Tomb of Annihilation, 5: The group unravels?

Last time, in my D&D group’s run-through of the great 5e campaign Tomb of Annihilation, the group made their way deeper into the jungle. Once again, it was Roland (my Aasimar divine soul sorcerer), Dri (dragonborn barbarian), Egedul (dwarf barbarian), Varina (half-elf ranger), and Slith (dragonborn rogue). Orga, a half-orc cleric, was on the boat (her player was missing).

After recovering from the specter attack, the group rested, and headed out early the next day. Around mid-morning, Slith noticed something strange. A mountain that seemed to float above the ground, dripping blood onto the jungle. Remembering what the knights had told them of the Heart of Ubuntu, they decided to investigate.

As they approached, they saw that the “blood” was actually red-colored water. They collected some in an empty container, and Roland determined it was water died by iron deposits. The group then tried to get up to the mountain. They threw a grappling hook in hopes of catching it on something, shot an arrow tied to a rope, and climbed a nearby tree to get closer. Nothing worked. They decided to press on, and return if they came up with a solution.

The next day, they moved on farther into the jungle, their guide, Salida, growing more intent on keeping their path [we realized we’d kind of forgotten about her after we left the city]. Varina, keeping watch, saw something approaching. Slith snuck up, and saw a were-tiger creeping towards the group. Assuming it was an enemy, he hurled a dagger at it. The were-tiger roared, and leapt at him. Slith ran back to the group.

The rest of them had been waiting for Slith’s return. Hearing a crashing noise, they saw him run out of the jungle, shouting “tiger, tiger!” Alarmed, the group prepared their weapons. [it was kind of a humorous scene as we acted it out]. The were-tiger burst into the clearing, and was met with a hail of blows. Varina scored a good hit with her bow, while Egedul and Dri nearly knocked the creature to its knees with their axes.

Roland then strode forward, and suggested the were-tiger surrender, so they could talk [I went last in initiative, and rolled successfully on persuasion]. The weretiger shifted back into human form, and the group recognized Acaza, another of the guides from the city. She was irritated with the group’s attack, but still relayed her message; they had discovered Salida was working for the Yuan-ti, the evil serpent-folk of Chult, and were leading them into a trap.

Salida denied this, and the group attempted to get one of them to confess they were lying, to no avail [none of our insight or intimidation checks were working]. And then the group nearly fell apart.

Dri suggested torturing Salida to get her to tell the truth, or just killing her to be safe. Roland explained that would be wrong, and counterproductive if the other guide was lying, as they would then be stuck with either no guide or a lying guide. Varina said to separate them and explain they would kill the other guide to see how they reacted; both of the guides were fine with this, so that didn’t help.

Dri became more insistent on killing Salida, and Roland refused. Dri moved to kill her anyways, and Roland summoned a spell, threatening to incapacitate him. After a tense standoff, Dri backed down. They decided to keep both of the guides with them, and figure out who was telling the truth. [the player said his Chaotic Neutral PC would just kill the guide. In-character, I explained why that would be wrong and not helpful. When he persisted, I tried to explain out of character that CN doesn’t mean torturing and killing. The DM also pointed out to the other players (who were CG) that they’d be opposed to torture as well. This may be the topic of a future post, how to properly run CN characters, and deal with them in a party.]

After travelling the rest of the day, the group stopped for a rest. Dri suggested Slith search Salida’s bags. He found a serpent amulet he identified as belonging to Yuan-ti. He woke up Roland, and showed him. Roland, feeling betrayed after having nearly engaged in combat to protect Salida, was furious.

He kicked her as she slept to wake her up. Brandishing the amulet, he demanded she tell them the truth now. She tried to deny it, but saw that she was surrounded by the party. She explained that she had been hired to lead them to the Yuan-Ti leader in Omu. He was afflicted by the death curse and wanted the group to help him. She also told them the amulet identified her as a yuan-ti ally when encountering guards.

The group decided to keep her with them, but kill her at the first sign of treachery–Roland was ok with this, now that they knew she was evil. She agreed to lead them to the Yuan-ti, but didn’t want to go inside for fear for her life. The group headed deeper into the jungle…

[I’m really liking the pacing. It was still a lot of “random” events, but with a little bit of the story thrown in at the end. I credit my DM for this. The tension among the group was a little disruptive, but everyone seemed ok–I sent a message apologizing if I had monopolized time with my character, but no one seemed to mind. See my recent posts on how to bicker within groups for more on this.


Tomb of Annihilation, part 4: Threats gather closer

My RPG group has started alternating between D&D 5e Tomb of Annihilation and a Call of Cthulhu campaign (I’ll have some writeups on that soon). We met recently to continue this excellent D&D campaign. Once again, the party was Roland (my Aasimar divine soul sorcerer), Slith (dragonborn rogue), Egedul (dwarf barbarian), Dre (dragonborn barbarian), Varina, a half-elf ranger. Orga, the half-orc cleric was missing, so she “stayed on the boat.”

