D&D 5E Actual Play Part 1

At CarnageCon in Killington VT a few weeks ago, I was finally able to run my Valley of Tombs game. This is a 5th Edition D&D game designed to feel like playing an open world CRPG (like Skyrim) with an ongoing continuity and ever-expanding setting. I refer to it as my Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG (MMTTRPG). AT Carnage, I ran a grand total of five slots (20 hours) and I just submitted the same event for TotalCon in Mansfield, MA in February (this time, 6 slots or 24 hours of table time).

 

I thought I would talk about my experiences at Carnage, both with the 5th Edition D&D rules and with the MMTTRPG format, as well as my hopes for TotalCon and the time between now and then. This post focuses on my experiences with the 5E game itself, while the next will go into how The Valley of Tombs ran.

 

5th Edition

 

Finally having run the game for more than a single session (plus one floundering fight versus a Tarrasque very early on), I can say that D&D 5E is probably my second favorite edition of the game, after BECM (you never forget your first) and just ahead of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It is unsurprising, then, that 5E feels very much like a blend between those two (seasoned to taste by various rules and systems found in every other edition of the game a few besides). It is possible that given enough time with the game, it will in fact become my favorite version of the game, but only time will tell. In the meantime, it is enough to say that I would rather run 5E than either AD&D or Pathfinder.

 

The primary reason is that 5E feels clean. Its systems are easy to grasp and run relatively quickly and smoothly. The core mechanics are intuitive and well integrated (with the very strange exception of the cover rules, which don’t seem to jive with the overall design goals) and it is a game that not only enables Dungeon Master input and interpretation, but demands it. There are of course some fiddly rules that take some effort to remember, it being a new edition and all, and it is easy sometimes to revert to some previous edition or Pathfinder rule. Part of the beauty, though, is that doing so will not very likely break the game and there are even a few rules from those games (gold = XP perhaps, or Pathfinder’s disease mechanics) that would enhance 5E play.

 

Character creation is easy. I found a nice little online character generator to help speed the process, but I had previously created some characters by hand with the PHB and it took about an hour to create a 20th level character: 30 minutes to create the base 1st level character and another 30 to level the character all the way up to 20. The choices after 1st level are limited, usually one or two things per level (perhaps more for spell casters), so it is a quick process to create a high level PC. That said, at least so far the game is missing a few things usually associated with creating high level PCs, like a suggestion as to how much and what sort of equipment a higher level character might have, but this is not insurmountable. The apparent default assumption of the game is that characters are not expected to possess dozens of magic items and weapons, and the math in the game is designed to flatten the power curve and reduce the importance of items on character capability. Much of this is dependent on information probably found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (coming soon!) and that book will likely answer some questions as well as inspire a few.

 

We played without a battle mat or a grid (though we did occasionally use a little sketch on paper to illustrate relative positioning). Because the game is more strategic than tactical, it worked well. Simply asking players what their intent was and being accommodating but tough made combat move quickly and with no want for tension. Rather than counting squares, players were trying to figure out ways to gain Advantage, which suited me just fine.

 

Advantage and Disadvantage are, to me, the single most inspired aspects of the 5th Edition rules. Simply put, Advantage provides a bonus on an attack roll, skill check or saving throw in the form of rolling two d20 dice and taking the better result. Likewise, disadvantage affects the same kinds of rolls in the same way except that the the lower result is taken. Some character abilities, such as the rogue’s sneak attack, interact with Advantage or Disadvantage in specific ways, but otherwise the system is unencumbered by a large number of associated rules. One official rule I did immediately dispense with was the idea that one Advantage or Disadvantage inducing circumstance would negate any number of the opposite, and instead I went with a broader view: i.e. do all the circumstances of the moment suggest Advantage, Disadvantage, or an essentially balanced circumstance. It worked well and while players would sometimes try to negotiate for Advantage or against Disadvantage, I considered this a good thing that increased their engagement and added to everyone’s fun.

 

Related to advantage is a system called Inspiration, which basically provides a “free” Advantage based on things related to character goals, flaws and so on. Because we were using pregenerated PCs, I decided to dispense with giving Inspiration based on play acting and instead gave it for being generally awesome and increasing everyone else’s fun (whether through melodrama or humor or heroics or whatever) or for bring me, the DM, coffee or beer. Shamed as I am to admit it, I am bribable. I also use a special d30 for Inspiration and the rule is only one person can be in possession of that d30 at a time (meaning no one else can acquire Inspiration until the holder of the d30 uses it) but you can always use the d30 for another player’s roll. It worked well, except in a few instances players sat on their Inspiration for most of a session and so it did not see a lot of use in some sessions.
Overall, D&D 5E is a well designed, fun game that speaks to my style of play. It probably is not for everyone, especially since it is moderately dependent upon DM calls and it does not have the deep well of player character options that some people really like, but it is a good game. I look forward to mastering the system a little more every time I run it and finding places where rules from other games or editions enhance play.

Wicked Wednesday: Madra Nocht

Madra Nocht is a night hag who dwells in the Valley of Tombs, between the growing frontier towns of Threshold and Minehold. She is a creature of pure evil and she is as cunning as she is wicked. She is also immortal, endless and ageless. Her schemes touch nearly everything in the Valley, either as her handiwork or her allies, or something to be discarded or destroyed.

 

Her cabin is located aside a gently flowing stream. It is a small simple structure with an herb garden and a porch on which a dog sleeps. Only upon closer inspection can visitors see that only poisonous plants grow in the garden and the dog is in fact a three-headed Death Hound gnawing on too-small bones. By then it is too late, for Madra Nocht emerges from her dwelling, soul sack hanging at her side and wickedness glinting in her eyes. She may not attack the trespassers immediately — she is very likely not to, in fact — but she is a predator to be sure and is sizing up her prey. No mad beast, Madra Nocht needs pawns and servants, sport and playthings and she will take pains to determine which her visitors may be. Unlike some of her kind, she never hides her gruesome visage behind an illusion of beauty. She revels in the terror she creates and loves nothing more than the moment of horror when her victims first see her — except perhaps their last, terrified gasps for breath.

 

Madra Nocht needs not eat or sleep. She never does the latter, and is always up late into the night ranging from dream to dream in search of nightmares to empower and innocents to torture. She sees and manipulates them through her cauldron. The former, she does indulge on occasion. Usually, she limits her indulgence to children (which she has the local goblin tribes snatch from their beds for her) but she may make an exception for particularly troublesome guests. If she or her Death Dog subdues a would be hero, she devours them slowly over days, keeping them alive to watch her cook their flesh and feed their bones to her pet until the last thing they see is a fork coming into their eye. But that is a rare fate, reserved for the most egregiously uncouth Madra Nocht is an immortal and a power and she demands respect.

