Their value is in their use.

October 26, 2015

In 1E D&D you get 1 XP per GP value of treasure you haul back to town – except magic items. With those, if you keep it, you get a small XP value (generally about 15% of the GP sale value, higher percentage for low-value items like potions and scrolls), but if you sell it and don’t use it you get the full value. I recall a quote something like “when retaining magic items, the full XP value is not awarded, as their value is in their use” but I can’t actually find that quote anywhere.

I’ve thought about that for a long time and it finally clicked.

Imagine a 2nd level Fighter who is lucky enough to locate a magic Sword +1 that will award him 2000 XP if he sells it, or 400 XP if he keeps it. He’s just hit Level 2, so he has 2000 XP and he needs another 2000 XP to level up to 3rd. His choice to keep the sword or sell it makes a huge impact on his next delve into the dungeons.

If he keeps the sword, he will have +1 to hit and damage, it’ll be slightly quicker in a close initiative match, it’ll cast some significant light so he doesn’t have to carry a torch, and some monsters need a +1 weapon to hit. He’ll also get 400 XP, but that’s not enough to change his level.

If he sells the sword, he gets the huge XP bonus and can train for a new level (in 1E, spending all the proceeds from the sword’s sale and then some to pay for training costs! In fact, he probably just hands over the sword to the master plus some coin). That’s 1d10 HP, +1 on his THAC0 (so effectively +1 to hit), his saving throws improve by +1, he can “sweep” three 0-HD monsters per round instead of two, and he’s less affected by Sleep spells (friendly fire or from the enemy).

There are tradeoffs here, but one could argue that whichever he chooses, he’s just as able to take on the greater challenges of the deeper dungeon levels.

There’s also an element of gambling. Let’s say he locates a +2 Sword in his next adventure. He will naturally want to trade up, keeping the +2 and selling the +1 if he kept it. But by keeping the +1 until he finds a better one, he loses 1600 XP. When considering that gamble, he hopes that any magic item he keeps will be one he uses a lot and for a long time, ideally in at least one situation where the magic item bonus makes a difference (such as dealing a monster’s last HP of damage and taking it down so it can’t deal damage next round, vs. leaving it at 1 HP and taking damage from it next round).

This is obscured in a non-perfect scenario where the magic item has limited uses, or you don’t get enough XP from the sale to level up until you’ve sold off several magic items. But I think the interesting decision and the gamble are both still there.

Magic Shops and the Fairy Market

August 17, 2015

I don’t like magic shops. They sell stuff that’s too high-value so they would be constantly robbed, so to exist they need super-duper security. Players inevitably want to rob the magic shop, and either they get stomped by security and slain (because come on, will the shopkeeper seriously let them live to try again or tell their friends how you always get a free bite at the apple) or they win through and get a long ton of magic items. Typically, it’s worth it to destroy the magic shop as a service if you get all his inventory – and clever ways to prevent theft begin to look more and more like adversarial DMing and lead to recrimination and disappointment.

You could have individual sellers and buyers. Typically they would be other adventurers or higher-level established NPCs like the high priest of a temple or a wizard in his tower. Stealing from that NPC would be virtually identical to just attacking a random high level NPC to get loot, which is what happens in a lot of dungeons. The concentration of loot is lower than a magic shop, and the loot-to-difficulty ratio is normal. The PCs will also lose access to important services if they screw over or slay the NPC.

For a campaign I had magic brokers. This would be a guy who has contacts instead of inventory. If you want an item, you go to him and he will keep an eye out. If you want to sell an item, he will either have a buyer waiting or will put the word out that he has a seller. In any case, the trading parties never meet. The broker takes the payment, pays the seller for his item, brings the item to the buyer. This helps the magic shop robbery issue because you can only ever steal the proceeds from one deal, not a whole inventory. If you get the broker’s books, you have a list of magic item locations, but you need to go through the adventuring effort to actually break through separate sets of security, reducing the magic item windfall.

The second problem with magic shops is just the feel of having players ask for specific items. It unduly rewards system mastery for players who know which items to ask for, or which items tend to be good deals, and destroys the mystery of finding magic items as loot.

So, my current attempt is the Fairy Market.