Last time, the group explored the ruins of Fort Righteous, and headed farther upriver. After a few days they came on Fort Vengeance, another Order of the Gauntlet installation. The Fort was well-guarded and closed up, with piles of burned zombies outside. After introducing themselves, the group was let in. They were taken to meet the fort’s commander. Roland explained their situation, and the status of Forth Righteous. This concerned the commander, who asked the group to relay any information they could. In return, he provided some details on the next stage of their journey. The river would empty into a broad basin, the southern end of which was a swampy jungle. The group would need to move overland across this jungle to reach their destination. The commander suggested they look for the Heart of Ubuntu, a mysterious floating mountain south of the river. He also asked if they could send their boat back to the Fort, so the knights could transport some of their wounded fellows back to the city.

The group agreed, after working out a schedule with the boat captain to ensure they would have a way out of the jungle when they returned. They stayed the night, enjoying (kind of) soft bedrolls and a hearty dinner. The next day, the knights gave them some supplies–they were running low on insect repellent–and they headed out.

After a few more days of uneventful travel [our DM was apologetic that he kept rolling the “no encounter” values on the daily checks] the group reached the southern end of the basin. They bid farewell to the captain and, using a rowboat they borrowed from the knights, rowed as far as they could before the water got too shallow. They stowed the boat in a memorable spot–Varina studied it closely to make sure she could find her way back–and trudged off into the ankle-deep water.

Later that day, as they set up camp, Varina noticed the trees above them were thick with spider webs. Before she could warn the group, giant spiders dropped down and attacked. Dri and Egedul charged, while Slith snuck around the battle to surprise the spiders from behind. Varina fired arrows, while Roland cast a chaos bolt. The spiders fell relatively easily, and the group set up camp.

That night, while he was on watch, Roland noticed movement in the trees. Squinting, he saw disembodied shapes floating towards them. Realizing they were specters, Roland quickly woke up the rest of the group. He remembered that specters were resistant to most types of damage, and suggested the group use magical weapons or radiant spells [successful arcana check].

The group got ready. Dri and Egedul pulled out their magical greataxes, while Varina activated the sun sword (which they found in the Sunless Citadel). Slith brandished his magical dagger, and Roland cast haste on the two barbarians (giving them AC bonuses and an extra attack).

As the specters came into view, Dri, Egedul and Varina charged. Egedul slashed at one, seeming to wound it, while Varina dispelled one completely with a powerful swipe of her sword. Slith managed to kill one as well. Meanwhile, Dri missed with his mighty swing; knocked off guard he was unable to defend against its counterattack. He felt a chill spread across him and he grew weak [his maximum hit points was decreased].

Roland stepped up, and uttered his arcane words. His sorcerous powers were drained, but he still had energy for a few more spells [I was out of third-level spells and sorcery points]. Casting chaos bolt, a warbling ball of energy flew at a specter, exploding in a peal of thunder. The specter, already weakened disappeared. The energy then re-gathered into another bolt, this one of radiant energy and hit a second specter. [as part of the damage, you roll 2d8. This determines the type of damage it does, and if they are the same value, a second bolt appears and attacks another target. It’s an awesome spell]

The specters, sensing the threat Roland posed, closed in on him. He dodged one of their attacks, but the other hit him in the chest, and he nearly fell over, cold and weak [also lost max hp]. His concentration wavered, and the haste spell disappeared [I failed my concentration saving roll]. Thankfully, the group was able to quickly kill the remaining specters. They rested, and Roland and Dri were healed.

Tune in next time for the conclusion of this portion of the Tomb of Annihilation…

Tomb of Annihilation, part 3: the abandoned fort

Last time, the party set out into the jungles of Chult. They battled dinosaurs, spoke with a faerie dragon who told them about growing evil in the land. The party was Roland (my Aasimar divine soul sorcerer), Slith (dragonborn rogue), Egedul (dwarf barbarian), Dre (dragonborn barbarian), Orga (half-orc cleric) and Varina, a half-elf ranger.

They had just arrived at Fort Righteous, an outpost of the Order of the Gauntlet.

When they arrived the Fort was destroyed. There were signs of fighting, and a fire that swept through the clearing. Nothing living remained except for a chicken-like axe-beak that bit Orga when she tried to grab it. Slith did find a tunnel under an ancient ruin on the edge of the jungle. Dusk was falling when Dre went into the jungle to relieve himself; he heard a moaning, and shouted in horror as a horde of zombies walked out of the shadows.

The rest of the group ran to him. Egedul and Dri charged (after Dri zipped up), and chopped limbs off of two of the zombies. Roland then ran up, shouted to them to grab onto something. He cast a spell, and a giant wall of water suddenly appeared, sweeping through the jungle. Egedul and one of the zombies managed to stay on their feet, but Dre and the others were hurled to the ground, the zombies smashing into bits. Roland then tapped his arcane powers to summon a a shower of frost that killed the last of the standing zombies. [I cast tidal wave (one of the new spells in Xanathar’s Guide), using quicken spell to also frostbite. I asked the other players if they minded being hurt by the spell; they agreed, since they wanted to see what it did.]