 

As stated, she needs servants to carry out her will in Valley, willing and otherwise. She threatens, promises and cajoles, lies and manipulates and entices. She has much to offer, from wealth for the greedy to hope for the forlorn to simple desire for survival. When that does not work, she shreds off pieces of a victim’s soul and holds it as ransom until some particular deed she might need done is complete. Attacking her is both futile and suicidal: if threatened, she simply escapes into the Ethereal Plane where dreams and nightmares live. If one can manage to kill her before she can escape, she is not destroyed: her body turns to smoke and she is trapped in the Ethereal until the next new moon. In either case, she follows such a defeat immediately with revenge. She hunts through the land of dreams until she finds her attackers and slowly, with horrifying pleasure, turns all their hopes to ash and eats away at their souls until they are but husks of themselves, at which point she commands these empty vessels to do such horrid and vile things that whatever is left of the victim goes mad with guilt and terror.

 

Game Rules: Madra Nocht is a fairly typical Night Hag as presented in the Monster Manual (page 178) with a few minor but significant tweaks. In addition to the usual night hag innate spellcasting abilities, Madra Nocht is an accomplished ritualist and brewer. She can cast nearly any spell that is available as a ritual and can brew any potion. She never uses potions herself and rarely uses ritual spells for her own benefit; rather, these are tools she uses to bribe would be servants and punish those who defy her. Also, Madra Nocht may plane shift at will between the Prime Material and the Ethereal only. She may do so as a bonus action if she is wounded and automatically does so if she is reduced to 0 hit points.

 

In addition to the normal effect of her Nightmare power, anyone affected by it becomes a sort of thrall to her. She cannot control their actions but gains the ability to read their minds, scan their memories and use their senses from afar. A victim who takes psychic damage from the ability gains a level of exhaustion is addition to the other effects and anyone reduced to 0 hit points by the power becomes a wight under Madra Nocht’s control.

 

Madra Nocht is considered CR 7 for defeating her in a single encounter or adventure, but given that she is immortal and driven by revenge, characters may gain XP for defeating her more than once (DM’s discretion) on a separate occasion.

 

Her pet is a Death Dog (page 321) with three heads (and therefore three bite attacks) rather than two. The save DC on it’s disease is 14 Constitution and it causes 2d6 permanent damage rather than 1d10. It has a CR of 2.

 

At Carnage Con, Madra Nocht used her nightmare power and threats to consume the soul of a part member in order to cajole them into attacking a group of harpies who were preying on Madra Nocht’s goblin servants. This is an example of the kinds of thing she might require PCs to do for her, rather than just try and kill them outright.

Magical Monday: Treasures of the Timeless Tower

My 5th Edition open world “massive multiplayer table top RPG” The Valley of the Tombs (VotT) finally saw actual play this weekend at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. While I will have a full write up based on the event in the near future, I thought I would use an element from VotT for this week’;s Magical Monday.

 

Among the location discovered by the adventurers during the 20 hours of VotT I ran this weekend was the Timeless Tower. Located atop a large hill that may or may not be a giant king’s barrow mound, out from which metallic smelling springs flow here and there, the Timeless Tower is a quat structure, just 50 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter at the base. From a distance it seems mundane, if in exceedingly good shape for being located in the ancient, lost region known as the Valley of the Tombs. Upon closer inspection (after dealing with the flock of Perytons living atop the tower) it becomes obvious that although vegetation has grown up on the stones, they are as perfect as the day they were hewn. In fact, the entire tower is unperturbed by the elements or the passage of time (hence the nom de guerre). In fact, the windows allow both light a wind through but no precipitation may pass into the tower through them — and adventurers, they too may pass with ease.

 

Haunted by the unquiet spirit of an abused servant and her daughter and full of tricks and traps laid by the vicious former owner, the Timeless Tower is a brief but engaging adventure locale in the Valley. It’s real worth is in its treasures, I think, so I present them here:

 

The Bookstand is exactly as it sounds: an ornate wooden device intended to be placed on a desk and table and upon which a book is supposed to be put for easier reading. The bookstand has a powerful enchantment upon it, however. Anyone who places a book on the stand gains a magical psychic link to the contents of the book. Whatever language the book is written in, the user of the stand may understand its contents (note that it does not actually translate the book so onlookers gain no special insight). Moreover, the user may magically turn to any page or even find any subject within the book with but a thought. Finally and most impressively, the user may consume the entire contents of the volume. It is a temporary effect, lasting only one minute, but in that time the user may call upon the knowledge and make a related skill roll (usually Aracan, Religion, or Nature but technically any knowledge based skill check is possible) with advantage. As soon as the knowledge is used, the information leaves the user’s mind. While the book stand may be used any number of times per day, the process of consuming an entire volume of information is mentally exhausting and any character who does so suffers a level of exhaustion for any such uses after the first. Note that the stand can be used to comprehend any written work that can fit on it, from tomes to maps to scrawled notes.

 

The Wine Chiller is a curious magical construct. A beautifully crafted silver wine bucket on a three legged stand, the wine chiller is magically enchanted in two ways. First, the interior of the bucket is always frosty cool and any bottle or other vessel placed inside is instantly chilled to the perfect temperature for consumption (it will not heat liquids, however, nor will it freeze them solid). In addition, the chiller walks around on its three legs attempting to service anyone within 30 feet. It is a stupid construct and does not know whether there is a bottle in its bucket, let alone if the subject of its attention possesses a wine glass. It merely stands by a subject for a minute or so, then moves on to another subject, visiting everyone within range and then starting the process over again. There are command words to make it be still or to come immediately, but they are long forgotten. The wine chiller seems ties to the parlor in which it was found and ceases to move of its own accord if removed, though the bucket remains chilled. It is likely it merely needs to be attuned to a location with another lost command word. It would fetch a pretty platinum to the right noble buyer should one discover the command words.

 

The Imperial Suite is a whole room that is a magical creation. Located on the second floor of the tower in a space no larger than a linen closet, the Imperial suite is actually a vast apartment in an extradimensional space. Through the open door a viewer can see the opulent room, with is huge bed and massive hearth, multiple soft couches and exquisite marble bath. Upon passing over the threshold, they find themselves teleported to the center of the room, at least 50 feet from the door. The room is warm but never uncomfortable and smells of perfume and pleasure. It is large enough to comfortably sleep six on the various couches and bed, but a small army could camp within if they rested on the floor. In either case, anyone who takes a short rest within the room recovers as if from a long rest, and anyone who takes a long rest within the room loses two levels of exhaustion and regains all used hit dice. No one can gain the magical benefit of any rest, short or long, more than once in 24 hours (although one could take a short rest to gain the benefits of a long rest and then later come back and take an actual, unmodified long rest later in the same 24 hour period). The suite is, sadly, immobile, and not apparently accessible from any location on any plane other than through the doorway to the room.

