Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Restoring Charlemagne’s Empire, part 3

I have been interspersing my RPG discussions with a walkthrough of the excellent Crusader Kings 2, in which players choose a dynasty and see it through from 1066 to 1453. In this game, I was playing as the last Karlings–Charlemagne’s descendants–confined to one county in France. Over time, they have schemed and conquered in an attempt to return the Karling family to greatness.

Last time, Clotaire II abandoned his family’s long feud with the foreign French monarchy, and died peacefully, mourned by all.

Clotaire II was succeeded by his eldest son, Lothaire. Where his father was noble and beloved, Lothaire was devious and feared. A great schemer, he immediately set to work bringing down the hated foreign king. Lothaire formed a faction to push for gavelkind succession; as the King had two young daughters this would lead to a division of the realm. Lothaire used his spies to gather dirt on other lords and blackmail them into joining his cause, then launched his rebellion. He easily won, and the King changed the succession rules.

Lothaire then moved into phase 2 of his plan. He had his spies abduct the King while he was travelling through the Karling lands. Lothaire then executed the King in prison. This led Lothaire to be widely despised, even by those who were not fond of the King. But it worked. The realm was divided between the two daughters. Brittany, Aquitaine and Aragon went to the eldest, and France to the younger.

[all of this was accomplished through the Intrigue actions available in the Way of Life expansion. I got a little lucky it all worked out, but when you have a high enough intrigue in a character, it can be a useful way to rule your realm through underhanded means.]

Lothaire then began plotting to overthrow his new Queen. He did not get very far in this latest scheme, however, as he was assassinated by bowmen while travelling on the roads. His list of enemies was too long for anyone to know for sure who was the killer.

Lothaire’s eldest son, Francois, inherited the Karling lands. He was a genius, and immediately set about developing and strengthening the administration of the realm. But he worked a bit too hard, and died of stress after only three years.

His brother, Lothaire II then became Duke. Lothaire II saw the repeated failures and frustration of his family, which he attributed to personal egos getting in the way of the cause. So he came up with a plan with his sister, Denise. She would marry their German cousin, now the Duke of Franconia and Flanders. Lothaire II would make her his heir. The two would then work to break their land free of what remained of France and join the Holy Roman Empire.

Their plans came together sooner than expected when the Queen of France faced a rebellion in the southern part of her realm. Lothaire II declared independence and easily won, although he was severely wounded in battle. He died less than a year after gaining independence, and his lands passed to Denise.

Denise was a brilliant and shrewd leader, who should have been the greatest of the Karlings but she repeatedly faced suspicion due to her gender.

Shortly after coming to power, she swore fealty to the Holy Roman Empire. After joining the Empire, her intelligence and charisma earned her the respect of the previously suspicious German Dukes. She also became very close to the Emperor, although he refused to appoint her as a counselor position because she was a woman. She also used her managerial skills to develop her families lands further, making them some of the wealthiest of the Empire.

But she faced repeated intrigue to remove her from power. Her various nephews continued to conspire against her. Some tried to kill her, others tried to organize factions to overthrow her. She managed to undermine all of these plots, throwing her nephews in jail, one by one.

Turmoil on the Empire’s eastern border soon called her attention. The Mongol horde out of the east had been gradually conquering Christian lands. They had seized Hungary a few years before, and now turned their sights on the Holy Roman Empire. In a massive invasion, they conquered Bohemia and the Empire’s lands in Italy. After a short respite, the Mongols attempted to conquer the Papacy itself. Christian leaders all over Europe rallied to defend the Pope, including  Denise. She raised her troops, and spent some of her own money on mercenaries to supplement them. The Christian armies turned back the Mongols, ending their advance into Europe.

Denise spent the rest of her life in peace, dying peacefully at 66.


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.

Why Baldur’s Gate would make the first great video game movie


Every few years, computer game fans get excited as a new movie based on one of our beloved games comes out. And every few years, we get disappointed and bitter. Some movies refuse to remain faithful to the games they’re based on, changing everything that made them great and leaving a mess. Others try to be faithful, but come off as more of an inside joke than a coherent storyline. Either way, non-gamers continue to not understand what makes computer games so great, and gamers continue to wait for a faithful adaptation to arise.

This problem could be solved, though, by turning to the excellent Baldur’s Gate series. Set in the D&D world of Forgotten Realms, this game was released in 1998, and was followed by a sequel and an expansion that was basically a third act. It is still widely-loved, and was released in an updated version in 2012. It is widely considered one of the greater computer role-playing games, for its innovative mechanics and story alike.

Baldur’s Gate tells the tale of a young orphan (players pick the name, race, gender, and class-I usually played a male so I will use male pronouns, but others can be used in its place) raised in the library-city of Candlekeep. His guardian, the wizard Gorion, tells him they must flee, and mysterious assasins try to kill the hero as he prepares for his journey. Shortly after leaving Candlekeep, Gorion and his ward are attacked. The young hero flees, but not before seeing Gorion killed by a sinister figure.

The hero makes his way to an inn where Gorion said his friends were waiting. There, after escaping additional assassins and discovering his childhood friend followed him from Candlekeep, he meets Gorion’s friends and they join him in his quest. They had heard of unrest far to the south in the iron mines of Nashkel, and want to investigate. In the course of investigating, the hero and his allies discover a massive, complicated plot by evil forces to seize control of the city of Baldur’s Gate. The hero also discovers he is actually the child of the god of Murder.

Two other games (really a sequel and an expansion) continue this story, expanding the mythology and significance of the hero’s lineage before bringing it to a spectacular conclusion.

So why would Baldur’s Gate make for the first great video game movie?

