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?


Star Wars EOTE: The Lightsaber, conclusion

Last time, the party entered into the Jedi ruins lost in the swamps. They progress further into the dangerous ruins…

This is the conclusion to The Lightsaber, part II, an adventure I wrote for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

The group continued in the direction the Yarkura indicated, coming to a room whose floor had partially collapsed. Beyond the chasm, the wall to the west had collapsed and the saw a shaft going down. They tried to jump over the chasm, and mostly succeeded, although Sarek took some strain when he nearly missed his landing. Looking down, they saw a moderate drop into darkness.

Sarek had climbing gear, so he hooked it up and headed down into the shaft. He made it to the bottom, but the rock he’d attached the gear to came lose, and it tumbled down after him [he rolled a despair on his check after I used a destiny point]. He scoped out the area, and with another great perception check heard more metallic stomping to the north, a wet, musty smell to the south, and nothing from the passage to the west. The other characters flipped a destiny point to find some rope-like wire and climb down, although Bint slipped and took some damage.

Following the Yarkura’s directions, the group headed west along a curving passageway. As they got close to an opening, the datapad started beeping, indicating a hazard up ahead; the computer program identified it as an intruder. Creeping up to the doorway, the group saw a shaft like the one they had climbed down, although this opened to the sky. In the center were piles of boxes and sacks beside an ancient airspeeder. Changkayshk decided to toss some stun grenades into the room [I rolled randomly to see if they would hit anything]. One exploded with no effect, the other exploded and was followed by a loud shriek.

The group burst into the room and saw the Rodian who had attacked them on Chordaan, although he looked much worse than before due to the critical hit he’d received. The Rodian called out, and everyone rolled for initiative. First up was the Chiss bounty hunter from Chordaan (who was hiding at the other end of the room). She fired but missed. Some of the group opened fire on the Rodian, while Changkayshk ran to the center of the room and tossed a grenade at the Chiss. It hit her, seriously wounding her, while the Rodian went down under the group’s attack. The Chiss bounty hunter then activated her jetpack (she had a spare) and flew into the center of the room to attack the Wookie. She managed to stab him with her vibroknife, but he killed her in his counterattack.

Before she died, she pressed a button attached to her backpack, and the group heard an explosion as the temple started to shake and tumble. [she had destroyed her ship, causing the temple to collapse]. The Wookie rushed to load the crates (which they identified as Jedi relics) onto the airspeeder, while Sarek and Bint tried to repair it. They got it running and took off just as the temple collapsed. Outside, they landed by their speeder although Sarek wasn’t sure how to land and the ship crashed, causing everyone to take some strain and the ship to be destroyed.

At this point, we had five minutes left before we had to end for the night, so I concluded the adventure in cinematic fashion, just telling them what happened. They returned to the old lady and gave her back the lightspeeder, as they’d asked to do. The group then returned to the city and met Oparro the next morning. He told them to stow the relics on their ship, and they’d head separately for Subterrell, where they would meet his buyer.

As they were leaving they saw crowds gathered, being shepherded by Stormtroopers. They found out that the new Moff for the system was landing for an inspection. As they saw an Imperial shuttle heading towards the surface, Sarek’s datapad started beeping; it was the surveillance tracker he put on the Rebel speeder. They then saw a speeder burst past Stormtroopers and race down the street. Directly underneath the shuttle, a flame burst from the back of the speeder and it shot up into the shuttle, exploding and destroying it. [this is what the Rebels were doing—designing a speeder that could fly into the shuttle as a makeshift bomb. The Rebel leader hoped to provoke an Imperial crackdown that would cause the populace to revolt].

The group rushed back to their ship, took off, and escaped TIE fighters to jump to hyperspace. We decided to shift gears and start playing the Force and Destiny Star Wars game (which allows players to create force users) so we didn’t finish my story arc. I sent the group a writeup on the conclusion, though, so they would know what happened.

[This was an interesting exercise for me in adaptability. I didn’t think they’d go with Oparro in part 1, so I had to adjust the plot. I was initially going to have them do a random job for the Rebels/Donaldo/Deg-Lilek (whoever they ended up with) that would get them further embroiled in the search for Jedi relics and lead to the mysterious “other buyer.” Working with Oparro made the connection to the other buyer more obvious, so I decided to work in Deg-Lilek and the Rebels in a more secondary manner.