 

The Timeless Tower was full of other magical object, most enhanced versions of mundane items. The owner of the tower, whoever he was (it is known to be a he based on the depredations he performed against the servant and their daughter) left with most items of real power or value, apparently a very long time ago and with careful intention. Perhaps he will one day return and be miffed that some of his favorite baubles are missing.

 

Please come back on Wednesday when I give an overview of Madra Nocht, a night hag who haunts the Valley and has a penchant for manipulation and intra-monster politics.

 

The Flash: Doing Super Heroics Right on TV

 

Full Disclosure: The Flash is my second favorite super-hero (Superman being my favorite) as well as the one that got me into reading comics. Way back in 1990, I was in love with the John Wesley Shipp Flash television show. During its run, I found a copy of Flash #50 on news stand of my local general store.

As you can see, that is quite the cover. Inside, I was not only introduced to the wonderful world of comic books (sure, I had read a few here and there, but I was a scie-fi, fantasy and gaming geek, dammit, not one of those comic book nerds) but given my first lesson in the rules of adaptation: that is, nothing is sacred. On television, the Flash was Barry Allen; in the comic, the Flash was Wally West. There was a relationship between the two, something familial, even fatherly, but I could not parse it from the limited information provided. Some support characters were the same, or at least had the same names, and the TV Barry had some things in common with the comic book Wally (needing lots of food for energy, for example) but it would be months before I figured out which were chickens and which were eggs. In the end, though, none of those details mattered: a comic book reading, super-hero loving geek was born! It was as if I looked at my D&D books and fantasy novels and thought, “Nope, not enough, there is still a chance I might accidentally get laid.”

 

Flash forward (I am SO sorry) 25 years and The Flash is once again on television and is once again fueling my comic book super-hero nerdity. I never stopped reading comics and I have maintained a pull list at the same awesome Cave Comics for well over a decade now. That said, for the last few years I have been estranged from the majority of super hero comics, including my beloved Superman and Flash (among many, many others). Long story short: the Event Treadmill that consumed DC Comics for years starting with Identity Crisis, moving through Final Crisis and finally rebooting the Dc multiverse entirely with Flashpoint wore me out. I just wanted good stories starring the heroes I loved, not universe shaking event and universe shaking event. After all those, I dropped DC Comics entirely, never moving on to the New 52. Marvel, which I had read only intermittently anyway, was in the throws of its own Event Treadmill, from Civil War to the Secret Invasion and beyond, so I decided to take a year hiatus from both companies. When I did return, I followed creators instead of companies, picking up Mark Waid‘s Daredevil and Indestructible Hulk as they debuted with new Marvel Now #1 issues, as well as the return of the amazing Astro City by Kurt Busiek.

 

But I am nothing if not a fickle nerd and first my pull box and then my “to-read” shelf started to fill up with unread comics. It is something of a pattern with me. I will cycle between geek preferences, from video games to table-top games to comics to prose sci-fi and fantasy and back again. This time, though, my time away from comics was longer than it had been for any number of these “cycles.” Judging by the number of Astro City books on my shlef, unread, it had been at least a year since I had read any of the books I bought (and probably longer if the number of Waid’s Daredevil issues were any indication). That is a long time and a lot of comics.

 

In the last two weeks I have cleared out my to-read shelf and even started looking for new and interesting super-hero titles to start following. Why? The title of this post may be a hint: The Flash on the CW.

 

The Flash is not the first comic book super hero TV show to recently attract first my attention and then my slavish dedication. I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it is called, and therefore started watching Agents of SHIELD with great expectations when it premiered last fall. Also last year  I started watching Arrow, which I had avoided in its first season because it was a CW show (I watched Smallville for 6 seasons before the pretty people soap opera was too much to bear). I started watching Arrow exactly because it promised to introduce Barry Allen early in its second season, so I figured I could give it a few episodes just to see. Very soon, I was hooked, in no small part due to the depiction of Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator. Rarely has a comic book adaptation nailed a character so perfectly. Also, I just liked Arrow. It was the best Batman show we could hope for. (Come on, the main villain organization is Ra’s al Ghul‘s League of Assassins and it is about a revenge driven billionaire with mommy and daddy issues.)

 

All that said, neither SHIELD nor Arrow, or even The Walking Dead, reinvigorated that comics love. The back issues continued to pile up. (I did, however, seek out Walt Simonson’s Thor run after seeing Thor: The Dark World. Weird, that.) No, it was not until Flash premiered a few weeks ago that I got the super-hero big again and started burning through my unread comics, but also firing up my Marvel Unlimited subscription, which had sat largely unused for the better part of a year, to dabble in various series. (As an aside, if DC Comics would create a similar service, I would be an instant lifetime subscriber. There are so many great DC Comics not collected in trades from the 70s, 80s and 90s that it would take a lifetime to read through them all.) The strength of the show is its unabashed love of the genre. Where Arrow tries to bring super heroics down to the ground and revels in its gritty (dare I say, “Batman-esque?”) tone, The Flash on the CW is openly and proudly a comic book super hero television show, bright red costumes and villains with goofy code names included. But it is not a joke or a parody or even particularly self referential. It knows what it is, knows that its audience appreciates what it is, and treats both with both a wink and respect. By contrast, the other new DC comics inspired show, Gotham, is confused in its tone, part noirish Nolan-Batman and part weirdo Burton-Batman. (I love Gotham, too, but despite its tone, not because of it.) None of which would matter if star Grant Gustin did not infuse his Barry Allen with such charm and depth.

 

If you have not given The Flash a try and you love super hero comics and television, I implore you to do so. It really is a great achievement in the genre and for me at least, the shot in the arm an old comics fan needed to remember how grerat comics can be when they are about great characters in great stories, not just big events.

Wicked Wednesday: Monster Manual Impressions

It has been a couple weeks since I finally got my hands on the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual. While I am not going to do a full review, I do have some thoughts on the book as I prepare my convention hexcrawl The Valley of the Tombs for the Carnage Convention in Killington, VT next month.

 

First and foremost, the book is beautiful. The art is top notch (although there are a few re-used pieces, which is not necessarily bad but was unexpected) with a vibe that, like the PLayer’s Handbook, evokes AD&D 2nd Edition more than it does 3.5 or 4th Edition D&D. Just look at this Dragon Turtle illustration:

That’s not to say there aren’t more modern styles of images, such as this ghoul:

 

but the vast majority of monsters fit the high fantasy novel cover vibe of 2nd Edition rather than the video game concept art (and I absolutely DO NOT mean that in a negative way) of 3.5 and 4th Edition. As a lover of 2nd Edition, this pleases me. There is enough variety, I think, to keep everyone happy, though individual illustrations may or may not please. For example, I pretty much hate the Kraken:

It is ugly and doesn’t look a thing like a Colossal Squid of Doom.