First, I need to discuss why existing movies have failed. Directors of video game movies have to strike a balance between gamer fans and the broader audience. Gamers want to see their experiences translated onto the screen, while the broader audience wants something they can enjoy without having played the game. This is especially difficult with relatively recent games that have rabid fan bases, like World of Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed.

Additionally, a lot of the fun of video games is the immersive experience. It’s fun to wander around and discover a new world. It’s satisfying to fulfill random side quests like killing wolves threatening a farmer. Neither of these would make for a good movie, though. I’ve spent hours trekking through the forests and mountains of Cyrodiil in Elder Scolls: Oblivion, but would be really bored to watch someone do that.

So how could Baldur’s Gate surmount these problems?

First, the game is nearly twenty years old, so there is less of the pressure surrounding adaptations of current hit games. The people who came to love this game in its prime are in their 30’s or older. So there will be fewer angry tweets from fans if the movie doesn’t recreate the game frame by frame. It will also be easier for non-gamers to relate to the movie, as it’s more removed from current discourse. Granted, this means there may be less apparent commercial appeal, but it’s not like the fan base of any other video game movie turned it into a hit.

Second, the graphics are pretty bad by today’s standards, so there will be no temptation to recreate the visuals of the game on the screen. Baldur’s Gate was a top-down experience, in which characters and enemies were portrayed with minimal details. As a result, a director would have the freedom to create any sort of visual experience they wanted. The movie could include one top down scene—maybe during a battle—out of deference to the game, but beyond that there’s a lot of flexibility.

Third, the nature of the story would lend itself to a movie. Many video games have a plot structure built around completing a series of quests. In the classic Knights of the Old Republic, the heroes must visit several planets before finding the clue to the evil Sith forces’ strength. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard must recruit and gain the trust of his allies before moving on to defeat the Collectors. Neither of these would do well as a movie, as they’d basically be a series of episodes.

The story of Baldur’s Gate is different. It’s a mystery. When you start the game, all you know is that someone is trying to kill you. Your first major quest—saving the iron mines of Naskhel—is just a rumor you stumbled upon. You get bits and pieces of information as the story progresses. And there’s dramatic turnarounds that would fit well as the “Act 2 reversal” in a movie; after uncovering the plot against Baldur’s Gate, you are framed for the murder of the city’s leaders. You must escape from prison, and evade guards as you clear your name and save the city. This would be perfect as a movie script.

Moreover, the second two games could easily be adapted to create a blockbuster fantasy trilogy.

Even as I write this, I am cringing at the thought of a cheesy, overwrought Baldur’s Gate movie adaptation. But I do believe the challenges complicating adaptation of other video games are absent here. If we’re ever going to have a truly great video game movie, this could be it.

UPDATED to edit some typos and clarify pronouns.

Origin Stories: Dain, character mechanics

Last week I presented the backstory of Dain, a D&D 5e dwarf cleric, as part of my ongoing Origin Stories series. This week I’ll discuss how I actually created him.

Just like Badger, Dain was inspired by the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. As I read through the list of deities, I was struck by the Red Knight, Lawful Neutral Goddess of Strategy. I had been interested in playing a lawful neutral character for some time, and thought that a Red Knight cleric might be a lot of fun. I initially thought of using a soldier background—a former soldier who joins the priesthood—but was intrigued by the Adventurer’s Guide “Faction Agent” background. Also, my group needed a heavy-hitting tank, so I decided to play a dwarf.

I chose a sun dwarf (the Sword Coast version of the generic hill dwarf) as the wisdom boost would help with a cleric. And I chose the War domain for the cleric, as this covers the Red Knight. I prioritized Wisdom and Constitution (Wisdom is the dominant stat for clerics, and Constitution would help absorb damage), while having Charisma as my lowest stat, as a Lawful Neutral former bureaucrat would probably not be very charismatic.

For skills, I went with the most obvious ones for a cleric—history, insight, medicine and perception. And I took advantage of dwarven weapon proficiencies, to give Dain a Warhammer and shield, with a mace backup. Finally, I chose the usual spells for a cleric. Sacred flame, magical weapon and spiritual weapon gave some offensive abilities. Spare the Dying, Healing Word, and Prayer of Healing took care of healing. And Resistance, Divine Favor, Shield Faith, Bless, Protection from Evil, Warding Bond and Aid allowed me to buff myself and others.

Overall, I really liked this character. In one sense it’s pretty generic—a lawful neutral dwarven cleric is about as pre-gen-y as it gets. But the full backstory I gave him made me excited to try him out. That’s one important point on character creation. Don’t feel the need to come up with archetype-busting characters all the time–sometimes a predictable character with a fully-fleshed out backstory can be just as compelling.

Origin Stories: Dain, character background

My Origin Stories series of posts presents interesting characters I’ve created for a variety of games. When I put characters together, I often had more backstory and thoughts on its creation than DMs needed. So I thought it may be a useful exercise to write it out for this blog, and hopefully other players can gain some inspiration from these posts. Previous posts include: Dorn, a D&D 5e Oath of the Ancients Paladin; Badger, a D&D forest gnome rogue; and Arkdo, a Duro archeologist from Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

This post is about Dain, a gold dwarf priest of the Red Knight, for D&D 5e Forgotten Realms.

Dain is from the gold dwarf lands far to the south of the Sword Coast. He was a bureaucrat in a bustling trade center, where he lived a comfortable, but boring life. One day, a wandering knight from the north arrived in town. Dain struck up a conversation with the outsider at the tavern, and learned she worshipped the Red Knight, goddess of strategy. Dain was entranced by her stories of the intrigue and adventure among the powerful city-states on the Sword Coast, as well as her teachings of the Red Knight. This goddess supported warplanners and strategists, and her priests were in high demand among many of the lords of the north.

