The Elder God’s Cavern level 2, session 2 (continued)

Last time, the group made their way through level 2 of the multi-level D&D 5e dungeon I am running. They found some new allies, and were about to assault the hobgoblin lair to recover the parts for the submersible that would take them to the next level. The group included Uatu (a halfling warlock), Black Lotus (a drow monk), Crohm (a human fighter), Dre (a dragonborn barbarian) and Goris (a half-orc barbarian).

They moved forward cautiously, Black Lotus in the lead. The passageway became more regular, as if workers had carved flat corrridors out of the stone. They came to a wide, square-shaped room with a heavyset door at the opposite when arrows flew by them.

Two hobgoblins were hiding behind barricades, firing. Uatu fired eldritch blasts in return, while the rest of the group charged. Suddenly more arrows flew by them, as they saw hobgoblins firing from murder holes in the door. The group started to pull back but Dre charged the doors, smashing them open [he wasn’t supposed to be able to do that, but rolled a natural 20]

The group took out the hobgoblin archers, but more appeared at the end of the passageway, and continued to fire. They killed a few of them, but the group was out of spells, wounded and exhausted, when a gruff voice called out to them.

It was Grort, the leader of the hobgoblin. He asked for a truce, arguing that he’d lost many fighters, but the group couldn’t kill all of them. They agreed, and everyone lowered their weapons. Uatu told him they wanted to get to the lower levels, and needed the gnome the hobgoblins had captured.

The gnome, Fonken, was brought out [he may sound familiar. Fonken is one of my characters (who I’ll do an Origin Stories post on eventually) that I’ve used in another adventure as well]. The group tried to convince the hobgoblins to let Fonken go, but they refused. Grort asked for all the group’s treasure, which didn’t go over well. At an impasse, Grort then challenged one of them to single combat.

Black Lotus stepped up, and the fight began. A weakened Black Lotus was visibly struggling, when Uatu walked over to a robed human who accompanied Grort. Uatu pointed out Grort was weakened, and suggested the human make a bid for leadership. He was convincing [rolled well on persuasion] and just as Grort was about to strike a killing blow on Black Lotus, the human cast a spell and a pillar of fire descended on Grort, killing him [he cast sacred flame]

The human announced he was in charge, and the hobgoblins—irritated with Grort’s leadership, and respecting strength—welcome that.  The human agreed to let Fonken fix the submersible and be free if he helped them maintain their own drainage system [the group didn’t really get into this, but Fonken had used parts from the submersible to create pumps to keep the hobgoblin lair dry; the tunnels for these could have provided another entryway for the group]

Everyone agreed to this deal, the bandits held a feast for the group, and then set off the next morning.

Here’s the prepared text for their exit:

With a jolt and a shudder, the device activates. You begin to sink into the water, and strange lights ignire on the outside of the device. Looking out the windows, you can see the device floating downwards, towards a dark hole in the river that must lead deeper into the hill. The device enters the hole with a whoosh, shaking a bit. You can see the rock walls flying by—you’re travelling incredibly fast now. Suddenly the walls disappear, and you’re in a fantastically large cavern. The lights don’t even reach the walls, and it’s almost as if you’re in the ocean. You start to see other lights in the deep, and realize there are glowing fish out there. And you jump back with a start as a gigantic fish, the size of a house, passes by. Suddenly you realize you’ve been travelling fast and deep enough to reach deep into the earth.

Just as you begin to worry about where you’re going, the walls close in around you again and you can see daylight. The device comes to rest in a strange upwards-flowing waterfall, moves out of the water, and settles into a cradle. The doors open up.

Looking around, you see you’re in a long, broad tunnel. As you orient yourselves, you realize this must run the length of the hill. At the west end of the tunnel, you can see daylight. At the east end is a stone door.

The group found a sealed door at one end of the cavern, and at the other they came out into a narrow valley holding a decrepit, creepy-looking house.

To be continued in Level 3 of The Elder God’s Cavern…

[I am saving my commentary on the creation of this dungeon till the end, but I wanted to say a few things about how this level played out. I had prepared a few ways in for both the bullywug and hobgoblin lair. I also came up with negotiation possibilities for both. The group found the bullywug secret entrance, which helped. For the hobgoblins, there was a control room for the submersible that was turned into a pumping station by Fonken. The group could have used tunnels in this station to sneak through the hobgoblin lair.

It seemed like a good practice when creating a lair, to set up options for sneaking and negotiation (in addition to frontal assault). That can make the adventure more interesting, and appeal to different types of groups.]



The Elder God’s Cavern, level 2, session 2

The group re-formed to finish the second level of the dungeon. We had Crohm (human fighter), Uatu (halfling warlock), Black Lotus (drow monk), and two newcomers: Dre (dragonborn barbarian) and Goris (half-orc barbarian). I run the group through Meetup, so try to accommodate people who join halfway through. Once again, we met at the excellent Killer Rabbit Comics and Games in South Burlington, VT.

The group took a long rest to recover from the fight. After waking, they heard a commotion: what sounded like shouting, and someone running towards them.

They decided to prepare by hiding the tiger corpse to avoid raising suspicion. Unfortunately, it proved heavier than they expected, so they were still pulling on it as a dragonborn and half-orc ran into the cavern, followed soon after by three hobgoblins [everyone failed their strength checks].

The group rushed to attack, while the Dre and Goris turned on their pursuers. Goris ripped out one of the tiger’s fangs to use as a dagger, and Dre attacked with his hands. The group quickly took care of the hobgoblins, and introduced themselves to the new-comers. They had been travelling through the highlands to the west when they were set upon by a group of hobgoblins and captured. Their captors were escorting them back to their lair when they made a break for it.

After introductions, the group explained what they were trying to accomplish. The newcomers knew the way to the hobgoblin lair, but they decided to look for the alternative power source for the submersible first. Heading northwest, they came into a slimy cavern that ended in the rushing river. While exploring the riverbank, a green slime dropped on Uatu, injuring him. He scraped it off with a rock, and they moved on.

The next cavern was overgrown with waist-high (for a human) mushrooms. The group began cutting their way through when suddenly a horrid shrieking sound erupted beside them. Uatu saw it was coming from a strange fungus, and realized it was a shrieker [rolled a Nature check]. He tugged on it, but it wouldn’t budge. Goris tried to help by tugging on Uatu, but it still wouldn’t come out. Then Dre shouted, “I’ll just smash it!” ran over, and missed, kicking Uatu in the head [two failed strength checks, and a critical failure by Dre].

The group decided to move on. They came out in a familiar passageway. Remembering that it led to the trapped passageway Black Lotus stumbled over (last session), they headed the other direction.

They came out into a ruined temple. A statue of a blinded and maimed god stood on a pedestal, with a sealed chest behind him. On the pedestal was written, “follow in my footsteps to gain my aid.” On the wall were carving of horrific beasts—reminiscent of the tentacled creatures in the carvings above them—attacking human cities but being held back by figures emitting light. In one corner, a figure holding back the beasts had a different beast behind him, aiding him.

The group tried to figure out how to open the chest, but it wouldn’t budge. Black Lotus walked in the direction the statue was looking, but nothing happened. Uatu identified the statue as Tyr [religion check], and Dre closed his eyes and walked blindly. At this, the statue clicked open. Inside they found a decanter of endless water, a rope of climbing, and two sending stones.

