Between Realism & Fantasy: my dungeon design

As I was working on the Iron Mine dungeon for my own campaign, and reading various things online (including the AngryDMs articles on his MegaDungeon) I decided I wanted to write something about my high level dungeon design approach, and some pet peeves.

Obviously, every dungeon should have a story, and a history, which explains why it was built, what its function was and what has happened with it since it was built. Knowing these things will help you add the small details that makes the dungeon come alive.

Two Extremes

To me, there are two extremes of dungeon design – the realistic and the fantastic – and a

Deathstar_negwt
It is hard to explore the Death Star room by room. And all the random encounters with Storm Troopers would become quite boring. 

 

whole lot of variations in between. Another way to look at them are complete dungeons versus ‘just the cool bits’ dungeons. An example of a complete dungeon would be Temple of Elemental Evil, where every little corridor is described and the Death Star, where we just see a couple of important areas, would be a ‘cool bits’ dungeon.

Gary Gygax leaned towards the realistic and complete dungeon. His gaming and inspiration starting point was actual medieval castles, and therefore many of the early published dungeons look somewhat like something you could find in real life – an example would be the Moathouse in The Village of Hommlet module.

Mausoleum
The catacombs beneath Paris has 2 km of tunnels (which isn’t counting the rest of the lime stone quarry) keeping the bones of 6 million dead. Good place for a lich…

The biggest problem, in my view, with many of the old school designs is that many of the dungeons are actually far smaller than the “dungeons” – in the broad sense – that you can find in real life, and Gary’s sources of inspiration are focused on medieval Europe, which limits the imagination. However, humans have built vast fortresses, palaces and constructions that dwarf what the early designers came up with for D&D. And until the Underdark became a thing, the natural caves in the real world were far more extensive than e.g. Keep on the Borderlands. Real world strongholds are also often very complex buildings with many complicated passageways and interconnecting rooms.

Furthermore, it is obviously not realistic to have 5 goblins living 20 yards and two doors away from a ferocious owl bear. Would you be living in an apartment if there was a wild bear living a couple of apartments away… even if you had a spear?

The influence of the real world architecture has also prevented many designers from actually thinking about how things would look in a high magic fantasy world. A castle is designed to take as many lives from the enemy as possible, while protecting the people inside from the attackers as much as possible for as long as possible. Therefore, you typically only have one or two access points from the ground level and towers from where you can better attack the enemy. But if you are a wizard who wishes to create a flying citadel using a castle seems to be a terrible design. Why would you want towers and battlements on your Citadel, when you might as well carve out a big rock with whatever you need. It would be much safer from dragons and armies of knights on griffons.

In my current campaign I’ve tried to think more about this for current and future dungeons.

The Published Designer’s Constraint: paper

The issue for designers who have to publish their stuff is that they are limited by the medium: for example, the paper size and the number of pages you can publish limits the designer. That seems to be one of the reasons why Gary G. cram so much stuff into each level of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Obviously it is also fun that every time you open a door to a room there is something interesting.

The designer also has to be able to communicate his vision with a map and text, which can be quite difficult. At home, you don’t need to explain to other people in text.

Your GM notes only needs to be understood by you. That’s a big advantage.

1929306_6520803106_6434_n
The beautiful Caerphilly Castle. A big dungeon, but I wouldn’t want to use it as a flying Citadel.

The realistic dungeon just doesn’t seem Fantasy-like to me, when you play a high fantasy game like D&D at least. With massive magocracies and enslaved giants, why would you build those tiny structures. As a lich, with endless amount of time, I would build something more imposing than Caerphilly castle in Wales – even though it is very grand in real life.

In your home game, if you want to make a big fantastic dungeon in a ruined city, you can make sections of the dungeon and cut out the boring parts. If your dungeon has a massive slave pit, make one big encounter against the slave masters and their pets, figure out how it connects with the rest of the dungeon, and then simply narrate the rest of the trip there.

The Iron Mine

Gates
Build it bigger! These are the Roman gates to Florence. Why make a lousy 20 foot gate, when you can make it 50 feet tall?