The threat dispelled, the group headed into the tunnel. After descending what felt like a long time, they came to a corridor. Picking along carefully, they moved ahead. Unfortunately, Orga wasn’t watching closely enough and fell into a pit that opened beneath her. She was only mildly injured, and the group pulled her out with a rope.

They continued on into a room with different colored tiles and a locked door at the other end. Searching the room, they found a diagram that kind of matched the patterns of the floor; they walked along the floor in the patterns shown by the diagram and the door opened.

The next room had no other exits, and a tall pedestal with stairs wrapping around it and a jug on top. The group decided to investigate. As they made their way across the floor, a lightning bolt shot out, knocking Orga to the ground. Another struck Egedul as they proceeded. The group–tired, weary and sore–halted. Everyone but Dri and Roland wanted to turn back. But Dri and Roland were intrigued by the jug on the pedestal–especially considering how well-protected it was–and pressed on.

They carefully ascended the steps. About halfway up another lightning bolt shot out, but they managed to dodge it. Near the top, they tripped another trap. Dri saw it coming, but Roland was distracted by their prize; he was struck, fell unconscious, and plummeted to the ground. Dri rushed to the top, grabbed the jug, and ran back down, five steps at a time.

Orga picked up Roland’s limp body, and the group retreated from the room. She revived him, and they made their way back to the surface. The group ran back to the boat, not bothering to look back, and cast off.

After recovering from his wounds, Roland examined the jug. He realized it was a rare jug of alchemy, which could produce beer, acid, poison, honey, mayonnaise, oil, vinegar, fresh or salt water, or wine. The group played with the jug for the next few days’ of travel, producing gallons of beer for Egedul, Dri and Orga. Roland also tried to think of a good way to use all the mayonnaise he’d created…

Tune in next time to see how they used it…

[this was a transitional few sessions, but they were a lot of fun. Nothing “happened,” so to speak, but they really increased our immersion in the campaign, similar to some of the exploration I incorporated into Out of the Abyss when I ran that campaign.

Tomb of Annihilation, part 2

Last time, our heroes–fresh from their victory over an evil druid in the Sunless Citadel–traveled to the city of Port Nyanzaru in the mysterious land of Chult. They had been asked to investigate a mysterious wasting disease affecting resurrected people. The group established contact with the Harpers to gain some information, and a wilderness guide to take them to a ruined city rumored to be connected to this mysterious disease.

Once again, the part was Roland (my Aasimar divine soul sorcerer), Slith (dragonborn rogue), Egedul (dwarf barbarian), Dre (dragonborn barbarian), Orga (half-orc cleric) and Varina, a half-elf ranger.

After resting (and, for Orga and Egedul, sleeping off their hangovers), the party headed out into the city’s bazaar. Their guide suggested they get some supplies, notably insect repellant (the mosquitoes of Chult are intense), a rain catcher for drinking water, and tej–a type of liquor favored by the river boat captains they’ll have to work with. While shopping, Roland samples some excellent coffee, and uses all his Aasimar charms to convince the merchant to give them a bag for free.

Everything set, the group rejoins their guide, who has found them a boat. They agree to the captain’s terms, and head off down the river. The first few days were uneventful. Varina savored the wilderness, while Egedul and Dre tried to catch fish with their bare hands. Orga prayed, and Roland practiced his arcane arts. Slith stayed below decks, uncomfortable on the water.

One afternoon, the waters in front of their boat started churning, and a giant aquatic reptile rose from the river. It swam towards the boat, mouth open and full of razor-sharp teeth.

Egedul roared, and attacked as it got within range but missed, and the beast tossed him back, wounding him and nearly throwing him into the river.  Roland summoned his sorcerous abilities, and created the illusion of another reptile’s head to cover the boat, tapping deeper into his powers to also cast a bolt of fire that would appear to come out of the beast’s mouth [cast silent image, and used sorcery points to also cast fire bolt as a bonus action]. This caught the beast off guard, allowing Dre and Orga to batter it before Varina killed it with an arrow.

The group eventually relaxed, and the boat continued on for several more days. One day Slith, on watch, noticed something in the jungle–a “shiny” as he liked to say. They pulled the boat over, and found a chest that must have been an explorer’s supply cache; it had dried rations, insect repellant, and some tej. The group eagerly brought on board the supplies–Egedul and Orga eyeing the tej–and continued on.

After a few more days, a strange creature landed on the deck while Roland was on watch. He remembered coming across this in his studies, recognizing it as a faerie dragon–an intelligent and good beast [successful nature check]. Roland introduced himself, and tried to calm his friends when they reacted in alarm.

The creature told them of changes in the forest, “dead ones” shambling around and a great evil spreading from the south. It also said a camp of creatures that looked like the group was a little bit down the stream, but it had been quiet recently. The group thanked it for its help, and it flew off.

Their guide said it was referring to Fort Righteous, and Order of the Gauntlet installation a half-days’ ride away. She had intended to stop there for supplies, and they proceeded, worrying about the knights’ fate.

