Friday, January 20, 2017

"d100 Dungeon Master Tips" Critiqued - Volume 2: #s 62, 48, 07

We continue riffing off "d100 Dungeon Master Tips" by Mike Shea, as featured in Dragon+. Three tips critiqued, every Friday!

#62: "Give monsters an interesting array of weaponry. They don't all fight with the same short sword."

This is actually useful. See, ideally, different weapons promote different tactics, and an encounter group of enemies with varied tactics and roles can be an engaging challenge. Don't bother simply throwing in a couple of extra weapon types for flavor - all you're doing is changing a couple of damage dice here and there for no appreciable benefit. Think how a club-wielding goblin might behave differently than a spear-wielding goblin, and don't be afraid to adjust stats, HP, and other pieces of equipment (armor, shields, loot, etc) accordingly.

In fact, you might just be best off coming up with a couple of different stat blocks to cover that variety. I recently built a goblin encounter from a mix of "goblin bashers" (club and shield), "goblin slashers" (dual sabers), "gobin throwers" (javelins), and "goblin shamans" (alchemy and a couple spells) - each had stats, abilities, and descriptions built around different combat rolls. (The Angry GM goes way more in-depth here if you're down for a long read.)

#48: "If your adventure had a sensationalist newspaper headline, how would it read?"


Personally I tend to DM more sand-box-oriented campaigns, but if I had to come up with "a sensationalist newspaper headline" for my current one, it would be: "King Othric Opens Westlands to Settlement - Scum and Villainy Take Advantage of Royal Pardon and Depart for the Frontier!" (More on my current campaign in not too long.)

#07: "Spend a few minutes thinking about the strength of each of the characters and build interesting situations that help them show off those abilities."

...Maybe? It depends on the group you're playing with, perhaps. If they're just in it to feel powerful and spotlit, sure, toss them some bones. Me? I like (both giving and receiving) challenges with no straightforward solution that require thought and creativity (so - NOT "oh, one of my players has a cleric PC with Turn Undead, so I'll just have a scene with like ten mookish skeletons so she can go crazy and turn them all and save the day just like that"). In my method, GMs should create challenges for story and flavor reasons, and then watch as player creativity organically solves those challenges. You usually don't need to know HOW they'll do it - just watch it happen. (And make sure the "challenge" isn't just a slug-it-out fight-to-the-death with no retreat possible. Give 'em a chance to run, rendezvous, recover, and return with plans and tactics in hand.)

In short, MY advice is that you throw players bones if that's what they get off to, but aim for a more mature group that relishes complex problems with no obvious solutions.

Previous volumes:
Volume 1

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Dungeon Ecology

You all know the image (if you play tabletop RPGs, at least): a group of like four or five murderous weirdos descend into the chthonic depths of the earth in order to haul out chestfulls of gold (and maybe a princess here and there, too).

But, like, how do all these dank underground spaces GET there?

Who makes dungeons?

(from here)

I'm not really talking about literal dungeons - crappy little spaces with bars and chains to hold prisoners in some castle's basement. Those are usually pretty tiny, modest affairs, nothing like the labyrinthine, multi-level complexes of cave and tunnel that tabletop RPGs so often feature.

I ask who makes dungeons because they're so rare in real life. (Y'know, our actual world.) The reason for this is usually that it's dang hard to dig meandering tunnels and subterranean rooms through earth and rock. Dirt constantly wants to collapse on you (necessitating EXTENSIVE systems of support), and stone, in ADDITION to the danger of cave-ins, is simply a tough substance to break. And THEN you have to haul out all the material you create ALL THE WAY TO THE SURFACE (which, obviously, is farther away the bigger of an excavation you're creating).

All this explains why human-made underground spaces are so rare. In ancient and medieval times, really the only reasons to dig underground were 1) to make a stable foundation for large, expensive buildings, and 2) mining. (We STILL mostly follow these trends, by the way.) It's just not worth the effort to dig out any kind of structure underground, because it's always easier to build (and maintain) (and access) (and use) conventional aboveground buildings.

So, we're stuck with a convention in fantasy gaming that doesn't hold true in real life. (What a surprise.) We can do two things: toss out the convention and only create adventures in above-ground locations (and the occasional mine or basement) OR explain how dungeons still manage to arise in our gameworlds.

I've done the former fairly often, but in this post, I want to explore a possibility for the latter option!

Namely, trees. (And shrubs and weeds and shrooms and squirrels and other stuff that dies, decomposes and forms soil.)

Frekkin' TREES (from album artwork of Warforged - Essence of the Land)
Let me elaborate.

So, y'all know how dirt is made, right? It's mostly smashed-up rock (with particle sizes ranging from sand to clay) mixed with bits of dead stuff (mostly plants). This dead stuff we call "humus" (no, not "hummus," that gross stuff that stereotypical veg(etari)ans eat), and is really great for making fertile, arable soil rich in nutrients that plants need to grow (because it's mostly made of plants that DID grow there a while back).

Now, soil does build up over time as rock is weathered and plants die, but at slow rates that are often countered by erosion, compaction, or formation of sedimentary rock.

Now, since we're talking about FANTASY worlds, let's make it a bit more, well, fantastic.

Say, for instance, that in your gameworld, foliage (and maybe other forms of life, too) grow WAY faster than we're used to.

Like, we're talking about WAY faster than normal. Imagine ^this^ all over. (From the album artwork of Robert Rich - Somnium)
(You don't even need to put much effort into WHY this would be. Just wave your hand and intone something about "natural magic," "atmospheric composition," or (gods forbid) "druids.")

