Some thoughts on rejection.

First of all — sorry for the delay of the promised Magical Monday and Wicked Wednesday entries using the random method i outlines last time. I got hung up on the impending announcement of the 32 Round 1 winners of Paizo’s RPG Superstar 2015 contest. I decided to enter this year and was wringing my hands over it. When I did not pass the round, i got hit with the rejection blues, which prompted this post about rejection and my response to it.

 

I would like to say I am a thick skinned writer, happy to wallpaper my den with rejection letters until I finally sell that story. The truth is I am not. Every rejection letter hurts and takes an axe to my confidence. I have been writing stories  in one form or another literally since I learned to write, and before that I was telling those stories. It is something I feel I am good at. It comes naturally and I derive a kind of pleasure from it that is unlike any other I know. When i sit back after having immersed myself in a piece of prose for hours, I feel somehow elevated, exalted even. And because I am an extrovert and an exhibitionist, I want to not only share those things with other people, I want to receive praise for them. In other words, I want people to read what I write, love it and tell me so.

 

But because I place so high a premium on that approval I set myself up for disappointment and even pain when I present my work to be judged. I used to want to go the self publishing route (made easy these days with Kindles and the like) in order to bypass the “gatekeepers.” “Why should I get a form letter rejection,” i asked myself and anyone within earshot, “just because the slush reader had a fight with his wife that morning?” The reality is, though, that I toyed with self publishing as a way to avoid rejection at the hands of an editor. Rejection without any context or explanation, such as those form letters, is even worse because my imagination (the same thing that got me into this mess in the first place) runs wild with the worst possible explanations for my failure.

 

With the RPG Superstar contest, it was an especially difficult rejection because the one kind of writing I have done professionally is writing for role-playing games. I honestly expected to do well, if not take the whole thing, because I know games and gaming and gamers. Or, at least, I thought I did until about 5 PM EST last night when my name was not on the “winners” list. Rejection always undermines my confidence in my writing ability, but this struck even deeper into my identity. What if I was not just a bad writer, but a bad gamer as well?

 

Intellectually, I get it: even if what I wrote was my best work (and it really wasn’t; I threw it together relatively quickly close to deadline) there were hundreds if not thousands of entries. More to the point, rejection happens. My brain gets that. But my guts and my heart hate that fact and it makes me feel like deleting every manuscript I have and never stringing more than three words together on paper ever again. Usually, it is weeks or even months before I try again after I get two or three stories rejected. And, of course, it is exacerbated when I read some terribly written tripe that some editor bought and published or I see that Moan For Bigfoot made its author thousands of dollars.

 

Then I remember that the difference between those shit authors finding some success and me, well, not is not based on talent, it is based on perseverance. Bigfoot lady (or fellow) wrote that crap and stood behind it and put it out there. What’s more, she (or he) was not accepted by thousands but rejected by the millions that did not buy it — but found success anyway, despite all that rejection. Those other authors, those ones that could not build a plot with a set of Legos, they sold that story or novel because they stuck with it. Maybe they sent that story to one hundred editors until they caught one off guard and under deadline. Maybe they sent one hundred stories to that one editor who finally bought one out of compassion. In either case, perseverance sold that story.

 

So, catharsis complete, it is time to get back to work.

 

Oh, and here is my “losing” RPG Superstar 2015 entry in all its failure-y glory:

 

[b]Armor, Living Sand[/b]

 

Aura faint transmutation; CL 9th; Weight 40 lbs.; Price 20,000 gp

 

DESCRIPTION

When first encountered, this strange “armor” appears as nothing more than a ball of sparkling, wet sand the size of a child’s ball. When touched by a sentient creature it shudders as if alive and if one of its command words (see below) is uttered, it  stretches and flows to cover the creature’s torso and limbs.

