, game time and real time are rarely on the same card, hours does lead to days, which is important. This leads us to building a calendar.
Constructing a Fantasy Calender
This chore is so much easier now! What, with computers that can easily be used to construct them. The old way was to buy a modern calendar and just use it, however this wasn’t very fun, as most fantasy realms count months by moon phases, not the 12 months it takes to revolve around the sun.
It is a curious thing that societies that counted days always kept them in groups of 7. Our modern week is still based on the Roman method, each day was ruled by a different God. Just so that we don’t get confused, we’ll keep these days named how they are. We don’t want to get into religion yet.
The Norse calendar differs from the Christian calendar in one dramatic way, as I said before, it’s based on the moon, there for there are usually 13 months in a year. The Norse didn’t keep track of years, this is a Christian concept, but of course we will just so that we can keep track of our timelines.
The first month, for reference purposes, begins on the Full moon in the Christian month of December, and is called Wolf.
The Wolf Moon
This moon is a hard one to survive, it is winter but now the days will slowly get longer and longer. Hunting is definitely required.
The Snow Moon
Winter seems to be the cruelest during this month. If you didn’t prepare enough firewood to last the winter, this is also probably the month that you will freeze to death. It is also the last month where you can prepare for the next moon.
The cruelest moon of all. It is time to completely live off of your stocks, and conserve your energy. It is this time when you stay indoors, tools can be remade, fixed, and sharpened. This is the month of the family, where you keep you’re loved ones close to you. Travel is out of the question, it is too dangerous. Even the animals are scarce because of the terrible winds and snows. Music is really important, as is teaching children about the gods and goddesses that rule this cruel world. A time of rest to prepare for another busy year.
The Plowing Moon
It’s still winter, however the harshness is letting up during this month. The waterways melt and the ground starts to soften. It’s still hard as rock, but it is this time that you must force yourself to plow. If the people bury their dead, it is now time to do it. (The dead were kept during the winter months wrapped up and kept in a building that wasn’t heated so that they wouldn’t rot.)
The Seeding Moon
Spring is now starting. Farmers must go out and plant their first crops. This is also the time to get youngsters involved in romance with other families. Friendships are renewed and new ones are formed. A happy time, you have survived another harsh winter!
The Hare Moon
Babies are typically up and running around during this moon. Re-birth and the Goddess’s rule has returned. The world is coming alive, as are the people.
The Merry Moon
The month of Marriages, and a time of joy. It is now summer, but not so hot that it is unbearable. Mead is generally made during this month and it is plentiful and cheap. Food is also plentiful, and this is a great time to be alive!
The Fallow Moon
The time where farmers re-plow their fields and let the earth rest for a time. Land is redefined, and new fences built. Towards the end of the month, new crops are planted (always they are rotated so not to kill the soil)
The Corn Moon
Fast growing crops with big yields (typically corn) is tended. Buildings must be finished by the end of this month, as next month there will be no time for such things.
The Harvest Moon
Autumn is beginning, the crops are harvested and processed. A very busy time, winter stores are replenished, but there is lots of food for everybody.
The Shedding Moon
The rule of the God is returning, the Trees and plants dry and die.
The animals are fat and plentiful. It is time to prepare meat for winter use. Winter has begun again.
The Fog Moon
This name comes from sailors, the seas were the most dangerous at this time because of thick fogs that would roll in and make navigation impossible, but they had to go fish regardless. It is also called the Fog Moon as some years it isn‘t there at all! But for simplicity reasons, we‘ll go ahead and always keep it.
That is the Nordic year. As you can see, most of the names mean something to the people whose toils keep everyone alive. Granted, the Norse did not have what we would call Cities, it was all loose farming communities, but these moon phases would still keep their names in a more advanced society.
The key to naming months, is that they do mean something. Your games typically do take place in temperate climates, the proof of this is that houses are built to weather the seasons, more tropical climates have no need for such sturdy constructions, they are built to weather winter, so it is important that we add winter to the game.
But of course a calendar doesn’t just give meaning to seasons, but it also has another primary function of the game that is typically left out in the wind. RELIGION!!!
Religion and it’s place in the Fantasy Calendar
The Cleric is completely robbed if you don’t use a calendar, we don’t want these guys to be regulated to walking hospitals. In order to really color them how they deserve, is to give them days were religion is important.
Clerics really do deserve much more attention, but that I leave up to you. For this essay, I’ll just focus on the really big Holy days that are always present regardless of what religion we are talking about. Again, I’m going to color it in shades of the Nordic flare.
The Autumn Feast of the Dead which takes place on the first moon of Scorpio, or The Shedding Moon. Great Feasts were laid out to celebrate those who have died. Our loved ones and great heroes that made life possible. It is also a time when the veil between this world and the next is at it’s thinnest. We now call it Halloween.
The Celebration of Yule, which takes place around December 21st, during the Wolf Moon. This is the shortest day of the year and symbolizes the Death and Rebirth of the Sun God. A Yule Log was burned on this night, and the ashes sprinkled over the fields, with some being kept and stored away to start next years Yule log. Mistletoe is also hung above the door to keep out evil spirits (same thing was done in Summer Solstice) Yule was celebrated with the family, and the family only. Doors are not answered on this day, and all buildings are closed to practice this, the most powerful day of the Calendar. Even Adventures would take a break on this day, Inns would close the doors and observe with the guests who were unfortunate enough to be stranded away from their own families. Candles were burned and life was enjoyed. Today we call this Christmas.
This holiday is observed on the first moon of Horning, or the first day of Spring. It was a time of cleansing and purification. It celebrates the goddess in preparation for growth and renewal. Clerics would be busy blessing homes, and people busy cleaning their homes and airing them out after the long winter. Today it is loosely observed as Spring Cleaning day.
This holy day is practiced around March 21st, during the moon of Plowing. It’s the time for sowing, the light and darkness are in perfect balance on this day, so great bonfires are lit and burned. The people dance and be merry, leading cattle between two bonfires to promote fertility.
This holiday takes place on the moon of the Hare, and is dedicated to the worship of the Bright God, the Sun God! Food was left out for nature spirits, trying to gain their favors. The powers of the Elves and Fairies were now growing and will reach their peek on Summer Solstice. The house guardians are also honored at this time. The day after Beltane, cattle is finally taken out to field to graze. To add more spice to this holiday, you can have magic be more powerful as well, spells cast by priests act as if cast from a higher level.
This holy day is practiced around June 22 during the Merry Moon, and symbolizes the Sun’s Turning. The longest day of the year! The God of Fire and the Goddess of Water are perfectly balanced. Again, great bonfires are lit and mistletoe is hung over doors to ward off trolls and other evil spirits. Herbs collected on this day are extremely potent, as are potions that are brewed.
Takes place on the full moon of Fallow. This is a community festival that celebrates either the Pre-harvest, or in upper Northern regions, the final harvest before winter returns. It celebrates life and age, as many elders won’t make it to see the end of winter. It is also the last day that herbs can be collected, after this day they will be void of any magical properties. It is believed that if you make a wish on this day, it may come true!
Takes place around September 21st , during the Harvest Moon. Again, the sun and the moon were in perfect balance, and this was a time to feast and celebrate a successful harvest season. Food was stored for the winter and thanks was given to the Gods and Goddesses for the bounty.
Creating your own holidays
For each God and Goddess that your characters worship, they will have a day set aside for them specifically. Those that worship this deity will probably not adventure that day, and instead pay respects to them.
There are also local holidays that have nothing to do with religion, perhaps a fair, or a game day where sports are practiced and a winner crowned with honor. Festivals happen annually to encourage growth and to give people a sense of accomplishment. Foods will be cooked and judged, animals will be examined and prizes will be awarded to the owners of exceptional beasts. Hunting tournaments will take place, as will fishing, wrestling, and other games that make people happy.
Holidays are needed to keep life interesting, all work and no play leads to a terrible life. People work hard and they should also be allowed to play hard as well.
You can also lay out special days where things work differently, to keep magic interesting, you can use the moon phases to determine shifts in magic. Perhaps the three days of the Full Moon, good aligned magic users have stronger magic and cast their spells at a higher level then they normally could, and the same for Evil aligned magic users during the 3 days of the New Moon, which forces good magic to be cast at a level lower then the caster.
Building your Timeline
The timeline is used to record world changing events, it is a memory aid for anything that you want to remember. My memory is very shoddy, I keep track of reigns of power, deaths of powerful monsters, rises of powerful enemies. Anything that would help me keep the continuities down. We also want to give news from other parts of the realms to our PC’s, news is always a big deal to characters, through this news they may acquire information that may come in handy, this news may or may not be role-played, if the PC’s are struggling with something you can have them roll against their wisdom to see if their characters remember a little tidbit that could be handy to them now.