A few things worked well. My players really liked the overland exploration mechanic, and it added some fun randomness. This is before I read The Angry GM’s great post on overland travel, and I may tweak it based on his recommendations if I run this again. The players also liked the NPCs they encountered–even when they tried to kill them–and got pretty excited with the quick start of the adventure (being attacked by a bounty hunter in a bar). My takeaways are to throw players right into the action (especially in middle-place adventures), and put a lot of work into the world they travel through.

But I ran into a few problems. One was a clear failure point: if the players couldn’t convince the old lady to help them, the adventure stopped. They weren’t able to do this, and I had to improvise on the fly. It’s good to always have a back-up path for essential tasks. I also added a few too many “red herrings,” as they called them; the Rebels being a main one, and some of the other overland encounters (one was a TIE fighter patrol overhead). Finally, I think it dragged a little; the set-up plus the overland exploration plus the dungeon all on the same plot thread was too much.

Overall, I think the issue was ambition. This was one of my first home-brew adventure and first time GM-ing EOTE. I tried to pack too much open-ended choices and plot complexity in, before getting a sense for how it would work in practice. That’s why later adventures–like the ones I posted on this site–were a bit narrower.

So that was my EOTE adventure. Hope you enjoyed it, and it gave you a sense for this great game. I am hoping to get the Age of Rebellion game–focusing on Rebel operatives–and run some more games in the future, so be on the lookout for future work on this topic.

Star Wars: EOTE- The Lightsaber, part 3

For a previous game group, I had written up an adventure for the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game system. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler). Last time, the party agreed to search out a hidden Jedi temple in the swamps of Atzerri, to recover relics for a mysterious buyer. They had just arrived at the temple after a perilous journey through the swamps…

[I had designed the temple as basically a D&D dungeon crawl for Star Wars. I actually made use of some of the random dungeon generator tables in the fifth edition D&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide, adapting them for Star Wars. I decided the temple would be stocked with ancient droids, as well as other denizens that had moved in—a few monsters as well as some scavengers. Because the droids were so old, they might malfunction—whenever the group encountered a droid, I rolled a d100. On a high roll, there was a chance of the droid attacking a random target, exploding, or shutting down.]

The group approached the broken down protocol droid they found outside the temple, and Alex reactivated it. The droid at first thought they were his masters, but soon realized they were new and introduced himself as part of an Old Republic expedition, made up of scientists and a Jedi. The temple was built by the Kwa, which Bint’s lore knowledge revealed was an ancient race that helped to discover the Force and gather the first Jedi. The droid said his masters  went into the temple to investigate and never returned. When the group revealed he had been waiting for hundreds of years, the droid agreed to accompany them.

The group, with the protocol droid in tow, entered the temple. The first chamber was long, stretching into the darkness, with columns along the edge. They saw the remains of a camp halfway down the room and approached. As they did, an astromech and two maintenance droids came out of the darkness. The astromech and one of the maintenance droids were so excited to see people they short-circuited. Alex fixed them, and the group decided they wanted what they called a “droid army,” so he reprogrammed all of the droids to follow him. They then explored the camp. They found some records on an old datapad, pointing to a shaft in the center of the temple that would lead down to an important area. They also found that the Jedi and scientists decided to split up and explore the temple. That was the last recorded information.

[Even though their GM helpfully directed them towards the center of the temple] the group decided to take the door to the east. An incredibly successful perception check from Sarek helped them hear what sounded like metallic stomping far up the tunnel they’d entered [a security droid they’d encounter]. As they headed up the tunnel, they came to a door on either side, while the passage continued. The group entered the door to the north, and found a kind of audience chamber, with a podium and rows of pews. They began exploring the room, and found a satchel but noticed it was covered with a kind of mold. An investigation with their scanner revealed it was toxic. The group tried to be careful opening the satchel, but caused the mold to puff into the air, choking them. All members successfully passed a resolution check, however, and they were fine.