 

The “sand” is actually a colony of infinitesimal animated objects. They move freely or lock into place, depending on their need, so that the whole mass or portions can be supple or rigid. In this way, the Living Sand Armor is able to emulate light, medium or heavy armor.

 

Each armor type of which the living sand can take form requires a separate command word. Speaking the command is a standard action and in no case can the armor change form more than one per round. In each of its forms, the armor has the following statistics:

 

Light Armor: Armor Bonus+5, Max Dex +4, Check Penalty -1

Medium Armor: Armor Bonus +7, Max Dex+3, Check Penalty -3

Heavy Armor: Armor Bonus+10, Max Dex +1, Check Penalty -5

The wearer’s speed is affected as normal for armor of the given type.

 

There is a mild psionic component to the living sand, causing the armor to take on a style and shape unique to the wearer. The material originated in Numeria but has long since spread throughout the Inner Sea.

 

Living Sand Armor is particularly sought after by barbarians and rangers.

 

CONSTRUCTION REQUIREMENTS

Craft Magic Arms and Armor, Craft Construct, animate object Cost 10,000 gp

 

Random Inspiration

I sometimes have trouble with the most basic step in the creative process: inspiration. Usually, if I can get an idea, or am given one, I can run with it and make it into something fun, interesting or novel. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed role-playing game writing so much: I was given an assignment and then let loose. Within the confines of that assignment, I was free to do whatever. I have found, though, that when I am writing for myself, or for a handful of imaginary blog readers, or even with hopes of sale and publication, I want for that initial inspiration. My “writer’s block” is usually less about being unable to form prose and more about being uninspired to start in the first place.

 

One thing I have always found helpful, especially in the context of gaming (whether in preparation or at the table itself), is the use of random tables. There are many great collections of random tables for everything under the sun — I have even created a few — but here, with the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons relatively fresh, there is an easier way to spur creativity without worrying too much about how to translate the results to the game’s systems. By simply using the three core D&D 5E books as the “random tables” themselves, we can create interesting mashups of ideas that are easy to include into our games.

 

While you could simply open to a “random” page of each book, that method has two problems: 1) it is not really random at all and your results, over time, will cluster toward the middle pages of the books, and 2) it does not involve the rolling of dice and that is inherently bad. Moreover, not all sections of the books are created equally and are not necessarily helpful in producing fun, playable content.

 

The basic idea works as such: for each book (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide) we will generate a random page (using DICE!) and draw something from each of those pages. Then, we will combine each of those things into a cohesive whole, hopefully one that is both interesting and fun. This kind of random generation helps spur creativity while at the same time avoid cliches.

 

The Monster Manual is the most straightforward of books to use, as it is almost completely filled with usable (read: inspirational) content. From page 12 to page 350 there is naught but monsters, beasts and NPCs. First, roll a d12. For any result other than a 1 or a 12, subtract one from the result and multiply by 30. Then , roll a 30 sided die and add the result for the final page number. (Example: roll a 9 on a d12, so 8×30=240; roll a 16 on a d30, for a final page number of 256 — Quaggoth!) If the initial d12 result was a 1, simply roll a d20+11 for the final page number. (Yes, this statistically makes Blights ever so slightly more likely a result than other creatures in the book. Sue me.) If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d20+330 for the final page number.

 

For both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there are sections of the books that are primarily rules oriented or otherwise unhelpful for generating ideas. As such, the method for generating page numbers is going to be a little convoluted.

 

For the Player’s Handbook, two sections stand out as providing potential inspiration results: the section in which options for characters are presented (pages 18-161; 144 total pages) and the portion dedicated to magic spells (pages 211-289; 78 total pages).First, we will roll a d6. If the result is 1-4 we will be generating a result from the character section; on a 5-6 we will be generating a result from the spell section. In the former case, to generate the final page number roll two d12 dice and multiply the results (generating 1-144) then add 17. For generating the final page number in the spells section, the easiest method (since the total number of pages is less than 100) is to roll d100, ignoring any results greater than 78 and adding 210 to the result.

