Seven Sandbox Essentials, Revisited

I have believed in the value of so-called sandbox DMing for a long time. In September, 2008 I tried to codify my views on the subject in a blog post on the ENWorld gaming site. It went over pretty well. But now seven and a half years later, i wanted to revisit it. Sandbox gaming is more popular than ever — I attribute it to the ease with which one can run such a game using 5th Edition D&D — and my perspective has probably evolved.

 

What follows is the original post (with some minor editing for spelling, etc…) with my annotations in bold italic text. If you are interested in reading the original version, follow this link to ENWorld.

 

Seven Sandbox Essentials

 

The “sandbox” setting, in which players are not only allowed but encouraged to make their own fun by exploring and interacting with the setting, is, in my opinion, a fundamental requirement for satisfying, rewarding D&D play. Adventures and setting that force players along certain paths — or worse, away from certain paths — cannot hold a candle to sandbox play.  No DM’s or designer’s story has a hope against the story that the players themselves create through their actions and the consequences of those actions (with a healthy dose of DM input and dice-based uncertainty,to boot).

 

Well,that was kind of absolute — and we know who speaks in absolutes. It is interesting to see how one’s perspective on internet communications changes over time. I now cringe at the preceding paragraph, all to aware of the intended authoritative voice despite not possessing much in the way of authority besides some years running games and a few RPG sourcebooks.

 

Here are seven essential elements for a good “sandbox” setting.

 

  1. Big, but not Too Big: A sandbox setting should cover a relatively large geographic area, with room for varied terrain and environments, as well as multiple political entities.  However, one of the things that makes a sandbox game so enjoyable is the players’ ability to engage it as a whole, to see all four corners and to uncover its nuances and secrets.  Too big a sandbox makes each part indistinct — the DM likely doesn’t have time to flesh out every aspect of a whole world; nor do players likely have time, or even interest, to visit it all.  By limiting the scope of the setting and containing it geographically, the DM has the opportunity to delve into the whole setting and so do the players.  Something on the order of the British Isles works well, size and scope wise.

 

Not surprisingly, I was running a D&D campaign set in a mythic post Roman Britain at the time. That said, I actually agree with myself here. Both of my very successful convention based ongoing hexcrawl sandboxes have hewed to this rule. The Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread are both contained geographical regions with varied terrain types and locations.

 

  1. Lots to Do, Lots to See: As stated above, a sandbox needs to be diverse in regards to where the players can go and what they can do when they get there.  It isn’t enough to litter the place with 100 dungeons.  Rather, there should be a handful of dungeons, a handful of towns, a handful of active fortresses, a handful of mystic locations, etc…  This applies to political, religious and mercantile groups, as well. A monolithic nation that covers the whole setting won’t do.  At the very least, there should by various states or provinces with different cultures and conflicting interests.  Even better, numerous small nations or city states work well.  In addition, even if the DM chooses to have a dominant religious entity, schisms and sects within the church, with their own temples and own interpretations of scripture are necessary. Players should want to explore the setting to see what is around the next bend or over the next hill.

 

And here I think I overstated the need for such a high degree of diversity. In retrospect this advice runs counter to the previous advice. Geographical containment or not, having multiple states, multiple institutions and multiple other kinds of factions is a heavy workload that can lead a DM to never actually finishing preparing his sandbox. In my experience with the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread as sandbox settings, a couple settlements and a couple factions of important are plenty.

 

  1. A Life of its Own: The setting should “live” like a real place.  The diverse locations and groups discussed above should interact and those interactions should be both internally consistent and produce movement within the setting.  Groups that are opposed might be moving ever toward open conflict. The heir to a city state might try and hasten along his inheritance.  A lowly peddler might slowly climb to the top of the mercantile heap.  A dark cult might be waiting for a soon approaching celestial event to unleash their dark master on the setting.  It isn’t that the setting ignores the players and their characters’ actions.  Rather, there’s something of a timeline or assumed evolution to the setting that the players can interact with and disrupt.  Knowing what would happen in a given situation without the involvement of the players allows the DM to better interpret what happens when they do get involved, as well as allowing the DM a plan if the PCs don’t bother with a particular setting element or subplot.

 

This advice still rings true. What’s more, I think it applies to all kinds of campaigns, not just sandboxes. In my experience, players respond to a living, breathing world and having some idea of what everyone might be doing if the PCs weren’t throwing wrenches into the works helps the DM maintain that kind of setting.