Dain, far from impulsive—even by the standards of dwarves—decided he had enough of shuffling papers around and wanted an adventure. He spent the next few weeks preparing for his trip (he was, after all, still a dwarven bureaucrat, and could not avoid planning), then set out in the middle of the night. He sought out news and followers of the Red Knight on his way north, connecting with a group of wandering monks in her service in Athkatla. They pointed him to Baldurs Gate, site of one of her greatest temples.

In Baldurs Gate, Dain studied under the Red Knight’s highest clerics. He found his time as a bureaucrat served him well in his studies, as it gave him a love for planning, order and strategizing. Dain breezed through his clerical training and was ordained as a priest of the Red Knight. He chose to be an itinerant cleric, travelling through the Sword Coast and spreading her teachings.

Eventually, Dain made his way to Daggerford, a smaller member of the Lords Alliance. While drinking in the tavern, he heard two councilors for the town’s ruler—Lady Morwen Daggerford—debating the proper way to press a claim for greater trade revenue from the Lords Alliance. Dain introduced himself, and gave them some advice, combining his bureaucratic skills with the teachings of the Red Knight. The men were sufficiently impressed to introduce Dain to Lady Morwen. She convinced him to join her court as an adviser, tasking him with advancing her interests among the Lords Alliance. Dain did a good enough job that the Lords Alliance voted to make him one of the faction’s agents, sending him abroad to aid their endeavors.

Out of the Abyss session 4: Entering Blingdenstone

Last week in this continuing walkthrough of D&D’s excellent “Out of the Abyss” campaign, the group made their way from Gracklestugh to Blingdenstone. The group consists of Navarre (half-elf rogue), Varys (half-drow ranger), Zinaella (half-elf paladin), Barakus (tiefling monk), and Brynn (gnome wizard).

After escaping the flooding temple with their new friend Glabagool (a sentient gelatinous cube), the group approached Blingdenstone. The tunnels had been sloping consistently upwards. This part of the journey was uneventful, although they spent one entire day hearing horrid shrieking from side passages. After a few more days, two deep gnomes appeared out of nowhere and ordered the group to halt.

Seeing Topsy with them—and apparently in no danger—they brought the group into an obscured tunnel nearby. They realized this was a deep gnome mine, and soon met Dasco Pickshine, the owner. The group introduced themselves to him, and told him of their journey. Dasco offered to let the group tag along on an ore shipment he had bound for Blingdenstone if they could provide protection.

They agreed, and were about to leave when Zinaella noticed a hand slipping into his pack. He grabbed the would-be deep gnome thief. Dasco was horrified, and Topsy noted how unheard of theft is among the deep gnomes. Dasco motioned to two guards, who proceeded to beat the thief mercilessly. All of the group knew this was also strange. They ran into a bit more trouble when they introduced Glabbagool to the deep gnomes, but they managed to convince them their friend was safe.

Everyone boarded the wagon with the ore shipment, where another deep gnome was waiting. Dasco introduced her as Nomi Pathshutter, who maintained the deep gnome’s earth elemental summoning stations. After hearing of the group’s travels, she told them of Ogremoch’s Bane—an evil force that corrupted elementals. She asked them for samples of any insane earth elementals they encountered.

The group travelled for half a day when suddenly two pools of strange-looking liquid rose up and attacked. They raced to what they realized were ochre jellies, but the group kept slashing at the jellies with their weapons. This caused the jellies to split and multiply, till there were soon over half a dozen attacking them. Eventually the group realized what was happening, switched their tactics, and destroyed all the jellies. Dasco thanked them for their help, and noted that attacks by oozes and the like were increasing in frequency.

They arrived at the gates of Blingdenstone, thick steel doors set high above the tunnel. Guards called down, asking for the group’s names and information. Dasco vouched for them, gaining them entry, but the guards refused to allow a gelatinous cube—even a friendly one—into the city. Glabbaool agreed to wait outside.

The group dismounted, and the cart was moved onto a lift that rose high up the cavern well. They ascended the narrow steps and entered into the gates. Guards led them through a maze pockmarked with murder holes. They then took them a narrow passage with slots for archers at either end.

They were beginning to feel intimidated—with memories of the dour duergar city in their minds—when they entered Blingdenstone itself. It was the first time they truly felt welcome in the Underdark. Warm light illuminated cozy homes dug into the walls, and friendly—but wary—deep gnomes moved about in every direction. Dasco said he had to unload his goods, but pointed the group towards the Traders’ Grotto market and the temple [Navarre wanted to find a way to get rid of his curse].

The group headed to the temple first, and found a friendly acolyte. After listening to their situation, he said the priest could likely help, but was away until tomorrow. While there, they laid to rest the remains of the deep gnome whose ghost they encountered in Gracklestugh. Suddenly, a ghost rose out of the ground. The group was friendly, and soon found out this was one of the deep gnomes who fell in a long-ago battle with the drow. The ghost mentioned some of his fellow ghosts remained lost and hostile, and asked the group to help. After agreeing, they decided to head to the Traders’ Grotto. This was a magnificent area, full of petrified mushrooms of all sizes.

They waded through the crowds and the stalls until they found Werz Saltbaron, the merchant they were tasked with bringing gems to in Gracklestugh. He acted very strangely when they showed him the gems, ordering the group to keep them out of sight. Realizing he was involved in something shady, the group managed to get double the payment he offered.

Heading away from the grumbling Werz, the group stopped short as they saw a deep gnome guard rise into the air. As the crowd around them screamed and ran, they realized what had happened: two gelatinous cubes had broken into the city! The group moved to attack.