Tune in next time to find out what happened to the good knights…


Tomb of Annihilation, part 1

My D&D group had decided to run Tomb of Annihilation (with another player replacing me as DM, so I could get a break). But we wanted to run a separate intro adventure first, so we used Sunless Citadel (from the Tales of Yawning Portal). You can find my walkthrough of that adventure here. This adventure picks up shortly after the heroes returned to Oakhurst…

The party consisted of Roland (my Aasimar sorcerer, formerly a paladin), Slith (dragonborn rogue), Egedul (dwarf barbarian), and Dre (dragonborn barbarian). The player running our ranger decided to switch to Orga, a half-orc cleric. And we added a new player, running Varina, a half-elf ranger.

The adventure began as the group gathered at the tavern in Oakhurst, celebrating their victory. The town had showered praises (and free drinks) on them since they returned, and they were enjoying themselves. Roland had left them for a short while to deal with some personal business (you can read more on this here), and had returned with Orga. Her temple had sent her out to find Roland, based on a vision the temple elder received.  A nasty storm had broken out, and they were all huddled around the fire.

Suddenly, the doors flew open and a half-elf dressed in rustic garb walked in. She looked around the room awkwardly, until Roland invited her to join them. The ranger introduced herself as Varina, and explained she was heading to Waterdeep to meet up with an old friend who needed some assistance. The party was getting a little antsy for more adventure, so they offered to join her and help if they could. The villagers tried to convince them to stay, but ultimately relented; they loaded them up with supplies for the road, and cheered them as they left town

The trip began uneventfully The group loaded up a wagon Orga owned with their supplies and took turns driving the oxen, keeping watch and resting.

After a few days, Varina, on watch, noticed something in the trees. She instructed Roland, who was driving the cart, to keep going and she slunk off, hiding in the shadows. Varina noticed a bandit with a bow drawn, tracking the group. She motioned to the wagon; unfortunately, another bandit was also hiding nearby and he fired his bow, hitting her. She cried out, and the group prepared for battle.

The other bandit fired at Roland but missed, his arrow sticking in the side of the wagon. Roland, eager to learn some of the new sorcery tricks he’d developed, cast a spell of blindness. He drew on his innate divine powers to amplify the spell’s effects, so both of their assailants were suddenly blinded [blindness with the twin spell metamagic]

As the bandits stumbled around, Slith and Orga charged and killed them. Dri complained that he didn’t get to do anything, and Egedul (who was mute), nodded in agreement.

The rest of their journey was without incident. Varina set out to find her friend while the group set up in an inn. After half a day, Varina returned, and they followed her to the stately manor of a senior wizard who had retired from adventuring.

Inside, they met an incredibly decrepit woman. She explained that she had been stricken with a curse that was spreading throughout the land. Anyone who had been resurrected suddenly had their life force slip away, becoming weaker and weaker until they finally crumbled into dust. She tracked its source to the mysterious land of Chult and asked the party to investigate. She would teleport them there, and pay them with powerful magic items if they reversed the curse’s effects. The party agreed, arranging to return to her manor the next day, after they secured supplies.

The group pooled their money, sharing some with Varina, and bought potions of healing and a bag of holding they chanced upon in an antique store. The combination of Roland’s persuasive skills and Slith’s power of appraisal allowed them to purchase that rare item. [the DM used the tables in the Xanathar’s Guide for buying magic items]

The next day, the group teleported to Chult along with the wizard. She explained she had to meet some people, but suggested they try and contact the Harpers, who could point them in the right direction. They should also find a wilderness guide.

The party headed to a tavern where guides were known to hang out. Inside, after chatting with a few of them, they secured the services of one who seemed the most reputable. Orga also learned that a Temple of Waukeen had ties to the Harpers, so they decided to visit that after its evening services ended. In the meantime, Orga, Egedul and Dri started a drinking game, becoming incredibly inebriated. Roland retired to his room to rest and pray, while Slith and Varina played cards with some of the patrons.

Eventually, the group headed to the temple, dragging a staggering Orga and Dri along (Egedul could hold his liquor better). They set out into the night, hoping to make contact with the shadowy Harpers…

Tune in next time as the group heads out into the jungles of Chult…

[this was a lot of social interaction and scene-setting, but it was a lot of fun. I think it’s partly because the group was comfortable with each other, and partly because the DM had prepared really well]

Should we add more failure points to our adventures?

I’m currently trying Play-by-Post (on the site RPG Crossing), a system in which you play D&D and other RPGs by posting on a message board. I’m running a solo adventure to introduce me to the system and, well, I’m about to die. The likelihood of me failing this made me think about how rare this sort of experience is in modern RPGs. Maybe it’s something we should bring back?

What do I mean? Well, I have a few examples.

In a homebrew D&D 5e adventure I ran a year or so ago, “A Shadow in the Woods,” the group ended up in a castle sunk halfway into a swamp. After they defeated the boss, the castle started sinking all the way in, twisting as it went. The group had to navigate the swirling passageways, and–when they reached the entry–jump through a rotating window to get to the surface. One of the characters nobly waited till last, and failed his acrobatics check.  I felt bad letting him die, however, so I had him jump into mud, and be pulled out by the rest of the party.