 

  1. No Scaling: The sandbox should not scale to the level of the PCs.  If there’s a “12th level” monster in the Darkenwood when the game begins, that monster remains there — barring its involvement in the above — whether the players choose to go to the darkenwood at 2nd level or 20th (or both). A scaling setting breaks verisimilitude and suggests to the players that whatever growth they have is irrelevant.  instead, the setting should include a wide array of “levels” of adventure locales, NPCs and monsters, distributed throughout the setting in a plausible and internally consistent manner.  This is not to say that the setting can’t include “zones’ that are geared toward certain levels of play, but too much of this inhibits the open nature of the sandbox. Mix it up instead.  But make sure that there aren’t too many “invisible” major threats.  Powerful creatures and characters produce legends and rumors and even inaccurate information will give players a glimpse into what lies ahead, allowing them the opportunity to make a meaningful choice as to where to go and what to do.

 

This advice is built around the issues of Challenge Ratings and the steep power curve of D&D 3.x and Pathfinder. Since 5th Edition’s power curve by level is more shallow, reminiscent of 1st and 2nd edition where lower level characters could get lucky and take on higher level threats while higher level characters might get slaughtered by even common enemies likes orcs, I view it a little differently now. I usually apply an assumed CR to a geographical locale or “zone” and then include both “easy” and “deadly” as well as typical encounters for that locale on the chart. In this way, the uncertainty of random encounters is preserved at the same time as some internal consistency is maintained for the locale.

 

  1. Wandering Monster Tables and Random Encounters: One of the key conceits of the sandbox is that players are free to go where they will, do what they wish and engage the setting through their characters without being pulled or prodded into the DM’s “story”.  This requires a lot of work on the part of the DM, creating many adventure sites, placed encounters, NPCs and organizations before play even begins.  But even with all the work done, there’s still a good chance the players will go somewhere the DM hasn’t thought too much about or had a chance to flesh out.  This is where the value of random encounter charts comes in.  With such tables, built specifically for the setting and informed by the detail the DM has done, can provide fun for everyone even during those sessions where the players simply strike out down the road.  These random encounters shouldn’t simply be a collection of monsters listed by terrain type.  Instead, the charts should include little glimpses into the setting.  What tribe are those orcs from? Who are the bandits? Where is the merchant caravan heading?  By making specific encounter charts for the setting, the DM ensures that more of the work he has put into the setting sees use.  By exposure, players are given hooks to choose for themselves to investigate and engage aspects of the setting.

 

Still solid advice. In fact, as time has gone by I have become more and more comfortable with “on the fly” DMing and relied more and more on random encounter tables for inspiration. The part about not everything being a fight is true, too. When the encounter comes up, a little creative application can turn what was likely a short fight with a couple specters into a tragic love story the PCs got to not only witness but resolve (as happened on the Isle of Dread at CarnageCon last November).

 

  1. New Blood: Characters die.  They retire.  Players get bored or want a break from the usual.  Inevitably, a player is going to need a new character, or a new player will join the group.  It may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked: the setting must allow for the introduction of new heroes (i.e. PCs) without breaking plausibility. As such settings that are mostly wilderness or wastelands with few settlements don’t work as well as those that provide a diverse selection of races and classes within the population.  As a related aspect, this means the setting must be adventurer friendly and reasonably wide ranging in regards to which races and classes are available.  While it is okay for the DM to establish some limitations to better suit the genre or setting he has in mind, too many restrictions hampers the introduction of new characters and should be avoided.

 

Both the Valley of Tombs and the Isle of Dread include gateway towns for this very reason. they are frontier locations where adventurer types come to test their mettle. The only requirement for a new PC is that they want to head off into the wilderness for fortune and glory. With the more shallow power curve as explained above, new PCs can be introduced at whatever the “starting level” of the sandbox is (be it 1st or 10th) and likely both survive and be able to contribute as they quickly close on the veteran PCs, level wise.

 

  1. Meaningful Choices and Meaningful Consequences: Most important of all, the actions of the players should have direct, noticeable impact on the setting, at least insofar as the PCs degree of influence.  Information should be plentiful enough to allow the players to choose which actions they will take, and those actions must have consequences.  Who the players ally with, and with whom they make enemies; what meta-setting secrets they uncover, and which they bury; those monsters they kill and those that they merely enrage: these all should change the setting to some degree or another.  If the players feel their adventures and explorations within the sandbox have a real impact, they will be both more inclined to engage the setting, and more thoughtful of the consequences of their actions.

 

I think this is another bit of observation that rings true regardless of the sort of campaign you run.

 

Revisiting an older piece is an interesting experience. I may do it again sometime.

 

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Return to the Isle of Dread: Random Special Encounters

 

 

When running an open sandbox game, having good random encounter charts at your disposal is a must. I tend toward finding or making terrain based charts and then having an additional chart of “special encounters”. These encounters can happen in any environment and exist primarily to reinforce the themes, mood and atmosphere of the sandbox. in the case of The Return to the Isle of Dread, the point is to remind players that the Isle is a weird nexus of worlds and not at all safe.