 

For the Iron Mine in my campaign I used the approach I’ve described. The site has a historical background and fits into the world, and it has a twist, that I can’t reveal here. But it relates to a couple of the greater narratives in my world. For example, last session they found the foreman, who had locked himself up in a room and killed himself. The question is why?

The mine has been worked by the elves for perhaps centuries, so it wouldn’t make sense to have one page of graph paper with some 10×10 corridors and a few rooms. Therefore, I made several sections of the mine, connected with tunnels that were 30×30 feet, and hundreds of feet long, and explained to the players that there were numerous small side corridors, shafts and tunnels, which their characters would be looking into and checking out superficially along the way as part of the story, but that we would only go into full dungeoneering mode, when they arrive at significant parts of the dungeon.

Each section I made is sort of a mini-dungeon by itself, with typically 3-5 separate locations/rooms, and the sections function and history is incorporated into the overall backstory of the dungeon. And each section has its own map. The map connecting the sections is basically a flow-chart.

Some of the advantages with the approach are:

  • The mine seems like a more grand, fantastic and scary place, in my view.
  • The dungeon ecology becomes more realistic. The eco system comes more alive with more realistic space.
  • There is room for wandering monsters, as the players will never explore it all, and things can move around them, without the party noticing.
  • Time becomes more realistic. The characters have to move carefully hundreds of yards between points of interest, with resulting consequences for spells, light sources and resting.
  • Each section is easy to grasp by the players when they get there and I can explain and draw it quite easily.

When my players get deeper into the Iron Mine, I can write more about how I work with stories in my dungeons.

This is what I see as at the core of my design philosophy. Let me know if I’m off the rails, or what else should inspire me.

AD&D-Dragonlance-Dragons+of+Desolation+-+9139+DL4
Flying castles against dragon armies seems to make very little sense. 

 

Session 15: Should I pull that lever…?

Last time I tried the AngryDM version for recapping. I’m not going to use that method here on the blog, as this blog-text is also a record of our game for me and the players. However, it works well at the table before the game (we tried it), and for readers of the blog, who are not part of the group, a short recap at the beginning could also be useful, so I will try to include it in the future.

I also want to write something about my approach to dungeon design and my pet peeves and preferences, but I will do it in a separate post. But a couple of things I try to keep in mind for this dungeon are:

  • Attrition of PC resources is key, which is one of the reasons why wandering monsters are important. They can interrupt rest and slowly drain spells and HP.
  • The order in which the group tackles dungeon areas should matter.

Brief recap:

The group is exploring a distant continent. They live in a small settlement, and have been informed by the local elves of a valuable source of iron. When they get there, it turns out to be an abandoned mine, and the previous session ended with a gas explosion, the tunnel collapsing behind them and an attack by Grimlocks, which they survived…

Deeper into the Mine we go: 

After defeating the Grimlocks, the group is somewhat burnt and worn from the explosion and combat, and have a short rest before they begin finding a way out. The aging dwarf Korrick, with his bum leg and mostly sage advice, is the only one who feels truly comfortable that deep underground. The young leader Yarn feels out of his depth (but conceals it) and the mysterious and socially inept half-orc warrior Arak has a hard time deciding if decapitating 20 Grimlocks is worth the effort. The mine is vast, but there is a monorail through the main mine shaft that they decide to follow. Initially they discover another vertical shaft after about 200 meters, and are attacked by a single Giant Bat (wandering monster), but decide to push on instead of going down.

At the end of the horizontal mine shaft, another 200 meters further on, they see light. They find a room with a stout door with a magical silver elven face on it, and a partly collapsed tunnel where the light is coming from. The elven face speaks and requires a password, and the light turns out to be from a dozen giant firebeetles feeding on the corpse of a big Displacer Beast.

They deduce that the area around the door is warded, the face is not a Magic Mouth spell, but more an intricate magic item, so they suppress the magic on the door and unlock it. Inside they find the former overseer of the mine, who has taken his own life with a magical dagger and carved a message into his desk:

“The End is coming. Defense is meaningless. I’ll see you soon honey.”

mines-of-moria
The visualization of the Mines of Moria in the LOTR movie was great, and the journey in the dark is something which I try to emulate. More on that in a future post…

 

They could see that he killed himself. The door was locked from the inside. Does it mean that the elves awoke something in the dark? (Or would that be too cliché…??)