They first tried to get the guard free. Barakus stuck an iron bar he had into the cube for the guard to grab, but he couldn’t reach it. Then Zinaella and Navarre tried slashing the cube open, but it kept reforming.

Meanwhile, the cubes had surrounded the group, and one lunged at Navarre, engulfing him. He took significant damage as the cube began to digest him; the group could also see the guard was near death.

They doubled their efforts, focusing on killing the cubes. A series of punishing blows from Barakus and Zinaella, and well-placed arrows from Varys managed to kill the cube containing the guard. He fell forward, nearly dead. Meanwhile, Brynn focused her offensive spells on the cube with Navarre, killing it just as he was about to fall unconscious.

The Traders’ Grotto erupted in cheers as the deep gnomes surrounded the heroes. The guard they saved led the crowd in thanking their new heroes, and the party was carried off to the Foaming Mug, Blingdenstone’s tavern.

The owner gave the group free food and drinks, and they celebrated deep into the night. The next morning, they were awoken at a horribly early hour by an insistent knocking on the door. A young deep gnome told them they were summoned by Senni and Dorbo Diggermattock, the city’s leaders. Fighting off their hangovers, the group headed out into the city.

The Diggermattocks were waiting in the assembly hall, surrounded by guards and retainers. They thanked the group for their efforts. In turn, the group asked for help reaching the surface. The deep gnomes informed them they could lead them to the elf temple they had heard about, which led to the surface, but could not spare any guides now: the city was in danger.

Blingdenstone was under attack by hordes of oozes, as the group had noticed. They needed to figure out why this was occurring or they would be unable to secure the city. Additionally, a group of wererats had seized part of the city. The deep gnomes and the wererats frequently skirmished, further heightening the city’s insecurity. The group offered to do what they could, and the deep gnomes told them of two operations they had planned. [I liked my dialogue here, so I am including it]

Senni said, “one mission would be to investigate the source of the ooze attacks.”

Dorbo, whispered to her, “tell them the name of it, tell them the name.”

Senni, sighed. “It’s Operation: ooze there.” All the deep gnomes, except Senni, giggled.

Dorbo then added, “the other is “Operation Exterminate.”

“With a question mark,” Senni cut in

Dorbo sighed. “Yes, with a question mark.”

The group was tasked with uncovering the source of the ooze attacks, and determining how much of a threat the wererats posed (and whether they needed to be driven from the city).

Before heading out, they stopped by the temple to find the priest. The priest was friendly, although he kept launching into long-winded lectures until his acolyte interrupted him. He said he would like to help rid Navarre of his curse, but was wary of crossing Lolth without more power. Their original temple had been defiled, weakening his connection to their deity. The priest therefore asked the group to cleanse their temple with a spell gem. The temple was in a portion of the city infected with Ogremoch’s Bane, so no one had been able to accomplish this task yet.

The group then set out on their quest. They first visited the wererat’s territory. The deep gnome guards reluctantly opened the doors that barred the passageway, then quickly locked it after the group went through. They sneak forward carefully, coming to a fork. One direction smelled foul, the other less foul, so the group turned in the less foul direction.

Suddenly four poison arrows shot out of the wall, all flying directly at Zinaella. He panicked, and didn’t even try to dodge as they all hit him [really bad dexterity check], causing him to pass out. Four wererats surrounded the group, and moved to attack.

Thinking quickly, the group began trying to talk down the guards. They promised they didn’t come for a fight, and even offered to put down their weapons if they can handle this peacefully. The wererats agreed [good persuasion checks], and took the disarmed group (dragging the limp Zinaella) to their leader.

There the group met Goldwhisker, the portly leader of the wererats. He explained they are deep gnomes afflicted with lycanthropy, and moved to this abandoned area. They resented the deep gnomes’ attempts to steal their territory, especially as they considered themselves as part of the city’s defenses. Specifically, they said they are under constant attacks by oozes and might have to flee soon. This would leave Blingdenstone even more insecure.

Goldwhisker said he wants reassurance that the Diggermattocks will let them live, and he’ll help the city against the oozes. The group agreed and returned to the deep gnome leadership. Unfortunately, the Diggermattocks were not convinced, and needed more proof of the wererats’ willingness to help [bad persuasion checks].

So the group returned to Goldwhisker, and convinced him to give them more to work with. He agreed to take the group through a secret passageway into the ooze-held area, to show them what they’re up against. The group followed, and saw hundreds of oozes gathered in a cavern. Beyond that was a strange-looking deep gnome who seemed to be able to command the oozes. With this new information, the group headed back [I’ll discuss this below, but I got a little lost in the book here—it was unclear how Goldwhisker would show them this, so I improvised]

As they were returning, they heard a voice calling for help from a side passage in broken Undercommon. The group rushed forward, and saw a black pudding advancing on a dust mephit and an earth elemental. The group attacked.

Zinaella, Barakus and Navarre all managed to hit the pudding, but the effects were not what they hoped. Acid sprayed onto all of them as they hit the ooze, injuring them. And when Zinaella slashed the pudding with his sword, it broke into two separate oozes [Barakus used his fists (ouch) and Navarre used the mace they got from Glabbagool]. Brynn, meanwhile, cast a ray of frost at the ooze, which fizzled and did nothing. So Varys showered the pudding with arrows until both halves of it shriveled up and died.

The dust mephit was very thankful. It explained that it and his friend—the elemental—were trying to leave the city when they were cornered by the pudding. They were treated well in Blingdenstone, and wanted to help, so they told the group of some information they had picked up in their travels: the location of Entemoch’s Boon. The pair them headed off into a side passage.

The group then returned to the Diggermattocks and told them what they found. The deep gnomes decided to hold a council, and invited the wererats. Also in attendance were Nomi Pathshutter, the friendly ghosts the group had encountered, the priest and acolyte, and representatives of the city’s armory.