 

The following chart is a little bit gonzo, and that is intentional. The Isle is a little bit gonzo, blurring genre lines and serving up some wicked wonder. It will probably see a little bit of modification before TotalCon rolls around, but you can see what the intent is.

d20

01: A tribe of 4d4+4 goblins living inside an animated T-Rex skeleton led by a bugbear witch.

02: A circle of severed heads on spears babble madly as per gibbering mouther. Bodies and loot in circle.

03: Mad explorers set trap gauntlet to catch a meal: spiked log, falling stones, snare over spiked pit.

04:Human barbarian and 1d6+2 awakened apes stalk area, killing hunters/tomb robbers & aiding innocents.

05:Haunted camp. Spectral explorers replay fight over treasure nightly. One can be traced to the gold.

06:Tree grows melon sized plums. Max any HD spent when consumed during short rest. Last 1d4 days.

07:4d6+6 draconians think they’re on Krynn and await orders from Highlord in a makeshift fortress.

08:Tree looks like the one with healing plums. Those aren’t plums: they’re 2d4+2 giant spiders.

09: Village of 5d4+10 phanaton is plaguestruck and needs help. 2d4 die/day until village is gone.

10:2d6+4 slavers have of 3d6 slaves in tow. Freed slaves repay kindness with secret knowledge.

11:Goblins! 2d4+4 ride pig size triceratops. Peaceful unless provoked. Other goblins hunt them.

12:Something slithers in an ancient yuan ti shrine nearby. 1d4+1 abominations stalk the PCs.

13:Allosaur nest with 1d6+2 eggs. Mother and father return in 5d6 minutes and will attack.

14:Couatl guards a magical fountain. Drink with permission 24 hour bless; without 24 hour bane no save.

15:Waterfall hides cave with treasure inside guarded by specter of original cursed tomb raider.

16:Small ruined tower inhabited only by shadow demon still trapped in magic circle and willing to bargain.

17:Bones of a massive dinosaur 500 feet long with dire wolf den (2d4) in the skull.

18:Zombie herd (2d6+6) wanders aimlessly. On death a necrotic worm escapes brain.

19:Fungal grove. If touched emit cloud of spores. DC 10 Con save or sleep 1d4 days. Roll encounters!

20:Ancient shaft 2d4x10’ deep. DC 12 Dex save to avoid. Treasure hoard at bottom CR 1d4+1.

The 5E OGL Is Here!

Yes, those are orcs dancing the dance of joy. Just like me!

 

Had you asked me two days ago, i would have said that Wizards of the Coast would never repeat the “mistake” of 3rd Edition and create and Open Gaming License and a System Reference Document for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons — no matter how much I wanted one.

 

It has never felt so right to be so wrong.

 

As explained in this ENWorld thread, WotC has not only opened up 5E to the Open Gaming community, but has created a marketplace for commercial, fan generated adventures and other materials in D&D’s own Forgotten Realms called the Dungeon Master’s Guild. It is going to take some time before we know whether this produces a glut of terrible products like the d20 Boom of 2001, or if it will provide a steady stream of quality material. Expect the former, hope for the latter, and you can’t be disappointed, I say!

 

What I will say is this: a strong OGL for 5th Edition is not merely a good thing but, I think, is fundamental to a long life for the edition. 5E is a great version of the game, no question about it, and is a market leader. But it is a leader in a progressively more niche market. A lot of people are “in the know” regarding D&D due to the rise of geek chic over the last decade or so, but if you ask most of those people what edition it’s on you would get blank stares in return. Even the savviest nerd among them is as likely to tell you, “Uh, Baldur’s Gate just got an enhanced edition,” as answer correctly. Tabletop role-playing is a niche hobby. It always has been and always will be. Rightly so, Wizards of the Coast has trimmed the staff, outsourced material and focused on media tie ins and digital games in order to remain profitable. That has left some folks, especially those that remember the broad support of 3rd edition by outside publishers or are current Pathfinder RPG fans, a little underwhelmed by the output of D&D 5E game materials. Offloading that work to the fans, both in the no-holds-barred world of the OGL and the more restricted but presumably stamped-with-approval arena of the Dungeon Master’s Guild, means 5E gets the support it deserves.

 

Hardcore players and Dungeon Masters, the kind of fans that clamor for new character classes and monster manuals, are the people that bring new blood into the hobby. I think that for some years now a lot of that introduction to the hobby has happened through Pathfinder rather than D&D. I myself gave two sets of young kids a Pathfinder Beginner Box because there was not an equivalent D&D product until The Lost Mines of Phandelver came out (which i immediately bought for one of those kids). Exciting existing players about D&D will generate new players as they share that excitement. New products are one way to keep excitement running high.