They backtracked their way south, past the tiger lair, to a large, oddly shaped room with numerous, dark, alcoves. The floor was covered with a fungus Goris recognized as growing from corpses, and the room had a horrid, rotting smell. As they carefully explored the alcoves, a ghoul appeared out of the darkness, and bit Uatu in the shoulder.

The others rushed in as two other ghouls and a zombie came out of the darkness. The ghouls bit Black Lotus and Dre as well, but they fought off the stiffness in their limbs [succeeded in saving throw against paralysis]. They defeated the undead rather easily [I was a little disappointed, was hoping for a least one paralysis]. In the alcoves they found assorted treasure, and a glowing stone [“does it look like a power source?” one of my players facetiously asked]

They headed back to the passageway to the hobgoblin lair. Remembering the traps last time, Black Lotus walked carefully, but still got hit with an arrow. He then decided to poke the floor ahead of him with a stick, and discovered the rest of the traps. Unfortunately, that included a set of bells that rang alarmingly loud…

Continued next week.

Is the DMs’ Guild bad for game stores?

In January 2016, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) announced the Dungeon Master’s Guild. The DMs’ Guild is an online platform that would allow WOTC to release material for the fifth edition of D&D, while also allowing players to upload their own material. It’s a great idea, and has made it a lot easier to keep the momentum going for 5e. But it seems like it cuts out an important part of the gaming community; friendly local game stores (FLGS).

First, the DMs’ Guild is a great idea. It enabled the D&D community to develop and grow as the fifth edition took off.

Starting with the Basic Rules in 2014, and followed soon after by the core rulebooks, D&D’s 5th edition revitalized the game. Streamlined and dynamic, both accessible for newcomers and nuanced enough for veterans, the newest edition of D&D was a hit. But demand outpaced supply. In my FLGS at the time–Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC–they couldn’t keep the D&D books on the shelf; unless you pre-ordered, you were out of luck.

WOTC focused on releasing the core rulebooks, important supplements like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Tales of the Sword Coast, and massive campaign books. They also facilitated games around the country through the Adventurers’ League. But this didn’t leave a lot of time for minor products, like one-shot adventures or small rule variants.

This is where the DMs’ Guild came in. The game designers can release minor updates through this. More importantly, the legion of players and DMs creating adventures, character options, and home brew rules can make them available for others to use.

So what’s the downside?

It has to do with my memories of D&D back in the early 1990s. I started playing D&D after I found my dad’s Basic Set as a kid, and soon moved on to the then current second edition of AD&D. I bought the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but wanted more. So whenever we visited game stores (which were more common back then) and I had some money,  I’d grab another adventure to play with my brother. Now, I can still find those adventures, but it involves going to a website.

Some of my old D&D collection, being guarded by my daughter’s Puppy

The DMs’ Guild basically takes away this product line from FLGS’, which can be a problem. FLGS’ are under an immense amount of pressure, as Barnes and Noble and Amazon both offer easily-accessible alternatives for customers. But FLGS’ serve an important role in their towns, bringing gamers together and sustaining a welcoming community. My FLGS–Killer Rabbit Comics and Games–runs numerous events for local gamers, and has helped connect me with many others interested in playing D&D. If gamers can/have to go to their FLGS for the latest D&D content, this will do a lot to sustain these businesses. If new products are often not available in stores, customers will just shop online. Barnes and Noble will survive (maybe) just through customers occasionally buying the $50 rule books, but FLGS’ will suffer.

Like I said, DMs’ Guild is a great idea, which should be encouraged. So what can WOTC do to help FLGS’? There are a few options.

First, they could print some of these products. It could be the official D&D products, or best-sellers from users. But print versions would probably sell well. There are lots of D&D fans–like me–who want more content. WOTC could even mark them up, and they’d do well. This would bring business to FLGS’, but it would also ensure a steady stream of product releases to keep players from wandering away from D&D.

Second, they could leverage the excellent Adventurers’ League. This initiative has helped gamers to get together, often via FLGS, to play D&D. It’s actually how I got back into D&D after 5e came out. And it really helps FLGS’, as many of the players end up buying their D&D and other gaming materials from the store hosting their sessions.

So why not extend this, and make some DMs’ Guild content available for Adventurers’ League organizers? The printed versions of popular DMs’ Guild products could be sold through Adventurers’ League organizers–making distribution easier. Or WOTC could even offer some printed versions for free as an incentive for exceptionally successful hosts.

I know that WOTC cares about FLGS’, and don’t think DMs’ Guild was an attempt to hurt them. I think DMs’ Guild is a great idea. I just think there are a few ways to tweak it to make sure this great resource doesn’t hurt the local game stores that sustain D&D.


The Elder God’s cavern level 1, part 2

Last week, our heroes entered into the mysterious caverns to figure out why a river had stopped flowing. The party was Black Lotus (a drow monk), Crohm (a human fighter), Nailo (an elf ranger) and Uatu (a halfling warlock) [Uatu replaced another player who couldn’t make it to this session.

The group woke up after a restless night (thanks to Crohm’s maniacal laughter), and decided on their next steps. They decided to backtrack a bit until they came to a passage leading further north. They also hoped to find some sign of their missing rogue.

The group entered a room that appeared to be an old study. Inside was Uatu, a friendly Halfling warlock (Callie’s replacement). The group chatted with him, and learned he had been hired by Lord Martyn—a noble from the town—to help explore the ruins. Martyn had gone mad, and claimed he was reclaiming his throne. He fled to the eastern part of the dungeon, and Uatu hoped to find him. The group agreed to help, and—after deciding there was nothing of value in the room—moved on [I put a chair in the middle of the room that hurt lawful players and healed chaotic players, but no one investigated it]

They crossed the long passageway they had encountered before, and entered a room with crumbling furniture but nice tapestries on the walls. One tapestry was flapping as if in a breeze. Nailo found an ancient keg of beer, tried a sip, and felt a surge of confidence [he passed a Constitution check; if he had failed, he’d be sickened]. This confidence led him to strut past the tapestry to see what happened, and he passed unscathed. Uatu cast mage hand to investigate it, and the magical hand disappeared as it touched the tapestry. The group decided to move on [it teleports players to the entrance]

They found another corridor, running north to south. Uatu could hear the sound of machinery below him, and as Crohm was investigating his foot slipped into a space along the wall. He realized there was another corridor running perpendicular to theirs beneath them. They decided to remember that, but press on.

To the south they came on a room with a floor one foot below the doors that was full of water. Various boxes and pieces of furniture floated on the surface. Nailo very acrobatically danced across each of the boxes, further increasing his confidence [he got a natural 20 on his acrobatics check, so I gave him advantage on his next roll]. Uatu followed, trying to sail a box across the room with his mage hand; unfortunately, it tipped and he fell into the disgusting water [poor dexterity check]. Crohm also fell in as he tried to jump across, but Black Lotus made it with little problem.