 

One thing I found problematic with the 5E MM, especially as I worked to populate the above mentioned Valley of Tombs, was the poor indexing of the monsters. There is no list of monsters by terrain type — or even type in general. Nor is there a list of monsters by Challenge Rating, though a PDF is available on the Wizards of the Coast Web Site. Above all else, a game manual, particularly a Monster Manual, is a tool and it should, in my opinion, be designed for maximum utility both in play and during preparation.

 

On the subject of utility, I really like the statistic (stat) block layout for the 5E MM. It is clean and easy to read with minimum need for reference to other books outside of spell or spell-like ability descriptions (which is a fault, but a minor one). Even high level, highly dangerous monsters are described in relatively simple stat blocks, as evidenced by the Tarrasque:

Compare that to the Pathfinder RPG Tarrasque and you can see what I mean (note the list of Feats you have to look up in addition to all the basic monster stats).

 

The addition of an animal/beast and an NPC appendix are also great, except that it is difficult to find what you are looking for sometimes based on the alphabetizing choices made (ex: all the giant versions of regular animals are listed under “giant x” rather than “x, giant”).

 

One place where the 5E MM pales in comparison to the AD&D 2E version is the lore, or “fluff” that it presented. Lore is certainly presented, and some of it is good, but it does not evoke the complex quality of the old 2E flavor text. I understand that books are different now. If nothing else, layout is different and far fewer words fit on a page. The 2E MM was crammed full of text under a very brief stat block and a small illustration, while the 5E MM uses larger fonts and bigger spacing and much far bigger illustrations. Therefore, in order to fit as many monsters as possible in the book, the text sometimes suffers. That said, so far I have not run across any flavor text I feel is objectively poorly written, though I do find some changes in the lore to be circumspect (Merrow are now demons, rather than aquatic ogres?).

 

Overall, I like the book very much and it invigorates my enthusiasm for 5E. I am especially excited to be running 5, 4 hour session of 5E at Carnage. If you are in VT between November 7 and 9th, be sure to come and check it out!

 

AFTERWORD: I wanted to apologize to me reader (that’s a joke, son) for the sparse updates. Between taking engineering courses, fall baseball for my son and a little bit of writer’s block/insecurity, I have not been great about updating. I’ll make an effort to do better. Thanks for reading!

Wicked Wednesday: Real World Evil

My original plan, with it being October 1st (the unofficial start of Halloween season) was to produce a Wicked Wednesday based on the imagined evils of the season: ghosts, goblins, witches and the like. However, today a real evil reared its head and I feel the need to talk about it. There’s nothing in here for your D&D game, so I understand if you don’t bother reading this post, though I do think it will be of some value to some of you, anyway.

 

In the case you have never clicked my “About” page, I should tell you first that I live in Newtown, Connecticut and my children attended Sandy Hook elementary on December 14, 2012 when Adam Lanza attacked the school and killed 20 children and 6 educators, after murdering his mother in their home and before killing himself as the police arrived. If you are interested in greater detail about what happened that morning, please read the essay I wrote following the event. Suffice it to say, the day deeply affected our family. My children both survived, but my daughter lost many friends, eight of whom were Daisy Scouts in my wife’s troop. My wife was a first hand witness to the carnage and still deals with Post Traumatic Stress from the incident. Since that day, the Sandy Hook Elementary School has been moved to Chalk Hill School in neighboring Monroe, Connecticut. My son has since moved on the our Intermediate School but my daughter remains at Sandy Hook.

 

Today, I received a panicked phone call from my wife. She could hardly speak, barely breathe. The kids had dentist appointments this morning, and I knew she would be dropping the kids off at their respective schools afterward. (As an aside that I did not realize until this very moment, I had a dentist appointment on 12-14.) When she dropped off my daughter, there were police cars with their flashing lights on. She was assured she could leave my daughter at school, however, and did so with some trepidation. By the time she got home, the resurgent terror and helplessness of 12-14 had bubbled up in her beyond control. That’s how PTSD works. She called me in a full on panic attack, certain that she had made a terrible mistake. Excruciatingly, I talked her down and calmed her. A few minutes after I got off the phone, she called back, her panic returned. The school had sent out an alert: there was a threat and our daughter, who had only a little while before been safe with my wife, was at the school. My wife was both terrified and guilt stricken.

 

It was not long before we received emails and phone messages assuring us of the safety of our child. They had been evacuated. There would be an early dismissal. The threat was of minimal or no credibility. All of that was good news, but of no consequence to already traumatized parent who, like my wife and I, had stood in a parking lot on a cold winter day, holding one another against the horror that our children would not come out of that school alive. And that is where the evil comes in.

 

It is impossible to argue that someone calling in a bomb threat is as evil and monstrous as one who kills innocents. That said, the desire to inflict massive psychic trauma upon innocent people is indeed a mark of an evil and monstrous mind. Someone, somewhere (and we don’t know who yet, and perhaps never will) chose to create panic and terror among traumatized children, educators and parents today. Why? To what end? Entertainment? Revenge against some imagined slight? Perhaps it was a Sandy Hook Hoaxer or a 2nd Amendment Extremist who wanted to harm those who were seen as enemies to their world view. No matter that motivation or the identity of the individual responsible, one simple truth can be ascertained: that individual is evil, in the way the real people can be evil to one another every day.

 

If you have kids, hug them. If you don’t, do something nice for a child you do know. Maybe give a little to a PTSD charity or an organization dedicated toward understanding the roots of violence. In any case, do something to make the world a better place.

 

Oh, and if you are the person called in the threat to Sandy Hook today, go fuck yourself.

Magical Monday: Everyday Magic

The Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook is chock full of magical abilities and spells, power at the fingertips of the player characters. While the PCs are arguably the most important characters in their world — at least they should be the most important character in their combined story — they are not alone in the world. Where medieval peasants and feudal nobles exist alongside powerful wizards, where the gods let their might be known through overt action on the world, where mighty dragons and giants spar for dominion, magic would permeate every level of society and every aspect of life. The magic in the PHB may be sufficient for describing warriors and wizards raiding the tombs of long dead kings or bringing the fight to the doorstep of the Dark Lord himself, it does not serve the needs of the everyday world that is the backdrop for the PCs’ grand adventures.