 

As 2016 progresses and details become clear regarding the DMGuild (not to mention me finishing projects I am already working on) I will be looking to publish for 5E under the OGL and possibly even the DMGuild. I don’t expect to make much if any money doing it. D&D is one of my great passions, a fundamental aspect of my inner geek older than comic books and only slightly newer than writing fantastical stories. Being able to put my thumbprint on even the smallest corner of the game, in however unofficial a capacity, is way too awesome an opportunity for this old geek to pass up.

 

An Aside: If you are interested in my Return to the Isle of Dread and don’t follow me on Twitter, fix that! I am currently creating a d100 random encounter chart for the Isle in the lead up to TotalCon 2016 and want to share it with you — yes, even you, over there, in your underwear eating a bowl of Ramen while you read this. Find me @IanAsItWere

Carnage on the Isle of Dread

This past weekend marked another successful 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons ongoing hexploration adventure at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. This year, given the “Lost World” theme of the Con, I chose to have the players explore the  Isle of Dread. As usual, I used new school rules to run a game with old school sensibilities and more than a dash of weirdness. This post is simply a collection of thoughts on the game and how it might change (hopefully for the better) before TotalCon.

 

Don’t worry, TotalCon attendees, I will be speaking in generalities so no worries about spoilers.

 

  1. Everyone Love Riding Dinosaurs:  As much as folks love hunting dinosaurs, killing them and making steaks of them, the truest pleasure possible for the sword and sorcery hero is to tame such a mighty beast — or at least hold on for as long as possible. One of the “side quests” I provided was a T-Rex hunt. See, the terrible lizards (see what I did there?) have a penchant for devouring herds, guides and paying customers, so the lord of Gate Town (the only purpose of which is to operate the huge Skull Island style wooden gates) offered 500 gold pieces for the head of a tyrannosaur. Of course the party took the bait. But it was not the slaying of the mighty beast (“beasts” actually, as they were a mated pair) that was the highlight, but rather the riding of the monsters by first the gnomish eldricht knight and then the bard. Pay no heed to the fact that the gnome had an advantage to getting atop the thing by being so close, clamped between its jaws and all. She certainly didn’t.
  2. When in doubt, zombies — and if that doesn’t do it, tentacles: It is a well known fact that the weird fantasy from which D&D takes much of its inspiration is closely tied to horror. And if two things speak “horror” then those are the shambling hungry dead and amorphous horrors that seek to propagate by way of infection of one’s innards. It turns out that these two things are two great tastes that go great together. If you want to recreate this most compelling adversary in your home campaign, do thus: start with a zombie and upon its death have it explode into a swarm of maggots, which in turn coalesce in to a medium sized tentacled ooze that suffocates its victims by crawling into their lungs. Now, count them by the score. It certainly worked upon the Return to the Isle of Dread.
  3. Never discard a random encounter; use it in a new way: Much of how I prepare for these long hexploration adventures amounts to finding the right random charts: names, weather, treasures and, of course, encounters. I run D&D well on my feet, responding to both the players and the dice. I have tried the other way, with all the writing and the plotting, and it simply does not work for me. So, there were many random encounters rolled during the course of the adventurers wanderings, but two really stand out in my memory. In the first, which followed fast apace a troublesome combat encounter, I rolled two revenants. I wanted to give the PCs an opportunity to avoid trouble, and it occurred during one of the late watches. I decided on a whim that the spirits were lovers (people of the antediluvian culture that once ruled the Isle) who, star crossed perhaps, decided to be together forever in death. The revenants walked through the party camp and the party chose to follow them, all through the night to a high cliff on the shore of the Dread Sea and just as dawn broke one spirit put a ring upon the finger of the other and they threw themselves off the cliff to their eternal, nightly repeated dooms. So the party set about finding the ring, which was still on the finger of the hand of one of the lovers while held in the skeletal grasp of the other. They performed the right rituals and waited the night and were able to put the revenants to rest with nary a shot fired — and for their effort they were rewarded with a magic ring. It was touching and warm and a nice break from the usual combat. In the other example, a unicorn ran swiftly by the party, chased by sprites. The ranger decided to “defend” the unicorn and fire upon a sprite. It exploded in a cloud of glitter and two gossamer wings spinning sadly earthward. Then, the rest of the party opened fire and it was glitter and doom everywhere. The unicorn returned to collect the surviving playmates and glower at the ranger. I guess not every encounter can be non-combat. On the upside, the party did not decide to find out if unicorn meat really did sparkle.
  4. Greed is the DM’s Best Friend: When in doubt, dangle something shiny in front of the party. Gauranteed, at least one of them will take a grab at it. Amazingly, I managed to get a player with the old “illusory floor” trick. Big statue. Heaps of gold. No ten foot pole. You know the story. The splat was very satisfying, but then a quick fly spell followed by revivify and my work was undone. I still count it as a kill, of course. Better was what I like to call the Test of Wizardly Greed and Instant Death. You see, The Isle of Dread is a weird place, influenced by many worlds, and in one spot a machine made for nothing but destruction — a death machine from Gamma World for those keeping score — was found in a crater. It patrolled the crater and killed anyone that touched the ground within with a ray of pure death. Those that were merely killed and not disintegrated were picked apart by circling pteranodons. Over the centuries since its appearance on the Isle, wizards in particular have been interested in discovering its secrets, perhaps even mastering it, and their bones litter the crater — along with their magic staves, rings and spellbooks. It is a vast collection of wealth, free for the taking for anyone capable of out witting the death machine. I won’t wore you with the details, but a new wizard’s corpse decorates the crater (while the paladin’s ash pile has probably blown away by now).