 

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a treasure trove of inspiration in and of itself, mixing practical rules information with random charts and inspirational art. For our purposes, I want to avoid including the rules based discussions, so we will be limiting our potential results to pages 7 to 232 (227 total pages). Roll a d12. If the result is 2 to 11, subtract 1 and the multiply by 20 (generating a result between 20 and 200) and then roll a d20 and add the result. If the initial d12 result was a 1, roll a d20 (reroll any result greater than 15) and add 6. If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d12 and add 220.

 

Of course, you can always wimp out and head over to a website like www.random.org to generate your results without dice.

 

Remember, we are looking for inspiration on these pages, so read all of the text and look at the art! Sometimes all it takes is a throwaway phrase by the author or a tiny detail by the illustrator to inspire an entire adventure.

 

This week, for both Magical Monday and Wicked Wednesday, I will be using this method to generate the content for those columns, as well as tie them to The Valley of Tombs.

 

Wicked Wednesday: Lord Black

 

This week I present an established villain in the Valley of Tombs “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” convention game I run — coming soon to TotalCon! — which is illustrative, I think, of the kinds of bad guys I find interesting in RPGs. The stats are for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, but I think Lord Black can be easily converted to any version of D&D or related game.

 

Not all souls that haunt the Valley of Tombs were interred there. Long before the Valley was cut off from the wider world, some chose to rule there in life rather than rest there in death. Perhaps it was the promise of treasures both rich and powerful from ages past. Perhaps it was a kinship with the Other World that rests so close to This World in the Valley. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that few dared claim the Valley, making it appear at least as an easy mark for a would-be dominion lord.

 

The man that is now known as Lord Black was one such would-be ruler. The lesser son of a lesser house whose inheritance has been squandered by his elder brothers, he took what feeble bodyguard he could muster and led them to the Valley, which was even then so many centuries ago famed for its terrors and treasures. “If I die in my quest to be a king,” he said, “then at least I can be buried as one.” His last act as scion of his house was to slit the throats of each of his siblings as they slept.

 

The Valley is an unforgiving place even in the height of summer. In the depths of winter it is as brutal and cold as the frost trolls that come down from the mountains to hunt. The self styled Lord of the Valley lost half of his retinue in the first winter, and would have lost all had they not turned to the Wedigo’s Feast for sustenance. The hardest and cruelest survived, however, and with the spring thaw they sought their vengeance on the Valley and the few good people that inhabited its outskirts. They robbed graves and raided tombs, demanded tribute and captured slaves. By the waning of summer, the Lord Black To Be had erected a motte and bailey and called it a palace. This winter, he would not starve, even if he had to eat all his slaves.

 

It was at the autumn equinox that Madra Nocht came to see the young lord. The wicked, ageless night hag came to him in her true form, as twisted and black as his heart. She disparaged his “palace” and insulted his honor and when he tried to hew her down she cast him on his face and laughed. “You desire power,” she said, “and power I can give.” “What price?” “A small thing, just your heir.” “I have no wife, let alone an heir!” “You will one day,” she promised, “but he will be mine. You will never pass your lordship down. But if you agree, you will never need to.”

 

He agreed.

 

Who knows what twisted pleasure Madra Nocht gained from her bargain with him, who she now dubbed Lord Black. No mortal can fathom the madness of her race, ancient and vile as it is. No matter her reasons, she told the newly minted Lord Black where there were tribes to conquer and where he could find the tools to do so. She gave him keys to the richest tombs of kings long dead that she had also crowned. Over the course of years, Lord black plundered and conquered, destroyed and constructed. He slew giants and dragons and warred with centaurs and goblins. He raised towers and razed churches. Never did he take a wife, or even avail himself of any slave-girl, for he ever feared what might happen should he produce an heir. Not to the heir, mind you, for Lord Black cared nothing of any other, even a theoretical son and heir. No, he saw treachery in madra Nocht’s gifts and feared the completion of the contract would end his prosperity.

