Why The Sunless Citadel is a great adventure, part 2

Last time I discussed a few reasons why The Sunless Citadel–as presented in the D&D 5e Tales from the Yawning Portal book–is such a great adventure.  I argued it partly had to do with its pacing; characters leveled up enough to reward effort but not too quickly to appreciate it. The story was useful, but not overwhelming, and players had a lot of freedom for how they completed the adventure. And the encounters are diverse, with players fighting different types of monsters, exploring twisting corridors, and interacting with interesting characters. Identifying these aspects of this great adventure can, hopefully, help us with our own adventure creation.

Here are a few more reasons.

4. Amount of treasure: This can be hard for DMs. You want your players to feel excited about your dungeons, and find them worth running. So you’re tempted to throw in lots of great magic items. But you’re also worried about the players becoming too powerful, or for magic items to become so plentiful they’re kind of ho hum. In some of the D&D computer games, like Baldur’s Gate, there are so many magic items I rarely use most of them. The game, of course, compensates by making many encounters impossible without magic items. A DM from childhood–a math teacher who organized D&D sessions for students–by contrast, liked to randomly “disappear” magic items we found, to avoid us getting comfortable. This made 14 year old me very mad.

Sunless Citadel balanced this well. By the time we finished, we had found some magic armor, a few magic weapons, some spell scrolls (which we used), and the aforementioned potion of firebreath. There may have been more we missed, of course. This was enough for us to feel rewarded. And when we used these items in the future, we’d remember the adventure they came from. But we were hardly over-powered, and none of the items made any fight easy. I don’t know that there’s a good rule for this. The DM’s Guide has tables for loot based on challenge rating, but there’s a lot of randomness there. Sunless Citadel may actually be a good guide for amount of treasure as you create your own dungeons.

5. Memorable-ness: That’s not really a word, I guess, but you get what I’m saying. The Sunless Citadel is kind of hard to forget. Part of this is the encounters: the evil tree, the kobold royal court. But it’s also the setting. The “dungeon” is a citadel that sunk into the earth. Characters have to climb down to the top of the citadel through a steep ravine. They then exit into foreboding woods through the bottom of the citadel. The dungeon could easily have just been a dungeon, but the interesting setting made everything that happened in it more memborable.

It is worth remembering that the dungeon is not just a container for encounters, it needs to be memorable in its itself. I’ve tried to do this with my own adventures. In A Shadow in the Woods, the final battle is in a castle submerged in the mud of a swamp. After the heroes defeat the boss, the castle starts sinking, and the players need to escape as the walls tumble around them. The Elder God’s Cavern–my current D&D adventure I’m running–starts pretty stereotypically in the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. But I try to make it interesting by adding unique encounters, like a containment cell for undead and a rift emitting madness-inducing steam. I also use less conventional locales for lower levels.

So that’s what I think made Sunless Citadel so great. What do you think? Am I missing anything? Do you have any thoughts on how to use these attributes in our own dungeons?

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Thoughts on dealing with multiple PC ability checks

This is a post on some guidelines I’ve developed in my sessions (for 5th edition D&D) on ability checks. This may be blindingly obvious, and something everyone else does, but I thought I’d write it down in case it’s helpful.

These guidelines are inspired by my experience as a PC. I often like to invest in intelligence skills (in D&D) or knowledge skills in other games. It’s interesting to have a player who’s an expert in something besides fighting and talking, but it can come in handy. It doesn’t always work out though.

In one D&D campaign, I had a wizard who had proficiency in all the intelligence skills (arcana, religion, etc.). But I never used any of them, because my DM never called on them, and didn’t see the need to when I suggested it. This was frustrating.

When I was playing Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, though, I had a different experience. My character was Arkdo (who I wrote about here), a Duros archeologist. He had a lot of knowledge of the Outer Rim and interesting lore. So the GM would occasionally suggest I roll when encountering new situations. This helped out the group immensely.

Out of sympathy with characters who invest in utility skills, I’ve adopted that approach. If a character is proficient in survival, I suggest they roll to see if they can figure out which direction they’ve been heading underground. If a character is proficient in religion, I have them roll to see if they recognize the half-ruined altar they’ve discovered. It increases immersion, and includes all players in the game.

But a problem often arises. When I suggest a player rolls and they fail, the rest of the group asks if they can roll as well. More often than not, someone will roll a success. This kind of defeats the purpose of my suggestion, which was based on certain character’s background knowledge or hunches.