I was very lucky this Carnage. Of five sessions I ran, the first four were full with other folk waiting around to get a seat (I learned after last year’s TotalCon to limit my players to 8 — my last game had 13 players!). The final Sunday afternoon game was only 5, but that was okay since it tends to be a bit of a slower day (aka hangover city). I had great fun running the game — and will so again at TotalCon 2016 under the Dark Phoenix Events banner — and got to play with lots of friends, old and new. Running games is a treat for me and while I of course believe I am completely awesome at it, I would not be near so awesome without great players in the seats.

 

Some Housekeeping

 

I have been posting rarely these days, due in no small part to time constraints from school and work and family life. Now, I am working on  novel which will eat even more of my creative time and energy. But, I will endeavor to do more blogging as the year draws to a close and hopefully 2016 will see a return to form for this space. Thanks you for sticking with me.

 

 

 

Return to the Isle of Dread

 

Decades ago, adventurers found a forgotten captain’s log that led them to a mysterious island inhabited by strange peoples and terrible monsters. Their adventures opened the floodgates for treasure seekers and monster hunters until one day, the island simply disappeared, as if erased from the very ocean. In time, the so-called Isle of Dread became a legend and rumor, all but forgotten — until now. The hull all but gone and the crew all but mad, a ship has berthed bearing not only tales of the lost isle, but also glittering treasures and strange artifacts.

 

The isle has returned to the world, but will you Return to the Isle of Dread?
A D&D 5th Edition Ongoing Adventure of danger, daring and dinosaurs coming to a Con near you this fall.

10 Things I Learned Running D&D 5E All Weekend

I spent the weekend at TotalCon in Mansfield, MA. I visited with old friends, drank too much and absolved myself of real grown up responsibilities for a few days, but mostly I ran 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I DMed six session slots for a total of 25 hours of play (that last one on Sunday went an hour long). These were not six sessions of the same couple of adventures run over and over, but rather one continuous hex-crawl exploration, a sort of table-top massive multi-player game called “The Valley of Tombs” that actually started at CarnageCon in Killington VT this past fall (that’s a total of 11 Con sessions I have run it, by the way). It was exhausting. It was fun. It was overwhelming. It was glorious. And, it taught me some things.

 

So, without further ado, here at the 10 things I learned while running a ridiculous amount of D&D 5E this weekend:

 

1: The most time consuming thing is getting everyone up to speed. With only one exception, every session had at least a couple players that were unfamiliar with 5E and who had not played the Valley of Tombs before (either at Carnage or at a previous TotalCon session). While this was no surprise, I was taken aback at just how much time it can take to get a player comfortable enough with both the system and the conceit of the game to be able to choose a character, parse its abilities and role in the party and be ready to strike out in search of adventure. And while I think I got “the spiel” down to a reasonable length by the end there, my introduction to both 5E and the Valley could certainly use some tweaking.

2: Valley Veterans are a Godsend. There were two sessions in which folks who had not previously played were entirely absent and their absence was felt. It was not simply an issue of history and lore, though having folks around that appreciated and could impart that stuff was nice, but one of logistics: veteran players were able to bring new players up to speed while I was organizing my notes and preparing for actual play. Thankfully, I had a ton of veterans by Con’s end and I appreciate everyone who sat twice or more at the table.

3: Characters should belong to players. There is something neat about picking up a PC that has some treasure, some XP and some history, but one thing I did not think about was just how profound player versus character knowledge became with a mix of veteran and new players. Some characters were chosen consistently throughout even though players came and went, which meant Gar the Half-Orc Ranger experienced the first brush with the Faerie-Eating Spider-Men, Bob could not explain that information to Jane since Fred had actually played Gar the previous session. The shared journal I have players fill out helps some, of course, but unless Gar’s player was running the journal, Gar’s perspective is lacking. I think one-and-done PCs for any player are necessary given the format, and since levelling is slow slow it should not impact the balance of the game.