After leaving this room, they saw the corridor open up into another room to the north. Inside that room, they found Lord Martyn. As they entered, a giant wasp buzzed them and landed on Martyn’s shoulder. Martyn challenged the group, and demanded their loyalty to him and his “new lord.” Uatu attempted to reason with Martyn, and then secretly tried to charm him; this failed, and Martyn attacked. [I actually hadn’t thought of what to do with a charm here, so I decided Martyn would be immune]

The wasp struck Nailo, felling him with a lucky blow. At the same time, Martyn slashed at Uatu with his rapier, seriously harming him. Meanwhile, a sword lying next to Martyn leapt into the air and attack, harming Black Lotus. Black Lotus, however, knocked down Marten, and Uatu finished him off. The sword flew down the corridor.

The group took a short rest to recover some health, and moved on. To the north, they found a room that was full of machinery. A piston and gears ran east to west through the room, while another set of piston and gears ran into the ceiling; the two were connected by a giant spring. The ceiling was blocked, and the machinery would slowly turn the spring until the tension got to be too much. At this point it would suddenly reverse, tensing the spring from the other side. Uatu recognized this as the machinery noise he had heard, and the group guessed that this was part of the machinery the old wizard used to channel the river’s power [I was impressed, that was correct].

As they explored, Uatu found the piston ran through a narrow corridor that opened up into a broader cavern. Here a river flowed from the west, but its passage out of the cavern was blocked, creating a pool of water. At the south end of the room, he saw a hobgoblin (Bort) playing cards with a human in red robes and a kenku. Two mastiffs were chained to the west wall. Uatu also found another secret door connecting to the room from the area they found Lord Martyn.

Realizing this would be a tough fight, the group set up an ambush. Black Lotus and Uatu would attack from the north, while Crohm and Nailo would fire arrows at the monsters from the secret door. [I was impressed here with their ingenuity, as they very well may have lost this fight]

The attack began with a hail of arrows from Crohm and Nailo, which severely wounded the human and bounced off the hobgoblin’s armor. Uatu rushed in and cast Arms of Hadar, killing the human. The kenku ran to the flee the mastiffs as Black Lotus leapt into action.

One mastiff charged Black Lotus, but he jumped over it, closing on Bort. Bort had already engaged Uatu, felling him with a series of mighty longsword blows. Black Lotus ran up to avenge his comrade.

Meanwhile, a stray arrow from Crohm nipped the ear of a mastiff, and it charged  enraged. Dropping his bow, Crohm drew his greatsword and—using the beast’s own momentum—swung a mighty blow that chopped the mastiff in two [he asked for advantage, and had a good reason for it, so I gave it to him]

Nailo continued to fire arrows at the Kenku and the other mastiff and Bort and Black Lotus fought. Unfortunately, Bort proved too much for Black Lotus, and he too fell before the hobgoblin’s blade.

All seemed lost. The remaining mastiff had charged Nailo, who fled back into the passage to gain some cover. Black Lotus and Uatu lay, bleeding, in front of the hobgoblin, their lives draining away.

The only person who could save the group—and the village—was Crohm. He felt a flicker of uncertainty, as he had tended to do more harm than good with his sword so far. But he knew his friends were counting on him, and he charged.

Bort and Crohm engaged in single combat, their blades ringing off each other. Finally Crohm saw an opportunity after one of Bort’s wild swings and plunged his blade into Bort’s side. The hobgoblin fell, letting out a wild roar. The remaining mastiff heard this, and ran in circles, whining. The kenku shrieked and ran to the south, but Nailo pinned him to the ground with a well-placed arrow.

[I didn’t plan on this getting so dramatic at the end, but it really worked]

Nailo and Crohm revived their friends, and gathered up Bort’s treasure. They then set up the blasting powder Randulf had given them, and stepped back. The rocks burst in a great explosion, and the river poured free.

Suddenly, the group felt a malevolent force approaching from below. It was almost a psychic rumble. This turned into a horrifying voice shrieking “I’m free!” Crohm panicked, and jumped into the river [failed Wisdom save]. The rest ran to the south.

They ran all the way out of the dungeon and down the mountain before the calmed. Crohm was sitting, embarrassed, by the side of the river, and they patched him.

The party was greeted to a hero’s welcome back in Slyhow. Everyone was out cheering for them as they walked to Randulf’s tower. Randulf paid them what they were promised, and identified some of the magical items they couldn’t figure out.

They also told Randulf of the ghost. He seemed concerned, and suggested they keep this to themselves for now. The group agreed, and prepared to celebrate their great victory.

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

As I’ve discussed a bit on Twitter, I’m working on a multi-level dungeon crawl for 5e D&D. I was inspired by the Basic Set for original D&D, which included a sample dungeon and tips for expanding it. I first found this when I was a kid—it was my dad’s—and fell in love with D&D. So when I pulled it out recently, a lot of nostalgia for a nice old dungeon crawl came back.

At some point I will write on why sword and sorcery, episodic campaigns are so great, and that’s what I was going for with this dungeon. Given the great response to the Tales from the Yawning Portal—a published book collecting classic dungeon crawls—I doubt I’m alone in this.

So after reading through the D&D basic set dungeon, I decided to make my own that would bring characters from levels 1 to 5. I recently ran a group of players through the first level, and am close to finishing preparation for level 2. In these posts, I will follow the format of my other walkthroughs (see here for the most recent), discussing what happened and providing some of my thoughts on the experience. I am going to wait to discuss how I put the entire dungeon together until after the players complete it, in case any of them read this blog.

We ran level 1 at the great Killer Rabbit Comics and Games in South Burlington, VT. At the table were Nailo (an elf ranger), Callie (a Halfling rogue), Crohm (a human fighter), and Black Lotus (a drow monk). Callie’s player dropped out after the first session, so she was replaced by Uatu (Halfling warlock).

The adventure opens with the group sitting in a tavern in the village of Slyhow, down on their luck. They met each other, decided to go adventuring, and set out for the wild borderlands. Travelling from town to town, they found it difficult to get started in their careers. After being kicked out of the city of Fayrfeld for not paying bar tabs, they ended up in Slyhow, where they had just spent their last coin on a round of drinks [I am considering setting future adventures in and around these two towns, and building it into a broader campaign]

Suddenly, a nervous man—Jonn—walked up to their table. He told them he works for Randulf, the local sorcerer—my readers may recognize him—who requested the group’s help. Jonn led them to the edge of town, where Randulf’s tower perched gloomily on a cliff. They ascended winding staircases till they reached the top level, where Randulf waited for them.

He was an older man, wearing a sickly gray cloak. A bat fluttered around the ceiling. Randulf introduced himself, and asked the group’s help. Apparently the river that flows by the town had dried up a few weeks ago, and the town was starting to suffer. It flows from the highlands to the west of town, and cuts into and out of a hill a half days’ journey from Slyhow. Something caused it to stop flowing, and he wants the group to investigate.

When they pressed him for more information, he admitted it may be more dangerous than it sounds. The hill was the site of an unknown wizard’s tower, who disappeared a century ago, before the town’s founding. The river flows through caverns in the mountain, some of which are not natural. Over time, monsters moved into these caverns, and there have been periodic raids on villagers and merchants who traveled too close to the hill. The group sensed there was something more he wasn’t telling them, but they couldn’t get any more information [they rolled well on insight, but Randulf is crafty]

After signing a contract in which each member would be paid 100gp for restoring the river, the group went back to the inn. Word must have spread while they slept, because the innkeeper gave them a free, hearty breakfast and townsfolk had gathered outside the inn. The whole village cheered them as these excited adventurers headed out into the wilderness.