Similarly, in a homebrew Star Wars: EOTE adventure, the party needed to gain information from an old lady about a lost Jedi temple. They had not been nice to her in a previous encounter, and didn’t try that hard this time, so she wasn’t cooperative. I realized that the adventure would end right there, so I had her give them directions, just bad ones.

And way back when, my old D&D group was playing Horde of the Dragon Queen (the first campaign for 5e) at our FLGS, Labyrinth Games. At the end of chapter 1, a half-dragon challenges the group to single combat. We were all level 1 at that point, and we knew there was no way we would succeed. But one player, running a halfling ranger, rushed forward (he later said he wanted to re-roll his character). The half-dragon only knocked him unconscious, however, and we later revived him.

What do these have in common? There was (or appeared to be) a clear failure point, beyond which either the adventure wouldn’t progress or the characters would die. And I worried about enforcing that failure point. It’s not just me; after the Star Wars adventure, the other players counseled me to avoid putting such failure points into my adventures (we did a constructive post-mortem after each session, no matter who GM’d).

This makes sense. It’s no fun if an adventure ends early, or if players have no chance of escaping a horrible fate. And since death is handled gently in the latest edition of D&D, players come to expect their characters will survive no matter what. Moreover, some failure points can feel arbitrary, like old choose-your-own-adventure books in which half of the options led to a horrible ending even though it wasn’t clear why that choice was bad.

But are failure points necessarily bad?

Failure points can make you try harder. Knowing my character may die in my play-by-post adventure makes me think over what I could have done differently to survive. Similarly, if my Star Wars party knew there was a chance they’d really need the old lady on their side, they would have put extra effort into developing a rapport with her.

Failure points can also make games more fun. I like to tell my players that RPGs aren’t about “winning,” they’re about fun, and sometime failing is fun. Now, by “failing,” I mean having an encounter not go the exact way it was planned. But more dramatic failure can be fun too. As my readers know, I play Crusader Kings 2 on my PC; some of the better games on this involve my characters losing their throne. Always winning gets boring.

This is apparent even in my almost-failure points above. In my homebrew adventure, the player later said he would have been fine with that character dying, and it would have made for a good ending. Likewise, seeing one of our party die bravely (but foolishly) in Horde of the Dragon Queen could have solidified camaraderie in my newly-formed group.

And D&D used to be like this (while some games still are). Veteran players tell stories about how horrendously hard certain dungeons were. My very first D&D adventure–the dungeon in the Basic Set’s rulebook–ended in a total party kill, after my dad and two little brothers rushed into combat with some giant rats (I was DM). And the point of RPGs like Call of Cthulhu is to see how long you survive, not to “win.”

But I think modern GMs are afraid to put failure points into their dungeons for a few reasons. One is that players may get mad. Another is that they’re kind of tricky to pull off. This isn’t just a tough boss battle leading to the death of the party. It’s an encounter or puzzle that will result in the adventure ending if players can’t solve or get past it.

There are a few ways to add them in without upsetting players, however:

  • One would be to just chat it over with the players. Asking people if they’re OK with their characters dying might seem strange, but it can get everyone on the same page about the stakes of the adventure.
  • Another is to avoid failure points that rely on dice rolls rather than player creativity or ingenuity. It can be frustrating if your best laid plans lead to the party being stuck in a locked room because someone rolled a 1. But if players failed to work together to find their way through a maze, well…
  • Finally, “post-victory failure points” can be effective. If, after the players defeat the evil forces and save the village there is still a chance they can die heroically, it makes their adventure seem more important.

They may not be for everyone, but failure points can really increase the stakes of our adventures. And they can generate great “remember that time…” stories. That’s what RPGs are all about, right?

The Elder God’s cavern, level 3, concluded

Last time, the party explored the haunted house, finding demonic threats and hints of a Lovecraftian conspiracy. They decided to take a rest, to recover from these horrors. The group included Black Lotus, a drow monk; Uatu, a halfling warlock; Crohm, a human warrior; and Dri, a dragonborn barbarian.

When they woke, Uatu was gone. No one heard anything happen in the night, he just disappeared. In his place were Glim, a human rogue, and Tim, a half-elf sorcerer. The two explained they were exploring some ruins, an old temple dedicated to a forgotten deity. They stepped through a door deep in its recesses, and found themselves here.

The group introduced themselves, and explained their situation. Tim was eager to help, while Glim thought he didn’t have much of a choice [Glim was Neutral Evil, which led to problems later…]. They decided to continue exploring. Entering a room, they realized it was a privy; it was filthy, and dingy, with stains covering everything. Crohm poked around, and disturbed a colony of brown mold; he was overcome with pain as freezing cold shot through his system. He scraped it off, and limped along after the group.

The next room looked like a guest room. A nice, but tattered bed was in the center, surrounded by end tables and a wardrobe. The room also contained…four zombies. They shambled towards the group, who burst into action. Crohm and Dri charged, while Black Lotus hurled daggers at the creatures. Tim cast a fire bolt, while Glim snuck around behind them and finished them off.

They continued, and came into another tattered bedroom, but this showed signs of being maintained. Unlike much of the house, this room was lit by pleasant sunlight. The furniture had been pushed up against the doors (the group had to shove a few times to get in), and in one corner, warily holding out a mace, was a man.