4: No one cares about the Inspiration die. In the Con game format, I wanted to avoid everyone jostling for role-playing time with their Flaws and Ideals and such to gain Inspiration. Instead, I had one Inspiration Die that was meant to move around the table. If you got it (for being awesome, for making the game fun, or for bringing me beer or coffee) you could use it anytime you wanted, but then it went back into contention and the next awesome, beer-getting player got it. In reality, no one remembered it was out there. Maybe I give advantage too often or maybe the die being in one player’s possession makes everyone forget about it, but there were very few situations in which it got used at all. I will have to rethink the Inspiration Die bit.

5: Tea is my larynx’s best friend. I had a cold last week anyway, and spending all that time talking certainly strained my voice. Throw in the late night parties and I should have been voiceless by Saturday. But I took that advice of my beautiful and hyper intelligent wife and brought an electric tea kettle to the Con and was able, with judicious use of honey and lemon, keep myself able to be heard. As an added bonus, the kettle was also great for instant oatmeal and Ramen as a way to save money on meals!

6: Never Sit. Seriously. You are the head of the table. All eyes are on you. If you disappear behind that screen, you have lost them. Don’t do it. (I actually learned this at Carnage, but it is so important I had to repeat it here.)

7: If you are going to wing it, be prepared. That sounds contradictory, but it really proved its truth this weekend. In the weeks leading up to the Con, I had some trouble dedicating the necessary amount of time to be ready for this. So, it turned out that because I do not run any early morning games (you’ll remember the thing about the late night parties above) I had a few hours every day to tweak previously prepared stuff and add new material, without knowing whether it would get used. Open world sandbox gaming requires lots of material on hand, whether it is cribbed from other sources, based on random tables or created whole cloth. Otherwise, the game slows to a painful crawl. I made good use of my mildly hungover, tea-drinking time and it paid off.

8: Random results are best results. There is no better way to illustrate this than by example. During the aforementioned preparation, I rolled a treasure hoard that included, of all things, a bag of beans. I have never used a bag of beans in a D&D game before and would likely never have thrown one into the treasure mix on purpose. It happens to end up in a hoard that the PCs acquire (though they don’t know what to make of it — either PCs or players). Later, those same PCs end up in a dire situation: a few party members are trapped in a sealed room, running out of oxygen, dying the slow, ignominious death of the tomb raider while their friends tried desperately yet futilely to free them. Finally, with nothing left to lose, they decide to drill a hole in the many-ton stone block that traps their companions, stuff said hole with dirt and plant a bean from the bag. One percentile roll later, a massive pyramid erupts from the bean, destroying that portion of the dungeon and providing a way out for the doomed PCs. And, on top of it, a terrible mummy lord lives in said pyramid, thereby adding a new wrinkle to the setting. None of that awesomeness would have happened without a few random rolls.

 

Yup. Just about like that.

9: Allosaurus riding lizardmen make everything okay. My last session of The Valley of Tombs for the weekend was the Sunday 1 PM slot. Thirteen players ended up at that table (because I can’t say “No”) and I was sure it was going to crash and burn. My TotalCon legacy was going to be a baker’s dozen of disappointed players. At first, it seemed to be going that way with minor details turning into major plot points and some intra-party machinations threatening to derail things. Then, at just the right moment (i.e. with less than an hour left) the party heads to their original adventure site which turns out to be full of lizard men riding Allosauruses (Allosauri?). It made everything better.

10: The Valley of Tombs is an actual thing. When seven of nine (insert Star Trek borg bosom joke here) 1 PM slot  players chose to forego their pre-registered 7 PM games to continue their adventures, I not only realized I had something pretty cool on my hands, I was more flattered than if I had won IronGM (which I decided not to do this year since I wanted to run Valley). It isn’t perfect yet and there is a lot of work to get The Valley of Tombs into a semi-pro state, but I think it has legs. My goal over the next few months is to build it a website and develope it well enough that it becomes an honest to goodness actual “thing” at New England regional gaming cons, probably starting with OGC Con in New Hampshire in June.

 

I loved running this event over the weekend and I really do think it has potential to be a fixture for years to come. I want to thank every player that sat at the table, but most especially those that kept coming back. You guys rock.

 

The Valley of Tombs: Threshold

Here is a description of the town and people of Threshold, gateway to the Valley of Tombs. Players of the old BECMI D&D set will remember the name and the homage is intentional.

 

The town of Threshold is the gateway to the Valley of Tombs, where would-be adventures, tomb raiders and prospectors come to test their fortunes and fates against the threats of the Valley. It was established only a decade ago in cooperation between the Finder’s Guild and the Gunt minor noble house. And while it is not the only settlement in the Valley (see also Minehold and Lakehold) is is the most important.

 

The leader of Threshold is Lady Eldra Gunt. While ostensibly an elected mayor of the town, she has never been opposed in an election and in any case only land owners in Threshold, of which there are very few among the many itinerants and wanderers, are allowed to vote. Lady Gunt makes certain they are all well pleased with her policies or they do not remain long in Threshold.