Your time-line can go back several thousands of years before play begins. If introducing the ruins of a city, long lost to time, this can be added to your timeline. As a general rule, however, most characters in our world won’t have any knowledge of any history dating back 150 years or more. The exception to the rule is of course your Wizard Class, and those that chose to study Ancient History. If a player does chose the NWP of Ancient History, then that is your cue to build a history for him. This timeline, like everything in D&D, is built slowly over time, as you need it, but if you do do it, it is a way to not only keep things in chronological order, and accurate, but you also want to save your work.
Using a Calendar to save Data
As a player, I can tell you with authority about a little thing called, None Approved Bonus Spells. This is an extra spell that you get because a DM isn’t paying attention, and you know it. By using a calendar, you can eliminate this problem by just keeping a quick tally of spell points used. You can also track XP points daily, and write yourself short notes, such as unknown spells cast on players, charting illness and poisoning times, and other things that require your attention.
Calendars make the life of a DM that much easier, and it is a way that we can save our work! You can more accurately control the game, it gives you specifics at a glance for information that you’ve chosen to record. If a magic item can only be used 3 times a week, there is no excuse for you not to keep this rule in check now. You can get as elaborate, or as simple as you want to get with them, as long as you find a system that works for you, and as a bonus, YOU GET SEASONS!!!! Fighting through raging blizzards! Feeling the relief of a long awaited and much needed rain. Celebrating their gods through ancient rites. Knowing when to construct a Sword which honors the God of Justice, in a way that, if he sees fit, he may bless with his divine power. The world is yours, take it!
Christ, I didn’t know what kind of headache I was getting myself into. Graham from Criticalacklebites.com brought up just one of the horrors of infravision logic, telling me, “It always led to silly situations where an elf with infravision kept running into walls or trees, which don't show up on infrared because their heat isn't really different from ambient temperature.”
I, as a player, generally always play human beings. I have played 1 elf, and 1 half-elf, just to say that I’ve done it. I honestly never put much thought into infravision! And I know that I was sloppy about adding this to descriptions. I’ve got a player who almost exclusively plays elves. The only time I put much thought into it was when I could use it as a tool to build tension (seeing a monster’s breath as it is sniffing under the door) but other then that, it was all purely mathematics. BAD DM, RIPPER! BAD DM!
Clearly there is a huge problem with how 2e handles infravision, and I just don’t have the imagination for it. Other forms of infravision states that a character creates his own light, which would be seen by others with the same ability, but it isn’t. A character can only see 60ft, thus, if there was a giant fire breathing dragon standing 61 feet away, they wouldn’t see them . . . Why not? It is stupid.
3rd edition did away with infravision and replaced it with Darkvision, according to wikipedia, “This refers to the ability of a creature to see in the dark. It allows the creature to discern shapes (as in normal, daylight vision) but only in shades of grey.”
This makes more sense, but I’m not so sure that I like this any better. I am the type of person that really needs to experience things, I guess that you can say that I lack true imagination. I suppose that I see a better description of infravision as how a cat sees the world. They need some light, but not as much as we do.
As a side thing, I research the occult and have gone on several ghost watching expeditions. I have made the following observations in regards to light and how our eyes use it.
While working night shift (graveyard) it took less time for my eyes to adjust to darkness (about 5-10 min. depending on moon intensity) now that I keep day hours, it can take anywhere from 20-60 minutes for my eyes to adjust to little or dim light. This can be really screwed up by a sudden change of light, we use very dim and tinted flashlights to see fine materials, such as amateur astronomers who keep a book near them to write notes and read their sky charts, it’s always done with dim tinted light of either blue or red because we don’t want to lose our night vision.
I suppose, for mythical races, such as elves and Halflings, the time that it takes for them to achieve perfect night vision is greatly reduced, their eyes automatically adjust, such as a cats does, or any other nocturnal animal that prowls the night.
Why most forms of elves even have infravision is beyond me. They live the same life-styles as we humans do. Drow, and Dwarves whom spend most, if not their entire lives below ground, would have incredible vision . . . But one would assume that evolution would change and adapt to their surroundings. They would instead lose their eyes and focus more on other senses like R/L cave creatures do. However, I have figured out a mechanical fix for this. A mold or moss that casts a light that our eyes cannot detect, but underground creatures whom see in a different frequency or wavelength then ourselves, can use this light with ease.
Of course this no doubt creates its own problems because of my own lack of understanding, and limited play-testing; this is magic, and in my opinion it is the worst kind as it starts to impede on science and reasoning.
Clearly there is much work to be done on this subject, I think that the best course of action is to work slowly for specific characters, some of the races clearly see differently then others, but it’s all been clumped up as “Infravision” to save space for more stable game mechanics, which is just fine with me.
I think, in my personal game, I’m going to do away with the entire heat-vision concept, it’s never been a problem before but I sure as hell don’t want to pause a game for a 6 hour discussion about problems that it presents. While Darkvision is better, I’d still just prefer to entirely do away with the optional rules involving infravision, and just have it mean that you can see stuff in the dark. You can’t do any fine work that requires any fine detail, but you can get a slight edge in combat and in moving without bouncing off of walls.
Monsters whom live underground . . . Ugh . . . Would have a more advanced system of infravision, specifically the drow and other organized societies that can and do perform fine detailed work completely in pitch black. I will admit that my expertise in Drow is very limited, a friend would talk about them all the time, but I personally have never fought them, nor used them in an adventure. Surely they would use fires though, wouldn’t they? Clearly I need to do some research on them.
“I’m a ranger, and I’m going to sleep in the cemetery.” The 2nd level character insisted.
“Okay,” the DM says, “Out of character, you already saw that the city is forced to wrap chains around the coffins of the deceased to bury them. There is no mystery that this cemetery is a haven for the undead, and your party is going to spend the night in the Inn. Quick suggestion . . . JOIN THEM!”
“No.” the player insists, “My character doesn’t stay in inns. He sleeps outdoors. I’m staying in the cemetery.”
“All by yourself?” the DM asks, shaking his head.
Yes, some characters just aren’t meant to survive. That one comes from when I was trying to teach a new player how to play. His ranger’s name was “Stone Cold Steve Austin”, so in a sense . . . I killed Stone Cold!
I’m such a bad ass.
I honestly do try not to kill PC’s, not with dice rolls. Whenever a character dies in my games, it is because the player did something stupid, or took a risk and was aware of the consequences of failure. Not that my games are cake! God no! But I don’t consider a DM with a high kill rate a very good DM either.
Death happens, it’s part of the game. Some heroes die like heroes, and some just die miserable deaths that can only be blamed on the players that made them that way. THERE ARE BOLD ADVENTURERS, AND THERE ARE OLD ADVENTURERS, BUT THERE ARE NO OLD, BOLD ADVENTURERS!
My fiancée and I got into a debate over Critical Hit’s the other day, and she told me her feelings towards hit points and their meanings, which I feel should be added to this journal.
In a nut shell, a character’s health always stays the same, regardless of level, however a more experienced, battle hardened character knows how to move and dodge, and when he gets hit, he is better at deciding where and how he is hit, thus minimizing the damage done to his body. It is in this way, a high level fighter can get hit 30 times with a two-handed long sword and keep fighting. BRILLIANT BABY!!!
That said, there is a few notes to make on Character Death, and how I personally handle it.
I really like how 2nd Edition deals with it. It needn’t go crazy, it works great if you’ve got a high magic world, or one that is suppressed. I do use the “hanging at deaths door” optional rule. At 0hp you fall and lose 1-2hp per round, with death taking you at -10hp. A character who is proficient in healing can wrap your wounds and stop the bleeding completely, or a none proficient character can try as well. In this way, we can make up for not being so realistic during combat, plus characters who are under the influence of Berserker Rage will fight until -10hp.
Becoming an injured person, before becoming an actual casualty does mean that it is safer for the well being of a party. Some characters think that they just have to kill everything that moves, regardless of the fact that they are incapable of bringing forth this outcome. The -10 rules gives those poor guys a chance to fight another day. (Not to mention that it works both ways, villains enjoy this rule as well)
Of course, not even this learning curve can save all of the heroes, all of the time. For them . . . Well, there is always paying a priest to resurrect your companion. There are limits to this, however. With each resurrection that you receive, you lose 1 point of CON, and no amount of wishing will ever change this. If you’re character started the game with a CON of 9, and you find some way of pushing your CON score up to 16 during the playing of the game, it doesn’t matter, you may only be resurrected 9 times.