After a few hours they reached the hill. The dry riverbank they had been following curved to the north, and a switchback path up the hill veered off from the road. The group followed this path to the top of the hill, where they found stairs leading into the ground on its southern end. They investigated a bit, and found a dammed up area where the river used to flow from on the north end. They also found goblin tracks, although they couldn’t identify how many or how recent they were [the ranger used his survival skills well]

The group descended, warily. The room they entered looked like an old pantry, with dust covered barrels and shelves arrayed around the floor. Besides the dust, they saw a strange yellow soot covering all surfaces. Suddenly, Nailo shouted; he had noticed a dire wolf slinking in an alcove of the room. It attacked.

Callie moved to hide in the shadows as the dire wolf burst past her. Black Lotus, in turn, leapt down the stairs and tried to kick the wolf but missed. Nailo fired an arrow, hitting the wolf in the side. This enraged the dire wolf, and it lunged and bit him, wounding him severely.

Crohm had now made into the room. He swung his greatsword with all his might…but lost his grip and threw it across the room [he rolled a natural 1, I like to be creative with these]

As the dire wolf moved to bite Nailo again, Black Lotus managed to knock it prone, and the group surrounded it, killing it. They found some gold and gems among the corpses of the dire wolf’s victims, and moved on [it was risky to start a level 1 adventure with a tough monster, but I wanted to make it believable that no one would venture into this dungeon]

The group headed west down a corridor that eventually turned to the north. They came on a door in the east, which was stuck. Crohm smashed it easily—the wood was rotten—and they went through.

This room looked like the old cistern for the caverns. There was a stone pit full of refuse and muck, and a drainpipe into the ceiling that had been blocked with dirt. As the group was investigating giant rats burst from the pit and attacked.

Two attacked Nailo. He managed to kill one with an arrow before they reached him, but the other bit him, wounding him even more. Crohm roared and swung, but missed the rats and struck the stone pit; the sword bounced back and cut his forehead [another critical failure]. The rest of the group rallied, and easily killed the remaining rats. They found some more treasure the rats had hidden in their nest.

The group found a passageway to the north, which they followed into a filthy room filled with refuse and humanoid waste. Crohm investigated the waste, and identified it as goblin [I didn’t want to think about how he identified it…]

Realizing they were near more enemies, the group advanced stealthily. They went through another passage to the north, sneaking into a room containing two goblins. One was watching at an open door to the east, the other was at an alcove to the west. Black Lotus and Callie were able to sneak up and kill both goblins before they could react.

More goblins came from the north, and the group exchanged fire with them as they dove for cover. Nailo managed to kill one, and the other surrendered. Suddenly, the group noticed Callie had disappeared in the fight [the player had to leave early, and I wanted to give her a chance to rejoin later]

A little concerned about this, the group pressed the goblin for information. Crohm managed to calm the squealing creature, and got much useful information out of him [rolled a natural 20 on persuasion]. The goblin said they served Bort, a hobgoblin, who was in a room at the northern end of the dungeon. This is also where the river used to flow through. The goblin said the main approach to the room was trapped, while other approaches were locked, but there was a lever to open the locks in the northwest part of the dungeon. The group tied him up, and moved on.

To the north they found the goblin’s camp, including a good amount of treasure. This included some much needed healing potions [no one in the group could heal]

Following the goblin’s lead, they continued north down a long corridor. They came to a door in the west wall, and went inside. This appeared to be an ancient chapel, with pews and an altar. What caught the group’s attention, though, were friezes on the walls depicting horrible, tentacle beasts devouring humanoid creatures. The group moved on.

They followed the corridor all the way to the north until it ended in a door. Opening it, the group walked into an otherworldly scene. This looked like another chapel, with a pulpit in the center that seemed to have a space for some sort of sphere. The ceiling had a design of a pulpy, tentacle creature reaching out and grasping human cities, which were arranged around the corners.

In the northeast corridor of the room, a pool of water seeped under the wall and spilled into a deep rift in the floor. Whenever a stream of water fell into the rift, a burst of sickly yellow steam shot out. Beyond the rift, the group saw an alcove, with a bit of a lever visible; the rest was submerged under water.

The group edged carefully up to the rift, looked inside, and two chokers leapt from the rift.

One gripped Crohm’s neck with its tentacles, nearly knocking him unconscious. The other grabbed Nailo, strangling him [he was low on hit points]

Crohm broke free of the choker and stabbed it. Meanwhile, Black Lotus leapt through the air to deliver a knockout blow…but misjudged the height of the monster and sailed overhead [he rolled a critical failure]

Crohm, meanwhile, killed the choker he was fighting and rushed over to Nailo. Nailo was passed out, and close to death, with the choker’s arms still around his neck. Crohm roared a challenge, swung mightily to chop the choker’s arms off and free his friend…and missed, slashing Nailo’s shoulder and nearly killing him [another critical failure]

Black Lotus recovered from his missed attack, however, and killed the choker. He revived Nailo, and the group gathered their breath.

Black Lotus decided to check out the lever in the alcove. He swam underwater, struggled to lift the lever, and heard the sound of gears activating as he did.

Crohm, meanwhile, noticed a treasure chest on a shelf in the rift. He climbed into it, but didn’t watch the timing of the steam. A burst hit him in the face, and he was overcome with maniacal laughter. [The steam gives you a level of madness unless you pass a Constitution saving throw]

The group laid out their bedrolls far away from the rift, and Nailo and Black Lotus tried desperately to sleep in between Crohm’s bursts of laughter.

Tune in next week for the conclusion of The Elder God’s Cavern, level 1.

“A shadow in the woods” walkthrough, part 3

Over the last two weeks I presented a walkthrough of “A shadow in the woods,” my D&D 5e home-brew adventure. And in an earlier post I discussed some takeaways from DM-ing my first home-brew. So this week I thought I’d write about the creative and technical process behind this adventure.

It was inspired by reading through Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a D&D sourcebook that came out last year. It includes background on monster cultures and playable races, as well as several new and interesting monsters. One of these was the Banderhob; as soon as I read its description I knew this would make for a great adventure. This adventure was basically a linear story—defeat the monster—but organized around a series of dungeon settings and set encounters.

The Banderhob is summoned by a hag to kill a target. I thought it’d be fun if the group bumped into one, and then got sucked into its mission. Simply going and warning its target wouldn’t make for much of an adventure, so I had to come up with some way for the target to be missing or hidden. Then I had to think about the motivations behind this.

For the setting, I decided to go with a Twin Peaks-esque surreal horror (with hints of humor). The adventurers went to a small provincial town full of difficult personalities and devious intrigue. It may or may not be based on my hometown.

A political fight within the town seemed a good motivation, although I went with a bumbling villain—the local guy who wanted to stop his cousin’s land sale—for some comedic effect. I fleshed this out with locations that may or may not have been near my own hometown, including a swampy area, barren hills, and some rich farmland. I added random encounter tables for the day and night to flesh out the creepiness of the town.