 

Lady Gunt’s chief supporter is Sheriff Balthazar Grimes, a former highwayman and sell sword elevated to public office based on his readiness to do whatever Lady Gunt orders of him. As sheriff his official duty is to protect the people of Threshold. In reality, he serves as both a tax collector and shakedown artist for Lady Gunt. Anyone entering Threshold must pay a 10% tax on all wealth found in the Valley and Grimes is well known to demand other taxes, tithes and fines of newcomers. He is a dangerous man, skilled and gleefully cruel in combat, and he has the good sense to make life comfortable for the guardsmen under his command who tow the line.

 

The only other town “official” is the sage of the Finder’s Guild, an aged elf named Eraneon. He technically has a full voice in town affairs based on the agreement between the Guild and House Gunt that established Threshold, but in reality he cares very little for the goings on of the mayor and her toadie. As an elf who has lived a very long time, Sage Eraneon views any political situation in Threshold as ultimately temporary and is far more interested in exploring the Valley and delving its secrets and treasures for the Guild. Elves know only knowledge lasts forever — everything else is transient. That said, Eraneon has been known to aid successful Guild contractors in avoiding trouble with Lady Gunt or Sheriff Grimes as long as those contractors are discrete and did not bring the trouble down on themselves.

 

There are a few scattered taphouses in Threshold but only one inn of any note: The Keg and Kastle, operated by an ex-tomb raider named Holger. His prices are reasonable, his food is edible and his rooms are clean and secure. He bears no love for either Lady Gunt or Sheriff Grimes but knows better than to cross either of them, especially for adventurers who are as likely to die in some ancient barrow as they are to ever return a favor. Rumors persist of some great wealth or hidden treasure in the cellar of the inn, but no one has ever confirmed it and all Holger ever says about it is that when he retired he spent all his treasure securing the K&K.

 

There are no limit to the number of peddlers and self-styled merchants in threshold trying to part folks from their tomb-findings with shoddy wares but there is only one recognized shop in town. Operated by the grotesquely obese dwarf Garil (the shop is called simply “Garil’s Goods”) it serves as a trading post for all manner of mundane items. Garil’s prices are outrageous — he charges half again the usual rate for everything — but he is honest insofar as he will not sell low quality merchandise or cheat his customers. He is firmly in alliance with both Lady Gunt and Sherrif Grimes and has been known to turn in people who have tried to avoid their taxes by selling goods to him. It is suspected that he gets a portion of those “found” taxes.

 

Threshold sits on the bank of the river and riverboats move goods and people between Lakehold and Threshold and then on to Guntville (seat of House Gunt) one hundred miles downriver. The Threshold dockmaster is a female halfling named Middie Bow. She is a friend of Holger’s and hates both Gunt and Grimes but is in no position to oppose either since her job is assigned and she could easily be replaced.

 

Magical Monday: Zetherith’s Gold

It is time to put my previous entry, Random D&D Inspiration to the test! First thing is first — generating a random page number for each of the three core books. After excessive clattering of dice, I came up with the following:

 

Monster Manual page 285:Succubus/Incubus! That is a promising start.

 

Player’s Handbook page 134: the Hermit character background!

 

and finally Dungeon Master’s Guide page 117: underwater visibility, “The Sea” and “Navigation” and a beautiful painting of an adventuress opening a treasure chest at the bottom of a shallow sea or lagoon.

 

The above collection is a pretty good example of why I believe that random elements in both gaming and storytelling are of worth. It is not that any individual aspect of an idea must be unique or revolutionary, but rather that with the right combination of even common tropes and images (and what of the above elements is not an old fantasy trope?) you are empowered to create something new. By absolving yourself of the responsibility of coming up with a “great idea” and letting Fate decide, you are freed from your own limitations and biases in at least the most foundational aspect of creation: brainstorming. For my part, I can imagine having come up with come idea built around a succubus, a hermit or underwater treasure hunting, but not likely one combining the two and certainly not all three.

 

Let’s get to work, then.

 

The first thing to do when trying to weave these disparate results into a cohesive idea is to put them into a larger context. In this example, I have two specific things that contextualize the idea: 1) this is a Magical Monday entry, which pushes the idea in the direction of something wondrous rather than monstrous, and 2) it must be useful for my Valley of Tombs adventure setting — with TotalCon coming up fast, I can’t afford to waste any creative time and energy on anything else. With those two requirements in mind, I can start to figure out what to do with these three random elements.