They continued down the passage and, sneaking towards the room from which the stomping noise originated, saw a security droid patrolling back and forth in a type of kitchen, with two maintenance droids buzzing around. ChangKayshk took a shot at the security droid, injuring it. The security droid spun around and fired, but missed. Then Sarek finished it off. This enraged one of the maintenance droids [I rolled the appropriate number on my random table] and it attacked them. It wasn’t able to do much besides bouncing against their feet, however, and Bint turned it off.

The group explored the kitchen but found little of value and took a door to the north. Sneaking in, they saw a kind of trophy room, with a Yarkora poking through the treasure. They decided to try and chat with him, and walked in, introducing themselves. The Yarkora told them he was searching for treasure, and asked what they were here for. At this moment, ChangKayshk got tired of talking [or his player did] and fired on the Yarkora. In the initiative roll, the Yarkora went first, so he noticed the Wookie raising his blaster, and fired at him, the bolt grazing the Wookie’s shoulder. The Yarkora also called for help to the room to the northwest. ChangKayshk fired, hitting the Yarkora. Bint and Sarek hid, not wanting to take part in this. The Yarkora fired again, missing the group, and Changkayshk threw a grenade at the Yarkora, seriously injuring him. Two humans arrived in the doorway and fired at the group, missing. Changkayshk then threw another grenade, nearly killing one of the men and wounding the other [just an aside, grenades are kind of  underpowered in EOTE].

At this point, the Yarkora had enough, and surrendered. Bint patched up the treasure hunters, and demanded they turn over everything they found. The Yarkora offered instead to help them in their search. The group told them they were looking for a Jedi treasure, and the Yarkora directed them to a room in the lower level they noticed, but hadn’t explored. The treasure hunters limped away, and the group explored the next room, a library. They found a computer terminal, and managed—with a successful computer check—to activate it. This let them download information on security systems and hazards to their datapad before the console shorted out.

They moved deeper into the ruin…Tune in next time for the conclusion!

Star Wars Edge of the Empire: The Lightsaber, part II, cont.

In a previous post, I presented a home-brew adventure I made for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire sessions. This game system lets you play in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, as bounty hunters, smugglers and the like (for more on character creation, see this post).

This adventure is the sequel to my first home-brew adventure for this system, in which a ragtag group is hired by a crimelord (Deg-Lilek) to steal a lightsaber. In this adventure, after allying with the crimelord’s treacherous former agent (Oparro), they agree to help him find more Jedi relics to sell to a mysterious buyer. Last time, the group escaped (barely) a Chiss bounty hunter, and headed out into the swamps of Atzerri to search for a Jedi ruin. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler)

The group  headed out into the swamp. They succeeded in their survival checks [a mechanic I’m using to approximate exploration, see the previous post] and soon found the old lady’s hut. Wary of traps, they searched for any hazards but, not noticing anything, sped through her clearing. Unbeknownst to them, the old lady’s protectors had rigged a stun grenade as a trap. Their speeder tripped it, and it exploded, frying some of the speeder’s circuitry and causing it to tip off course.

Alex managed to right the craft, but just as he did blaster bolts rang out from two snipers in the trees. Sarek was hit in the shoulder, as was Alex, although he noticed the attacker’s blaster rifle short out after the bolt was fired. Changkaishk and Sarek returned fire. Sarek killed one of the snipers, and the other—whose blaster shorted out—attempted to get down from the tree in which he was hiding. He tripped and fell, spraining his ankle, and ran behind the hut.

Alex maneuvered the speeder behind the hut to catch the man, where he had pulled a vibroknife and was waiting for them. Changkaishk tried to jump out of the speeder at him but tripped and fell back in his seat, causing the speeder to hit the ground. Bint was successful, tackling the man and knocking him out.