 

Practitioners

 

The first issue to address regarding everyday magic in a D&D world is: who are the practitioners of this magic? While clerics and sorcerers other than the PCs surely inhabit the world, those  spell-casters and their kind serve a function usually directly related to the PCs, as either aid or opposition. Warlocks and druids have greater concerns than the peasantry or even the local lord.

 

Most everyday users of magic are specially trained in the use of magic. They are hedge wizards whose powers pale in comparison to that of real wizards but whose art is far more useful to the common man. They are priests and priestesses, and while they do not act as direct conduits to the divine as do clerics and paladins, they provide the benedictions and blessings that the faithful need. They are witches and oracles, not born of or bound to otherworldly powers in the way warlocks and sorcerers are, but still they can hear the whispers from beyond the veil and sell the secrets they learn to the vengeful and the lovelorn.

Religion and Ritual

 

The degree to which religion influences culture cannot be overstated, at least in our own world.. If the goal is to create a recognizable world in which our adventures take place — even if it is an anachronistic and idealized one — then the presence of religion in the lives and cultures of the people that inhabit that world is equally important. That is not to say that a monolithic entity like the medieval Church is required (although for certain sorts of stories, it helps)but rather the religious beliefs of the population must be present. In such a world where magic is a part of the everyday, that religion would be the source of much of that magic.

 

While clerics are the main source of overt, powerful divine magic in a D&D world, not every preacher, priest or friar is a cleric by class. Most are normal, unclassed NPCs, perhaps with proficiency in Religion and a decent Wisdom and/ir Charisma score. They maintain their influence over their flocks with a combination of oratory skill and ritual magic. Unlike clerics, who can heal the sick and create miracles on demand, these religious leaders must engage in religious ritual to invoke even the small magics available to them. Prayers, offerings, sacraments and other accoutrements are all part of the ritual magic and, when performed with precision and faith, they can produce small but notable effects.

 

Blessings: First and foremost, religious magic is used to provide blessings. Usually, these blessings are over a particular action or institution, such as to plead for a fair trial or to provide for a good harvest. In these cases, any one individual involved directly in the execution of the activity may invoke an Inspiration one time with the goal to produce a positive result. For example, a barrister in charge of the trial of an innocent man may use this free floating inspiration on her final Diplomacy check against the jury, or an aged farmer might make his Profession check using inspiration to advise the younger farmers in the town on when to plant. Once any one person has used the inspiration, it is considered exhausted and only a new ritual, if such is allowed, can allow another. Alternatively, a blessing may be granted on a longer term institution or situation, such as a new courthouse or a marriage. In these cases, the blessing grants a simple +1 to any roll by any person involved on any check that will determine the fate of the institution, from the simple (a Charisma save by a husband to avoid seduction) to the complex (the Craft rolls by an architect and builder during the remodelling of a public structure). This sort of blessing is not exhausted upon use, but may only be invoked once per day.

 

Hedge Magic

 

After religious services, the next most common form of everyday magic is hedge magic — the use of so-called lesser magic by trained but ultimately minor magicians to produce limited results. These “hedge wizards” may go by that name, but might also be called magicians, enchanters, illusionists, alchemists and any number of names. Many calling themselves by these titles are likely charlatans, but some few know real magic, however weak, and offer their services to common folk and lords alike for recompense.

 

Hedge magic is similar to traditional wizard magic in that it involves complex formula, strange reagents and esoteric ritual in order to produce real results. The difference is that hedge magic can be performed by anyone with the proper training, while real wizardry is the result of a combination of training, birthright and arcane mystery. Some hedge wizards could have become real wizards if they had been whisked away to a proper academy early enough, rather than having been trained by a hedge wizard master as an apprentice, but most do not possess the magical talent to be real spellcasters. For the commoner, though, hedge wizards are magical enough and anything more spectacular is considered alien and dangerous.

 

Charms: Hedge wizard specialize in charms, magical talismans that provide very specific benefits under very specific circumstances. There are no “good luck” charms that work in general, and any purported hedge wizard trying to sell you one likely also has a bridge you may want to take a look at. Rather, a charm is usually used to provide a small bonus (+1 to d20 rolls) while performing a certain task. A charm might benefit gambling, for example, granting a +1 on skill rolls to attempt to win at gaming. The power of the charm is permanent, but can only be used three times per day. In addition, invoking the power of a charm requires a minor ritual in itself (rubbing the rabbits foot, for example) that while brief (requiring one turn to complete) is obvious to anyone witnessing it. Most charms are made for professional tradesmen who both have the money to purchase said charm and could use the advantage against their competitors. Charms of this sort cost between 1 and 10 gold pieces, depending on their use and the local economy. Note that charms must be related to a proficiency or tool use under a specific set of circumstances; attack rolls, saving throws or other broad categories of action cannot be the subject of a charm.

 

Witchery

 

In the alleys behind the hedge wizard shops and in the shadows of the temples, in the wilds beyond the druid graves and hovels far from village elders, there are places where darker desires can be fulfilled. Not all everyday magic operates in the open, for everyday people often have secrets: secret desires, secret pain and secret sins. When folk need magic to fulfill those desires, to salve that pain or to absolve — or indulge — those sins, they seek the power of the witch.

 

In this context, a witch is any practitioner of everyday magic who specializes in the unpleasant aspects of the art, willing to invoke power from dreadful places within themselves, their patrons, the world itself and even beyond. While some witches claim to be in league with demon lords and dark gods, such pacts are far beyond these folk. Just as priests are taught the liturgy of church rituals and hedge wizards study manuals of complex rules, witches too learn to work minor magic through arduous training at the foot of a mortal master, not a wicked entity. Nor are witches inherently evil, though they are almost always outcast from normal society: trade in desire, whether it be of the flesh or of fate itself, is oft looked down upon, especially by those who trade in the status quo.

 

Brews: While witches are known to offer something like the blessings of priests and craft charms similar to those of hedge wizards, witches are most (in)famous for their brews. Falling somewhere between mundane alchemy and magical potioncraft, the art of the witch’s brew is a closely guarded secret and the origin of much of the mystery behind the witch. Always bubbling and noxious, witches brew is like a bottled ritual or a single use charm, usually offered in return for more than simple gold. Many a maid has sold her beauty or her sweet voice for a love potion. Yet other times, the witch asks no payment at all. A brew is designed to create a specific effect one time. In the case of a love potion, for example, drinking the brew grants the imbiber advantage on any Charisma checks against a single target for one interaction. Other brews are more explicitly magical, such as allowing the drinker to pass as another for a short period or grant one the ability to perceive the true meaning of a liars words. In any case, the powers of a brew are temporary and uncertain and often come with an unexpected price.

 

Ten: All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

I was recently nominated by my good friend Jeff L. to name my ten favorite books. Since it is better than pouring a bucket of ice water over my head (that’s how this works, right?) I have decided to indulge him. Now the rest of you have to suffer. Everyone say, “Thanks, Jeff.”