Every PC (not henchmen etc.) in the party who is level 3 or higher gets a 1 in 6 chance to spot the Fairy Market at the start of each game session. One time I described it as the PC taking a night stroll after the tavern and seeing a strangely different alley in the village, paved with hexagonal mossy stones and illuminated with hanging lanterns, far-off glows and sounds of laughter and delicious scents through a faint mist. The player can run off and gather the whole party, but there isn’t time to go around town making deals before entering the Fairy Market.

The market has five or six vendors who are people with features that make them look like an animal or plant: the owl guy has thick glasses, bushy eyebrows, and says WHO words a lot. Each vendor sells a bunch of normal stuff, and one magic item (or a few potions or arrows).

For my market, I decided that (1) there would never be cursed items, (2) the vendors would sell at book price, (3) the vendors would buy PC magic items at book price, and (4) if the PCs steal from the market they can never return – that part of the game is just gone. I didn’t tell them any of this, but they’re assuming 2-4 without my assistance.

I could see someone balking at the 1:1 exchange rate. I did that because it doesn’t offer a huge array of items, so it’s not an “exchange whatever loot the DM says I found for the exact thing I want” but instead “exchange my undesirable loot for something that I think might be better for me”.

One time the market was accessed via a large oven, with the passage beyond leading to a steam tunnel-like area with insect and slug themed vendors and “bad” items like poison and necromantic magic.

Once I did a rundown, faded casino with a 3d6 slot machine for money, a claw machine with magic item prizes, and a potion vending machine. The claw machine had a low success chance, but a couple of players managed to get something. One player sipped a Potion of Elasticity he found earlier to reach into the claw machine through the prize chute. I described it as a suspiciously long, winding chute – he couldn’t see the prizes because he was crouched beside the machine, so he still had to roll but with a much better chance, and the other players got to choose which thing he would get because they were directing him. He got 1 try per turn, and the potion lasted a secretly-rolled 2d6 turns. He pushed his luck and kept going until the end, and I made him roll a DEX check to get his rapidly-shrinking arm out before it got stuck in the machine. The players were suspicious that the ruse might be discovered despite the fairy attendant snoozing nearby, so they plugged in enough gold into the claw machine to cover one attempt per nabbed prize – which I decided was enough to keep the market from going away.


The other thing I always do is talk about the food. The first fairy market, based on the early scenes in Spirited Away, required a save vs. spell for all who went in to avoid spending 250 GP on delicious morsels. The casino had a free buffet that wasn’t great, but they didn’t turn it down. The steam tunnels featured coal braziers of streetmeats and soups of garlic and onions.

I use the Fairy Market to insert the opportunity to get magic items that aren’t in the adventure I’m running. For example, if someone decided to play a Druid but I didn’t plan for that and there’s a paucity of Druid items, I can have the Fairy Market sell one every time. It also gives them the ability to sell their unwanted magic items (and I try to give magic items as loot value instead of so much money) without the associated problem of figuring out logistics for the buyer in town.

Because the Fairy Market has a predetermined inventory, and different vendors, there’s no player asking for certain magic items and no benefit for that system mastery. The possible extra loot is limited to the current inventory of the market. And there’s no recrimination at DM machinations to guard the magic shop – if the PCs steal, they’ll just get away with it and feel that the market has faded away behind them forever.

I prepare the market for the next game session, and if nobody rolls a 1 in 6 (has happened once) I save that for use next time. I don’t roll items randomly, I try to make it stuff the players can afford and might be interested in.

Pretty sure this isn’t the best way to handle it, but it’s a fun experiment and the players like it.

The Yin and Yang of Treasure Division

July 21, 2015

Had a party argument last game session over loot. I had been hearing grumblecakes from every player about how all the other players were getting more loot – which is kind of absurd. I instituted a different method of treasure division which would take more effort but would result in transparently equal shares – which everyone hated. They realized they cared more about sharing and keeping things easy, and fixing imbalances later when people spoke up about them. It’s almost as if their DM had that planned all along …

Except nah, I’m not that good. But it did make me think about some things that make sense to blog about.

My premise is that treasure division schemes tend to fall somewhere along two axes: how easy it is to implement, and how fair it is. First, some extreme schemes:

#1: The King. High ease, lowest fairness. Everything the party gets goes to one player. Haven’t seen this one in practice.