 

And so it would have remained had it not been for the Pilgrim Maid. Her name is long lost to history. Only Lord Black and Madra Nocht know it now, and neither will speak it — he because it pains him too much, and her likely because she does not care to remember such trifles. She came with a flock of pilgrims to visit the resting place of their living god. Lord Black’s knights took them as slaves and when they brought the most beautiful of them to him as his share — as they always did, and he always sent her to the dungeons — he was enchanted and sent her to his kitchen instead. In time, she went from his kitchen to his hall and eventually to his side and finally, married, to his bed.

 

Had Madra Nocht, tied of the wait, cast a spell on him or given the Pilgrim Maid a love potion? Who knows the truth besides Madra Nocht? The result was the same and within a year of the wedding the now Pilgrim Lady gave birth to a son. The child was not yet swaddled when Madra Nocht appeared to collect her due. Lord Black resisted her with the power he had gained but to no avail. Her might was greater. As Madra Nocht took the child, the Pilgrim Lady cursed him for his lies and treachery and, finding the chirurgeon’s blade attacked him. He stabbed her through the heart with his ancient sword in his rage.

 

Madra Nocht left with the child and Lord Black told all that both mother and babe had died in childbirth. Wracked with guilt, Lord Black raised a cathedral to his wife’s god and prayed for forgiveness. No answer came. On the babe’s would-be first birthday, Madra Nocht delivered to Lord Black the child’s bones, scraped as they were by her butcher’s knife. He fell into madness then, becoming a terror to his own people. Over many years, he drove them away, murdered them and tortured them. Only the hardest and most evil men stayed in his employ, making him even harder and more evil himself.

 

Finally, devoid of all holdings bust the cathedral and all followers but murderous cannibals, Lord Black died of wrath and grief in his befouled cathedral. His men dined on his flesh and then fell on their swords. Such was the end of Lord Black’s rule.

 

Or, it would have been if not for Madra Nocht. The night hag came to Lord Black’s tombs and breathed foul unlife into his butchered corpse. When he rose, he knew that he would forever haunt the Valley he had sought to rule and with an unhallowed gesture woke his servants, their dead bellies still full of his flesh.

 

Ever since, Lord Black the wight and his army of ghouls and ghasts have haunted the Valley of Tombs and sought to spread fear, death and grief to any who dare venture or settle there. He especially targets good clerics and other servants of light.

 

Game Rules:

 

Lord Black is a special wight (see Monster Manual page 300) with exceptional abilities. His statistics are per a regular wight except as follows:

 

AC 18 (Plate Armor of Radiant Resistance)

Hit Points 60 (8d6+24)

Speed 20

STR 18 (+4) DEX 14 (+2) CON 16 (+3) INT 14 (+2) WIS 16 (+3) CHA 15 (+2)

Skills History +5, Intimidation +5, Perception +6

All Attacks +6 to hit with a damage modifier of +4 instead of +2.

Modified CR 6

 

Lord Black wears a suit of Plate Armor of Resistance to Radiant Damage and a Ring of Invisibility, and his sword is a Sword of Life Stealing. In addition, mortal creatures killed by Lord Black rise as ghouls rather than zombies.

 

Lord Black is always accompanied by at least 4 ghouls and 1 ghast, and possibly more if he is expecting a large group or otherwise dangerous opponent(s).


Despite his hatred of living things and irredeemably corrupt nature, Lord Black can be reasoned with and may even ally with characters that can promise to destroy Madra Nocht permanently (a difficult task indeed). Her true destruction would destroy Lord Black as well, freeing his tormented soul.

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 2

 

Last time, I discussed my take on the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules themselves. What follows is a more specific discussion of running The Valley Of Tombs at CarnageCon as a persistent open world exploration adventure, a “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” if you will.