A resurrected character also forfeits all of the experience points that he has earned, he must start over. He doesn’t lose a level! But he goes back to the minimum requirements to stay at that level. At the DM’s discretion, he (or I) can choose to put your experience points back further then this, this may cost you a level, or it may not. I account for this loss as the loss of esteem. It will take a while before your character will be back on a path where he can grow. He is going to use more caution in the future, and attempt to retrain at some levels to better prepare him for if he encounters a situation like it again.
Also depending on the type of game that I am running, if he died a horrible death, there may be a fear check in his future if he has to deal with situations like it again, of course good role-playing will always stop a fear check from happening.
DEATH WILL TAKE A TOLL ON A CHARACTER!!! He doesn’t just bounce right back up and feel fine and dandy. Death is a big deal!
Dead characters who can’t be brought back from the dead, leave no body, the body is lost, or fail their resurrection survival role, are gone. Players lose them forever. I will always take the character sheet, but the player has to roll a new character sheet, depending on where the adventure is, he may have equipment, and he may not. Regardless, as a rule, new characters rolled during an ongoing adventure are always figured at 2 levels lower then the character that they are replacing . . . Unless the character died at a low level, which then of course I wouldn’t make them play 0th level. So if you want to die, do it between 1 and 2 and you won’t get any penalties.
Again, I stress to DM’s out there, DON’T KILL CHARACTERS!!! Especially if you employ this system of handling death. You should never punish a character for something that YOU did. If the accident is your fault then correct it with relaxed penalties. Your honesty will gain you the respect of the players, and this system of handling death will earn the players respect for their characters.
This prep session was a nightmare! I knew what I wanted to get out of this huge storyline. I have never had the opportunity to create and DM an Artifact. And I wanted to create a great race of mystery and intrigue. Lots of bad guys, lots of good guys, and lots of danger. Fun stuff!
This is the first time that I’ve used a computer to help with DMing, which is a HUGE benefit. In the past I always used notebook paper, graph paper, and a typewriter, which is very slow. I still won’t have a computer at my table, I’m old school and can flip through papers quicker then finding files I hide away on a laptop.
My prep sessions were roughly 5-6 hours a night for a month. I had to record and write up all of my NPC’s, and add more because there are two other Cabals that are interested in what is going on. One of them will infiltrate the house by posing as a maid.
I had to draw a map of the Mansion, I used good ol fashion Paint to do it, but the hard part was that I had to match all of the rooms that I described in the original adventure and build a house around it. My original hand drawn map was simply rooms that I connected without the framework of the house. But I was able to tie them all together in a logical manner that didn’t mess with the continuity too badly. I think that the biggest change was that I had to remove a door that connected the Library to the Dining room.
I had to write up a key for the entire house, not just for this adventure but since this is going to be the base of operations for the PC’s, lots of adventures were going to take place here. The house is huge! With secret passages, dark secrets, and adventure hooks that I can use later on down the road that I don’t want to go into yet, as some of my players read this blog. I had also hidden handouts that I wrote, objects to find, and identified the main object itself (while Linda knew what the object was, I as the DM was not entirely sure. I had a general idea, I knew that it was a magic crystal of some kind, but other then that I didn’t have a clue).
I also had to create a unique artifact complete with a huge history, it’s own back story, it’s powers and keywords, and since it must be constructed, I had to hide its different parts all around the world, all of them with their own back story. Now, on top of this, I had to write George’s Journal where he describes what he knows about this powerful ancient weapon, giving hints and clues to the PC’s plus building anticipation for where the game is going to be heading, and giving them an idea of what they have to accomplish to win the game.
I also wrote a separate handout where George talks to the PC’s directly, letting them know “Why” he chose them, perfect strangers, to receive his fortune and giving them details about how he will contact them from the other side. This isn’t free money, though death has slowed him down, he still has plans and goals and he trusts the PC’s to use his money to accomplish them.
I also had to write up 4 ghosts that were totally original, all with separate powers and triggers. Back stories, and means to end their existence as well. FUN STUFF!!!
I put a lot of my heart and soul into this project, it is always the initial plans that are the hardest, and thank god that I had a three weak deadline before the next game, else I’d probably still be prepping for the son of a gun.
Now, actual playtime . . . It sucked, and it was all my fault. I was inflexible at the time and I didn’t see it. I had spent three weeks of exhausting prep work that my mind was tired and my creative skills as a DM suffered greatly.
Tala had set herself the goal of learning more about the mysterious little girl. Ricky was hell-bent on solving the in-house murder mystery and protecting everybody in the house. And Shannon was still trying to figure his character out, he was exhausted our first play session, and his personal goals remained a mystery.
My goals were to get the PC’s to accomplish their mission, locate the object, get the money and move the story along to the next setting. Our first session had a nice leisurely pace to it, somehow this one became very rushed. Not on my part, but on the PC’s being too effective and lucky.
The Mystic was intent on finding the little girls room, and she did this quickly, finding a secret passage from her room into that room itself. Here is where my game fell apart. Tala is my fiancée, and we can read each other like a book. It is this room where I had placed the object inside of a locked jewelry box that could only be opened by George’s Lawyer. I put my pokerface on and I don’t think that I ran it any differently then any other prop in the house, I simply described it as an expensive little girl’s jewelry box decorated with a boy and a girl holding hands and skipping. Honestly, I describe everything that the PC’s look at with detail, but I think what did it was that she couldn’t open the damned thing. She ended up keeping the thing.
While in Steven’s old room they discovered evidence that will convince Ramses that his coworker has a double life, an address that Charlotte identified as a very dangerous opium den, an opium pipe, and they discovered the old debt owed to a loan shark to pay for drugs that got him disowned by his family because he was constantly pulling this stuff and George just didn’t want the attention, and he grew tired of constantly having to bail his son out. The problem was that the PC’s didn’t identify this as evidence at all! It was just stuff to them, they didn’t even take the stuff which made me kind of mad because they took the one thing that I didn’t want them to and ignored what I expected them to take! I’m telling you, D&D would be much more rewarding if we could find a way to do away with the whole player character, thing.
Meanwhile, I had my mole from the Si-Fan cabal infiltrate the house. This is the group that Steven owes money too, and Steve will identify her immediately and expose himself by killing her out of complete terror. I had to work fast and speed things up because my players were getting close to solving the mystery too quickly.
The house is old, and the family has always been devout Catholics, in the house is a Catholic chapel, complete with hidden rooms to hide the Priest who were being hunted down and arrested for their faith. Now these rooms have been converted into different things. George Weathermay had converted one area into a secret meeting place for the cabal that he was in “The Fellowship of the Crimson Dawn” as well as a secret study where he practiced his dark arts. A separate secret area was hidden below the priests living quarters, and was a secret bedroom where Steven was sleeping and spending most of his time.
I almost was able to slow things down. I had to move one handout into the confessional. My sister and Tala were exploring this area, I had my sister discover the handout where George writes to them that he had written before his death. Tala was in the side that triggered the secret door down to George’s secret chambers. She found the cross, and played with it a bit, and was about to leave when Shannon suggested that she turn it upside down. BAM!!!! That part of the game was over, the stairway is exposed and all sorts of mysteries were solved. Down in the secret study they found the Ouija board, which I had for an actual prop. They found his diary and learned about the artifact, and talked to George Weathermay via the Ouija board, and he told them that the object which they seek is in the “Gemini Box” and immediately Tala knew that she had it.
As they went upstairs, they arrived too late to stop the fight between the Si-Fan Thuggee and Steven Weathermay, this was taking place as they were yelling at Stephan for spying on them and trying to figure out a way to sneak the fact that they’ve actually got the object without letting him know.
The house was in chaos, as the PC’s are looking at the dead girl’s body on the floor of the men’s bedroom, Steven attacks! Our first gunfight using “Masque” rules. The fight wasn’t what I expected, I had planned on all players entering into melee with him, but instead the Mystic and the Doctor bowed out to stay with the body, Tala’s character is essentially a priest, she is the second best shot in the group, but she’s a chicken, which only left the Gunfighter, and the Detective to fight him . . . And the Detective was using a sawed-off shotgun and was out of range. Thank god that Steven was utterly insane, if he wasn’t he would had murdered all of them, but his planning and tactics were severely off allowing them to chase him through the house and finally corner him in a room where they severely wounded all of the fight out of him and he revealed why he had killed people, admitted his addiction, and his horror that Si-Fan had finally taken what they wanted him to give them in the first place. He revealed the name of the main villain that will dog them until the stories conclusion, the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu. BAM!!!! I FREAKIN’ LOVE THIS GAME!!!