I had a setting—the hometown—and some basic plot ideas: the characters stumble on a Banderhob hunting a woman, and need to help her and figure out who summoned it. I filled in the details with fantasy/sci-fi writing conveniences. The Banderhob dropped a locket belonging to the woman, which confused it about her location. And the Banderhob was summoned in a specific ritual that required the group to close the summoning portal.

I also added a well-known character (at least to me): the town sage, Fonken. Fonken was a character I ran for Curse of Strahd, a Dale Cooper-esque gnome wizard (from Twin Peaks); one of my friends also compared him to Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters. We never finished that adventure, so I thought it might be fun to have him retire to a small town and help out adventurers that pass through.

So I had my plot: the group had to protect the woman and return the Banderhob through the portal. I first needed triggers to get through each stage of the adventure. I ended up kind of simplifying this. The townsfolk quickly tell the group the Banderhob’s target was captured by bandits, to give them some direction early on. And after the group was in town for a bit the Banderhob attacked and Fonken saved them; this gave him a chance to  give them the information about the monster. When the group rescued the monster’s target, the people responsible for these events show up to explain and kind of apologize. I guess I could have had my group do more investigation, but I didn’t want to get too bogged down.

Now I needed the set pieces for the two main events: finding and protecting the Banderhob’s target, and defeating the Banderhob. For the former, it was the lair of a bandit group that had “kidnapped” the woman (she was just visiting the bandits, in my lame attempt at humor). For the latter, it was the dungeon of a hag that had summoned the Banderhob.

For both of these, I basically used the random dungeon tables in the DMs guide (although I re-rolled results that didn’t make sense). One thing that came up for the bandit lair was a dungeon buried in a series of hills; this sounded appropriate to the setting so I went with that. And I populated it using the tables, although I figured out the basic “flow” of the dungeon first; all corridors converged on the circular “throne room” of the bandit leader. I re-rolled till I got dangerous but light-hearted obstacles in the dungeon, like a reverse gravity pantry or a talking tapestry.

For the hag’s lair, I rolled a castle submerged in a swamp. This sounded nice too, and I adapted it to make it submerged sideways and twisted. I went with more sinister sounding rolls for the dungeon itself, as that fit the atmosphere better. And for both dungeons I used appropriate wilderness encounters (forest or swamp) to populate the group’s trip there.

Then there was the boss battle. I decided to make it a multi-stage battle (although that didn’t completely work out, as I discussed in my earlier post). The first stage was relatively easy—a straight-up battle with the Banderhob and some ghouls. That ended quickly, and I was kind of going for the end of Ghostbusters—when they defeated the villain but a sense of dread was still there, growing. The second stage had the Banderhob reappear through the portal with some darkmantles attacking as well. This is where the group defeated the Banderhob, but the third stage would have had everyone take on an effect of Shadowfell (its home plane) and fight the Banderhob as well as the hag.

Finally, there was the ending. I loved the old video games where defeating the boss wasn’t enough; you also had to escape. So I went for that, with the sinking castle. In the end, I made it a little too easy. It may have made for a good dramatic ending if one character fell, just as they thought they’d won.  To be honest, I was kind of worried about upsetting the players (as we are a relatively new group).

And then I wanted an anti-climactic ending back at the town. I love old Westerns where the hero saves the day, but the villagers don’t want him around anymore. And that was kind of what happened to my group; the town was appreciative, but just wanted them to leave.

So that was how I put this adventure together. As I’ve said, it wasn’t perfect, but I had a lot of fun (and my players did too). I hope this can be of some help to others thinking through their own home-brew adventures.

“A shadow in the woods” walkthrough, part 2

Last week I presented the first part of my home-brew D&D 5e adventure, “A Shadow in the Woods.” The adventurers got wrapped up in a complicated plot of murder and real estate when they were attacked by a Banderhob, a monster summoned from the Shadowfell to kill a particular target. After securing its target, the group prepared to seek out its origin and return it to its proper plane of existence…

The group decided to send Lorana to Fonken, the town sage, to keep her safe. They would then into the swamp to find the witch, carrying the locket in the hopes the Banderhob would follow them. They’d figure out the rest later.

After resting, the group headed into the swamp. [at this point, we were running out of time in our gaming session, so I moved quickly through several encounters meant to establish the tone]. They found signs of corruption that didn’t match the townsfolk’s pleasant descriptions of the swamp, like a dug-up tomb, an abandoned hut, and a strange batlike creature that didn’t belong in this world (a darkmantle, from Shadowfell). The group’s mood sagged, and Jon and Rogar both became apathetic, which Adrian realized was a sign of exposure to Shadowfell.

The group came out into a clearing full of petrified soldiers [a random encounter from the DMG]. At the far end, they saw a weird triangular stone hut, in front of which stood an old woman.

Assuming she was the witch, the group accused her of summoning the Banderhob (they’d gotten tired of negotiation). She denied it, and started to go back in the hut when Rogar fired an arrow at her. It missed, but enraged her, and she turned into her true form; a night hag.

Combat broke out, and the group pretty easily defeated her [either I got the CR wrong or I didn’t use all of her abilities]. Before they could kill her, she cast plane shift and disappeared into the ether. Inside, the group found some treasure, filthy and disgusting cooking supplies and bedding, and a weird trapdoor in the wall. At this point, Rogar realized they were in the top level of a castle that had sunk diagonally into the swamp. After taking a short rest, the group headed “down” into the castle.


While investigating the hut, Jon looked into one of the witch’s notebooks; something he saw in there terrified him, and he ran screaming into the swamp. A few minutes later, a dragonborn fighter, Balazar, walked out of the swamp to see what the cleric was running from. He decided to join the group as they ventured into the castle [we had a player switch-out]. Adrian looked at other notebooks, and found indications the hag had opened a portal to Shadowfell housed in the ruins of the castle, and used Riben’s request as an opportunity to test it.

Because of the weird angles, they had a little trouble keeping oriented, but Lenore was able to guide them. At the bottom, the corridor twisted as it went on in a confusing manner, and here and there mud had broken through. The group came to a dead-end blocked by mud; Lenore hit it with her sword, and a mud flow knocked her off her feet, causing minimal damage but covering her in mud. The group decided to be more careful.

They headed further in, and walking through an open door, stumbled on a man in splint armor (a veteran), wielding two longswords. He threatened them, telling them to give him their gold or he’d kill them. The group scoffed, and charged. They didn’t see the weretiger hiding in the shadows, who began firing his bow.

Bark took some serious hits from the weretiger, but the group managed to surround the veteran and take him down. The weretiger then fled, dodging the group’s blows as he ran by them into the corridor. Rogar caught up with him and tackled the weretiger to the ground, but the weretiger threw him off and ran around a corner. When the group caught up, they saw he had climbed up a mudslide that blocked the corridor and clawed his way into the mud.

Lenore decided she’d try to follow him. She climbed up easily enough, but grabbed onto a load-bearing chunk of mud that caused the entire mudflow to collapse on her, so she was mud-covered again [I ruled it would require strength and intelligence checks to climb and figure out how not to bring down the mudflow; she succeeded in the strength and failed on intelligence]. The group gave up on the weretiger, and pushed on.

They arrived at a pristine library; a quick search revealed a few spell scrolls. Moving on, they came on a room that looked like a workshop, but one wall had collapsed and a lava flow covered half the room, with a chunk of floor serving as a bridge to a door at the other end.