 

Since this is not a Wicked Wednesday entry, I am not looking to create a villain or monster to plague explorers of the Valley of Tombs. That throws out the idea of a villain succubus or incubus, which is well enough since it is a tired idea anyway. Instead, reading the Hermit entry and thinking on the charm aspect of the succubus and incubus, I decide the following: the Hermit was once a wealthy money changer who lived in the town of Lakehold. We will call him Zetherith Ennar (random name generators abound on the internet — find one that works for you!) and say he is a half elf. He was charmed by a fiend, however, that used his wealth and influence to cause pain and heartache among Zetherith’ family and clientele. Just to buck the usual “evil woman” trope, I’ll say Zetherith  was charmed by an incubus, whom we’ll call Adoth Firefair. Eventually, the fiend tired of his game with Zetherith and decided to drain the life from the moneychanger but before he could murder his mortal pawn, Adoth was attacked and driven back to the Hells by Church Inquisitors (I am keeping this bit intentionally vague: I like having players be able to define their character’s religions and organizations, which means leaving much of the larger world in which the Valley of Tombs fits into undefined). Because Zetherith was never able to shake the magical charm Adoth had placed on him, even after the incubus was driven to his home plane, Serveris Ennar harbored an abiding and tragic love for the fiend. Moreover, Zetherith was exposed and blamed for the damage caused under Adoth’s influence and driven from Lakehold, becoming a hermit living in an ancient abandoned lakeside light house a few miles from town.

 

This is a good background for an NPC, but it is not yet much of an interactive element for explorers of the Valley of Tombs. For that part, I will take inspiration largely from the image on DMG page 117:

 

While under the power of Adoth Firefair, Zetherith Ennar continued his money changing and money lending business. Using wit and guile, he tricked many of his customers into bad (but perfectly legal) investments and gambles and invariably those people lost their wealth. Adoth Firefair knew that those who lost everything were capable of the most desperate acts and enjoyed watching chaos spread through families and the community. Each gold piece Zetherith collected this way was cursed by Adoth’s taint and the incubus convinced Zetherith to collect it all into one treasure chest. When the inquisitors came for Adoth and the townsfolk turned against him, Zetherith cast the chest into the bay of Lakehold for fear that the evil of Adoth would follow that money forever and bring misery to whoever held even one silver piece of it. While no one saw where Zetherith drowned the chest, rumors persists still ten years later of its existence.

 

Player characters coming to Lakehold may hear rumors of Zetherith’s Gold and might be able to hunt down the hermit and find out the truth of the story (Zetherith will only willingly give up the location of the gold if the PCs indicate they can cleanse it of its curse and promise to give it to the Church that drove Adoth away). The chest contains 531 gp, 2398 sp and a small collection of gems (12 worth 1d6x10 gp each). Adoth’s curse is real, however, and anyone keeping the money for themselves or spending it on selfish desires is cursed to suffer Disadvantage on any and all saving throws made against the effects of magical charms. In addition, this curse is obvious to any evil outsider that possesses a charm ability. The only way to remove the curse is to atone by giving away 3 times as much wealth as they kept or spent for themselves.


For Wicked Wednesday this week, I will roll randomly again and see what pops up!

New Year, New Focus

bring it

 

The tail end of 2014 was a thin one for this blog. Between end of semester class stress, the holidays and a little bout with writer’s block, I did not make many posts. As 2015 opens, I intend to get back in the groove and dedicate the time and energy necessary to keep things lively here in my tiny little corner of the internet.

 

First and foremost, I will be continuing to make 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons a major part of this blog. Both Magical Mondays and Wicked Wednesdays will continue. Much of the work I do on that front will be based on developing content for The Valley of Tombs, my “massive multiplayer table top RPG” that should see plenty of play in 2015. Most notably, I have  six four hour slots set up at TotalCon in Mansfield, MA this February 19-22. With 24 hours of play and potentially 48 unique players, I want to have lots of content on hand. In addition I am going to be occasionally be developing content for the Valley Obsidian Portal Page, which I hope to use to build interest for the game.

 

While D&D is certainly a passion of mine and a big part of this blog, I will continue to provide the occasional unsolicited rant, non-review or opinionated screed of any geeky thing that strikes my fancy. Sometimes I will even make a cogent point or two. We live in a time when geeky subjects have gone mainstream and larger cultural issues collide with niche interests, whether it is the intersection of feminism and video games or questions regarding the less palatable views of genre titans like Lovecraft. As nerds, geeks and dweebs, we are all affected by these issues in some way or another, and they are worth talking about.

 

Finally, 2015 will be a year of refocusing on my own fiction writing. I don’t know how much of that will show up here. I don’t intend to make this blog a showcase of my fiction like I had in the past, but I will certainly be talking about it and whatever process in which I engage. I plan on writing one novel this year, but I have a lot of world building ahead of me before I can even hope to start writing. I may give self publishing short stories a try, and if I do I’ll surely be fretting about that process here.

 

Happy New Year and thanks, as usual, for reading.

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!