The council quickly realized the seriousness of the threat they faced. The ghosts suggested freeing several of their number from evil influence, and the ghosts could join in. Nomi, meanwhile, argued that more earth elementals are needed, and finding Entemoch’s Boon would help.  The priest then chimed in, and suggested cleansing his temple would also help.

The Diggermattocks then turned to the group and asked for their further help. The group agreed, and offered to sneak past the oozes to take care of the Pudding King while the main force of the deep gnomes attacks. They also said they met a nice dust mephit who was friends with all the deep gnomes; at this the assembly burst out laughing at this ridiculous idea [I was getting tired, and thought it’d be funny for no one to know what the group was talking about]. The group brushed this off, and said they had the location for Entemoch’s Boon, at which the assembly was amazed.

The group also pushed the Diggermattocks to let the wererats stay in the city. The leadership was skeptical [the group kept rolling bad persuasion checks]. Eventually, Varys suggested they decide based on pure military necessity; they needed extra personnel and defenses, and the wererats would provide this. This convinced the DIggermattocks, and they reluctantly agreed to peace with the wererats [I let each group member come up with a reason to let the wererats stay and roll persuasion, Varys rolled well].

The council adjourned. The deep gnomes and wererats would begin preparations for the attack. While that was occurring, the group were tasked with helping improve their capabilities. They must find Entemoch’s Boon and cleanse the temple to aid in summoning Earth Elementals, and deal with the hostile ghosts to free up the ghosts to join in.

The group returned to the Foaming Mug for another good meal, and a good night’s sleep in preparation for the…Battle for Blingdenstone!

Just a few closing thoughts on this part of the adventure, as this post is getting long. I stuck with the middle of the road approach to random encounters on the travel; I used the set encounters and then a few random encounters that seemed fun (meeting the Society of Brilliance, the gas leak). This definitely was my preferred route. The set encounters are great, so it would be a shame to miss them. But unless the group really wants a long adventure in which they immerse themselves in the Underdark, I’d be sparing with the random encounters.

Blingdenstone was my favorite of the three settlements the group visited. It had varied encounters and will build to a great climax (unlike Gracklestugh). As I mentioned, I got a bit lost with Goldwhisker telling the group about the Pudding King. That was one of the many areas in which the book may just want DMs to improvise.

Finally, a programming note: my group decided to do one more session with Out of the Abyss then shuffle things up (including giving me a break from DM-ing). I’m running another series of D&D adventures (the multi-level dungeon I mentioned on Twitter), and the group may rotate walkthrough write-up duties, so these posts will continue in a different form.

Out of the Abyss session 4: Approaching Blingdenstone

Last time, our heroes become embroiled in Gracklestugh politics, ended up allied with the powers that be, and were given directions to Blingdenstone, along with permission to leave the city. As usual, we had Navarre (a half-elf rogue), Barakus (tiefling monk), Varys (half-drow ranger), Zinaella (half-elf paladin) and Brynn (gnome wizard). Brynn was absent for the last session (a player was away) but she’ll rejoin the group this time. Also in tow was Topsy, a deep gnome wererat NPC.

The group left Gracklestugh, and had a few uneventful days of travel. The tunnels gradually became less organized and ordered, as signs of the duergar craftsmanship faded into the chaos of the Underdark. As they entered a broad cavern filled with a glowing mist (faerzress), they heard voices up ahead. Barakus and Navarre snuck up, and saw Brynn—who had left the group after Neverlight Grove to travel with the myconids—talking with a derro. This derro was well-dressed and calm (unlike others they had encountered) and appeared to be instructing Brynn in something.

The two revealed themselves, and Brynn introduced them to the Derro, Y. He was a member of the Society of Brilliance, a group dedicated to understanding all of the Underdark. The rest of the group joined them, and they all began catching up on their various adventures.

Suddenly, crossbow bolts shot out of the dark. Navarre and Zinaella were hit, while the others sailed over the group’s heads. Navarre collapsed, while Zinaella fought off what he soon realized was drow poison [the drow pursuit hadn’t really come up yet, so I wanted to use it here]. The group sprung into action [the drow scouts rolled high on sneak, and Navarre failed his Constitution saving throw against the drow poison]

Varys spotted four drow scouts crouched behind a ledge, and began firing arrows to give the rest of the group cover. Zinaella rushed to Navarre to try and wake him, while Barakus teleported through the shadows to reappear behind the drow [he used misty step]. As Navarre groggily opened his eyes, Brynn cast a ray of frost at the drow. The spell fizzled as she cast it, however, and she felt strangely powerful [I rolled on the wild magic table because of the faerzress, and the spell granted her resistance].

Barakus began attacking the drow, felling one. They managed to wound him in their counterattack, although one swung too hard and fell over the ledge, falling in front of the party [he rolled a 1 in his attack]. Navarre raced up to join the fight, while Zinaella rather unsportingly killed the prone drow [I considered penalizing him here as a paladin, but let it slide]. Suddenly a modron, a sentient clockwork being, appeared in the combat and began walking around in circles.

The group found this odd, but focused on their task and quickly killed the rest of the drow. Navarre gathered their poisoned crossbow bolts and grabbed one of the hand crossbows as Y ran up. He explained he had tried to summon the rest of the Society, but the modron appeared instead. Something in the faerzress had been interfering with magic lately.

Y tried again, and the remaining members of the Society appeared. They were a troglodyte, an orc, a mind-flayer, and a kuo-toa. The group didn’t have much time to learn more about this strange organization, as just then the drow priestess who had captured them burst into the cavern, flanked by guards and another priestess.