 

The group also kill the firebeetles and take their useful light emitting glands.

Next to the overseer office they also found a final shaft, which sloped down with stairs on each side, and with the monorail running in the middle. They follow the shaft down for about 150 meters before they reach an open area, with the shaft continuing down and two major exits. The open area also has a greenish light spilling from the side, and to one side of the open area they could see five copper cylinders connected to a sort of console with a handle and some crystal dials. The first thing they investigate is the console and the cylinders. The wizard simply pulls the lever, which releases five metal automatons which attack (had they investigated further, they might have found a way to avoid the attack by the automatons – thus it was an optional encounter). Impulse control is one of the things players/characters rarely have… The five automatons are tough with two attacks and high AC (and it doesn’t help that I roll five natural 20s during the encounter), but they survive with a broken nose and a bruised kidney (using my Crit system), so there will be some blood pissing.

They decide to have a short rest, but they hear another automaton approaching (random encounter). To my positive surprise, they retreat back up the stairs, and the automaton walks around a bit before it returns from where it came.

Finally, they investigate the green light, after passing through some sort of workshop, where they used to repair the automatons. It turns out that there is a room with natural light, and it is completely overgrown with plants, primarily vegetables, fruits and nuts – such as beans and tomatoes. The druid speaks with the plants and learns that something lurks within. They cautiously enter, and encounter three Gricks and a Grick Alpha. As I manage to miss with all of the Alphas bite attacks (doing 4d8+4 in damage), the encounter doesn’t become as dangerous as it is on paper. But I liked the jungle mood underground. Afterwards they find two adjoining rooms, which the ancient elves used for rest and relaxation, and they decide to do a full rest there, which we ended the session with.

too many players
Splitting the party would mean running two games – not really an option…

Afterthoughts: Particularly group size

You could feel that we were “only” five players, as two players we unable to attend. Things went just a bit more swiftly. At 5th level combat begins to take longer, and having six or seven players can impact the game negatively, because the interval between each PC acting increases, it reduces the amount of spotlight time for each character and discussions have to be cut short(er). By having an appointed leader, the discussions lead to quick decisions in-game, which is good, and my players are good at rolling attack and damage at the same time, a player tracks initiative and so on, so we do what we can to alleviate it. However, we approach 10th level it is not going to improve. In our Temple of Elemental Evil game a couple of weeks ago, we also had 7 players at 5th level, and we almost only had one big encounter. That is ok for a major boss battle (and it was the Water Temple), but it is something I would like to avoid, and it wasn’t equally fun for all players. On the other hand, I have seven great players, who are all my close personal friends, and it is impossible for me to ditch anyone from what I think is a really fun group. Down the road, I may have to resort to rotating one player out each session, so we never are more than six players. But let’s see how it goes…

 

 

 

 

Session 14: And then it simply exploded…

The session was heavy on combat and dungeon exploration. I think we had a couple of memorable encounters again, and some foreshadowing that worked to my favor.

I’ve been reading a blog post by the AngryGM on recapping, and he makes some good points (you can read it all here). For example, that the GM should do the recap in the beginning of the session, as he (or she) should highlight what was important previously –

Angry-Portrait-500-x-500
TheAngryGM.com has some very interesting design articles. I very much enjoy his approach to designing a mega dungeon. 

not just in the last session –  to make the story flow and set the scene, and perhaps even highlight things that the players didn’t really pick up on in one of the previous sessions. I think, certainly in long campaigns, that is a very valuable point for GMs. As a player, pertinent details have often escaped me, which influences my decisions.

That said, this blog post, and the ones before it – does not serve – entirely – the same purpose. It is a recap, so we will have a log of the campaign in years to come, but it is also a meta-discussion of what worked, and what didn’t. For me, it can also work as a reminder, when you run very long campaigns, as I tend to do.

That said, I will try to adhere to some of the rules the AngryGM has on recaps:

Previously… 

After a month of recuperation in the settlement, the party had decided to explore the area, where the elves claimed there were iron deposits, as they would be of great strategic value to the settlement. The party travelled along a crumbling road, going south, which indicated the grandeur and construction skills of the former civilization. The ruined villa they found along the way, contained both horrible corpse worms, that the group defeated and fabulous treasure, such as a magical longsword.