The authorities picked up Steven Weathermay so that he could get medical attention and stand trial for his crimes, and the Lawyer was alerted to the fact that the object was located. He arrived and indeed, the key that was given to him fit the box. He pulled out an odd Gem, when suddenly a thick mist inexplicably invaded the library and among the screaming and chaos Stephan stole the Gem. Kurt and Sam raced out into the hallway and saw Stephan run up the steps, they shot at him but he quickly disappeared. Racing to the steps, they heard a gunshot from the second floor, there they discovered the dead body of Stephan, shot in the head. Who did it?!?!
The imposter of Linda Claugh had the gem, and made her getaway, Sam and Kurt followed, as did a mysterious 3rd party, unknown to them. The pursuit ended at the train station, and the mysterious woman, along with her henchmen disappeared inside of the most famous train on Gothic Earth, the fabled Orient Express!
At that point I awarded everybody their experience points, and let them spend some of their money on things that they’d need on the long journey East. They tried to strong arm themselves on board the train, but weren’t allowed, Royalty had commandeered the train and it was now running nonstop to Bucharest and security was at it’s highest. If they wanted on the train, then they had to buy tickets at 100 pounds a pop.
The sad thing was that it was only 10:00, and normally we play until 2am. I couldn’t run this next setting with no prep, as the NPC’s are essential to it. I felt terrible! I had failed utterly, later that night with rethinking all that had happened, I came up with ideas that would have extended the play time, such as hiding twelve boxes around the house, and moving the Gem into one of them. Or even having the PC’s lose Linda on the streets of London and having to track her down to the Orient Express through logic and asking around . . . But in reality I didn’t do that. I felt bad, but lesson learned!
I did get some time to visit one on one with Ricky and get some insight on him as a person. This was only the second time that we had met, so by doing this and just getting some time to chat about bullshit I can better tailor the game to him. I also gave out the assignment to do a character writeup. So far I’ve gotten one back . . . Tala’s. Ricky has his to memory, he just has to write it down.
We played one more time before we’re all caught up to day on how my adventure is going, and the prep involved.
Weathermay is dead but not at rest, he learned the PC’s names from divining them on his Magic Talking Board.
The item is recovered and is somehow related to an ancient artifact that can slay Gods.
The Little girl was killed by one of her brothers, but which one is unclear.
Steven Weathermay has been stopped, and arrested.
A piece of this artifact may be located under the Romanian city of Bucharest.
The item was recovered but stolen by Linda Claugh
Who is Linda Claugh?
What is Fu Manchu and his Si-Fan after?
Who is Fu Manchu?
“Okay,” the DM says, “Elric, it’s your turn, what are you doing?”
“I’m going to hit the skeleton to my right with my Magic Sword+2.”
“Okay, roll your attack.”
“Damn it!” curses the Fighter, “I rolled a one.”
“That’s a critical fumble, your sword flies through the air and gets lodged high up in a tree.”
“That doesn’t matter, part of its enchantment is that it always appears in my hand when I think about it.”
“No it doesn’t.” states the DM, “It’s critically fumbled, it is gone.”
“What!?!? That was a quest item! It took me three months to earn that sword, the original owner was my greatest rival. It’s part of my character’s history!”
“Okay, okay. If you’re going to whine about it, then roll a saving-throw.”
“Damn it!” the fighter curses, really getting angry now, “I failed it, I rolled a 20.”
“Okay, you critically failed that roll too, so now the sword is broken!” The DM laughs gleefully.
This actually happened to me, and I felt severally burned. I vowed from that point on that Critical anything was not fair. Losing an important item forever, not because of something that I did, but simply because I rolled badly, is bull!
We test play different parts of the game; some of the stuff works, and other stuff we just ditch because we can’t get them to do for the game what we feel that they should. At one point I was high up on the Critical Hits bandwagon, it never worked, but I just wouldn’t give up on it . . . Until I got burned by the system. THAT fixed my position on them.
The DM is responsible for NPC’s, the story, and the world in which a player games in, however, I feel that the soul owner of a character, and the ultimate authority upon the subject, is the player who plays them. It is they who should have total creative control over them. This doesn’t mean that they are immune to all aspects of the game, but that if something does happen, it is not the DM who gets the blame, but the character themselves.
There are other problems that critical hits add to the game. I speak now of those tables and lists that the Critical Hits fans tend to keep; The crazy ones where it describes what happens in gory detail.
Some monsters have special attacks that can drain levels, stats, or cause permanent injury. By having a Crit Hit list we undermine these abilities that give that specific monster its charm.
The Crit hit list is unbalanced as well. The DM throws more dice during encounters and battles, his/her chances of rolling 20’s is much higher, however the DM shouldn’t be burdened with rolling on a separate crit hit table. The over all impact on the game suffers as well. Nobody is going to care if a NPC Cyclopes looses an arm, however if a PC looses a limb because of a die roll, it holds great consequences that that character may have to live with for the rest of his adventure, and may cause the player to feel that it is now a lost cause.
However, with that said, SOMETHING should happen when a twenty is rolled, as well as when a character rolls a 1 . . . But what? I got to thinking about this last night, and I’m not sure if I can properly answer that question. Maybe the twenty means that the character automatically wins the next initiative, or they get a second attack. We’ve generally gave the player double damage, but at low levels, this can kill somebody. Right now, I think that it should mean that they earned a 2nd attack.
Critical failures can be equally unpleasant, I’ve had DM’s tell me that the item is lost, that I’ve fumbled and hit myself. It seems to mean different things to different DM’s, which is good as long as you are aware of this rule before play starts. What should it mean, though? I want something streamlined, because I want combat to be quick and fast and smooth, perhaps something minor, like losing initiative, or taking damage. Perhaps it should be up to the character himself? Three options, all negative, pick one? Player loses initiative, players lose all attacks for that round, and may include part of the next round depending on how many attacks that the player is able to dish out, or that they take damage. That seems fair, and I also like that because it gives the player an option.
It is food for thought, I just know that I hate Critical hits and fumbles. I still haven’t found a system that I’m happy with, but I do agree that SOMETHING should happen.
The room before you is dusty, the scent of mildew and dead flowers puts a bitter taste in your mouth. This is an old room, and from the looks of it, it hasn’t been touched in years. Sunlight fights its way through a filthy window pane, casting everything in gloomy, pale shades of blue. A delicate vanity sits against the wall, the mirror shrouded with a sheet that has stained yellow over the passage of ages. Dominating the room, an obviously expensive bed wasted by time, its mattress drooping miserably, the wooden frame twisted in neglect. Upon a dusty nightstand you can see a novel, the pages dry and brown. Upon the floor, near a thick oval shaped rug; a picture frame lays face-down, the fragile glass shattered and broken into angry, jagged pieces.
The one thing that good old fashioned D&D has over any computer game, is that the graphics are a lot better. Thinking back to some of the games that I’ve played, I don’t see myself sitting at a table, tapping my pencil on my cheetoh stained character sheet while seeing how long I can get a d10 to spin. I am magically taken back to standing in some dark and cold corridor illuminated by the fighters torch. I’m crouched down in front of a thick wooden door, forcing all of my attention to the grimy, brass lock; my picks . . . Extensions of my own fingers, feel their way around the mechanism. . . The cleric sighs in that impatient way as she fights the instinct to tell me to hurry before something comes, then “CLICK”! I GOT IT!!!
How much do you tell your PC’s?
You want to give them enough information about what they are seeing, but we also want to give them a bit more. I remember some DM’s that didn’t care about this, “You walk into a room and there are 3 trolls in there, roll for initiative.” BORING!!! But I’ve also had DM’s on the other side of the tracks who spend 5 minutes describing the shine on a leather couch. BORING!!!
How much is TOO much? Modules tend to get overly wordy in their descriptions, but that is because we as the DM have to be able to see a room before we can describe it. When writing my own dungeons, I’ll just list important things that are in the room, and wait to creatively describe them on game day.
The trick to knowing what too much is and if you’re not giving enough is based on the importance of the room. Logically, the scene about the abandoned room that I described above must be an important room that contains a mystery to be solved, or an object to find, or an encounter just waiting to happen. If this was just window dressing then you don’t want to get overly specific, the human brain is a magnificent tool and the players will color in all of the details to fill up the missing space. You just have to use your judgment, but as a rule of thumb, if it isn’t something that you would typically role-play, then keep it brief.
That said, what kind of stuff should the DM describe to his players? As a writer, one of the things that I do is experience something first hand and pay attention to the world around me. When you walk into a hospital, typically it isn’t what you see that you notice first, but how it smells. Try making a habit of this, pay attention to your other senses, and make mental notes of them. What do you see, feel, hear, smell. This is what we will be focusing on.
I Spy . . .
I know that all DM’s describe contents of rooms, but most of us need to work on specifics. Instead of just saying that there is a table in the room, quickly describe it so that the players can see the table.