The Society of Brilliance demanded the drow leave, and not interfere with their business but the priestess was intent on reclaiming her captives. As the drow advanced, the Society worked together to cast a spell, teleporting the drow out of the cavern. Unfortunately, the faerzress caused the party to teleport as well. They reappeared out of sight of the cavern, and the Society.

They decided to continue to Blingdenstone. The group heading through zig-zagging tunnels sloping upwards till they came to a broad plateau. As they crossed it, they arrived at a vast cavern filled end to end with spider webs. Barakus recognized this as the famed Silken Paths [a set encounter]. The group then debated whether to try and cross the Paths, or to find a way around. Varys, Barakus and Brynn voted to cross, while Navarre and Zinaella voted to go around. As majority rules prevailed, they decided to head forward.

The group set out carefully across the webs, trying to stick to the stronger and thicker strands. After a short distance, the entire strand they were walking across snapped. Brynn, Varys and Barakus fell 30 feet, landing on and sticking to another strand of webs. Zinaella and Navarre managed to grab hold of the strands as they broke, but realized they were far from safe. Five giant spiders crawled towards the group, drawn by the vibrations in the web.

As they approached Zinaella and Navarre, they stopped, glanced back and forth between the two, and as one attacked Navarre. Three of them managed to bite him, while he dodged the other two. He was wracked with pain from the bites and the poison, but managed to stay upright. Varys, meanwhile, climbed up the webs to help as Zinaella killed one of the spiders. Once again, however, Navarre’s selfish nature won out and he dove for the lower strand, leaving Zinaella to his fate [he’s a CN character, so does things like this often, although no one called him on it]

The spiders were not interested in Zinaella, however. Two of the spiders leapt down after Navarre, while the other two fired webs at him. Too injured to dodge them, Navarre soon became completely covered in spider webs.

Suddenly, the group heard “Yuk-Yuk and Spiderbait to the rescue!” in goblin-accented Undercommon. Two goblins slid down a series of webs, hurling jars of fire at the spiders as they did. They managed to drive off the spiders, and freed Navarre.

The goblins introduced themselves as “web surfers,” who travelled up and down the Silken Paths. They offered to take the group through for 6gp a day [it was supposed to be 2gp, but the group rolled badly on charisma checks in conversation]. The group agreed, and they set off.

As they did, they discussed why the spiders had fixated on Navarre. Barakus remembered Navarre had stolen gems from the temple of Lolth in the drow camp. They realized they might be cursed. Fishing them out of his pack, Navarre dropped the gems into the ravine.

They traveled a day without incident, although there were a few near misses as party members almost slid off the webs. That night, they stopped in a spot where multiple webs came together, creating a sort of hammock. As he turned in his sleep, Navarre felt something jab him in the side; opening his pack, he found the gems he had tossed away. He did not sleep well that night. The next day was also uneventful, and they traveled carefully through the ravine until resting on filthy rags the goblins laid out over the webs. [I wasn’t rolling anything when I checked for random encounters]

The third and final day, as they neared the other side, Navarre noticed movement up ahead. The entire group hid among the webs, and watched as they saw a spectator—a minor beholder—float through the webs. The group waited till it had passed, they sneaked forward, avoiding its notice [I was a little disappointed, as this would have been a cool fight. Oh well].

Yuk-Yuk and Spiderbait brought the group onto solid ground, took their payment, and “surfed” back through the webs, disappearing from sight.

The group travelled on, eventually coming to a stream that was bordered by beautiful and bounteous mushrooms. They realized the stream must flow into Neverlight Grove. After stocking up on food, they moved on.

The paths they were following sloped downward, eventually opening up into a broad cavern. As they walked forward, the group began to feel woozy. Navarre realized it was natural gas, but Brynn thought the air felt fresh and they should travel on [she rolled a 1 on perception]. Navarre won out, and the group retreated into the tunnel. They decided to fire a flaming arrow into the cavern to ignite the gas, so they could continue [this was a very bad idea, but I thought it would be fun to see through]

The group backed up until they hit a curve in the tunnel, and Varys fired. At first the flame seemed to sputter, when suddenly the entire cavern lit up with flame. A fireball tore down the tunnel towards them, throwing the group against the wall and injuring all of them.

As they stood up, their ears ringing, they heard two things. One was the sound of shouting coming from behind them; they could hear the unmistakable criesof the drow. The other noise was a rumbling coming from above and in front of them, which gradually got louder. They realized the cavern was about to come down around them, so they ran forward just as the drow came into sight.

The ceiling collapsed, and the drow disappeared among the rocks and boulders. The group ran on for a short distance before the tunnel both ahead and behind them collapsed. They were trapped, until they noticed a crack had appeared in the formerly solid tunnel wall next to them. Zinaella grabbed his crowbar and began prying at the crack, and they found a passage beyond it. [this is the Oozing Palace set encounter, which I thought worked well with the cave in]

Moving into the passage, the group realized this was some sort of humanoid-made structure. The corridors were straight, and paved with stones. The walls were covered with decaying tiles. But everything was moist and slimy, with dripping noises echoing faintly around the group.

They moved forward into a larger chamber when suddenly Zinaella screamed out in pain. A grey ooze had dropped onto him, burning his armor. Navarre rushed forward to scrape it off, dissolving his dagger in the process. As the ooze fell on the ground, Zinaella and Barakus—both of whom had magic weapons—hit it until it shriveled up.

The group moved on, but stopped as they saw what looked like a skeleton floating in the passage ahead of them. Suddenly, they heard “who am I? what are you?” in their heads. They soon realized they were looking at a gelatinous cube, but one that could apparently communicate telepathically.