Finally, the group located an open mine, with crumbling structures in it, and a large mine entrance. The structures were explored before they entered the mine, which had strange monorail tracks with mining carts. In the first section of rooms they found giant centipedes crawling all over, ancient magical scrolls, piles of rust and a deep and wide mine shaft.

grimlock
The blind sense of the Grimlocks can counter several player abilities.

The pushed deeper into the mine, and in a vast room, the wizard’s torch sets off an explosion that collapses the hall behind them, trapping them in the mine, and leaving them in a dust filled cave, while being swarmed by grimlocks. The grimlocks are defeated, but the group is now trapped in an unknown cave system, deep underground with no knowledge of the way out and with many dangers lurking in the dark.

 

 

DM Comments:

Evening Star Mine, Mojave National Preserve
D&D characters are pretty brave types, btw… 

I think the scene with the cave exploding and the tunnel collapsing, kicking up a dust cloud, effectively blinding the group, before the grimlocks attacked, worked well. It was avoidable, and I made sure that I had prepared the other path in the mine (the mine shaft), so I wouldn’t have to rail road them, to make sure they got trapped. Role-playing and games are about meaningful choices, and it had to be meaningful if they picked one path or the other.

As experienced players, the piles of rust naturally created many nervous glances around the table…

Note: We skipped a session and played Temple of Elemental Evil instead, since I had several players cancel. So session 15 will be on July 6.

WTF is that? And Tremors… Session 13

The session evolved around exploration of the road to the site of iron ore the players heard about from the elves. It ties in with one of my story-lines, which is the development of the settlement, from very vulnerable to a strong permanent settlement.

The game started right off the bat with initiative rolls for an encounter with two Displacer Beasts. They wounded the characters, but were overcome. I enjoyed that they met a creature they faced before. Meeting one Displacer Beast was a nasty surprise at level 2, but two were manageable at level 4-5. It demonstrates that they’ve advanced in power, which is always a nice feeling as a player. If I had rolled that four Displacer Beasts had shown up on the encounter table instead, it would have been an entirely different kettle of cats…

After some much needed rest, they continued moving south along the ancient road, and came across an ancient watch tower, surrounded by a low wall. Wisely, they decided to scout the place, and north of the ruin they found a tunnel, made by something fairly large. Whatever it was, they opted to draw it out, and using the bard’s bagpipes, the monster was drawn to attack. The monster was a homebrew creation; a large creature I named an Amoured Maw:

“It is the size and about the same shape of a rhino, but with shorter clawed legs, covered in hard, dark reflective scales, has a head that splits wide along its entire length into a teeth filled jaw, while the four fleshy tentacles growing from its back contains its sensory organs, as well as having nasty hooks on them. The Maw can burrow, but doesn’t do it fast enough for it to have a burrowing speed. It is an excellent climber though, using both its clawed feet and tentacles.”

The origins of the creature remain obscure to the characters, so it shall remain obscure here as well. It turned out to be a surprising, but not overly dangerous, battle for the group. The surprise was its reflective carapace (an ability the mighty Tarrasque has), that sent one of the Warlock’s spells back in his face, and the general toughness and damage output of the beast. The whole description and the reflected spell among the very first attacks, gave a nice ‘WTF is that?!’-moment, which I aim to have in this exploration focused campaign. But naturally, being 7 characters, they overcame a single monster, and went back to the tower, after figuring out that its lair was inside the semi-collapsed basement of the tower.

The tower itself was just a shell, but inhabited by 15 Stirges. They overcame a third of the

cong345a
This is pretty close to what I imagined the ancient roadside watch tower looks like. 

Stirges with a fireball and took a bit of damage while dealing with the rest. I had hope the party would go to the tower, clear it of Stirges, and camp there, setting them up for a night time encounter with the Maw, but they were smarter than that (which is good, I gues…). The players did note, how the tower is a good site for rest between the settlement and the iron deposit.