A monstrously, large table. A dirty wooden table. A spotless, glass table. Be specific without being overly wordy. We need to separate this table from all of the other tables that are out there in the world.
Visually, we notice large objects first, or shiny objects that catch our eyes. Visualize the room yourself, and quickly tell the players what they need to know so that you are all looking at roughly the same room, starting from large objects and work your way down to obvious small ones. This doesn’t include objects that characters need to search for, just the general appearance.
Do you smell that?
You may not notice this, but smells are hardwired directly into our nervous systems in a way that profoundly effects how we feel towards something. They also trigger memories, we remember weird stuff like how our mom’s purse smelled, or grandpa’s pipe. We want to incorporate the smell of a place as well as the visual aspects of it.
Obviously we don’t need to over do this one, a musty dungeon is always going to smell musty and we’ll quickly start to ignore this smell. But through smells, we can hint at an encounter. Trolls are known to live in filth, chances are you are going to be able to smell them way before you see them.
The young lady has a sweet smell. The distinct odor of death waifs out of the cave entrance. Greasy old barrels stacked against the wall stink of mold and waste. Don’t just describe the bad smells, yes we notice these more then pleasant smells, but you can quickly color a scene with the use of a scent faster then you can describe it visually.
The rich smell of jasmine permeates the garden. The smell of the morning dew wakes you up in the morning. The creeping wind reeks of rain and violence, a storm is coming . . . A big one!
I‘ve got a bad feeling about this
We often forget physical touch, especially when dealing with objects. How an object feels in our hands is sometimes important. I’m sure that we’ve all played the Halloween party about “Old Herman’s Eyes”. If a character picks something up, how does it feel? Is it cold or warm to the touch? Smooth or rough? Soft or scratchy?
Some things we can feel before we can see.
There is an energy in the air that causes the hair on your arms to raise and your knees to ache.
A hot wind shoots out of the open hole, blowing your hair as you peer into the unforgiving darkness.
As the dragon reels himself up, his large powerful chest expands as all of the air seems to rush out of the room towards him.
A gentle summer breeze gently kisses you, while a bitter winter wind bites at you. Cold water can either give you relief or be terribly unpleasant depending upon your situation.
Hearing is believing
Our ears are one of our prime defenses, especially an edgy adventurer whose senses are keen. Sometimes the lack of sounds tells you more about your surroundings then what you’re eyes can see. Describing what a character hears is another trick to quickly describing a scene.
Birds singing morning songs in the meadow.
A loathsome howl seems to come from everywhere around you, yet the exact source seems to be nowhere at all.
The tired, old boat creaks and moans as it sails under a wide, starry night sky. In the distance, a lonesome whale sings a sad song that makes your heart ache, and your mind thoughtful.
Taste This, it just fell out of my nose
Tastes are more rarely described, but some smells can be so strong that it effects our tongues as well. They can be used to hint at an encounter, or be used to describe a dreadful attack where an unfortunately gross sliming can occur. Drinking potions could be described to color them up some. A spooky witch woman who lives deep in a dark swamp would make a healing potion that tastes much different from that which a high-priestess of light would make.
Some magical effects would also come with a smell of burnt ozone and leave a distinctly metallic taste in ones mouth. Poisons, even injected ones, tend to immediately flood the mouth with a bitter taste, thus instead of simply telling a player that he has been poisoned, we can quickly describe what he is feeling instead.
We don’t just have to use our descriptions while dealing with settings, we want to describe the whole world so that they can explore it first hand.
Avoid all mention of numbers outside of combat. If the players find a Long Sword+2 in a broken boat that’s been floating aimlessly down the river, don’t just come out and say it. Encourage the warrior to notice that the blade isn’t rusty or aged at all. The quality is superb! Despite being rained on and left unattended the blade is still sharper then what he could ever grind his to be.
Art objects should be written up during prep, and described as well. Same process for any magical item. Make them earn everything by being inquisitive and immersing themselves into your world.
The key is to avoid as many mentions of numbers as possible, turning the players characters from a sheet of paper marked with stats, into a real, living and breathing entity that takes in their world as we do, which brings us to a huge part of this little essay . . .
We all have players that have memorized the Monstrous Manual . . . Hell, I am one! You throw a monster at me, then I know the quickest way to defeat it. It’s not intentional, it just comes naturally. I WANT TO WIN!!! You can spice up the encounter by refraining from using the creatures name. Use logic about it, ask yourself if this character has ever encountered such a creature in his life! How does he know that such and such monster is vulnerable to cold attacks, or that only a plus weapon can strike the monster? “I read it in the MM.” isn’t an acceptable answer, but we are all guilty of letting this logic go.
Instead of just telling the players what it is that they are fighting, you can create a sense of mystery and horror by hiding your monster behind descriptions.
You see before you what at first appeared to be a pack of dogs, but their filthy grey fur is caked with blood and gore and they are laughing. This insane, whiney laughter mixed with high pitched chatter chills you to the bone. They dodge back and forth in ways that convince you that they are mad, yet their drooling mouths aren’t frothed, and their round, piggish eyes glare into your soul with unmistakable intelligence. They keep their distance, as they circle your camp. What do they want?
This description is pretty long, but I wanted to use it as an example. It isn’t anything all that powerful, I simply described Hyenas to a party that hadn’t ever seen them before. After they encounter it a couple of times, and get to understand what they are then I can just throw the name hyena out there.
AVOID NUMBERS!!! During combat, it’s just to hard unless you’re playing with a small group. I don’t ever come right out and say what my Armor Class is, I ask the players what they rolled and tell them if they hit or not. I do prefer to get through combat as quickly and smoothly as possible. If it is a small enough encounter then I may keep up with just describing the scene, but I find that there are only so many ways to say, “I swung my war hammer!”
I do describe how the creature responds to the damage, and all odd attacks that are unique to that specific creature, but for claw claw bite, that’s as boring as saying that I swung my sword.
Is this right for my game?
What we are doing is projecting feelings. By describing the scene through all of our senses, we encourage our players to have an emotional response to the scene. We are making it more real to them, and aiding them to have exceptionally vivid visualizations. This does take practice and awareness on our part.
A great practice technique that I employ is to imagine an alien fruit from another planet. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like in your hands? Taste it, how did it sound when you took a bite from it? Is it juicy or dry? Is it sweet or have some other taste?
Burning out players with over doing it
We are going for simplicity here, less is more. We are also going for specifics! Speed is key, if the players want to know more about an object, then they will ask questions about it. If you over do it, then you are going to bore and frustrate your them. You want to supply them with just a few specifics so that they can see the settings in their minds.
If you over explain a room or an object it could cause your Players to believe that there is something to the scene that really isn’t there. Don’t neglect the rooms, but don’t over do it either. If your characters get obsessed about unraveling the mystery of the overstuffed red reading chair, then that is your cue that you went to far, it’s up to you if you want to reward them for their curiosity or just tell them that it’s a just a chair. Also watch out for them taking everything that isn’t nailed down, which does tend to be a problem for groups that aren’t use to this approach. Just tone down your descriptions of the junk, and remember it when they are trying to retrieve something from their backpack.
Some things also shouldn’t be described. Combat gore should be avoided, it can be misleading, and no matter how bad we want our stories to be realistic, we just can’t do it when combat is concerned. I guess I should just say that I’ve play tested violence, and can get it to work to some extent, but I could never keep it consistent. Why can you hit a 10th level fighter with a sword thirty times with a two-handed broadsword? As much as we would like to believe that it makes sense, it’s just a delusion that we keep with us while playing. It’s a necessary evil, I’d be pissed if you killed my 10th level fighter with a single swing of your sword!
Also think about other mechanics that this might apply to. How does infravision work in your world? THAT is a big question. In my world, it’s based on heat.
Describing magic consistently is challenging, but try to pass that kind of stuff off to your characters. Do encourage them to describe what they are doing so that the other players can visualize it as well. It helps get their creative juices flowing, and to me, that is what makes the game so damned fun!
By properly describing what is happening, instead of just telling them stuff, it colors the world in which you game in, and makes it come alive to your players. They will SEE distant mountains fogged in danger, they will feel the forest seem to swallow them up when they enter its dark embrace. They’ll smell the food as they walk the market streets. They’ll cringe in horror as an unknown . . . Thing stares back at them from the darkness of an ancient tomb.
With just a little bit of work on your part, instead of it just being a another gaming session for your players, it will become an intense experience that will leave them panting for more and giving them stories that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. GOOD LUCK!
Did some tinkering today, I'm still getting used to this software and the format of a blog. I did finally figure out how to add a permalink, for some reason or another it was allusive to me? I added two of my favorites, thanks to the nudging of Noumenon, THANKS MATE!!! I also added a link to the AD&D 2nd Edition Webring, be interesting if they'll let me in side of this great club!