At this point, the old lady appeared. She was understandably angry the group had attacked her, and even more angry when she recognized them from the last time her home was attacked. After a few failed attempts to mollify her, she agreed to give them the information they wanted if they would heal her protector and agree to leave her alone. She told them her husband was a fugitive Jedi who ended up on Atzerri after the purge. They fell in love and married, and he helped out other swamp settlers when he could while also travelling to nearby systems to find Jedi artifacts before the Empire was able to get them. When he died, the settlers he’d helped swore to protect his widow (these are the people that have been trying, unsuccessful, to disrupt the group’s quest). And he hid the relics in a ruined temple to the north, to which she directed the group. The group secretly decided, once this was all over, to return the lightsaber to her to make up for the trouble they’d caused.

They set out for temple, and after a few hours of travelling came to a deep and wide pool of water. [one of the random wilderness encounters I came up with] Their speeder didn’t work over water so they created a makeshift pontoon and sped across. Unfortunately, they got stuck on a submerged log just as a giant aquatic beast was heading towards them. They managed to dislodge their speeder just in time and get to the other side.

The group traveled on, with Bint in the front keeping watch as Alex piloted. Bint was not paying great attention, however, as the speeder burst out into a clearing full of heavily-armed people. Alex managed to reverse the speeder into the cover of the trees before they were spotted, however. Sarek snuck up to the treeline to investigate. [this was a set encounter]

He saw about a dozen people, some patrolling around, some working on a speeder and loading crates into. And he saw a Twi’ilek woman who appeared to be the leader, as she was giving orders, and a Sullustan beside her. Sarek recognized the Sullustan as the rebel leader they betrayed last time. Using his electrobinoculars and knowledge of explosives, Sarek realized the Rebels were loading explosives onto the speeder. The group didn’t want to get sidetracked with this encounter, but before they left Sarek fired a tracking dart at the Rebel speeder so they could tell if it was approaching.

The group continued on to the ruined temple, succeeding in their survival skills and getting there quickly. The ruins were the bottom two levels of a step pyramid. As they approached, the ground rose and they saw hints of civilization in the trees and plants—bits of metal and plasteel. The temple itself had no overgrowth at all, as if the swamp had pulled back. They saw an opening on the ground level, and a crumpled droid sitting there….Tune in next time!


Star Wars Edge of the Empire sessions: The Lightsaber, part II

Awhile ago, I posted a walkthrough of an adventure I wrote for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empires RPG. This great RPG is set in the seedier part of the Star Wars universe. PCs play as smugglers, scoundrels, and fugitives exploring the Outer Rim. It’s a really fun system that lends itself to narrative gameplay.

Well after my group finished the first adventure, they were excited enough that they wanted the story to continue. In the first Episode, the group was hired by a crimelord to retrieve an item from Oparro, a wayward employee. Along the way they learn the item is a lightsaber, and that both the Rebels and an Imperial officer want it as well. The group ends up deciding to ally with Oparro, who found another buyer for the lightsaber. They agreed to help him turn the Lightsaber over to his “other buyer” in exchange for lots of money. They found the lightsaber in the possession of an old lady, the widow of a former Jedi. The group retrieved it from the old lady’s guards, ambushed the Imperials and Rebels, and escaped an Imperial cruiser. Oparro took the lightsaber, gave them some collateral, and asked them to wait for him on the nearby planet Chordaan.

As with last time, the group was Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

I introduced a new mechanic for this episode—planetary exploration. Since the group had to find the ruined temple as part of the quest, I thought it’d be fun to explore the swamp on the way there. So I decided the group would make difficult survival checks with a setback die. If they succeeded they made it to their next stop. If they failed, I rolled for a random encounter on a table I created. Encounters included impassable terrain, a pocket of exploding swamp gas, a hive of biting flying ants, an escaped Gundark, high ground that aided their search, buzzing TIE fighters, an area of Light side force energy, and a possibly hostile encounter with some smugglers.

Episode II opens as the group has gone broke while waiting and Oparro has asked them to return to Atzerri. They gathered in their favorite cantina for one more drink, when a mysterious stranger walked up to the table…

The stranger was their waiter, bringing them drinks sent by an attractive Chiss woman. The Chiss woman walked over, and announced herself as a bounty hunter sent by the crimelord (Deg-Lilek). She was joined by two Aqualish and a Rodian and asked them to step outside.