He introduced himself as Marinus Willett, and asked what they were doing here. The group hadn’t paid enough attention to the letters they found [Marinus was discussed in them], and treated him as hostile. He realized they meant to harm the ghost [his friend Charles] and refused to help them. Black Lotus tried to smooth things over, and explained what the ghost was doing to the village, and why they were after him. Marinus was partially mollified, and told him a bit about the house; Charles had performed experiments in the basement, and loved to sit by a window in the attic to watch the sunsets. He also mentioned a silver key they had found, which they thought was an ancient relic. [he would have been a lot more helpful if they’d been nice…]

The group moved on. They found what appeared to be the master bedroom. It had a large, nice bed, expensive tapestries, and a bar set. Looking around they found expensive jewelry, including a silver key on a chain. They also found a magic longsword and a journal. Suddenly, the shadows lengthened, and rose into a demonic form. The shadow demon attacked.

The group realized their attacks were doing little damage, except for Tim’s spells. Glim was hurled across the room, crumpling against the wall. Crohm pulled out the magic greatsword he’d found, and tossed the magic longsword to Black Lotus. The two of them charged, and finished it off. Reading the journal, they learned that this house was Charles Dexter Ward’s, and that his esoteric studies—in search of a great Elder God—led him to meet a man named Carter, with whom he travelled to a different world. He also met a man named Curwen, who convinced him that Carter was using them. He and Carter decided to conduct a ritual that would connect them directly to the Elder God, over the objections of Carter’s friend Marinus.

After taking a short rest, they continued up into the attic. As they got to the top of the stairs, they saw a group of skeletons arranging boxes. The group waited to see what they would do, but Glim snuck forward and tried to grab a statue out of a box. The skeletons turned, and attacked. The rest of the group reluctantly rushed forward to destroy the skeletons.

They began exploring the attic. Several of the rooms were servants quarters, with little of interest. As they opened one of the doors, an arrow shot out from a trap at Black Lotus but he ducked out of the way. In a storage room, a swarm of rats suddenly appeared as Dri opened the door. He closed it quickly.

Continued up into attic. Saw skeletons arranging boxes, didn’t react. Glim tried to take a statue, skeletons attacked him until he walked away. Dri tried, same. Killed skeletons. Explored rooms in attic. Empty servants quarters. In one storage room, swarm of rats attacked Dri, closed door. In other, arrow trap shot at Black Lotus, missed him.

At the far wall, they found a door with a large keyhole in it. They opened it, and walked into a huge ballroom in what should have been the outside. The ballroom was full of strangely-dressed people. A buffet was on one side, on the other a bar. The group felt a strange sensation as they walked in, and Crohm found himself in a large manor, surrounded by attendants. Pleased that his greatest dream, to be a lord, had come true, he embraced the vision. To the rest of the group he disappeared. [everyone had to tell me their character’s greatest dream, and succeed on a Charisma check or fall into it]

As they passed a buffet, Tim was overwhelmed with hunger, and began eating ravenously. He disappeared. [also failed a Charisma check]

The group made their way through the crowd, and noticed both Tim and Crohm dressed as the other guests. The group stopped to try and retrieve them, but Glim moved forward. He came to a well-dressed man who introduced himself as Charles Dexter Ward. He told Glim the group’s mission was none of his affair; if he agreed to kill them, Ward would give him all his treasure. Glim, failing to see why he should risk himself for this group, agreed.

He drew his weapons as the group approached. Black Lotus convinced him he would lose the fight [which was probably true] and turned to Ward. He told Ward he was being used by Curwen, and can’t be happy living in this state. Tim added to this, attempting to convince him. They managed to persuade him [successful checks], and Charles agreed he had been misled.

Here is the prepared text:

Yes, I see now. I was promised so much, and yet I’ve spent decades trapped here, in this dream world. Occasionally I can see the real world outside, my family home, decaying and full of monstrosities. This wasn’t what I intended. I truly thought we could grasp the powers we sought, and use them for the good.

I was right about one thing, though: Randulf was hiding something from us. He may be convinced what he is doing is right, but he is not above using and corrupting others to achieve his goals. I would be careful around him.

The house dissolved, and the group appeared on the ground.  The passage to the basement was still visible; the group went back in, and found the locked doors were opened, revealing treasure. They collected the magic items and gold, and came back up.

Glim decided it wasn’t worth trying to apologize, and headed off into the hills. The rest of the group, including Tim, went back into the cave (into which they had descended from level 2) and found the previously locked door, heading deeper into the hill, was not open. They headed in…

[If the group had been nicer to Marinus, he would have warned them, and given them tips on how to turn Charles back. In turn, Charles would have given them information on the next level. They kind of turned Charles, so I let them avoid the final fight. We were also running out of time, so I wanted to resolve the session.]

The Elder God’s Cavern, level 3, part 2

Last time, the group entered the haunted house, encountering horrors within. We had Uatu (halfling warlock), Crohm (human warrior), Black Lotus (drow monk), Dri (dragonborn barbarian), and Althea (half-elf warrior).