I think that I'd be lost without my handy dandy PHB, the thing is warn in like a comfortable pair of jeans. It just seems to always open up on the right page, and that book and I have had some magnificent adventures together! I've got crap written in the margins, it's survived the hell of being stuffed inside of giant dufflebags full of books for when the games were played at other peoples houses. Surprisingly the binding is still as strong as the day I bought it!
I still remember the smell of when I took off the plastic . . . ahhhhh, you know that TSR smell? I didn't think that I'd ever smell that awesome scent ever again! But apparently the GODS of Dungeons and Dragons are taking notice to me once again, and I am finding this stuff.
I'm currently running "Masque of the Red Death" and all I had was an incomplete box set . . . well, it was missing the maps that came in the box, all of the booklets were there. I always kept my eyes open for D&D stuff, as I guess that any collector of something odd does. I go to this little comic book shop down town once a week to look at their video games, and movies. The only RPG stuff that they ever had was two Star Wars sourcebooks, and to me, Star Wars is just to holy of ground to ever touch, so I never picked them up. But about 2 days after I started this blog, BAM!!!! They get in this weird shipment of ancient D&D stuff. I felt like I was 20 years old again! They had a cool Ravenloft module that I had never even heard of! A used box set called Night Below that I have ALWAYS wanted to play or DM but couldn't afford it at the time, and now couldn't find it, but the real treasure to me was a Guide to Transylvania, STILL IN ITS ORIGINAL PACKAGING!!!
I couldn't wait to open it . . . as soon as I could I found a quiet little place where I could be all alone for a bit, and felt the slick plastic as if it were a lovers skin, and when I couldn't wait any longer, I RIPED the plastic off, and took a big sniff and IT WAS THERE!!! After more then 10 years of sitting on a shelf in some Comic Book Shop, I could still smell the TSR factory and was taken back to days of making a day of picking up gaming stuff. Back to opening my very first RPG book, the PHB. If the TSR smell is a drug . . . well, I'm still hooked! Yeah, I could detect a hint of dust, but the overall smell was still detectable over the old paper and ink. I probably sound like a weirdo, but I don't care. Surely I'm not the only person who has done this. Your first smell is on accident, but the next time it's a secret little pleasure. . . of course I do it with my twinkee's too. You can't eat twinkees without first smelling their oh-so-goody goodness!
I still had a hard time finding a supplimental book for Masque, and I finally gave up and just downloaded the PDF. I really hate PDF's. Call me a grumpy old fashioned biddy, but I refuse to have a laptop sitting at my table. I want PAPER!!! I'll use my desktop PC to help me with prep work, but everything gets printed off so I can flip it and keep it organized. I like to have everything in front of me so I can just glance at it and have it right there! PDF files suck! I have a hard time reading them too. Everybody in the house shares 1 computer . . . well, all two of us, but we are both internet addicts. I prefer to do my real reading in a comfy chair with good light and a book mark! It takes me forever to read PDF's . . . well, because Port Royal 2 is right there and just a click away! Or I can get online and suddenly hours of my life are gone, like an alien abduction!
Thank god for one of my players, he must had been talking about the game to one of his co-workers who at one time also ran the game. This DM brought in his Box Set and just gave it to him! AWESOME!!! But even more awesome, it included my missing maps, AND the Supplimental that I had given up ever finding. SWEET!!!!
Needless to say, I've had some awesome DM adventures and am now magically finding these illusive 2e books are mystically finding their way to me. I SHAN'T COMPLAIN!!!!
I almost can't wait until we complete Masque so I can start on Underdark! Ahhh, that's what I love about the game. The potentials are never exhausted. CHEERS!!!!
Yesterday I briefly talked about something that is a sore subject among my fellow Dungeon Masters, the evil RANDOM ENCOUNTERS TABLES (RET). Now Third edition D&D is such a complicated pile, that it makes RET’s worthless. From what I understand, it’s been done away with. However since we who cling to our faithful 2e like a bottle of old scotch, we still have access to monsters that we can create with a handful of d8’s.
Lots of DM’s curse these ancient things, calling them filthy names that I dare not post of a family friendly blogspace such as this one! Just rest assured that they get called lots of bad stuff, and on top of it all, COMPLETELY IGNORED TOO!
Before I go any further, I just want to explain something to the lot of you: We DM’s play test things a lot! Sometimes these tests are successful, and sometimes they aren’t. The key is to find things that work for you and get rid of the stuff that doesn’t. Many DM’s play tested RET’s and found that it didn’t work . . . However, I on the other hand, was able to tweak these little lists, because I was convinced that they had potential, and really got them to the point where they not only function, but actually are one of the staples in my games!
The key to making RET’s work, is that you remember that they are tools, and we mustn’t become slaves to our tools. Random Encounters come with their own rules, and these too must be broken to make the thing function like they should.
Their basic function, is that RET’s liven up a scene that would otherwise be dead. These things help with speeding up prep time, and I shouldn’t hear any bitching from the back row about that! They are only used when characters are moving about from point A to point B. If we have a planned encounter, say NPC Thieves have created an ambush on the road, then we aren’t going to use our RET’s. Neither are we ever going to use RET’s when characters need every hp that they got to survive a massive encounter, nor will we use them when they are healing from coming out of one. THINK LIKE A PLAYER!!! It’s one thing to die during a grand encounter, sacrificing yourself so that your team can survive, however it is something entirely different to die during a random encounter.
Let’s look at one of mine. A simple one, I want to show you how simple you should get with these. Of course these are all checked with a 1d100. . . .
41-70--------- No Encounter
81-90---------1d4 Wild Dogs
91-95---------1 Wild Boar
96-00---------1 Poisonous Snake
Now grasslands are fairly safe, and the RET reflects that; it can also change at night all by itself because farmers and merchants won’t be traveling the roads at that time, which would make all rolls under 71 no encounters. The Goblins are also variable, this was just what I had originally created the list for, the goblins were the bad guys henchmen, thus if I was telling a story about a Necromancer, then it would be Zombies, or even a Dragon hunt, it could be something as simple as a dragon paw print being found next to a half eaten body. It doesn’t always have to be a combat encounter. The farmers aren’t going to go mad and start throwing poop at the characters, they are just fluff. Proof that there is a living breathing world. It also helps me as a DM, I don’t want anything random about my story, but this stuff adds just the right amount of chaos to the mix. If I see somebody at the table getting bored, or if I’m getting bored, a simple Random Encounter can really break the foul mood and get everybody back into the game!
I also want you to look what is on the list. It is all stuff right out of the Monsterous Manual and it’s all unmodified. All you have to do is roll hp and the monster is done. Don’t put anything on there that takes more then rolling up hp for. No wizards, because you won’t have time to generate a spell list for him. If you do put a classed creature onto the list, be specific as possible! 2d4 2nd level soldiers for example. You know their all of them will have the same AC, and use weapons that you know by heart.
All Random Encounters will also be treated like attacks of opportunity, no strategy, and all frontal assaults, and as a general rule: Should always be resolved in under 5 minutes, unless, of course, your players are really itching to toss some dice, and you’ve got nothing lined up for them.
Take a look at the inside of your Dungeon Masters Shield, most of the tables on the back of that thing are specifically there for you to quickly run RET’s. They are the Salt and Pepper of any good campaign, they add flavor to what normally would be a boring day’s march, and you can also get a chance to put some wildlife in there for them to interact with. Instead of just calling a wood, Haunted, with RET’s you can quickly populate an entire area. The danger will be REAL! And you don’t have to write 2,000 page essays on crafted encounters, which allows you to focus even more energy on crafting your stories. Where is the negative to Random Encounter Tables again? I forget!
There is lots of stuff online for experienced players, but what about all of those new DM’s out there that are learning by fire? WELL GOD BLESS YOU!!! I honestly don’t know how you do it, I was lucky and got to play and play until I felt ready to DM competently, and even then I had an experienced DM to look over my shoulder and gently nudge me in the right direction. That just isn’t all that practical anymore, so as a shout out to all new DM’s out there, this one is for you. (BTW, I’m once again blowing my 2 page limit, but I want this stuff to be all in the same post, so that it doesn’t have to be cross referenced. This way, all the info that you need will be in this 6 page monster. Feel free to save it and use it off-line and refer to it whenever you need it. IT’S YOURS!!!)
Probably the best way to learn how an adventure works, is picking up published Modules; grab a couple, and compare them against each other. They’ll teach you how to organize your stuff when you’re ready to start writing your own, and show you what kinds of monsters are powerful enough to challenge characters of different levels without over-powering them, and it also gives you an idea of what kind of information that you should have prepared for any given session.