Fast-growing flora (and maybe fauna) would explain a lot of things. Here's a couple I thought of:
1) Why the gameworld is full of so much untamed wilderness - it just grows TOO FAST to keep most of it clear-cut!
2) Why acreage of farmland is so small compared to the gameworld population - crops grow fast and fruitful!
3) Why those infamously-large elf-infested trees get so huge!
4) Why monsters in the wild are so big!
5) Why the abundance of predatory species can possibly have enough prey to feed upon!
6) Why bandits are everywhere? (are they affected by the wild growthspeed, too?)
7) Why so many underground structures ("dungeons") exist!

Wait, what? Why 7)?

If there's a ton of plant matter constantly growing and dying, the buildup of soil will be SIGNIFICANTLY faster than we're used to. Maybe fast enough that abandoned buildings only a century (or so) old would be buried by fresh dirt.


You see? Civilizations build towns, fortresses, keeps, halls, and whatever else - and if they are ravaged or abandoned, they are soon BURIED (and perhaps re-inhabited by the denizens of the subterranean world!) These tunnels you're walking through? They were once the hallways of a monastery. This cavernous room? Once the cupola of a temple's dome. This vertical shaft? Once the top of a well.

Certain features common among above-ground buildings would still be discernible, of course. Former windows allowing dirt and dense roots to poke in. Skylights, perhaps still open to the sky (even as the rest of the structure is buried). Former ceilings, buried, then collapsed, forming a cavernous space roofed only by roots and densely-packed soil.

Now, when your players ask you why there are all these well-cut, firmly-laid stone blocks in a massive underground complex that would've taken unimaginable efforts to dig and bolster, you can smile knowingly and start planting a clue every session or two. (A window to... dirt? A skylight with no sky? And, wait, how long ago did we plant this large tree? And, my, Fido has grown...)

In this gameworld, Civilization has a tomb of its own: the ever-grasping clutches of mighty Nature. (Album artwork from Halgrath - Out of Time)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 2

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

Can you say "adventure location"?
Anyway, there's a ton of interesting things going on here!
In the far background, there are several pyramids, temples, and/or fortresses, some looking like they were built BEFORE the water entered this area (i.e. their foundations are submerged, and their depths likely drowned). What civilization built such wonders? When (and WHY) did the water come to wash it all away? What now lurks on the lightless, airless depths of these structures?
In the middle background, there is a broken bridge and a large, stair-encumbered building with a MASSIVE MALEVOLENT TREE growing on and over it. What caused this HUGE, MALICIOUS vegetable to grow there? (Is it itself SENTIENT? What does it want? Why does it reach for the sun as if to devour it? What does it guard in the large building's depths? What would it do to a party of humanoids that approach it?) Secondly, that broken bridge would be an AWESOME scene for a battle, full of peril from falling over its low-railed sides or crumbling through its precarious masonry. (What horrors might crawl from that pyramid on the left to confront a party of passing adventurers as they struggle over the treacherous bridge?)
In the near background, there's another bridge (with a claw-like structure similar to the ones festooning the former on its gatehouse) and a surprisingly-intact squarish temple merging with the jungle. Which was first, the jungle or the temple? Has the jungle won its way INSIDE, and what has it spawned in the numinous dark of the religious structure?
Finally, in the foreground, is an AWESOME-LOOKING sarcophagus made of some sort of glass or crystal (stahlrim?). What lies within? (Or, perhaps, what LIVES within?) What would happen were the sarcophagus cracked or opened? (CAN it even be cracked or opened by mundane means?)
Anyway, ohmygosh, you could totally run a short campaign with JUST THIS ONE IMAGE. Seriously, it's LOADED.
(Check out the band itself, too. Rivers of Nihil has been doing some cool stuff lately.)

Three main things arrest my interest in this cover.
1) The aurora itself, obviously. It's got people in it. So, in your game world, WHO manifests in the aurora? Noble saints? Ghosts of the departed? Angels? Demons? Dancing gods? A celestial hunting party? Incorporate the aurora (and its denizens) into at least one religion in your game world!
2) That bell. Like, seriously, massive hunks of shaped metal don't just TURN UP on random frozen shores. Is the building that the bell from behind the viewer's perspective? Did it sink beneath the waves? (Why didn't the bell suffer the same fate? Is it MAGICAL? What strange properties does it possess? What otherworldly effects manifest when it is rung?)
3) There's a strange-looking geographical feature on the far side of that bay or fjord - it looks like a hole. Or a massive eye. (If a hole, where does it lead? What lies beneath the glacial ridge in the background? If an eye, WHAT IS LOOKING AT YOU?)

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

PUTRID CROWN (Parasitic Extirpation)
Ohmygosh, this thing looks COOL. (Also drop-dead lethal. But COOL.)
So, what is it? It looks vaguely vegetable, from the thorns, bark-like texture, and verdant color. (Skyrim spriggan?) Is it some vengeful, bloodthirsty nature spirit? Or, a blighted tree that has gained sentience and now desires only to destroy?
Taking a cue from the album title, it seems to be wearing a crown. Did the crown warp this creature into its current state? Who made the crown? What would it do to a player character who decides to wear it?
What's with the spackling and blurring at its edges? Is it somehow coming apart? Or spewing spores or insectile assailants? (In tactical terms, that's an area effect that either inflicts direct damage or a malevolent status effect!)
Why is it chained? (I mean, besides the fact that it's OBVIOUSLY DANGEROUS?) Like, why would something want to keep this around? Is it a prisoner? A guardian? (Probably a guardian. Guarding that cave off to the left of the image.)
Why does it collect skulls? (Intimidation? Currency? Source of power? Or, was it directed to by something... else?)
If this is what you find OUTSIDE the dungeon (cave), what the jank kind of madness will you find INSIDE?

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1