The group headed towards the bridge when they were suddenly attacked by the bat-like creatures they encountered outside. These darkmantles cast darkness as they fall on their targets, trying to wrap around their head and smother them. Lenore and Bark were both hit, while the other darkmantles fell to the ground. Rogar and Balazar stomped a few, then helped Bark free himself as Lenore tore hers off. Lenore tried to grab one of the darkmantles as it flew away but she missed and nearly fell off the bridge; she grabbed a piece of rock, but slipped on that as well and would have plunged into the lava if Rogar hadn’t grabbed her [a few failed dexterity checks]. The group killed the rest of the darkmantles and moved on.

They descended further into the castle, the corridor confusingly twisting and rising and falling in an unnatural manner. At one point, the wall looked weak and brittle, but they left that alone. The group came to a room in which several ghouls and a ghast were lurking and easily killed them. They found a closed-up planar portal, and thought they may be close to a portal to Shadowfell.

The group found another room that looked like an armory, but was submerged in ankle-deep water. While exploring, Adrian stepped into an obscured chasm and sunk; Rogar pulled him out, but not before he gulped in some of the dirty water and became sickened. The group explored a bit more, wisely deciding to map the increasingly twisted and confusing corridors, before coming into a large, circular room.

In the center of the room was another planar portal, this one pulsing with liquid shadow; the portal to Shadowfell. The room had signs of ancient work; an alchemical apparatus in one side, and a guard table and arms rack in another. The adventurers prepared themselves for the Banderhob to arrive, taking a short rest.

It eventually appeared out of the shadows of the doorway, strode into the room, and attacked. It bit Bark, half-swallowing him as the rest of the group surrounded it. Bark turned into a bear to try and break out, but remained stuck. Eventually, Balazar helped him get out. The group then surrounded the Banderhob and struck it until it disappeared into shadow, although not before several of them took serious hits.

Before they could recover, the portal pulsed and shot out tendrils of shadow, which formed into the Banderhob. As it moved to attack, a swarm of darkmantles flew out. The group fought off both when Lenore decided to try and push the Banderhob into the portal. Her effort succeeded and it fell in; after they threw in Lorana’s locket the portal closed [this unexpectedly cut short my boss battle, see my last post].

Suddenly, the tower started shifting and rumbling; the group heard a noise Bark identified as similar to quicksand. They realized it was sinking into the mud, and ran. Using their map, they retracted their steps even though the castle was repeatedly twisting and bucking around them. At one point while climbing a set of stairs the castle bucked up and Rogar flew back down the hallway as the rest of the group held on; he told them to keep going, and they ran, with Rogar trying to catch up behind them. At another point a spray of mud hit Balazar and nearly knocked him out, but the rest of the group helped him along.

Finally, they made it to the passage back into the witch’s hut. As they were climbing out the castle pitched forwards, and Adrian flew into the wall, nearly knocking himself out. The other grabbed him and dragged him into the hut. [I used a table with random directions the castle pitched, and had the players roll dexterity or strength checks to hold on]

Things got worse when they made it to the witch’s hut. The whole castle starting spinning dizzyingly and sinking. One window opened up to the outside but it was obscured by mud when the castle rotated. The group decided to start jumping out. Bark went first, and let a rope back into the hut. Lenore managed to climb out before the rope got tangled in the spinning. Balazar then jumped out, and Adrian used misty step to teleport out when the ground was in view. This left Rogar. As the castle was about to sink into the mud he leapt…and missed, slamming into the wall. He then leapt again as the last of the daylight appeared through the window…and missed again [two bad acrobatics checks]. The castle was now completely submerged, still spinning.

Rogar waited till the window was close to what he thought was the surface and jumped again, clawing his way out of the mud [I didn’t want to let the character die]

The group was now out, and safe. The castle sunk, the ground shuddered, and all the mud displaced by the castle’s movement sprayed over the group, covering them completely. They returned to Red Hill, where—after a natural 1 on a negotiation role—they were driven out of town as troublemakers.

A little richer from the treasure they found, but covered in mud, the group continued on their way.

Next week I’ll have thoughts on creating and running this adventure.

“A shadow in the woods” walkthrough, part 1

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I recently completed a home-brew D&D adventure, entitled “A Shadow in the Woods.” It wasn’t perfect, but I had a great time writing and running it, and I think my players enjoyed it too. As I did with my posts on my home-brew Star Wars:EOTE adventure, I’ll walkthrough what happened in a few posts before writing a concluding post with my thoughts on the process. And I’m all about transparency, so I’ll highlight a few of the parts I didn’t think worked out. Hope you enjoy.

This involved the same group as my A Great Upheaval sessions (see these posts for a walkthrough). We had Jon, a human cleric of Lathander; Rogar, a dragonborn ranger; Bark, a forest gnome rogue; and Adrian, a human warlock. They were joined by Lenore, a half-elven fighter (a new player to the group). We met at the great Killer Rabbit Comics and Games in Williston, VT.

Act I

After saving the day and uncovering hints of the giants unrest, the group set off into the wilderness. They ran into Lenore, who gladly joined them, partly for a taste of the excellent ale they received as a reward for their last adventure. The group got to a half-days’ march from the town of Red Hill when they decided to camp for the night [this is loosely set in the Forgotten Realms, but I really just wanted some connection to the previous adventure].

As the group was finishing off the last of the ale, shadows at the edge of their camp formed into a horrific giant humanoid toad-like being; what they would later learn is a Banderhob. It strode into camp, stepping on Bark, injuring him. The group rushed to attack. The Banderhob was too quick for them, biting Lenore and half-swallowing her and nearly killing Adrian with its claws. The group managed to free Lenore and inflict some damage, at which point the monster dropped something by their fire and strode off into the night.

The shaken and injured group decided to rest before following the monster, but they investigated the object that fell. It was a locket with a carving inside and an inscription, “to Lorana, the ‘princess’ of Red Hill, from Dad.”

The next morning they headed into town. On the outskirts, they came across the ruins of a farmhouse that looks like it had been smashed in; Rogar determined it was a recent attack. They moved on and arrived in the town, a small settlement that grew around a crossroads. The group first talked to Riben, a farmer who is the cousin of Lorana—he told them she had recently inherited a large farm just outside of town, but had disappeared (likely captured by a nearby bandit group). They interacted with other members of the town, including a tiefling inn owner (who told them of a witch in a nearby swamp), the priest, a snooty tavern owner, the mayor and the sheriff. They learned in their conversations that Lorana had planned to sell the farmland—which the townsfolk were upset about—and the sheriff had been tracking the bandits; he provided them some intel on their possible location. The group was urged to wait until the town’s sage, Fonken, returned from a trip.

A day or so after arriving in town [I waited till they seemed ready to move], in the evening, the group heard screaming. They joined the townsfolk rushing in its direction to find the Banderhob attacking a house with the family trapped inside. The group attacked; Lenore got half-swallowed again, and the group looked close to losing when a blue light shot out and hit the monster. The monster faded into shadow, and a gnome wizard (Fonken) walked out of the darkness. He urged the group to follow him to his tower to try and understand where the monster came from.