The next couple of days the kept moving south towards the site of the iron deposits, and close to the location, they discover a small lake, with a ruined villa sitting on its shore. Imagine a large more or less ancient Roman style villa left in a forest for many hundreds of years. Moving closer, they noticed some weird round areas of disturbed ground.

Tremors in the ground…

tremors1
The Corpse Worm is obviously inspired by the horror b-movie Tremors. Which I thought was quite scary when I was a kid in the early nineties. 

Just outside of the villa a Corpse Worm attack. A huge monstrous worm (but smaller than a Purple Worm), which smelled of rotting meat and had leathery skin, burst out of the ground. It attacked Weylin, the druid, from below and snatched him, and the next round pulled him down to its watery tunnel below. Jarn, jumped after (and rolled a crit). A chaotic battle ensued, with Jarn struggling down the collapsing hole the worm came through, trying to kill it, before it disappeared with Weylin, and the others trying to hit the beast with ranged weapons and magic, illuminating the worm with faerie fire, or helping Jarn getting back to the surface, before the shaft collapsed above him. Weylin manages to escape the jaws of the worm and activate his Staff of the Woodlands and summons a wall of thorns in the narrow water filled tunnel he is trapped in. The combined damage slays the worm, and Weylin finally grasps Jarn’s hand, who can pull him back to the surface with the aid of his companions.

Despite their wounds, they afterwards decided to search the villa, and they (surprise!) find a half-flooded cellar below. They enter the cellar, and soon Arak – the half-orc – falls through a floor into another tunnel, but his comrades manage to get him out, before anything emerges.

Next time, we will see if there are more worms? And what the iron deposit site actually looks like.

Evocative Combat:

I think this session was dominated by a couple of fun and memorable encounters. As I’ve mentioned before, I try to modify and create monsters for around 2/3s of the combat encounters, because I want my seasoned group to never know what they are facing, and rarely know what they are vulnerable against or resists. Fortunately, D&D 5th is very easy to mold and change, as long as you don’t care about encounter xp and difficulty too much.

The encounter with the worm was the kind of combat encounter that I really like. A fluid scene in multiple dimensions, and not simply minis being moved tactically around the map (which also has its place, and is fun). It can be difficult as the DM to clearly give everyone a sense of what is possible, and where everyone is, but having only one opponent makes it a lot easier to manage – and combat happens quickly compared to moving minis around. I may not have followed the ‘say yes’ rule as much as I should, but I think it had tense and fun action – and a real danger to one of the characters.

The Wall of Thorns spell also showed itself as a ‘getting out of deep trouble’-spell.

 

 

Goodberries and Mayonnaise

The group spent one month in the settlement, working on down-time tasks and talking to NPCs, while eating Goodberries drenched in mayonnaise.

To make the timeline move forward and to make sure that the characters have a more natural progress these interludes are important. Often, players have this sense of urgency, and think if they don’t spend every day adventuring, somehow they are going to miss something or become penalized in the story, for example by bad guys spending that time plotting against them and building their strength. I hope they will learn that that is not the case. As one of the goals of the campaign is for the characters to become older and the settlement to grow around them, spending down time, building a home, or a base of operations even, and gathering resources is important. It is also good from an overall pacing perspective. And lastly, I dislike characters going from 1st to 20th level over a few busy months. That just seems quite unrealistic – if such a word can be used for fantasy roleplaying.

A significant element of the 12th session was the practical issues when you are an adventurer in a small settlement, on a far off continent, with no trading partners and everyone being self-sufficient: How to get food, build a shelter and craft better armor and other stuff?

Mayonnaise_(1)
A liter of mayo is about 9000 calories, or 3 times the need of an adult male. 

The adventurers decided to solve the food issue with the Goodberries spell, which can sustain their entire group every day. The joke was that since the have the wonderful Alchemy Jug which can produce 2 gallons (8 liters) of mayonnaise every day they would be supplementing their diet of a single daily goodberry with a liter of mayo – each – which turned into jokes about offering presents of mayo and goodberries to the honoured elven guests and what the characters would look like when they started adventuring again after eating mayo non-stop for a month. Jokes aside, the Alchemy Jar continues to be a valuable item, as it can produce a lot of valuable liquids, when you are in an isolated settlement, such as honey, wine and vinegar.