They tried to be friendly, and struck up a rapport with the creature. It called itself Glabbagool, and only recent became self-aware. It told them of its “friends” in the tunnels ahead, and their hunger. When the group mentioned they were heading to Blingdenstone, it said it felt a “call” to that city. [I tried to roleplay this a bit, having Glabbagool act confused about the creatures he was talking with. After one of the group said “like us,” Glabbagool used “us” as a signifier- “you-us,” “me-us.” I think it had the desired effect]

The group moved on. As they entered another larger room, a grey ooze tried to drop onto Varys but missed. They quickly killed it. After that, Glabbagool offered to travel ahead of the group to protect them.

They came to a dead end cavern that was slowly filling up with water. After searching it and finding nothing, they backtracked till they found a narrow passageway. Glabbagool went first. After travelling halfway down the passage he suddenly sunk into the ground. They realized he had fallen into a pit. Glabbagool told them of his “hungry friend” in the pit. Interpreting this to mean another ooze [it was actually a black pudding] they decided to jump over the cube, them have him follow them to block the ooze.

It was a good plan, in theory. Everyone jumped safely over except Brynn and Varys, who fell short and landed on Glabbagool, taking acid damage. He was very apologetic.

Moving on, they found a room with a crumbling fountain in the center and statues in niches along the wall. The group searched the room and found a magic dagger, some gold, and potions in the fountain, but no way out. Thankfully, no one touched the “statues” [which were actually oozes].

They went back to the cavern and saw that it was now knee deep full of water. After deliberating for a bit, Varys boosted Navarre up to look at a crack in the ceiling where water was coming in. He reached his hand through the crack [kind of a risky move, but I decided not to mess with them] and felt more water up above them. The group decided to try and break open a passageway in the ceiling and swim away, hoping they could find dry land. After chipping away at the ceiling, the group members swam up—Glabbagool floated—and realized they were in a gently flowing river. They came to the bank, dried off, and moved on.

Tune in next week for the group’s adventures in Blingdenstone…

Origin Stories: Arkdo

My gaming group just finished their latest session of D&Ds’ Out of the Abyss (see latest walkthrough here). They made it to Blingdenstone, and discovered even in this relatively safe city, threats still abounded…I’ll have it up soon. But first…

In this installment in my ongoing Origin Stories series, I want to discuss a character I made for a non-D&D game. As I’ve mentioned, I played Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs with an old group. These are really fun games that capture a lot of the flavor of Star Wars. This character was for Edge of the Empire, a game setting focusing on the seedier side of the Star Wars Universe (see my walkthrough of an adventure I wrote here). Other settings include Force and Destiny (focusing on force-users, as I’ve discussed) and Age of Rebellion (where you play as part of the Rebel Alliance).

This post is a bit shorter, so I’ll include it all as one post, instead of putting it up over two weeks.

The character I created was Arkdo, the Duro archeologist.

Arkdo grew up on Dantooine; his parents, originally from Duros, fled when the Empire took over and made their way to the Outer Rim. His parents were pilots, helping move cargo through the system and nearby systems and shuttling passengers around. Arkdo helped them out, learning how to fly and astrogate, but he spent most of his time exploring the Jedi ruins on Dantoiine.

During one exploration, he met an old man, who befriended him and taught him much about the ancient Jedi. The man turned out to be a Jedi in hiding, which Arkdo learned when a bounty hunter hired by the Empire found him and killed him. Arkdo then decided to strike out on his own. Getting his parent’s blessing and the meager inheritance they had set aside for him, he set out to make his way in the Outer Rim.

His talents at astrogation and piloting, as well as the skills he gained in Old Republic lore, exploration and archeology, helped him get steady work with the salvagers and treasure hunters who exist at the edge of the Empire [see what I did there?]. Arkdo eventually joined a steady crew hunting for ancient relics to sell to wealthy buyers. On one expedition beyond Subterrell, they found a long-lost Jedi outpost. Among the relics were data on other Outer Rim outposts, which the crew realized would lead them to vast stores of treasure. The crew’s commander knew the Empire had begun collecting all remaining Jedi relics, and thought they could sell this information to the Empire for a lot of money.

Arkdo decided then he would rather be principled than rich. Remembering his Jedi mentor, he resolved to never let this information or the Jedi relics fall into the Empire’s hands. He stole the information and crippled his crew’s ship, before escaping by offering his astrogation services to a smuggler who had landed on the planet. He disappeared into the Outer Rim, his forbidden knowledge guarded carefully, constantly looking over his back for the crew he had betrayed…

Character Creation: Arkdo

This character came about through some good interactions with my GM. When we started playing EOTE, I created a Scout character from the base EOTE rulebook. After playing a session, the GM thought I was going more the route of an archeologist, a character from one of the EOTE expansion books. I checked it out, noticed the illustration was a Duros, and decided I’d play a Duros archeologist.

Character creation is a little complicated in EOTE. It’s a mix of Shadowrun or Firefly/Serenity—when you have a number of points you can use to create customized characters—and D&D, with its set character classes. You start with a career and specialization, like Bounty Hunter-Assassin or Explorer-Scout. Then the race you choose starts off with beginning characteristics (for example, Wookies have high Brawn), and a set number of XP. You choose these XP to build your character through characteristics, skills and equipment.

For Arkdo, as I mentioned I wanted him to be a Duros, and used the Archeologist specialization for the Explorer career (which is part of an expansion pack). I knew I wanted him to be smart and cunning, and also able to use a weapon, so I bumped up his agility (which is used for ranged attacks), intellect and cunning. Most of his skills would go towards his knowledge of lore and the Outer Rim, as well as perception (useful for finding ruins and relics) and survival, for exploring. I gave him a few skill ranks in ranged-light (for things like blasters) as he likely had to defend himself a lot while exploring. Finally, after buying his weapons, I got him equipment appropriate for an archeologist, like macrobinoculars and scanners.