 

Before I give you my list, I have a couple notes: these are not necessarily my “favorite” books in the sense that I read them a lot (some of them are, but that’s incidental). Rather, they are “favorites” in the sense that I think about them and what’s in them a lot. They made a positive impact on me, in some form or another, even if any given book on this list isn’t “good” by any metric or even if I have never read it a second time. That said, here we go:

 

1.) The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide by E. Gary Gygax: It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am, above all other self identifiers, a Dungeons and Dragons nerd. I am not old enough to be a proper “old schooler” or “grognard.” I came into the hobby in 1985 at 10 years old, ushered in by Frank Mentzer and Larry Elmore. That fabled Red Box didn’t just show me a new way to play, it changed my life. I wrote stories before then, but that game showed me how to be inside them. So why the AD&D DMG instead of the Basic Set? My brothers and I played the Basic and Expert and following sets for years. We played by the rules in a style informed by what was in those sets, and it was fun, but it was very insular and specific. Some years later when I found the AD&D DMG, I was shown a whole different world of play. Moreover, it was introduced by a powerful style, a voice of authority that resonated with me. It forever changed the way I not only ran the game, but the way I viewed the game at its most fundamental level. Before, D&D had been a story construction engine; the realization from within the hallowed pages of the DMg that it could still be a game, that the story was better when it emerged organically from play, was, well, a revelation. No matter what edition of the game I run, I refer to the AD&D DMG for inspiration and as a reminder of what the game is.

 

2.) Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: I was a comics late bloomer. My first comic book was Flash (series 3) #50, which I picked up from the newsstand at the corner store (remember those?) after having fallen in love with The Flash Television Show. I was hooked on comics — the Flash especially — from that day on. For a long time, I survived on typical super-hero books, mostly by DC Comics. At the same time, I was playing a lot of the DC Heroes Role Playing Game by Mayfair Games. Among the many supplements for that game was one for the Watchmen. At the time, at 15 with no point of reference, I did not get it at all. I tossed it in a box, forgotten. But the seed was planted. Soon after, I was skimming through the monthly Science Fiction Book Club order book that arrived at my house. I always scoured the “Alterverse” section for comic books, novels based on games and other media properties, and the like. That day, I saw a hardcover, copy of Watchmen advertised. All I knew was that it was somehow related to the universe shared by Superman and Batman, so I ordered it. Four to six weeks later, my mind was blown. I read Watchmen once a year, and every time I find something I had not fully digested before. It speaks volumes about comics, about comics fans, about wish fulfillment, about sex, about dreams, about life. If ever there was a super-hero comic that could be called capital-L-Literature, this is it. That it inspired a decade of heinous anti-heroes and spiked leather is a testament to how powerful it is, in the same way that a decade of terrible derivative fantasy flooded the bookstores after the Lord of the Rings appeared. Speaking of…

 

3.) Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I read The Hobbit in sixth grade. It is still one of my all time favorite adventure stories. But (by design) that is all The Hobbit is, a fairy tale adventure for young readers that turned out so well written that it is satisfying for adults as well. The Lord of the Rings, however, is much more. It is an adventure story (a Heroic story, to be more precise) but it is also a universe, a world so convincing that it has created a world around it here in our real world. The power of LotR is in its Truth (rather than its Reality). It was carefully crafted to speak to the deepest aspects of human nature, calling back to our oldest and most universal tales. That is was inspirational on everything from Star Wars to Dungeons and Dragons (both things I love) is just gravy. As a novel, LotR is a great work; as work of Literature, LotR is hugely important. It is also difficult. There are sections that drag, especially if one is looking for a fast paced adventure story. It’s most intricate and well crafted elements are woken subtly so that often scholarship, or at least very careful re-reading, is necessary to tease them out. It is long. It is very Male and very White. But these difficulties merely serve as obstacles in the quest to conquer it and make the prize at the end all that more rewarding.

 

4.) The DragonLance Chronicles and Legends by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman: Perhaps best described as the bastard child of Tolkien fandom and Dungeons and Dragons, DragonLance (DL hereafter) is stilted in its prose, cardboard in its characters, cliched in its plot and ham-fisted in its themes. Nonetheless, it is near and dear not just to my heart but to the hearts of millions of fantasy fans and gamers who came of age in the 1980s and beyond. We laughed when Bupu fell in love with Raistlin. We cried when Sturm and Flint died. We raged when Raistlin betrayed his brother and the Companions, and we cried again when he sacrificed himself to save all of Krynn. DragonLance was, for the 14 year old D&D fan, perfectly crafted and whatever its faults it is forever a part of those of us that discovered it at that perfect age.

 

5.) Incognito by David Eagleman: It is hard to overstate the impact this book had on me when it read it shortly after its release. It reveals so much about our minds and manages, ultimately, to only inspire more questions about who and what we are from a cognitive perspective. The idea than any of us could become a monster due to something as base and material as a brain tumor is terrifying. That we all see things we don’t realize we see and make judgments that we think are just “intuition” but are actually completely analytical decisions is inspiring. That there within each of us is a sort of internal council of Selves that are all Us, while all also being someone Else is mystifying. The machines locked in our skulls from which we emerge are the real Final Frontier and this book serves as a great introduction to if not understanding it, appreciating it.

 

6.) The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: I have loved The Last Unicorn since I was a you child, enchanted by the beauty, whimsy and depth of the animated film. It spoke to me, through the Unicorn’s loneliness, through Schmendrick’s ambition, through Molly’s hope, through Prince Lir’s love and even through King Haggard’s desire to own all the magical things in the world. It is astounding, even to myself, that it took until this year for me to actually read the novel. It was one of those situations, like with, say, Fahrenheit 451, where my familiarity with it through other media and means told me that I did not need to read it, that I would not get much out of it. Perhaps I was even a little afraid that the book would be that rare creature that was worse than the beloved film. Whatever, the case, I avoided the novel, both actively and inactively, for decades. What a terrible mistake. Beagle’s prose is exquisite, a beauty unto itself. That the film hewed so close to the novel was a blessing, for I could immerse myself in the poetry of the language without suffering under the dissonance of trying to square the film I loved with the novel (imagine, if you will, a rabid fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies reading that novel for the first time!). Perhaps it is better that I discovered the novel so late: I think prose is a thing one appreciates more with age, especially if one is a writer oneself. In any case, The Last Unicorn is easily one of the most well written, most powerful novels I have ever read.