The group told him what they knew and showed him the locket. He determined it was a Banderhob, which is a monster summoned from the Shadowfell by a hag to go after a particular target. Fonken guessed that when it lost the locket it became confused on its targeting, and focused on the town. He sensed a greater tie to Shadowfell in this Banderhob than in others he’d encountered, and thought that even if it was killed it may keep respawning. The group had to either give it Lorana or get it to return to Shadowfell. He guessed there must be a portal somewhere nearby.

After comparing notes with Fonken, the group decided to pursue the bandits who kidnapped Lorana, then investigate the swamp to see if the witch may be involved with the Banderhob summoning. They took a long rest, and set out in the morning.

Act II

The group set out early in the morning for the half-days’ march to the bandit’s likely location. The town sheriff told them he suspected their hideout was at the end of a ravine off the main road, just before they would reach out an outlying settlement [I had prepared encounters in this settlement, including a bandit spy, but the group never went there]. The group found the ravine, and headed into the forest.

They first came on a giant elk blocking their path. After Bark respectfully communicated it via his speak with animals spell, it moved on [this was a random encounter, but the group thought it had some greater meaning]. The group then found a half-elf ranger eating lunch by a campsite. After talking with him they realized he was with the Harpers; he liked the rugged nature of this area, and wanted to make sure the bandit activity didn’t threaten the townsfolk; he also worried about it necessitating greater government involvement. The ranger asked the group to collect some intelligence on the bandits, and he would meet them back in Red Hill to pay them.

The group continued on, encountering various crude signs warning of great danger ahead. They came to a clearing with three hills in it, and climbed to the highest, where they found a tunnel into the hill [I designed the bandit camp as a dungeon crossing three hills, with an entrance in each hill]. Adrian turned invisible and went in to investigate. He found two goblins sleeping in the entryway, and started to go further when he made a noise and woke them up, although he managed to escape before they found him.

Jon then decided to call down to the goblins and ask if they had the woman [as I noted last week, I did not expect this]. The group heard a commotion, then an orcish voice called up and asked them to surrender. The group tried to negotiate with the bandits, but eventually the orcs and goblins charged.

Out of the tunnel came conventional orcs and goblins, but also two Nurtured Ones of Yurtus, a diseased orc that explodes when killed, sickening all those around. The group quickly dispatched with the attackers, although Bark and Jon were covered in orc goo. They then entered into the tunnel.

The main entryway had doors in each corner, and the group went to the left. They came first to what looked like a gaming room—a type of billiards table and boxing gear were in there—that was empty. The next room was a banquet room that was also empty, although as they started to leave the shepherd in the tapestry started talking to them. It gave no useful information, but they had a pleasant conversation. They then came on a pantry that was suffering from reverse gravity; Lenore flew to the ceiling, and had to struggle to get back out.

After these odd encounters, the group found some of the bandits. A room full of alchemical supplies and acrid dust housed several kobolds and a human mage. The group attacked. They handled themselves well, although Rogar became seriously hurt when the mage and kobolds ganged up on him. Several of the group also started hallucinating; Lenore thought she was giant, and Jon thought he was in a different room. The realized the bandits were creating hallucinogens in the room, which affected them in the combat [I adapted some of the DMG’s random dungeon effects to create the drug’s effects].

The group then climbed a set of stairs, with a tapestry on the wall. Bark was intrigued, so he stopped to look and see if it would talk. Unfortunately, looking at the tapestry triggered a trap [from a roll on the DMG’s dungeon trap table] and the stairs opened up; Bark and Rogar fell into a pit of spikes. Bark managed to grab the wall, but Rogar tumbled down, taking serious damage.

The group pressed on, and came into what looked at one point to be a large throne room. In there was a human man, a hobgoblin, and several assorted human and goblinoid thugs. Sitting by the man, drinking wine, was a woman. They realized this was Lorana, and after talking with the group (the bandit leader was friendly) realized she wasn’t kidnapped. The bandits tried to mug her while she was in the woods, but she proved a powerful fighter and they invited her back to their hideout for a feast.

With Jon taking the lead—despite his low charisma—the group convinced Lorana to come back with them to stop the attacks on the town. The bandits tried to get the group to put a magical listening device in the sherriff’s office, but they refused, so he let them go if they promised not to tell where they were hiding [this was a kind of social interaction deadlock, and I didn’t want to drag it out].

The group returned to town late at night, when a group of men surrounded them. They found out this was a group from the Lord’s Alliance. The men told the adventurers that Lorana’s potential buyers were the Zhentarim; the Lord’s Alliance wanted to stop this group from gaining a base in this area so they asked Riben (a new recruit) to deal with her. He decided to have the witch in the swamp summon the Banderhob so he didn’t have to kill her himself.

The Lord’s Alliance hadn’t intended for so much carnage (even if they did want Lorana) dead, and were willing to negotiate with the group. Bark suggested the Alliance buy Lorana’s farm, so she was able to still profit but the Zhentarim were kept out. They agreed, and slunk back into the shadows [this was another kind of failed encounter, as I didn’t do enough work on it]

Tune in next week for the adventure’s conclusion…

5 Things I wish I knew before my first D&D home-brew session

I just finished running my first home-brew D&D session at the excellent Killer Rabbit Comic and Game store in Williston, VT. I’ve run several published D&D adventures, and run a home-brew Star Wars: EOTE adventure (which I discussed in earlier posts), but this is the first time I’ve tried out my own ideas in D&D. I’ll have a series of walkthrough posts soon, but first I wanted to present a few general takeaways on the process.

These started as notes to myself (a newer DM, who gets the rules but is still learning how to run the game), and I thought others may be interested.


  1. Keep it simple

I, like most newer DMs, felt pressure to prove my creativity. I wasn’t creating a world (this was set in Forgotten Realms), so I wanted to express myself through the plot itself. It was a straightforward “stop the monster threatening the town” story, but there was complex political intrigue, red herrings, an open-ended structure and difficult moral choices.

It basically worked, but it was tough. The open-ended structure led to some unexpected events, which can be difficult for a DM to improvise. Handing out the necessary clues sometimes distracted me from game mechanics (and vice versa). And the red herrings led my players to head down the wrong path (which I guess was kind of the point, but I’m not comfortable enough as a DM to do that often).

Again, it went well, but for my first adventure I wish I’d had a simpler plot. There is pressure on DMs to not just create great dungeons, but to come up with compelling mysteries and memorable social encounters. We should keep doing this, as it broadens the scope of D&D. But for our first home-brew adventure, a well-thought out dungeon crawl with some good puzzles and memorable NPCs can help us hone our craft before trying a sandbox thriller.

  1. The players will screw up all of my plans

I knew this, and have been told this so many times, but I forget how supremely players can mess up what I’m doing. Some of this is natural—the game is open-ended and based on creativity, so players may readily come up with solutions to encounters that I hadn’t thought of. Some of it is also mischievous—players like to do things their own way, not follow the DM’s lead.

Two quick examples will illustrate. In one mini-dungeon (a bandit camp dug into a hillside), I’d prepared an ambush. The entryway was guarded by sleeping goblins, and when players became confident and rushed ahead, they’d bump into a guard room of orcs and ogres. But the players had their warlock turn invisible and investigate, then, when he reported back, they shouted down to the goblins to ask if they could come in. So I had to think up how goblins and orcs would negotiate instead of running my great ambush.