The group returned to the room with the demons. When they went inside, the Quasit was nowhere to be seen, but the Dretch advanced. It emitted a cloud of putrid gas, sickening Uatu. Suddenly, the Quasit appeared, terrifying Althea, who ran. The rest of the group rallied, and defeated the weak demons. [I shouldn’t have left them in the room after the group arrived, but I wanted to see the fight]

They continued exploring. To the east was a room lit with a sickly yellow light coming in from the windows. It was not sunlight. In the desk, they found a collection of letters that shed some light on their situation. The owner of the house appeared to have been working with others to explore mysteries of an “Elder God.” Tension had been growing; one was concerned over the influence of someone named “Randolph,” while another was worried about the dark influence of a “Curwen.” Black Lotus recognized Randolph as close to the name of the warlock who had hired them. They continued on [I gave the group a handout with the letters on it. H.P. Lovecraft fans may recognize some of these names…]

The headed west into a dark dining room arranged for a dinner. The group passed through without touching anything, although Uatu used his mage hand to destroy the wine bottles.

Heading north, they came into a kitchen, lit with sunlight. As they explored it, four manes demons burst from pots and pans, attacking them. The group easily defeated them, but were growing more and more disturbed as their explorations continued.

Uatu noticed a door to the outside, and a small hut. They entered, and saw it was an icehouse. Black Lotus thought there may be food inside, so they entered and were immediately bowled over by a horrid smell. It was full of rotting meat hanging from the ceiling. Althea became overcome, retching into the grass. They went back into the house.

The group found stairs heading down, so they followed them into the basement. On the landing they saw the materials for some sort of alchemical lab. Crohm and Uatu both examined the contents of jars on a shelf, and found themselves overcome with horror, unable to explain what they saw [a Lovecraftian touch]. Uatu recovered, but Crohm burst into maniacal laughter [short-term madness].

Nevertheless, they decided to explore the rest of the room. Uatu cast light on an arrow, and Dri fired it, to get a sense for its size. They saw a series of pits and another landing at the other end. The group walked by the pits, and suddenly hands and faces appeared, grabbing at them. The pits were full of misshapen zombies. Crohm, Black Lotus and Uatu were terrified, but Althea and Dri managed to keep their eyes ahead, ignoring them. Crohm and Black Lotus were too shaken, however, and they fell into one of the pits. Dri grabbed their legs, pulling them up, but not before the zombie was able to scratch them, wounding them slightly.

At the other end was a door with an ornate keyhole. The group tried to pick it and break it open, and received an electrical shock. Another door was on the wall beside them, and they tried to get this open, but an earthquake suddenly rattled the building. [I hadn’t thought about them trying to get in here, so improvised to make it impossible. I should have come up with something that happens if it opens]

This seemed important, but there was nothing to do at the moment. They decided to explore the house’s second floor. As they ascended the stairs, two specters appeared and attack. These creatures were resistant to regular damage, so the group struggled a bit, but Crohm’s new longsword and Uatu’s magic helped. They defeated them, although not before one grabbed Crohm, sucking his life force [he lost 10 hp from his maximum until a long rest].

The group had had enough for one day, and decided to rest, warily, by the stairs before continuing to explore this terrifying house…

The Elder God’s Cavern, level 3, part 1

This is the latest in my ongoing multi-level D&D 5th edition dungeon (delayed a bit by my new baby). The group re-convened to explore level 3. It was Uatu (Halfling warlock), Crohm (human warrior), Dri (dragonborn barbarian), Black Lotus (drow monk), and a new character, Althea (half-elf ranger).

Last time, the group took the submersible down through the river, getting out in a cave that had a locked door at one end and an opening to the outside at the other. Stepping out into the sunlight, the group saw they were in a narrow valley surrounded by steep hils, with a strange, creepy looking house tucked into one corner.

[This is my version of a haunted house; I wanted to keep the dungeon interesting, so I changed the format of this level. I also added a few mechanics to make it creepy. In each room, I roll a dice to determine whether footprints appear in the dust (as if someone is walking through) and which way they were going. I also changed the lighting in each room; some times it is sickly yellow, some times bright sunlight, other times darkness (even though it’s day when they entered]

Before they could investigate, they hear a moaning. They found Althea, a half-elf ranger, lying on the ground. After helping her up, and applying some first aid, she explained she had been exploring the hills and fell off (I tried to come up with a way for a new character to suddenly appear). The group explained what they were doing and she decided to join them. They prepared themselves, and entered the house.

They came to a foyer, with faded tapestries on the wall and beaten up old furniture arranged around them. It glowed a sickly yellow light. As they entered, Crohm noticed footprints appear in the thick dust as if someone was walking through. They disappeared before anyone else noticed. Uatu used his mage hand to explore a tapestry, and a violent fungus burst from behind it and attacked. The group quickly took care of it, but were a little shaken up.