 

The Valley of Tombs

 

Figuring out what to run at a convention can be very difficult. I know that I much prefer run games than to play them: for every good game I play, there are two that are boring or uncomfortable or just plain bad. Ultimately, I want to be that game that is good for other players, and in any case I love running RPGs. It’s too bad there is not career in it.

 

Last year at Carnage I ran a two part Mutant Future adventure (“Out of the Freezer/Into the Fridge”) and I found that I really liked running multipart games. At the same time, that I was trying to decide what to run this year, I was playing a lot of Skyrim and the open world, exploration based adventure design that is so fundamental to that game really inspired me to try and recreate the experience on tabletop. The result, it would turn out, was The Valley of Tombs.

 

From a player’s perspective, the Valley setup is simple: an ancient region used over eons as a resting place for the mighty has been rediscovered, setting off a “gold rush” like race for not only riches but forgotten knowledge and ancient power. Player characters are contractors with the Finder’s Guild, which serves the dual purpose of giving them a place to fence their recovered loot (*for a 10% fee, of course) and a way to connect with like minded fellow explorers. They also pay for the simple act of discovery, using a magical journal and map. The players, of course, fill in the map and write in the journal, with the goal of creating a base from which future groups of players at different events where I run the Valley can start their own adventures.

 

I was very lucky at Carnage in that I had a very enthusiastic journal keeper who also happened to be present (with her husband) for each of the five slots I ran. That they were great role players who brought a lot to the table as well was gravy.

 

Prior to the convention, I had planned on creating the entire Valley, stocked top to bottom with interesting locations and encounters. That proved to be far too ambitious a goal, however — especially with taking classes for the first time in 10 years (not to mention the usual family and professional responsibilities). Instead, I sketched out the immutable features of the Valley (terrain and settlement locations that would not be changing) and created a few dozen encounters, both location based and “wandering” encounters. In the end, I think it worked out for the best.

 

Had I assigned every interesting location a hex in advance, the possibility that the players might accidentally sidestep the “fun stuff” was there. In addition, it would deprive me of my favorite thing about being a Dungeon Master: playing to your small, captive audience of players and giving them a tailored experience. Like many of the open world video RPGs that inspire it, the Valley is chock full of things to see and do (and kill!) but those things are not necessarily nailed down to a single location. That said, the experience at Carnage has helped me devise a balanced approach to exploration and storytelling that should make the experience even more fun for future groups.

 

I am not a fan of the “adventure path” style of play that currently pervades the RPG hobby. I much prefer stories to emerge out of events that occur at the table. Certainly, prep work is necessary and story seeds need to be spread liberally over the fertile soil of player imagination (to take a metaphor way too far) but too much predetermination is counterproductive. In my experience players have more fun if they feel like they are driving the narrative with their choices and actions. These two elements — the things in the world and how the players choose to interact with them — combine with the game system itself (not least of which is the randomness inherent in the dice) to result in “story.” Sometimes a character’s story ends with her at the bottom of a pit, pierced by goblin punji sticks, and sometime it ends with her slaying the dragon and saving the prince. In an adventure like Valley of the Tombs, either story is as likely as the other.

 

Some numbers from Carnage: I ran 5 slots of the Valley, for a total of 20 hours of play. I had 12 or 13 players total. Two players played every slot and 6 players played at least 2 slots. Only one PC died (dammitall). A total of 12 adventuring days occurred, during which about 20 hexes were explored. One “dungeon” was explored, consuming an entire slot, and another (the apparent prison of “The Lord of the Pit”) was found and the key to opening it unlocked, but the players chose not to open it. Player characters present for every session earned 3000 XP.

The Valley of Tombs was a joy to run and the slots at Carnage taught me a lot about how to make it even better. I will run it a few times between now and February, when I bring the Valley to TotalCon for 6 slots — 24 hours of hexploration and adventure!

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.

 

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!

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.

 

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.