The second was the boss battle. I had prepared three stages, following The Angry GM’s advice. The boss would appear defeated, but reform and attack with new powers or allies in each stage. The goal was to get the boss through a portal to Shadowfell. The group’s fighter decided she would try and grapple and shove the boss into the portal. Her roll worked, and I didn’t want to say “no” (see below), so the boss battle was kind of easy.

There’s nothing to do about this, besides being adaptable…and not placing your boss next to the portal it needs to be shoved through.

  1. Work out how encounters will resolve

This sounds obvious, but can be easy to forget. When creating monsters to fight, you want to think about their motivations and goals, otherwise it’s just attrition-fight after attrition-fight. This is even more important when it is a social interaction or clue-finding encounter, as there are several different ways it can be resolved.

This came up a few times in my home-brew adventure. One encounter involved the group “rescuing” a woman from the aforementioned bandits, although she hadn’t actually been captured. I had to improvise what the bandits and woman wanted, as I hadn’t completely written this out. At another time, members of a law and order society show up to intimidate the group into following their plan. Again, I was a little vague in my notes, and had to resolve this in an ad hoc manner.

These encounters may be fine if you’re ok with improvising through social interactions. But I suspect many newer DMs (like me) aren’t, so some guidance is needed. The published D&D adventures have “Development” sections in encounters that can go multiple ways, and a brief write-up like that will help a lot in the future.

  1. Don’t be afraid to let characters die

There were a few times the players were overwhelmed. In one fight I had way too many monsters so the group started falling. And after my failed boss battle (see above), I had the group try to escape the dungeon—which was actually a castle submerged sideways in mud—before it sank. This was really fun, as various characters got knocked over by mud flows or sailed through the air when the castle shifted. It proved difficult, though, as poor dice rolling could cause characters to end up buried alive in the castle.

In both cases I helped them out. In the first, I tweaked some die rolls to save them. And at the end of the escape encounter, one player flubbed his acrobatics check to jump through a sinking and spinning window. Every else made it. Technically, he should have just sunk with the castle, but I felt bad and let him jump into the mud and claw his way out.

Some of this is being a newer DM, as I am afraid of my players getting mad at me. But in the future I will let characters fall—it adds urgency to the game.

  1. Lay out all ground rules in advance

This is kind of similar to the well-known Same Page Tool, a set of guidelines to calibrate different modes of play. But this is more about making sure the DM’s preferences for a lot of unwritten or optional elements of play are known.

In this case it had to do with multi-classing. In between adventures the characters leveled up. One player asked if he could multi-class his character and I said no, as there wouldn’t be any opportunity to learn a new class while the group was travelling between adventures. I didn’t realize that another player had multi-classed his character without asking, though. This wasn’t a big deal, and the first player wasn’t upset, but in the future I’ll make it clear that any multi-classing requires an in-game explanation.

So when starting a new home-brew it’s worth thinking through any situation that would require the DM to make a ruling, and set it out in advance. This includes Unearthed Arcana content, classes and races outside the PHB, use of feats, among others.

So those are some things I wish I had known before I started. To be fair to me, I did some things right, which may also be useful to newer DMs. Here are a few (briefly):

  1. Prepared an adventure portfolio

I scanned relevant pages from the Monsters Manual so I could easily access states, and printed out the maps and adventure module I wrote. This way I didn’t have to flip through multiple books while running encounters.

  1. Never said no to players

This really got to me with some previous groups—we’d keep raising possible actions with the DM and he’d say “no, that wouldn’t work,” over and over. So with my group, I never said no. Some things I knew wouldn’t work—like casting a spell through a dimensional portal—but I didn’t tell them unless they performed the relevant knowledge check. Others I didn’t want to work, but if they rolled well enough we figured it out. And some ideas I hadn’t thought of, but I let them try. This made for some pretty fun failure scenes, like when a fighter tried to run and grab a flying monster but rolled a natural 1, resulting in nearly leaping off a bridge into lava.

  1. Adapted based on player feedback

After the first session of this adventure, one player noted the combat was a little one-dimensional, as I was relying on groups of similar monsters. So I changed this up in the concluding session by having different types of monsters fighting together. This isn’t always possible (especially in published adventures) but it’s worth trying to incorporate player feedback into session as you go.

So there are my takeaways. I’d be happy to hear any thoughts from your experiences.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lightsaber I, concluding thoughts

In my last two posts I presented a walkthrough for a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE) adventure I wrote. This is a great gaming system that lets players be part of the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, playing as rogue and smugglers who inhabit the Outer Rim. Unlike the D&D mechanics, which involve numerical calculations, EOTE uses custom dice. These dice gives the Game Master (GM) and players resources to craft a narrative together.

In this final post of the series, I have some thoughts on GM-ing EOTE for the first time, and on running an open-ended adventure.

EOTE is in some ways good for new GMs and in some ways bad. It’s very abstract; you use range bands instead of distance, and setback, boost and difficult dice instead of modifiers. So there are fewer tables to memorize than in Shadowrun or even D&D. At the same time, it’s very narrative and interactive. Each dice roll includes failure or success but also advantages and threats; advantages and threats give benefits or raise challenges beyond whether or not something succeeds. So the GM must be able to interpret this on the fly. For example, a slicing attempt might succeed but with threats; one could decide the player gained the information he sought but alerted a rival hacker in the process. And then there are destiny points—chips the players and GM flip to give their side an advantage. The person using the destiny point must come up with a story reason to use it, like a character remembering he’d learned details of Rancor anatomy giving him a boost to an attack or finding an extra grenade in his backpack. This is fun, but can be a bit much to handle alongside the normal tasks of running the game.

And as I mentioned, I tried to make this as open-ended as possible. The group had to retrieve the lightsaber, but they could do this on behalf of the Empire, the Rebels, the criminals, or even themselves. They also could have returned it to the old lady. Unfortunately, they chose what I saw as the least likely option—working with Oparro—and I hadn’t exactly planned how this would go. It worked out, but I stumbled a bit to figure out what to do. Also, I had a big speech planned for the old lady that would give some backstory for why she had the lightsaber and set up the next adventure. The group had no interest in talking to her, and ignored her.

So open-ended adventures can be good, but the GM needs to stay on his or her feet and be prepared for the unexpected. You also need to fight the urge to force the group to do what you want. If the plot can only be resolved in one way, then the adventure isn’t interactive enough. It’s difficult to write a complex RPG adventure that leaves room for player choice, but it’s worth it.

I also had a few thoughts on the mechanics. Both the group and I made judicious use of destiny points. The party was able to rig up a bomb during the ambush of Oparro by flipping a destiny point to find bags of explosive materials. And I used a destiny point to make their attempted betrayal of the Rebels harder, causing their speeder to stall out. But in the end I made this adventure a little too easy for them. Despite the setback dice I gave them for speeding through the swamp, they still caught up to the lightsaber thief before he reached the old lady’s hut (which would have screwed up my ending). And I was afraid of Donaldo’s ship destroying them as they escaped, but by decreasing the difficulty I took away some of the ending’s tension. I’d remember this for the next Episode…