They headed north, coming into what looked like a room for entertainment, also lit in a yellow light with no discernible source. There was a harpsichord and various string instruments, with chairs arranged around them. There was also a bar cart with an old bottle of wine. As they all entered, the instruments rose into the air, played an eerie tune for a few minutes, then fell back to the ground. Footprints reappeared in the dust, heading to the east; this time everyone saw them. Before moving on, Uatu decided to try some of the wine; he promptly vomited on the harpsichord.

Following the footprints, the group came into some sort of supply room that was dark. It was packed with chairs, end tables, and various barrels and boxes. Suddenly, zombies appeared and attacked! The group was particularly unnerved that they seemed to appear out of the walls. One even appeared behind them, even though the entertainment room was empty when they left. Dri and Crohm were bitten, staggering back. Uatu, Dri and Black Lotus managed to kill six of the zombies, and the rest disappeared.

Patching their friends, the group headed north. They found a library. Rows and rows of old books lined the walls, while chairs with end tables were set up around the room. Bright light streamed in from windows. Uatu began examining some of the books, and found them confusing. They were written in common, but the words didn’t seem right. It wasn’t a dialect, it read like someone using their alphabet but writing foreign ideas. He found a vial by the books, and grabbed it.

Meanwhile, Dri and Althea sat down on some chairs to relax. They were suddenly lifted up into the air and tipped over, while the rest of the group began getting shoved around. No assailant was visible, and they moved back to back to protect themselves [it was a poltergeist]. Dri made a sarcastic comment about the library’s contents and was suddenly hit really hard in the face, nearly knocking him out [a critical hit for 20 damage]. Black Lotus guessed it may be some malevolent force, and they decided to leave the room.

They headed to the west into a sun room. Ceiling to floor windows covered one end, with chairs arrayed for guests to sit in. Surprisingly, it was night outside, even though it was mid-morning when they entered the room. More footprints appeared, heading west. The group was tired of following this unseen force, and headed to the south.

As they were walking, they passed a closet. Crohm decided to open it and a shadow burst out. The group was caught by surprise, but killed it before it could harm them. Inside, Crohm found a magic longsword and took it.

They continued into another sort of sitting room. Inside where a quasit and dretch (two demons). The quasit locked eyes with Uatu, who was filled with a sudden horror. He ran from the room, and the rest of the group followed [it used its scare action, and Uatu failed his saving throw].

The weary group decided to take a short rest. They packed into the closet they’d just passed, and closed the door. As they were resting, they heard voices muttering both in the closet and outside. It was not very comforting….

Tune in next time for more…


Don’t be Anakin: dealing with bickering PCs, continued

Last week I discussed the problem of PC bickering in RPGs, and suggested two models for players to follow. The bad model is Anakin and Obi-Wan from the Star Wars prequels. The good model is Frank Castle and Microchip from Netflix’s The Punisher.

So how can we push bickering PCs away from the Anakin/Obi-Wan model? There are a few options, for both GMs and PCs.


  1. Tie characters’ backgrounds together. I often have at least two of them know each other, maybe working together on a mission. This gives them a reason to try and cooperate.
  2. Give the group a reason to be together. Chance encounters make work for the first adventure; e.g. characters all hear about a dungeon that needs clearing, and decide to work together. But why wouldn’t the LG paladin leave the bickering CN party to find better friends after they clear the dungeon? They need to be forced to stay together; options include a divine command, a threat that strikes them before they can disband, etc.
  3. Be willing to mess with difficult players. I have a post planned for how to deal with chaotic neutral players, and this is part of it. When players act out of character to try and be funny, have NPCs respond as they would in real life; if a belligerent and irritating man tried to buy a beer from my bar, I–at the least–wouldn’t tell him any of my town’s secrets. And if a player’s teasing is harming another player’s experience, make that player fall into a pit or get splashed by mud; something harmless that lets them know they need to stop.


  1. Put some effort into your characters’ backgrounds. Just like the GM should tie characters together, players can think about how their characters know each other. Are they childhood friends, business partners, etc? Beyond that, fleshing out your character’s background and personality is important. “I’m a loner,” lends itself to disruptive behavior. “I pretend to be a loner because I’m hurting over my family’s death,” gives us a character who may seem unpleasant, but does care about something.
  2. Be a team player. It might seem more fun to try and pick-pocket your party’s wizard than keep watch for monsters. But the point of this game is cooperation. A lot of bickering comes down to players trying to create a fun situation for themselves without thinking of what the party needs to accomplish its goals. If your character isn’t interested in working with the others, and finds their planning and rules irritating, maybe they should leave the party… 
  3. Be sensitive to other players. This is more on the meta-game side. Some players may enjoy “giving crap” as we used to say where I grew up. Others find it annoying, or may think they’re being picked on. Try and be aware of how the target of your bickering or teasing is reacting. If they aren’t laughing, then stop. Again, the point of this is to work together and have fun.

D&D and other RPGs are supposed to be fun. You don’t have to take them seriously as you would your job. You’re not an actor in a play; there’s no script. But sometimes “having fun” can make the game less fun. When in doubt, just think: am I being Anakin, or Frank Castle? Don’t be Anakin.

So there are my ideas. Any thoughts? Is this not as big of a deal as I think? Other suggestions to deal with this issue?