#1A: The Regent. High ease, low fairness. Each game session one player is The King and gets all the loot. Again, theoretical.

#2: The Fire Sale. High ease, high fairness. Everything gets sold and the money gets split up. But what if the players want to keep some of the magic items? Then we get more complicated. I’ve seen this used when the players are frustrated with their old treasure division strategy and just want to get back to the fun part of the game.

#2A: The Bonfire. High ease, high fairness. Everything gets thrown in a pile and lit on fire. I’ve seen it proposed but never carried out.

#3: High Roll. High ease, low-mid fairness. Split up the cash equally, everyone rolls percent dice, highest roller chooses first from the magic item list, then next highest, and so forth. It’s in the high roller’s interest to grab the most valuable item, and then sell or make trades to whoever in the party actually wants the thing. If he picks the sword +1 because he’s a Fighter and skips the Staff of Doom which is a lot more expensive, he basically just handed his high roll to the M-U.

#3A: High Roll With List. Moderate ease, moderate fairness. Works like High Roll, but you have a list of players and the roll list is kept until everyone has gotten something. For example, if you roll and players 1 to 3 get an item, but 4 through 7 don’t get anything, it’s fine: next loot that comes along is picked by 4 through 7. Only after everyone has gotten a pick do you reroll. This helps fairness because it makes it impossible for someone to consistently roll lowest and miss out on treasure picks because the hoards are never large numbers of items.

#3B: High Roll With Equal Shares. Low ease, moderate fairness. This variant on High Roll (or High Roll With List) packages up magic items with money to create more-equal shares before a split happens. Say a hoard contains a magic item worth 5k, one worth 3k, and money worth 7k. Rather than splitting the money and then dealing with magic items, you create three shares: the 5k item alone, the 3k item plus 2k in coin, and 5k in coin. These three shares are then diced for. You still have an issue when players 1-3 get a 5k share each, and players 4-7 get nothing, but the next hoard has 10k shares because of the power of the magic items. Generally, it helps prevent people from picking the most valuable share regardless of whether they want to use the item, but leaves some members of the party receiving zero loot from any given hoard.

#3C: Per-Item High Roll. Moderate ease, low fairness. A less-worthwhile variant on High Roll, this puts every item up for roll. It’s possible for one player to get literally every magic item in a hoard, and while in the long run it might even out, the experience is pretty negative for everyone when it happens. Because there are more rolls, it takes longer. A proposed variant rarely seen in the wild would be for players to claim an item only if they really needed it, and a roll-off only when more than one player wanted the item. Because magic items can be sold and traded, there is always the temptation to grab some loot that you won’t use. Because of that, the Per-Item High Roll generally feels better when everyone rolls for everything.

#4: Buyout. Low ease, high fairness. Split up the money. Price out the magic items. Anyone who wants to put in their 5000 GP into the pot in exchange for the item worth 5000 can do so. After all the magic items have been bought, split up the money in the pot equally. This takes a long time, and only works if the PCs have enough money to do it. If they’re money-poor, such as when they’re just starting out or the item is especially high-value, you need a kludge like a debt to the other players to make it equal. If two people want to buy out the same magic item, roll off to see who gets the option. Some players may also have a problem with the idea of “paying” for a magic item the party already found (which doesn’t make mathematical sense, but I’m realizing that the feel of a rule has a lot more to do with its success than its precision or odds).

#5: Common Sense. Moderate ease, moderate fairness (at best). There’s one dwarf who uses hammers, if we get a magic hammer it goes to him. This works if the treasure coming in is pretty evenly spread among classes. It’s easiest to apply when the item is restricted (M-U only, or works far better for a Dwarf). It’s hardest to apply when the item is something everyone can use – and in those cases you’re left to fall back on another treasure division strategy. Common Sense is used a lot at low level when hardly anybody has any magic items, but gets switched out for a different strategy when inequalities emerge. As my group decided, it’s possible to continue with Common Sense and adjust later if it looks like the Cleric is getting shafted, for example by getting everyone else to pitch in to get him a magic item, or someone else giving up a magic item that could go to either player (but giving it to the Cleric reduces inequality), or a general-use item everyone could use going to the Cleric instead. This strategy definitely awards player negotiating skills, and less-confrontational players may get shafted.