You hear the word PREP all over the place, but what is it? And what should you be doing with your time? Well, even though the Module is complete, it still needs to be “Prepared” before you can run it effectively and smoothly. Prep consists of organizing, tailoring, adjusting, and making backup plans. DON’T FREAK OUT! I’ll explain all of this stuff as we go.
First, collect your books. You’ll need all your core books (Players Handbook- PHB, Dungeon Masters Guide-DMG, and a Monsterous Manual or it’s equivalent-MM), and you’ll also want to read the entire Module before you really start any prep at all. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to get started! Pick it up and read it again, but this time we are going to start the first process of Dungeon prep: Organizing!
Organization is the cornerstone of becoming a competent Dungeon Master. Before storytelling, or puzzle mastering, or blowing PC’s away with awesome combat, you FIRST have to be organized. Nothing is more annoying then a DM who constantly has to stop the game and look stuff up. We are going to learn all that we need to during the Prep session. This will take awhile, but trust me, it’s time well spent!
The first thing that you’ll want to know, is that you’ve got everything that you need. Lots of modules like to add little details from books that you don’t have; like adding monsters that are in some obscure compendium somewhere, or telling you that you need some other reference book that
makes the company some extra green helps flesh out your adventure, if you have it GREAT!!! Dig it out and add it to your core books, but if you don’t just ignore it for now, we’ll deal with that problem later.
What we need to do now is find all of the facts so that they’ll be handy when we need them. Paperclips are a DM’s best friend. Seriously! Grab your handy-dandy MM and look up all of the monsters. Read the entries so that you know what all they can do, and mark them all with paperclips so that when your characters run into them, and start confusing you with their insane tactics, you can just flip the book open to the right page without having to stop while you’re telling them to shut up for a second.
Not all stats are written down either, you’ll have to roll up hit points for some of your miner monsters; you can either write these in the margins of the module itself, or organize an NPC chart with entries for each individual NPC. For hit points, I always type the number and a slash then leave some space behind it so that I can write in the hp with a pencil without losing the base hp, just in case they get healed or something.
You’ll also want to photocopy off sections of the Module that you’ll need for reference while playing the game, that way you don’t have to flip back and forth through everything constantly. Little maps, handouts, main NPC pages, anything that you’ll want to find quickly. Again you’ll want to have everything loose so that you can have it to look at WHILE your playing, flipping back and forth between the main Villain’s stat page can slow you down more then you think.
You’ll also want to take a highlighter and highlight the stuff that you want to find on the module itself at a glance. Stuff like treasure, important facts about stuff in the room, and for some reason they like to hide NPC dialog in a sea of fluff that your characters don’t need to know. Basically, you want to highlight anything that you feel will be important for your players to know, just don’t go crazy. If you highlight too much, then you really didn’t do yourself any favors because now you can’t find it.
Finally, you’ll want to look up all of the goofy rules that might be in the thing, such as flying rules, and other such combat that is unique to the module, and that you probably don’t play every day. Even if there is an encounter that takes place in a swamp or a mountain, you’ll want to look it up in the DMG & PHB to familiarize yourself with how they are handled. It’s best to mark this stuff off with a paperclip too.
You should also organize what spells your NPCs have, it is a real investment to go out and get yourself some index cards and a little box to keep them in. On an index card, write out everything that you’ll want to remember about how the spell works, and what it does: Just the relevant info. Please don’t sit down and record every spell in the PHB, that’s just a waste of time. Just do them as you need them and in time you’ll have them all collected because you can reuse them. The same goes for weird magic stuff that is in there, that stuff gets confusing! Especially with magical items that have a specific amount of charges; You’ll want to record the charges right on the card so that you can give it to the PC once he gets his filthy grimy hands on it.
A quick word about random encounters, THESE THINGS ARE GOLD!!! If the module includes them, you’ll definitely want to save that, because like our spell cards, they are reusable. How you handle them depends on your style as a DM. Always copy these things off to loose leaf and keep them in a binder or something. You can either pre-roll hp and pre-record any treasure they might have, or if you’ve got a set and feel confident, you can roll everything up randomly at the game. Usually this is just 1 or 2 creatures so it don’t take any time to roll them up. You’ll want to look these up in your MM too, but instead of marking them off with a paperclip, just write the page number down directly onto your Random Encounter list.
Now we should be pretty damned organized! Yes our eyes are bleeding and our fingers are cramped and scarred with paper cuts, but we got all of our homework out of the way! We are prepared for anything!!! Well not quite yet, but the really time consuming part is over. We know where everything is at in all of the books that we need. We have important stuff loose leafed, for easy flipping, and our index cards are all together with spell info and magic items. We are now ready to start tailoring!
Tailoring the Adventure
What this means, is that we’ll be fitting the module into our own gaming world that is unique to us. Sometimes this is a lot of work, and sometimes it isn’t. If you are playing in your own world, then you need to either add the new areas to your maps, or change the names of these areas on the module to fit where you want all of these events to take place. Continuity is key here, if you put a river by a town in this adventure, then that river needs to be there when the characters come back to the town 3 years from now. Sometimes the module can take place anywhere, but most of the time they are full of specifics, and these need to be factored in when you make your decisions about what to do.
Also, sometimes the adventure talks about an NPC that . . . Oops, you killed him off. Well, we are going to have to replace him with somebody else. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Say you want to put one of your own NPCs in the module that might be in the area. Go ahead and do it, THAT’S GREAT!!! You should feel free to make this module your own. Just remember logic and continuity.
Remember how the Module told you that you’d need some obscure book about “Monster Mythology” well you don’t need to spend 20 or 30 bucks for a paragraph and a half about what gods the NPC goblin priest worships, not unless you think that you can get your moneys worth out of it. It’s just as easy to make it up, or Tailor it to fit inside of your world. It’s just a name, if it’s more then that, then all the info would have been in the Module itself. On the same token, if it’s a weird monster that you don‘t have the stats for, then just replace it with something else. If it does a specific feat that is required to run the module then it should be in the module itself, this is annoying but you can find a monster with a similar feat, just make sure that it’s not so powerful that it slaughters your players, nor so weak that it gets killed the second somebody spits on it, if this isn’t possible then you get to work on the secret power of every DM; the ability to lie one’s ass off.
Don’t forget your Random Encounters lists! They love to put obscure stuff here, either replace it with a different monster that is native to the area, or write DM’s Choice.
Spells need to be tailored sometimes too, by looking all of them up in our organization process, we know which ones that we ain’t got. I know that there is a monster in 2nd edition AD&D called, “Zombie Lord”. One of his special abilities was this thing labeled, “Weakness, like the spell.” Well guess what. There is no spell called Weakness. I spent more time than I care to admit to trying to find the specs of this spell, because I LOVE ZOMBIE LORDS!!! But alas, it was a typo that never got corrected, so what I did was, I just created a reverse to the spell, Strength, and all was happy in the world! If it calls for a spell that you don’t have, again, use logic! If you can get your money out of a given Supplemental book then go for it, but don’t buy a book that you only need one entry out of. Just replace it with a spell that has roughly the same effect, tinker with an old spell that you have info for and create a new spell, or simply ignore it, because if the Module didn’t think that it was necessary to include it inside of it, then it’s just an
advertisement for a book they can’t sell extra way to add color and life to your game world.
Now that we got the game tailored to our world, it’s time to adjust it to fit our characters.
Adjusting to the Characters
For some strange reason Module writers think that you’ll have no problem finding 6 or 7 players to play with, but of course we know better, don’t we. The Module should be labeled something like, “This Adventure is suitable for 4-8 players of 5th-10th level," or such gibberish. In English this means that you’ll either need 4 players of 10th level, or 8, 5th level characters to run the adventure. That’s what it’s been play tested for, but as a rule of thumb take the highest level suggested, in this case 10, and multiply it by 3, and that will give you the minimum amount of hit die that your players need to have, to survive the dungeon as written, in my example the party would need to add up to at least 30 HD. Of course this is just a rule of thumb and won’t work for all situations, but it’s a good guide.
The first part of adjusting it to the characters, is to set it to the proper difficulty level. THIS IS HARDER THEN IT SOUNDS!!!! Notice how bold, and easy to read that that sentence was, this isn’t a mistake, remember that. You are going to screw it up and you won’t know it until actual play starts. Never underestimate the chaos and destructive powers that a guy with a sword can wreck! It’s better to overestimate then it is to underestimate because you can always pull back, but it’s not as easy to make a scenario more difficult.