Bint becomes aggressive and decided to kick her in the shin then punch her to set up an escape. His player rolled an athletics check for the kick but failed; he managed only to annoy her and enter into structured time. The Chiss woman went first, shooting Bint for moderate damage. Alex then flipped the table up for cover, while Bint, Ecks and Sarek opened fire. They killed the two Aqualish, but the Chiss and Rodian were unharmed.

Back at the top, the Chiss woman stepped back, pulled out a heavy blaster rifle, and fires at Sarek (who she sees as the obvious threat). She did (I rolled) well, hitting for lots of damage and two critical hits. Sarek was wounded and hit his head, making it more difficult for him to perform intellect or cunning checks for the time being. Bint rushed to heal Sarek while Alex tossed a grenade at the Chiss woman (before using a destiny point to ensure all innocent bystanders have fled). The grenade exploded, tossing her behind the bar. Meanwhile, the Rodian fired but misses; he was then severely wounded when a revived Sarek shoots him. At this point, I decided it’s time for the NPCs to flee. The Chiss woman jumped over the bar and runs outside (thanks to a well-rolled athletics check) and the Rodian ran into the crowd.

Outside, the Chiss woman took off in her jetpack just as the police arrived. Sarek managed to shoot her down—doing enough damage to completely destroy the jetpack, causing her to fall into a dark alleyway—before the police surrounded them. The group tried to talk their way out of it but the grizzled police sergeant (whom I had to make up on the fly) had none of it, directing his men to tase the characters whenever they talk back. He eventually had them leave the planet, not wanting to deal with the paperwork, and they took off. [In contrast to the first Episode, this adventure nearly did the group in as the Chiss was more powerful than I expected. I had to make it easier subtly, such as by having them run away.]

The group arrived back at Atzerri, and headed to meet Oparro. They were rather suspicious—thanks to the near-miss with the bounty hunter on Chordaan—and tried to get as much information as they could before meeting him. They even worked out a plan where one person would stay outside the meeting point (a private room in Dak’s Cantina) and listen in through custom-made Bluetooth-like comlinks. I wanted to tell them they could relax, since all they were doing was receiving their mission, but I thought I’d let it play out.

Oparro told them if they do one more job he’ll give them double what he’d offered (a total of 30,000 credits). He said his buyer wants more relics from the Jedi, and heard there’s a stash on Atzerri; the old lady from the swamp is a likely source of information, so he asks the group to visit her. They agreed, in return for an unspecified favor on top of the 30,000.

[This was a basic interaction designed to give them their task, but I think I spiced it up in a few ways. They were nervous after the bounty hunter incident, so they saw the possibility of danger. And I had them pick up a few signs that something was up—there were increased Imperial patrols on the planet and Oparro seemed to have a lot more money and power than he did before (both of which will be explained eventually).]

Next week, the group heads out into the swamps of Atzerri…

Solo RPing: Roland “saves” the inn

As my Twitter followers know, we recently had a new baby. Babies are great, but it makes it hard to game (or really do anything but take care of the baby). As a result, I’ve been kind of desperate for gaming. So during some down-time, I decided to do some “solo RP-ing;” I set up a basic scenario and ran through it with dice rolls.

This scenario involves Roland–my Aasimar sorcerer (formerly a paladin) I’ve been writing about–encountering some ruffians in an inn. Specifically, it’s my level 5 Paladin facing off against two thugs (from the 5e Monster Manual).  In addition to giving me something to do, it also serves a gameplay purpose. I used it to work out how Roland would respond in a specific social situation. I also used it to “play test” a sorcerer, as I haven’t used this class before.

Hope you enjoy:

Roland plopped down into his seat in the crossroad inn, weary from his days of travel on the road. He left Oakhurst–promising the party he would return–to meet with a sage who may know something of his father’s ring he carried with him. The sage was little help, however, so Roland, disappointed, was heading back to rendezvous with his party.

He had just been served a glass of bitter lager when he noticed the two ruffians a few tables over. They were shouting profanities, growling at any customers who looked at them, and grabbing waitresses that walked by. Roland knew that, despite his increased arcane powers, he would struggle in a one on one battle. He also remembered his mother urging him to keep his powers hidden. But he could hear his deva guardian calling on him to punish the evildoers.