 

7.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy: If there is a novel more beautifully crafted than The Last Unicorn, it is The Road. While the film is good, the novel is a near perfect piece of fiction. It was the book I read that made me realize that, whatever I think of my own abilities as a storyteller or a wordsmith, I would never win a Pulitzer Prize because no haphazard combination of nouns and verbs I could throw together could ever hope to equal McCarthy’s prose in that book. Moreover, aside from the craft of the prose, the power and truth in the tale was overwhelming, arresting and at once uplifting and crushing. I do not know that I will ever read The Road again — as a man and a father it strikes so deeply into me I do not know if I could bear the terrible beauty of it again — but I will never forget it.

 

8.) The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe byGeorge Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier: I own and have read a lot of writing guides, especially those that focus on speculative fiction. This one is by far the best — not for its writing advice (it barely gives any at all), but for its comprehensive survey of science as it relates directly to science fiction. A lot of SF writing books talk about incorporating science and about making speculative science or magic consistent, but this book laid out actual science and then extrapolated. It suggested and also warned. In short, it was exactly what it said on the tin, and was superbly indexed to boot. Twenty years after having acquired it, even though some of the science has since been overturned, when I have an idea for a hard science fiction story, the first book I grab and peruse for inspiration and guidance is The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe.

 

9.) Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke: Any number of Clarke’s novels could have gone on this list. Clarke is, by far, my favorite science fiction author, especially among the hard science fiction authors, most because in his work he never forgets that he is talking about Us. There are strange worlds and aliens and objects in his stories, but there are also always people — recognizably human characters that act as we might even if they live a thousand years hence and a thousand light years away. The reason I chose Childhood’s End above, say, Rendezvous with Rama or The Light of Other Days (both of which I adore) is because Childhood’s End left me hurt and uncertain and flabbergasted. Some read the end of the book as an optimistic promise, and perhaps Clark himself meant it that way. But to me, the novel promised an unsatisfying end for our species, an extinction devoid even of the dramatic exit of a hurtling comet. Even the brainless dinosaurs deserved so much. In Childhood’s End, we simply faded away, relinquishing the definition of “human” to our progenitors, but suddenly and irrevocably. It is an existential novel, and one I recall whenever I see great injustice or stupidity commited by mankind.

 

10.) There are so many books vying for this last place, from the beautiful agony of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to the the dense tension of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, from the wit and wisdom of Twain (pick any of them, though my favorite is Puddin Head Wilson) to the visceral, guttural magnetism of Beowulf. As one who possesses a degree in English Literature, I have been exposed to many, many great novels (and some not so great ones that continue to get read anyway). And as a fan of genre fiction, I have consumed a great many rotten apples (and some beautifully crafted works otherwise ignored because they had a dragon or rocket ship on the cover). In the end, what I realize is that all narrative prose, fiction or nonfiction, classical or fresh, literary or genre, has value. We are a species of stories, and while stories in the short form are often satisfying and powerful, only longer tales can delve the complexities of our nature. Our authors create worlds for us to experience, and by that experience we get a clearer sight into our own world and ourselves. So, my final “favorite” book is every book every written, for each one, no matter how terrible or how banal or how shallow, is a window into something of ourselves.

 

I want to thank Jeff L. for nominating me to do this. It was a pleasure, and a bit of a challenge, to really think about my favorite books, and why they are my favorites.

Wicked Wednesday: Traps, Tricks and Trouble Part 2

Last week, I discussed how traps, tricks and trouble can be used poorly. Now, I would like to give examples of how to make them work for you, enhance the fun at the table for everyone invol;ved (including the DM!) and provide an interesting alternative OR enhancement to the usual combat encounters.

 

What Makes a Good Trap, Trick or Trouble

 

When I discussed how the three Ts can go wrong, I broke it down into three main categories: when they are irrlevent, when they are arbitrary and when they are uninspired. This is because it only takes one of those to ruin of trap, trick or trouble. Conversely, when  talking about what makes such a thing work, it isn’t so easy to separate them out — all three aspects (relevance, fairness and inspiration) are important for creating a fun and memorable encounter or challenge.

 

Designing a trap, trick or trouble that is all three relevant, fair and inspired is difficult, but you don’t have to have each in equal measure. A truly inspired trap, for example, can sacrifice a little relevance, even fairness, just because it is so damn cool. Likewise, a very relevant trouble, one that makes sense in the context of the general milieu as well as the particular adventure, enjoys a little leeway in the inspiration department because it adds to and reinforces the reality of the world in which the player characters operate. Fairness (the opposite of arbitrariness) is the hardest to account for, because it is a purely rules specific aspect. For the most part, a D&D world does not care whether characters are 1st or 15th level, or whether they have the right tools for the job. These are concerns for the DM, who has real people at his table (often his friends) he wants both to entertain and have come back again. In that sense, fairness provides the greatest challenge for the trap, trick or trouble designer.

 

Thankfully, though, the new 5th Edition rule system with its bounded accuracy has flattened the power curve, meaning that the difficulty for ability checks and saving throws are easier to determine and can be more broadly applied. One still must be cognizant of how damage is dealt, however, as inflating hit points are a significant measure of balance for higher level creatures and characters alike.

All that said, a lot of DM judgment is required in both designing traps, tricks and trouble as part of the world, and as elements of game play. Experience will prove to be the best teacher in this regard, and the lessons will inevitably differ between regular gaming groups and temporary groups (such as at conventions and game days). Look to published material and confer with other Dungeon Masters online, but in the end trust your gut as informed by your own experiences.

 

Some Example Traps, Tricks and Trouble

 

The intent of the following examples are to provide inspiration, a starting place off which new DM’s can launch their own creativity. Steal them wholesale, sure, but be aware that every adventure and every gaming group will need to tweak them to hit the right balance on the three pillars discussed above.

 

Crazy Carts: Mine cart races are an old trope and therefore score a little low on the Inspiration scale, but they can be a lot of fun for players that haven’t experienced them before, and even for those who have if you mix them up a little bit. In this example, mine carts running amok are the main transport system from an upper level of a dungeon to a lower, serving as an exciting transition sequence. Essentially a multistage trap that requires multiple characters to navigate, Crazy Carts should last 10 to 15 minutes of real world play time and produce plenty of tension without seriously endangering the PCs  – lthough a series of bad die rolls could result in catastrophe!

 

There are three stages to Crazy Carts, each one representing a leg of the journey and at the end of each a danger. Player characters have two chances to avoid each danger, first by picking up on clues and second through direct action and/or saving throws. Multiple characters are affected at once and those characters can work together to avoid danger, or possibly work at cross purposes and end up in real trouble. Note that Crazy Carts is supposed to be fast moving and exciting, so do not allow players to spend too much time debating their course of action. The mine carts of flying fast and the players’ reactions need to be faster!