After working with Common Sense but without addressing inequalities, I tried Buyout with my group and it flopped. But the ensuing conversation made them want to stick with Common Sense with an emphasis on keeping their ears open and addressing concerns that any PC is falling behind.

Refurbish Old Loot

July 19, 2015

My gaming groups tend to handle old loot thusly: the Fighter might get the first magic armor, and then when he gets an upgrade his hand-me-down goes to the Cleric or whoever, or possibly straight to a henchman. They rarely sell something purely because it’s surplus for which they can find no use – but it’s possible they’d rather have the cash than a beefier (and happier) hireling.

Also, some types of loot are uncommon. Where do you find magic ballista bolts or magic horse barding?

I just thought about solving both problems by letting players hammer out their old swords, rip up the stitching in their old leather armor, and have an armorer fix up something new. With the same magic as the old item.

A magic sword might be put into service as the head of a ballista bolt. If you get 3 suits of Chainmail +1 you could get someone to make Chainmail Barding +1. Yeah, I know you probably need a lot more chainmail than that, but I’m concerned more about the value of the starting item(s) and the value of the end item being reasonable.

The germ of this idea was in a game I ran where all magic arms and armor were typically 1 or 2 points weaker for the magic portion, but were frequently made of Mithril (+1 higher and low weight) or Adamantine (+2 higher but normal weight). That meant two things: (1) I could drop a magic weapon in a loot pile that wasn’t as powerful (like a steel Frostbrand +1), and (2) non-magical equipment made of Mithril or Adamantine was possible (which let me have boring +1 and +2 gear without special weird magical stuff, which I had determined that every single magic item would have).

One outcome of (2) was that players would be able to melt and reforge Mithril and Adamantine gear into whatever they wanted, allowing them to trade several Mithril (+1) daggers for a Mithril Chainmail (+1), or in one case melting down some Admantine shields they found to armor-plate their wagon with +2 sheet metal.

There was also a nice choice for the players who had enough metal to make it, between light equipment that was +1 or normal weight equipment that was +2. Because I was tracking encumbrance pretty regularly with Delta’s stone-weight system, I had a few players choose to wear the weaker but lighter Mithril armor because it meant being able to haul around a couple extra sacks of treasure or gear.

Layers of Placing Magic Items

July 17, 2015

I’ve said before that I prefer to place a magic item instead of money. Because I don’t like magic shops, opportunities to buy magic items are limited, so players can always choose to trade out a magic item for money but can’t really do the reverse to get whatever item they want (typically they’ll have a couple purchase options every game session but not necessarily the exact item they were hoping for).

But how to place those items? I go about it in several passes.

Layer 1: Total value. I want enough value worth of magic items so the players get enough treasure to level up. This is more important in games where you get XP for GP. In the game I’m running, for example, you get 1 XP per GP, and 1 XP per GP value of magic items you decide to sell without using, but generally about 10% of the XP value for the magic item if you decide to keep it. If the players sell the magic items they get more XP and are higher level, but if they keep them all they are lower level but more powerful because they have the items. It tends to work out regardless of what they choose.

Layer 2: Theme. If they’re exploring a dwarven temple, I want some appropriate magic items. If a monster hoards items the loot can be anything someone might have carried into its lair or that it found nearby. I like each treasure cache to be a little story. One time I had a secret room that connected two hallways, and far in the past some annoyed adventurer had hurled his pile of cursed items in there.

Layer 3: Usefulness. I don’t want a cache to be just a bunch of Fighter items because everyone else at the table is bummed. Items anyone can use are cool. At the same time, I want a balance of usefulness. Not everything has to be combat-related. Especially at low level an item that weighs nothing but replaces a bulky piece of equipment can be worthwhile (like a magical dome that works as well as a 10-man pavilion). This frequently runs counter to Layer 2 because at that point I might have a wizard tower and think that it needs a lot of wizard items in it. But maybe the wizard has a bodyguard, or a magical trap has a thief imprisoned and starved to death, he has some unidentified items, or he just has some goodies he can’t use and might trade away.