The other cool thing about EOTE character creation is the obligation mechanic. The idea is that everyone exploring the edges of the Empire has some complications in their past. It could be a family they left behind, a debt to a crimelord, or a cause they’re devoted to. These give characters resources, but also lead to complications. At creation, characters choose an obligation, and can add to their obligation value in order to gain more XP or credits to buy equipment. But at the start of every session, the GM rolls dice based on the party’s total obligation value; if the roll comes up right everyone faces some adverse consequences. It’s a cool way to introduce risk into the creation process.

I chose the betrayal obligation, and bumped it up a bit for more equipment. As I was creating Arkdo, I was thinking of his backstory, and the betrayal option inspired me to come up with his introduction to adventuring I discussed in the previous post.

Arkdo ended up being fun. He was not as cutthroat or mercenary as others in the party, since he saw himself as a noble figure trying to gain knowledge of the past. And he was obsessed for searching every market or ruin for relics of value. But his knowledge of ancient sites and Outer Rim societies and governments came in handy pretty frequently.

This was a good example of coming up with a general idea for a character, and then letting the mechanics flesh it out.

Controlled randomness as a tool in adventure/character creation

Last night, I was working on the first level of a multi-stage dungeon for an upcoming D&D 5e session I’m running (I’ll be sure to put up the walkthrough after it’s over). I realized I was turning to a tool I’ve often leveraged at other times I create adventures or characters in RPGs: controlled randomness. I thought it may be useful to have a post on this tool for others, and I apologize if this is incredibly obvious to everyone but me.

What is controlled randomness? It is the use of random decisions with a general pre-determined framework to add depth and flavor to a RPG creation. That sounds like a line from an academic article, but I think it gets the definition. In many RPGs there are tables of adventure elements, character backgrounds and the like, in which the player rolls a dice to determine what detail to use. Controlled randomness uses these, but re-rolls as needed to find something that generally fits with the pre-determined framework.

I first systematized this when my old group and I were creating characters for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is a fun character creation process (which I’ve discussed before), and involves detailing the motivations and complications behind the character. I was creating Arkdo, a Duros explorer I’ll discuss in a future Origin Stories post. I rolled for his motivation, didn’t like the result, and re-rolled it. One of the fellow players teased me for doing this, so I explained my reasoning.

As I envisioned him, Arkdo was basically a good guy who ended up on the wrong side of the law because of his ideals. I wasn’t sure how to flesh that out, so I rolled on the tables until something useful came up: dedication to the Jedi. Now, Arkdo wasn’t a Jedi, but he did admire the order and attempted to preserve their memory.

Thanks to controlled randomness, I had a cool backstory for my character. I knew generally what I wanted, but if I had just picked the most obvious motivation I wouldn’t have gone with his dedication to the Jedi. By re-rolling on the table within a pre-set idea, I was able to add more layers to this character.

Another example was my creation of Fonken, a gnome wizard in D&D 5e (this will be another future Origin Stories post). I wanted a LG gnome with a sage background, but beyond that I didn’t have much. D&D 5e includes tables to rolls for different aspects of the character’s background, including bonds, motivations and flaws. For flaw, I rolled something about reacting to a horrible monster’s appearance by trying to study it. With this roll, the character clicked, and I envisioned him as a cross between Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. He was a lot of fun to play, and I even revived an older Fonken for one of my own adventures I created.

This reveals another reason to value controlled randomness: adding flaws. Fonken’s inquisitiveness led him to take unwise risks. This added some complications to my group’s adventures, but overall made things more fun. I’ve talked before about the value of adding flaws to D&D characters, and this is one good way to do it.

Controlled randomness works for adventure creation as well. In The Shadow in the Woods–one of my home-brew adventures–I had a general sense for a dungeon the group would explore. It was the subterranean dwelling of a hag who had summoned a beast from the Shadowfell. But that was it. So I used the encounter and dungeon creation tables in the DMG. I rolled up a castle submerged in a swamp as the setting. This gave me a lot to play with, as the corridors and rooms twisted at odd angles thanks to the castle sinking at an odd angle. I also was able to use this to create a dramatic escape challenge at the end. And I used the random dungeon tables to create a confusing series of passages and rooms that, thanks to my pre-conceived idea, followed the basic form of a multi-level tower connected by oddly-angled corridors.

I used controlled randomness to even greater effect in the dungeon I’m currently finishing (I don’t want to give too many details in case any players read this blog…). In this case, I knew the first level of the dungeon would be the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. I wanted it to feel like part of a ruined structure, so I planned out the corridors and rooms myself. I also came up with a general idea for what each section would be: a cluster of rooms to entertain guests, a cluster for research, machinery, etc. I also had an idea of the combat encounters, traps and hazards the group would face so I placed them accordingly.

This is where controlled randomness came in. For each cluster of rooms, I rolled on the DMG random dungeon tables to determine the specific nature of the room, re-rolling when the result didn’t fit. I also rolled on the table for the rooms’ current states. This added some nice randomness, as I pictured certain rooms crumbling or becoming overgrown with vines, while others were sealed up and lest in a pristine state. The DMG tricks and obstacles tables were also useful; I had a few rooms that would contain some non-combat encounter, and these tables helped me come up with surprising challenges for the players. In this way, controlled randomness gave me a fleshed out dungeon that still felt coherent.

So new players and DMs may find this tool, controlled randomness of use. Come up with a basic idea for a character or dungeon. Then roll on the appropriate table. Re-roll if the result makes no sense with your idea, but push yourself to keep results that are unexpected or complicate your plans. I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this.