 

The Setup: Goblins, kobolds or another nuisance race has created a mine cart system to get from one level or area of the dungeon to the next. The monsters have developed a system by which their own kind can determine which mine cart rails to take, which the PCs will have to decipher and act on swiftly. Up to four medium creatures or eight small creatures (or an appropriate mix thereof) can fit in a mine cart, although if there are more than 2 medium creatures of 4 small creatures, all are considered to be “squeezed” in. There is no steering on the carts, but there is a break which requires a Strength DC 12 check to operate. In addition, another character must use a melee attack on occasion to switch the cart tracks (AC 14; at least 4 points of damage must be inflicted, resistance to piercing attacks). Successfully pulling the brake by a character grants the attacker advantage on striking the track switch lever.

 

The goblins or kobolds have devised a simple system for determining which is the right (read: less dangerous) track to take: piles of skulls at the track switch lever. The direction with more skulls indicated more of the little buggers have been killed there and the other direction is the preferred one. Players might miss it or misinterpret it at first, but they should catch on quickly.

 

Stage 1 — Duck and Jump: The first branch in the track comes up as soon as the PCs have got a good head of speed. They see the switch only a moment before the choice must be made and every PC has a single action they may take (all essentially simultaneous). The switch is set in the “dangerous” position with a small pile of cracked skulls that way. If the characters switch the track to the “safe” position, they careen madly but otherwise safely around a sharp bend. Otherwise, they swoop down a tunnel only to see a break in the track over . The cart can jump the gap but it flies precariously close to the ceiling. Characters must make a Dexterity DC 10 save or take 2d6 bludgeoning damage; small characters have advantage on this roll. If the brake is successfully applied, the cart slows enough to eliminate the potential for collision with the ceiling. In either case, the tracks soon merge with the main track.

 

Stage 2 — Lean into it: This time, the lever is in the “safe” position. Switching it to the “dangerous” position causes a malfunction and switch track misaligns. The Players must force the cart to tip up on one side to clear the misaligned track. Doing so requires a combined Strength roll. The DC is 10 and three successful rolls by separate individuals are required to avoid the hazard. If the brake is applied, this Strength save is made at disadvantage. If only two successes are achieved, the wheels of the cart don’t quite clear the misaligned track and the riders are jostled hard: anyone holding an object must make a DC 12 Dexterity save or drop what they are holding. If there is only a single success, the cart wheel snag on the misaligned track and is stopped suddenly. Everyone inside takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage, plus 1 for each medium occupant plus 1 more for each occupant wearing medium or heavy armor. If no success are made, the cart flips and all occupants take 4d6 damage (Dexterity DC 14 save for half). Surviving characters can, with effort, right the cart and get it onto the track after an hour or so of hard work (causing them to gain a point of exhaustion).

 

Stage 3 — Don’t bug out: The final stage of the run is a bit of goblinoid or kobold cruelty. The switch itself is trapped, set purposefully in the “dangerous” position. If it is switched to the “safe” position, the tracks do not switch but a concealed barrel of very sweet but also revolting good pours into the mine cart. The track then leads through a tunnel swarming with hungry insects. Characters are covered in a stinging swarm, which causes 1d4 poison damage each round for the three rounds of travel through the hive tunnel and an additional three rounds afterward (the cart reaches its destination one round after exiting the hive tunnel). A DC 12 Constitution save reduces damage by half and must be rolled each round damage is sustained. Any three failed saves results in the character being Poisoned as well. If the character takes at least 5 points of damage from an area effect fire or acid spell, the stringing damage ends immediately.

 

Although a bit convoluted, Crazy Carts illustrates a way to incorporate a lot of different game mechanics as well as some cinematic adventure into trap design. Not all traps, tricks or trouble are going to be so involved, of course, but I thought it best to start with an example of just how far you can go as a DM during trap design.

 

Following are a few less complex examples that still hold to the design goals of relevance, fairness and inspiration:

 

Trap: This trap is found in an ancient fortress that was once occupied. In ancient days, it was designed to ensure the guardians were true. At a door that leads deeper into the fortress, perhaps into the throne room, the treasure vault or the private suite of the former rulers, there are three pressure plates and on the door three giant turning wheels with which to open the door. The pressure plates are separated from the door by a curtain wall, so one cannot see between the two. One guard knew which pressure plate to stand on and another knew which wheel to turn, and only with the correct combination could the door be opened. The incorrect combination actually locks the door (which can then only be opened from the inside) and releases a noxious cloud equivalent to a cloudkill spell (though not magical so it cannot be dispelled or countered). In order to bypass the trap, the PCs must decipher, perhaps through Intelligence (Investigation) DC 20 to notice wear on the correct plate and wheel, or employing divination magic. There is no way to disarm the mechanism itself.

 

Trick: In the wilderness, far from civilization, travelling or lost PCs happen upon a circle of standing stones. There are 6 stones in all, forming a circle 25 feet in diameter, and one each stone is etched a glyph representing one of the 6 Primal Sins. Dark rites were undertook here by the foulest of cults. Each Primal Sin is keyed to a specific ability score (Strength=Wrath, Dexterity=Greed, Constitution=Gluttony, Intelligence=Pride, Wisdom=Envy, Charisma=Lust). If a good character touches a standing stone, the character immediately loses one point from the keyed ability score. If a non-good character does the same, they immediately gain one point to the ability score. In either case, a character can only activate one stone per month in this fashion. In addition, as soon as any character that has been thus affected attempt to leave the circle, a powerful evil outside (determined by the DM; use guidelines for a “difficult” encounter) appears and attacks that character until destroyed (and thus sent back to its home plane) or the character is killed, at which point it plane shift to its home plane with the corpse in tow. DC 15 History, Religion or Planes skill checks will reveal the nature of the circle should characters attempt to discern it, and both Survival and Investigation checks at DC 15 will reveal signs that terrible things happened here.

 

Trouble: Once, a minor god of Winter was jilted by a beautiful dryad. In his despair and anger, he cursed the glade over which she watched to be forever in the grip of an icy blizzard. The PCs stumble across a copse of trees, perhaps 200 feet in diameter, caught in perpetual winter. AT its center is a dryad turned mad (Chaotic Evil in alignment) by her curse, who also had immunity to both fire and cold damage. Although she attacks any who come near her tree (she can cast Ray of Frost for 2d8 cold damage at will and Cone of Cold 3/day) she can be talked (DC 20 Diplomacy check; the check can be made DC 15 with a DC 15 History or Nature check first, revealing her story) into revealing the name of the offending minor God and from where it originates. Clever PCs might find a way to free the dryad, whether by destroying the lesser deity or by somehow blocking his influence. Failing that, if they destroy the dryad, the curse ends and natural seasons and weather return to the glade.