It’s tough to predict, like trying to make a viral video, but it’s great when a player really latches onto the idea of a magic item and it begins to make the character really stand out. Imagine if Thor’s player finds a kickass magic hammer at level 2, it becomes a thing with him, and he goes for the whole fur coat and horned helmet ensemble. Later he gloms on additional magic items like gauntlets, belt, and a better hammer. If not for the fortuitous attachment the player had to that first magic hammer, Thor might become just another Fighter. This can happen through the magic of a player being really in the groove and pleased to find a +1 thing behind a secret panel. It can also happen because the magic item isn’t just a bonus and instead gives him a different option to choose from.

Layer 4: Interactions with the other adventure elements. At this point it’s usually just a switch from one item to another so the players can use it in specific areas. Magic items as problem-solving tools. Sometimes I’ll start the process with Layer 4, with an item and a problem that it can solve, and then build the theme (Layer 2) and adventure difficulty (Layer 1) around that. Maybe it means I shelf this adventure idea for later. But when I come around at the end to do Layer 4 it’s typically stuff like “change the Potion of Heroism to Plant Control instead so they can part the razorvine if they found the potion and they think of it”.

You can do just fine without going through all this trouble. You really can say it’s a 5th level dungeon so you should put in a few +1 items, a few scrolls and potions, a +2 item, and a low-end ring or low-charge wand. I think in the published classic modules that’s what you see. But you also sometimes see a strange connection that shows some extra effort has been made to put extra depth in the treasure placement. It’s like the difference between one layer of glaze on a pot and multiple transparent layers of glaze: both pots hold the water.

Everyone is a Cleric

July 8, 2015

The thought I had the other day was also partly a reaction to DMs eliminating Clerics from their games. Is there another way to do it that’s interesting and just as extreme? Sure – everyone is a Cleric.

Earthdawn gave everyone magic because the setting is magic-rich (in a way) so there’s no such thing as “just a Fighter” for a PC. There are always going to be non-magical scrubs out there.

You’d say that the typical healer-Cleric worships a god of peace or health, so those are the abilities he gets. If your character worships a god of burglary he’d have Climb Walls, Open Locks, Find/Remove Traps, etc. A Cleric of the wilderness might be more like a Druid or more like a Ranger depending on which god it is. M-U and Cleric spell lists would need to get chopped up like the 2E Cleric spheres. Actually, you could probably get by without doing any work by just forcing everyone to play a Specialist Priest out of the Faiths & Avatars and similar books (I recall at least two others).

Even Conan swore to Crom. Fighters get their supernatural toughness and slaying prowess from a god of war, not just because they’re “experienced” mortals. A demigod like Hercules would benefit directly from his immortal bloodline but would also be able to gain levels. No more complaining that a 10th level Fighter has more HP than a dragon.

A 0-level human could start earning XP if he proved himself worthy through great deeds – like how Philotomy’s play report of the module I4 (which is down at the moment) had a caravan guard who rolled nice in combat for a while got promoted to Level 1 Fighter. Which brings up a great starting question for a 1st level PC’s player: what did you do that was so cool you were able to hit 1st level?

Not everyone has to get spells – but why not? Give Thieves some low-level illusions, Invisibility, Silence 15′ radius, etc. But give it to them at higher level like Rangers and Paladins do, and lower caster level and spell capacity. That way he defaults to his skills but he can bust out something special for the really difficult parts.

Why would an adventuring party of holy men and women of different faiths band together?

1: The gods aren’t so shitty to each other as we might expect, and gods of similar alignment are fine hanging out, havin’ a brew, watchin’ the game.
2: Clerics don’t antagonize each other trying to get conversions (a negative method) but try to outdo each other in great works and achievements (a positive method).
3: All the human/demihuman gods, even if their alignments differ, are still opposed by alien and especially nasty gods like those of the humanoids. Moradin might want the best of everything for his Dwarven people, but he’s going to be happy to work with an Elf god to fight against Orc gods – and especially against a god worshipped by Underdark slimes, Githyanki, Mind Flayers, etc. There’s a greater threat out there, so it makes sense for the PCs to work together.

Carousing can be handled as usual or maybe just for donations.

Motivation to adventure is a little easier.