Roland strode over, holding his hood over his Aasimar features. “Gentleman,” he said, tapping one thug on the shoulder. “You are disturbing the inn’s patrons. How about I buy you a drink, and then you move on?”

“Piss off,” growled one thug. [failed persuasion challenge]. “What are you hiding under that hood, a wart?” The two thugs laughed at this not quite funny joke.

Roland sighed. “I’m going to ask you one more time,” he said, his voice taking on celestial,r rumbling echoes. “Leave now or I will become angry.”

The thugs were a little shaken, but weren’t about to act scared in front of an audience [barely successful intimidation challenge, gave thugs disadvantage on next attack]. “I think you’re the one who needs to leave,” the thug shouted as he jumped up and lunged at Roland.

Roland was prepared, readied a spell [went first in initiative]. He threw back his hood, his eyes glowing with radiant fire. Holding aloft the ring on his left hand–which had started to glow as well–he grasped the light emanating from it in his right hand, stretching it across the two men. Roland then gestured and uttered arcane words. Frost suddenly appeared, covering the two thugs. They screamed in pain and stumbled back. [used 2 sorcery points to twin “frostbite,” and cast. They failed Con check, taking 10 damage and getting disadvantage on next attack.]

The thugs, injured but enraged, attacked. The first drew his mace and swung twice; he was thrown off by his frigid limbs, however, and missed. The second was more able to shrug off the effects of the spell and the Aasimar’s intimidating glare. One swing nearly hit, but Roland cast shield, and the mace bounced off the arcane barrier. The second time he connected with Roland, causing pain to shoot through his arm [one hits, for 5 damage].
Roland realized he had to act quickly. Swirling the light from his ring, he squeezed it into a cone. He dipped his right hand into the cone of arcane energy, swinging it across one thug’s face as he uttered mystic words. The thug suddenly started stumbling around, shouting that he was blind. As he pulled his hand back, he flicked the remaining cone of energy at the second thug. It formed into a mote of fire. The thug ducked, and the fire bolt burst against a neighboring table, setting it aflame. [used 2 more sorcery points to quicken blindness to be a bonus action. Cast fire bolt as an action, but missed]

The thugs were now fearful, and channeled that fear into rage. The blinded one swung wildly, missing Roland with the first swing but connecting on the second. As the mace came down on his head, Roland cast shield again, and the mace bounced off harmlessly. The second thug, eager to end this fight, charged and hit Roland twice with the mace, knocking him to the ground. (edited)

Roland knew the fight was turning against him. He had an idea. Roland began to cast a spell, but stopped, catching the arcane energies swirling around him and pushing them into his ring. He then pulled at the mist from the ring, uttering the incantations for a spell as he gestured quickly with his hands. Recalling his religious instructions with the knightly order, he formed the image of a vrock demon in his mind. The demon appeared beside him, lunging at the two thugs with a horrid scream. The thugs’ will broke, and they ran, screaming from the inn [turned a spell into a sorcery point, then quickened silent image to cast as a bonus action, casting minor illusion as an action. Silent image created the demon, and minor illusion the scream. I also did a Religion check to see if I could recall the demon as I’d never actually seen it.]

Exhausted, Roland steadied himself on a chair as the inn’s owner and wait staff doused the flames of the next table. Roland looked up, hands raised and ready to ward off effusive thanks of the inn’s patrons. Instead, he looked into glowers and fearful stares.

“I, uh,” Roland said, trying to summon an appropriate speech. “I apologize it took me so long to deal with these ruffians, but all is well. No need for a reward.”

“No need for a, what, I-!” sputtered the inn keeper. The waitress who had received most of the thug’s unwanted attention put her hand on his arm.

“I appreciate the thought,” she said. “Although the scared customers and burned up table may be worse than two jerks. You wouldn’t happen to have gold to cover the damage, would you?”

Roland smiled, shook his head. “I donated all my gold to the Oakhurst temple of Tyr. But never fear, if trouble ever arises in this fair inn again, I will return. Now, I must be off.”

Roland finished the rest of his beer, and walked around, satisfied in his defense of the good.

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.