There were a few key events and discoveries during the session:

  • It was a surprise to some that their gold and silver was worth very little in the settlement, but that everything had to be bartered for. I hope it provides a different perspective on what is valuable to them.
  • The group read the books they discovered in the hag lair, and the wizard, who wisely picked cartography as a proficiency, was able to determine the approximate location of some of the places named in one of the books, including the Colourless Bridge, which is inside the forest, and they learned the name of the ruined city nearby: Ivanith’laril. They could also see that the elves had made war against the Bones of Sarakhon and that they were undead.
  • The druid learned the local elven dialect, so now the risk of confusion is minimized when parlaying with the elves.
  • iron-ore-lump-333
    Iron ore: almost as valuable as gold at this stage in the campaign.

    They wanted to craft a full plate armour, but were horrified at the time it would take them to craft it themselves, so they made a deal with the dwarf family living in the settlement. The dwarves would help them craft 2 full plate armours during the coming year, and they would assist exploiting the iron ore deposit that the group had learned about from the elves, and in return, the dwarves would get 1500 gp. and their iron bars. The gold they could send back to their clan, who could use it to get more dwarves to migrate to the settlement.

  • A trio of goblins scouts snuck into the settlement, but the characters captured one and killed the rest, and learned of some of the other goblin tribes and that their own tribe the Red Fangs, had an ettin ally and powerful goblin witches. And more importantly, that there is a town at the edge of the forest where the goblins trade with the hobgoblins of the plains.
  • The elves visited with an ‘official’ delegation, and they told them the location of the site with iron and that there is an ancient road leading there. They also learned that the edge of the forest was about 400 miles from the settlement, and that the area around the Colourless Bridge is haunted.
Displacer_Beast_MM_4e
Roll initiative losers!

 

At the end of the session the group began their journey south through the forest along the ancient road, and during the first night Sir Jarn was jumped by a couple of Displacer Beasts – which means next session begins by rolling initiative.

I actually love starting a session with combat, and in one campaign had the rule, that all sessions started with an initiative roll, potentially as a flash forward scene, because the combat really gets the players focused right away.

Positive aspects

A couple of things worked really well this session:

  • Letting them research old books and speak to the locals and from that begin to fill in some blanks on the vast hex map is fun and tantalizing. The only down side is that every time I bring up a new location they haven’t visited, half the group immediately wants to go off and explore it right away… But that is also kind of the point of the campaign!
  • The moral and societal choices that happened when the Europeans came to the Americas are beginning to show themselves. For example, it is clear that the goblin tribe nearby will never let them farm and prosper in peace, so at some point they have to be destroyed, even though they are the natural inhabitants in this place – the situation is very similar to the one describe in this podcast  Apache Tears between the Apache and the Mexicans and U.S. settlers. Furthermore, the friendly elves certainly don’t mind some powerful allies against the hobgoblins, as the settlement has a minute impact on the forest, but what happens years down the road when more and more settlers arrive?

Negative aspects:

It isn’t negative as such, but the reality is that if you have a large group doing down time and NPC interaction in a settlement, the actual ‘screen time’ of each character is reduced significantly. As a change of pace the session was good, but we all prefer more action and adventure.

Session 11: A big signal fire

The game session became a sort of ’in-between game session’, where the group finished looting the dungeon, met the local elves and had a long talk with them for the first time, and got into another big fight with the undead, where the power of the Staff of the Woodlands was demonstrated.

I’ve also been looking at making a post about magic items, and how you can make the discovery of powers progressive, spurred by the comments in for the last post (here The last post), but I haven’t had enough time to finish it.

Events of the session:

At the end of the previous session, the group had killed the aberrant plant monster that lived in the ruin, and they commenced looting and exploring the final sections. They went outside a couple of times, but neither the ranger nor druid passed their wisdom check, so they failed to notice something important. They discovered a statue of an elf, which held out a stylized map with a mountain chain with the mark of the throne on it. They found a secret room with treasure, including 50 pounds of iron and finally a room where dark seeds of the abomination were grown. They decided to burn the seeds, but the group was low on resources and had no fire magic left, so Arak, the strong half-orc cleric and Jarn, the ranger and leader, goes into the forest to get firewood. That is when they see the column of smoke that rises from the pyramid from all the burn vines inside the dungeon. They drop all the collected firewood and race back to the pyramid (I must say I liked this moment, when it dawned on the players what their actions meant).