The solution I came up with was pretty simple, and role-play appropriate. I’ve started telling players that they have a choice with these sort of checks, and they must declare it ahead of time. Either the PC I suggested roll is the only one who can attempt the check, or all PCs attempt it as a group check. This fits with role-play; one character has a hunch something is off, and either looks into it themselves or tells the group, and the whole group checks it out.

This has been working well so far. Players still get some control over their ability checks, but I also get to include all players in exploration without making the game too easy.

Any thoughts? Does this seem useful? Is there a better way to handle this?

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

Last time, our heroes entered the second level of the mysterious caverns outside town to investigate the source of a ghost terrorizing the populace. They met a goblin who led them to a secret door into the lair of a “frog people.”

The group opened the secret door, and snuck into the room beyond it. It looked like a store room full of food and cheap supplies. They crept forward, and found a room that looked like barracks, with numerous “frog people” (which they identified as bullywugs) sleeping. Black Lotus tried to creep up to one to investigate but kicked a chamber pot. A giant toad in the room croaked with alarm, leapt at Black Lotus…and sailed into the corridor behind him [I rolled a critical failure on the attack]

By this point the Bullywugs were awake, and attacked. One ran to the south, calling for help, but Uatu killed him with an Eldritch blast. Black Lotus and Crohm attempted to kill the others, but the noise had attracted reinforcements. Bullwugs entered from both direction, surrounding the group.

Crohm asked to see their leader, but one bullywug threatened to kill them. Thinking quickly, Black Lotus said he thought only their king could provide orders. The bullywugs, fearful of upsetting their leader, agreed, and brought them to him.

The King, Globgust, was angry to see these “surface invaders.” The group managed to talk him down, and offered to do what they could to make things right. The King told them about the fight with the hobgoblins, and said he would reward them if they drove the hobgoblins out. He also told them of the device for travelling into the river. He stole its power source, which he used to replicate the bullywugs’ swampy home in the cavern. He did not want to part with it, but he knew a backup source was lost somewhere in the southeast part of the caverns. [there weren’t any stats for powerful Bullywugs, so I used the Kuo-toa whip stats]

The group agreed—unsure whether or not they would really be able to wipe out a hobgoblin encampment—and were escorted out of the bullywug lair.

They headed north, trying to backtrack through the twisting caverns to find the more managed corridors they’d travelled down earlier. As they were walking, focused on keeping in a generally northernly direction, they stumbled on two lizardfolk. The lizardfolk, angered at the intrusion into their territory, demanded a toll to pass.

Confident in their negotiation skills, the group tried to talk their way out of it, pointing to the hobgoblin threat. The lizardfolk had managed to hide from others in this cavern, though, and were unconvinced. Crohm then tried to lie about some gems they had. The lizardfolk saw through this, and attacked.

They both struck Crohm, felling him. Uatu pulled back, and let loose with his eldritch blasts, while Black Lotus killed the two with a flurry of blows. After reviving Crohm, and taking a short rest, they moved on.

Eventually they found their way back to the bridge. Uatu examined it, and found a space where the lever fit. Installing it, they raised the bridge out of the water, and crossed over. On the opposite side, they saw the device Hoggle had mentioned. It looked like a room with windows bobbing in the current. There was a control panel next to it, but some parts were missing and it seemed to do nothing.

The group pressed forward. They came to a fork. The northern passages were perfectly straight and well-maintained, and the southern ones were more twisting and waterworn [this was meant to be a sign of the path to the hobgoblins]. They followed the northern passages, with Black Lotus searching for traps. Suddenly, arrows shot out of the wall, piercing him in the side. After walking a bit farther the ground opened up beneath him, and he fell ten feet into disgusting water. Shortly after that, he tripped over a wire and the ceiling collapsed. He managed to get out of the way, but realizing he was setting off a series of deadly traps, the group decided to head to the south. [he was not rolling well on Investigation]

After passing through some slimy empty caverns, the group came into a room that showed signs of recent habitation. There was straw and bones strewn around the floor. They crept forward, and Black Lotus heard a growl come from a dark alcove in the east wall. Suddenly, a sabretooth tiger leapt out of the shadows and attacked.

Uatu acted quickly, launching a witch bolt at the beast. It exploded over the tiger, singing its fur and causing it to scream in pain. Injured and angered it leapt at Uatu, grabbed him in its teeth, and shook him before throwing his limp body against the wall. Crohm and Black Lotus charged, surrounding the tiger. Thankfully, the witch bolt had hurt it enough that the two could kill it with little difficulty.

After finding some treasure from the tiger’s previous victims, and reviving Uatu, the group took a much needed rest.

Tune in later for the conclusion of the Elder God’s Cavern, level 2…