Usually you won’t have enough people to play the game as it’s been written, just don’t underestimate the PCs, I can’t stress this enough, but for now I’ll quit barking at you about it. We need to adjust the monsters to the proper level . . . Well perhaps that isn’t quite accurate, perhaps I should say Numbers. Play with hp, and the number of monsters that appear, this is always a mystery that only experience can teach you. If an encounter is just to big, feel free to cut it down some, you can always send in more troops if you PC’s are wasting them, or chopping through a horde too easily. Some of this will just have to wait for game day to make your final adjustments. We want to make it difficult, but not impossible. YOU don’t ever want to kill a character. Yeah characters die, but make sure that it was because of something that they did, not you. Keep track of their hit points and listen to them. Have them warn you if they are running low, if the module doesn’t include a method for handling a retreat then you’ve screwed up, but guess what? It happens to the best of us. Just adjust it the best that you can to fit with the players abilities, most of the time it won’t be a problem, but you need to think about worse case scenarios and TRY to plan if one happens. More about this later.
It is helpful to know what character classes that your PC’s will be prior to prepping the adventure. If this isn’t possible, you are going to have to dictate to the members of the team what classes that the dungeon needs while they are rolling up new characters, if this is the case then you can run it as written! But for this exercise, I’m just going to assume that the characters will be already established and ready to continue from a previous game.
We’ve read through the adventure so many times that we practically know it by heart! Now we have to go back to certain areas and adjust them to what your party can accomplish. If they don’t have a thief then they are going to need ways to get through locked doors and to open chests. No cleric? Well, they are going to need to have some way of regaining hp quickly to survive. Maybe a magic item needed to beat the dungeon requires a wizard to wield it, but nobody is playing a wizard. That means that maybe the item needs to be replaced with something that they can use. Hide extra potions around if you think that they'll need them, give monsters keys, or maybe the characters are carrying too many magic items for your taste already, you can erase them from the get-go, and replace it with something like cash or scrolls . . . if they got to much money, you can fix that too by making them pay tolls to enter cities, and increase the prices of supplies.
Also look at your players style, what is it that they like to do? Maybe you can add a puzzle element to the dungeon, or you want to make it more geared towards setting up some fun things to role-play. If you’ve got a character that hates goblins and gets a bonus to slaughtering the poor little buggers, throw some in there! Give the thief a sentry to sneak up on and back stab. Add a wizard to an encounter to heckle them. Maybe you see a spot where you could put in something fun that YOU’VE always wanted to do, go ahead and add it! Just be aware of the consequences of your actions, if you give an enemy a powerful magic item, chances are that by the end of the adventure it will be in the hands of a PC, and this can really bite you in the ass down the road. Don’t be afraid of it, but be aware of it. Perhaps you already did it, then this is the time to adjust the module to account for that as well. If your main villain is a wizard, and your fighter has a sword that is +5 when fighting wizards, well, the villain is going to have to defend himself or else the climax will be ruined. Always protect your story! Get creative, maybe an NPC thief can steal it and give it to the Wizard who puts it some place where the warrior can't find it until after the adventure is over. At the same time, you don’t want to ignore stuff either. You can adjust things so that they have opportunities to actually use the swag that they have earned. Make sure that the module gives each of them an opportunity to really shine. Look at their characters and insure that some of the abilities that they have can be used.
You also want to look at your enemy tactics as well, and make your final decisions if you want to use them or not. If you used that one in the last game, then you should change it some. Make it possible for a quiet breach of security on the PC’s part, and what they will do if the alert goes out.
Now we’ve made it fun for party, it’s time for the last stage of prep. Preparing for alternative story-lines.
Players have this profound habit of accidentally getting deviated from what it is that they are suppose to be doing. This isn’t much of a problem in a controlled setting, such as a dungeon crawl . . . But most of the time, the only way that you can control where they go, is to get down on your knees and beg them not to. Now, the module might tell you that two guards blocking a locked door will keep the PC’s from heading off of your map or the prepared adventure, but we both know that this is the biggest crock of crap that we’ve ever heard in our lives. When we set limits, it is always going to piss somebody off and they will become obsessed with finding a way to bypass the limit, and the entire time, thinking that THIS IS PART OF THE ADVENTURE!!!
The worse thing that you can ever do, is tell a player, “No.”
We are going to look over our module one last time and look for spots where this might happen. It’s okay to talk out of your ass at times, and you’ll need to, because no matter how well we plan, the chances of the PC’s heading off map is going to be high. We can’t see everything, but that is what makes being the DM fun and challenging. Let the little stuff slide, but look for huge holes. If a house that the PC’s will enter is mentioned but the interior isn’t described then you can add some fluff to it, nothing fancy just write down one or two curious objects. If your PC’s have to knock on some doors to get information then write down a short, reusable list of 0th level NPC names. Don’t get too carried away! Most of this stuff can be improvised, but some stuff, if you screw it up, then it will mislead the PC’s into heading into some crazy plot-line that you know nothing about.
Remember how I told you to never underestimate your players? Well this is the time to prepare one or two NPC’s that can aid the PC’s if they start to get their asses handed to them. These NPC’s will be a couple of levels higher then what the party is, and be treated as henchmen. Careful about getting too carried away with these guys, you don’t want to start playing with yourself, these NPC’s are just used as assistance, if you know damned well that you are going to need them, then give them to a player and have them roll their attacks, but you keep track of their Moral and make all final decisions about what they will or won’t do. You can either make the PC’s hire the help, or have them heroically arrive in the nick of time, but remember and remind your players as well, that since these NPC’s are taking part in the Melee, then they will have to be entitled to their share of experience points and treasure, so that the more help that they hire, the less XP they will earn in the long run.
Another worst case scenario that we are going to plan now, is inexplicable retreats. Sometimes these are required as a proper strategy to defeating a given scenario, but if it is gone about in the wrong way, then it’s not going to work. If the PC’s kill a bunch of bandits in their lair, and retreat outside to regain health and spells, then that’s cool; but if they head back to town and dawdle to much then the bandits will hire more requites and make plans for a better defense. The longer that the PC’s are away, the stronger the badguys are going to be. Just use logic, if it’s one or two days, then they might be able to recruit 4 or 5 men per day.
The final worst case scenario to plan for is character death. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, you just have the player roll up a new character, but if you are in a dungeon, getting him into the party could be a problem. Plan for this by putting a jail or something inside of the dungeon where the new character can be found in. We don’t want to do this, but sometimes we have no choice as there are lots of players who just seem to think that every adventure is a suicide mission.
Of course, the last part about the module that you’ve got to prepare for is the ramifications and the consequences of everybody’s actions . . . Or the lack there of. If the players are intent on not surviving the dungeon, or refuse to battle the villain that the module is about, the villain is going to win. What does this mean?
Players can do really really stupid stuff for really stupid reasons. They can kill a captain of the guard, be rude to the king or queen. This stuff can’t be planed for, but you do have to plan for if the Players lose the game, and it will change your world for the worse every time that it happens, you as the DM just have to have the moxi to let it happen.
If you tailored your main city into the module where an evil Necromancer is turning folks into an undead army, by the time that the next game starts, the capital city will be ruled by a necromancer, and the King may be dead (or at least forced to flee), in which case his entire kingdom is now at the mercy of an evil wizard. The world doesn’t end, it just changes. YOU have to let it happen.
Modules are almost always about major events, and the only ones who can stop it are the PC’s themselves, have fun with it. Very few games end in defeat, but it needs to be in the back of your mind what you are doing and how it will effect the world . . . Hell, there might also be a world change if they win!
You’ll also want to roll up a backup villain in case yours gets killed too quickly. You want your climax to be as powerful, and as cool, and as hard as you can get it. If the villain gets killed by some lucky shot, well that’s not good enough! Be flexible, else your D&D game could turn into a bad movie night instead.
You did it!!!! You are now ready to play, and play confidently! You can now focus all of your energy on the creative aspect of the game because you got all of your crunch organized, you know where everything is at, you know where the characters need to go to start the adventure, and you’ll always be at least 10 steps ahead of them at all times.
Now that you know the process, you can do just enough prep to play a session, as some modules are really time consuming to play, it is just unrealistic to think that you can do it all in one sitting. The idea behind using a Module is to give yourself less prep work, not more.
After your players have beat the game, don’t throw your module away, keep it! The money spent on these things is, in most cases, worth it just for the maps alone. You can also keep your favorites next to you when you’re writing your own adventures, to refer to in regards to the format that the professionals use. Once you have it added to your map, then in the key write a reminder about what module that this stuff is in. Organization is the key! As is recycling your work. Not only can you reuse your index cards and loose leaf crunch fliers, but you can reuse the buildings in the module by simply redressing them and writing a brand new key without anybody even noticing what you did.
Modules are cheap(ish), collect them! Even if you don’t play the whole thing you can steal the maps, NPCs, tactics, and even the mini adventures and side quests out of them to use on a rainy day.
Have fun and good luck!
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