The wizard’s familiar, Steven the sea gull (pun intended), is sent out to scout and Arak stands guard on top of the pyramid. Steven spots a large-ish band of goblins heading towards the pyramid, and Arak actually notices one of the local nomadic elves hiding in a tree. As the group is low on HP and spells they decide to retreat. After a while they make a short rest, the druid gains access to ‘pass with out trace’ and they escape the goblins, who spent some time scouting the ruin (if the characters had decided to stay other interested parties would have shown up, which would have been all kinds of fun!).

dead undead
I’ve never regretted getting the undead army for Warhammer Fantasy Battle back in the mid 90s. Those minis have been used countless times! 

After escaping the goblins, on their way to the place where they met undead the first time, they are attacked again by a group of more than 20 undead, marching towards them. There is a 5th level spell caster and the equivalent of a boosted Wight among them. It turns out that even though skeletons aren’t that dangerous to 4th level characters, if enough attack, they become a problem…

This is where my concern from last time, concerning the Staff of the Woodlands, was partly laid to rest. The druid use the Wall of Thorns spell from the staff and kills 6 skeletons with it, and a further two are pushed into the wall with a Gust of Wind spell. It doesn’t break the encounter at all, but it takes it down to a more manageable level. They are still under a lot of pressure, but they survive. If he had used it on the two ‘bosses’, they would take significant damage, but wouldn’t be killed outright. Obviously, in open terrain it is less effective than in a dungeon, where you can seal off passage ways.

The leader, who seems to be an undead orc with a magical scale mail, has a message crystal (like a simple recording device) with the following message:

“Deploy your companies north west of the city, and keep our lines of communication open with Fort 25. Commander Osandros will deploy to the south towards the Colorless Bridge. Reinforcements will be allotted as they arrive. This is the order of Belsokh Six Fingers. For Sarakhon!”

 

The characters who have been studying the books they found in the hag lair, recognizes Sarakhon from the name of the enemy an elf led an army against – they were called The Bones of Sarakhon.

The next day they locate the cave where the undead came from, and where they had been lying for several centuries. They also find a copper sheet, with an etched map showing the location of both Fort 25 and Fort 26 and the ruined city they’ve passed by earlier. They speculate that the undead were making war on the elves in the area long ago.

When they emerge from the cave, an arrow with a flower attached to it, is shot at the feet of Jarn. He shoots the arrow back, and a small group of elves emerge. They proceed with a trade, and then they begin talking. The elves clearly find their settlement unwise.

The group learns some important information though:

  • Hobgoblins live on the plains beyond the forest, and come into the forest to capture slaves. At some point, if they wish to live in peace, they have to deal with that threat.
  • There are many goblin tribes and they are sure to end up fighting them.
  • To the south lives Osganithmoth Suneater, an old green dragon, which fortunately sleeps right now, but its offspring infests the forest.
  • They watch over the ruined city, to guard against the creatures coming out of it. The demons that dwell within cannot get out though for some reason. Inside there are many monsters, among others a group of giants that wandered in from the hills to the south west.
  • They don’t have access to metal and are interested in trading.
  • They know of a source of iron, but it is a dangerous place.
  • The location where Fort 25 is supposed to be is a dangerous ashen wasteland.

When they were done speaking with the elves, we ended the session.
joseph__the_ancient__forest_dragon_by_mikeazevedo-d7jlys8

Perhaps Osganithmoth looks something like this… Scale seems pretty accurate! Art by Mike Azevedo. Check out more of his very cool stuff here: Link to Mike Azevedo’s art

 

Next time:

We will finally have an extended period of down time, and they can use some of the time to get to know more of the local inhabitants. It should strengthen their connection to the community and make them feel more a part of the settlement.

The campaign also opens up, and they discussed what should be their next target: the iron mine, fort 25 or the ruined city. They decided upon the iron mine, as it would be an important resource for the settlement.

Perhaps this will be our first session without an initiative roll…? But then again, maybe not…

 

Session 10: Too fat loot?

After our last session, where the main focus was the characters purging an aberrant plant monster from a dungeon inside something akin to a large stone foundation, my thoughts have centered around magic items and treasure.

the_old_huge_oak_tree_by_williamsnape-d3enn3q
A planted Staff of the Woodlands – in my mindland.

At the end of the session, they discovered that this abomination had gained energy or the like from a tree, which turned out to be a Staff of the Woodlands (a Rare item). My idea was that the creature sort of fed from this tree and almost had withered it. Thus, my concern about the balance of the staff was secondary. But avoiding highly imbalancing fat loot, and avoiding a monty haul campaign, is important. But I have a few considerations that I need to take into account.

  • I have seven 4th level players, and currently four of them have a magic item that aren’t consumable: a shield +1, a Wand of Secrets, an Alchemy Jug and the Staff of the Woodlands. With seven players, I need to hand out quite a lot of stuff, before everyone feels overloaded with magical items, and thus many magical items isn’t unbalanced in itself. It is the fact that I have 7 players that makes the game harder to balance (so I kind of skipped balancing encounters to the party).
  • Remembering our old AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign from high school (the player playing the wizard Welk was the DM), which I enjoyed very much, magic items were relative scarce, but the ones we had were quite significant to our characters, so at 12th level I had maybe 3 permanent items. I really liked that, and I think it is worth emulating.
  • Staff of the Woodlands is on table G, and can be awarded at random at any level (although the likelihood in a 0-4 or 5-10 level hoard is low).
  • The staff has a limited number of uses per day. It has a number of abilities, including casting Wall of Thorns, which is a 6th level spell, and very powerful, but the Wall of Thorns takes up 6 of 7 charges. If I run one encounter adventuring days, it can be a problem. But I intend to have multiple-encounter adventuring days, which makes it more of a choice to use the power. Furthermore, as I’ve more or less ignored balancing encounters, it can be important for them to have a method of escaping an encounter or dividing an encounter into more manageable size, if they bite over too much. And as they only gain 25% xp from encounters, but additional xp from exploration, it matters less that they can handle more powerful creatures. The lesser powers, and the fact that it is a +2 weapon, will have much less impact on the story, but will be quite useful to the druid.

will mclean monty haul humor D&D cartoon

My preliminary conclusion is, that I would rather hand out a good number of consumable items and a few relatively powerful items, than scatter many +1 shields, armours, weapons and other uncommon items around the game. If each character has the chance of obtaining one Rare or better item from now and until 10-12 level, that is fine by me. Hopefully, some of these items will become important aspects of their characters, and help it become a memorable campaign of heroic characters. And hopefully, they don’t become too powerful and collapse the ideas in the campaign… We will see how it goes. It is a sand box after all.

And now for the short recap of last session:

Session 10:

mayan-pyramid-unexcavated-best
The dungeon was inside something akin to this – one of my players noted the Earthdawn feel to it. He was not incorrect…

The group discovers the inner laboratory of the witch they defeated in the previous session. Inside they find a number of interesting items, including some sort of silver rod, which appears to be a key to something, a portal to the Warrens (the world between the prime plane and the outer planes) and some ancient elven books. The druid and wizard begin deciphering the content of the books and advance their skill in the local elven language, and they decide not to open the portal, even though it is a possibility (the campaign could have taken quite a turn, had they decided to go through. I know where it leads, but prep is sketchy). Instead they went back to the ruins, with the sort of top less pyramid shaped structure, and went inside. The dungeon contained thick vile creepers that attacked them, and they burned their way through part of the dungeon, reaching the center, where an abdominal plant creature lived. They attacked its pulsating heart and overcame it, and found the Staff of the Woodlands at its heart.

Afterthoughts:

I had, by design, made several entrances to the dungeon, which meant they could clear out all of the abominations pods before they faced the creature itself. For each one they killed, it would have one attack less (minimum 2). It had a ton of damage potential, but it was one of those evening where I rolled poorly, so the group overcame a very powerful creature more easily than anticipated.

I look forward to them delving more into the books they found, and the campaign is opening up to a lot of options now.