Given enough deities, you could get a mix of abilities without alignment problems. For example, a 1st edition Monk is able to do a lot of what a Thief can, so a party could do without the Cleric of Burglary. If you want a scout, you could get a Cleric of Woodcraft (Ranger abilities) or a Cleric of Secrets (divination, invisibility), or of Illusions, or Psionics.

Not sure whether this changes much besides giving a justification for superhuman abilities in high-level characters. It is nice to have secular character options. But you know how this works; it might be cool for someone’s game.

Select All the Images With Ice Cream

June 18, 2015

I just found a captcha that wanted me to click all of the images that contained ice cream. Out of nine, one was clearly ice cream, but another was yogurt parfait. I figured the yogurt didn’t count – but I was wrong! All these years and I could have been eating ice cream for breakfast.

Module Playlist as Campaign

May 7, 2015

I talked yesterday about the inputs the DM and players add to the game experience when running a module. I’m writing an adventure now, as we’re playing it, and my players’ antics are going to affect the module. I also come up with weird ideas and make connections I didn’t see before during gameplay. It’s a richer adventure than it would be if I were writing it alone. Is this what it feels like to be part of a writers’ salon? I should find a forum for gaming authors.

This process is exciting because once the module is printed and sent out, other people are going to experience it differently, but they aren’t going to have much impact on how other groups experience it.

That got me thinking about collaborative video games. People playing on a small server are like players in a single gaming group. Individuals might filter out into other groups part-time, some come and go, and others are reliable anchors. But in, for example, a Minecraft server, there is little going on in one server that affects other servers. There is some spread of culture throughout the community, but I believe most of the impact comes from mods. Some mods are minor, but others affect gameplay so much they become the identity of the server.

If you start a new campaign with a module, how much will that module’s themes, events, NPCs, loot, etc. impact the rest of the campaign? Are there are really great “module playlists” that result in latter modules being experienced in a very different way than expected?

What if you could get the module author to run the adventure for you?

May 5, 2015

I always felt that book readings by the author are totally not worth it. I’ll read a book with margin notes, but what can the author add by reading his own words? What about watching a movie sitting next to the director? I’m probably wrong and missing out on some serene joy.

It feels like games are different, possibly because they’re so interactive. I could see how it could be fun to play a multiplayer game against or cooperating with the people who made it.

And it feels like D&D is absolutely the opposite. Maybe because I’m looking at things from inside the creative process, and I’m just not experienced in those other media and can’t see it.

But if I write an adventure and run it for my gaming group, and we have a great time, a huge part of that is found nowhere in the written text of the adventure. Let’s say there are some broad categories:

1: Things happen that are directly from the module, and go about how the author expected.
2: Things happen from the module but are dramatically different because of the players and the DM running it. Common in mysteries, most noticeably because the players solve it quickly or miss/ignore clues and get stuck.
3: Things are interjected by the DM that weren’t in the module. Running gags, favorite NPCs, the holy relic is now of the PC Cleric’s god instead of the setting-specific one in the module.
4: Things are interjected by the players. A player may become interested in starting a counterfeiting or cattle business, or build a home in town.
5: Random events mean every playthrough is different. Random table results, encounter outcomes, whether secrets are discovered.

Part of why tabletop gaming is so entertaining is its malleability and the ease of development. That’s why it’s really for the best that outcomes 2-5 are super common. The module author’s task is to write a framework for the adventure, giving enough structure so the DM isn’t constantly scrambling to create things during play, and giving enough interesting things that players can interact with to generate plenty of 2-5. D&D is a jam session.

I love this adventure I’m running. I’m writing it up in a way that’s most useful to me at the table, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t will hopefully make it useful for someone else. We’re essentially playtesting and enriching it as we go.

But what do people want from a module?

Do you want something that’s very complete with strongly interconnected ideas? For example, changing the dwarf temple from the deity I wrote it for wouldn’t work well because there’s history, motivation, treasure, puzzles, and loot all affected by that specific deity’s tenets.

Or do you want a very loose framework, a bland dish to which you will apply your favorite sauces?

Because the latter can be generated readily by computers, I think there’s more human-added value to the former. And maybe people enjoy a module with a strong, consistent identity followed by a few palette-cleansing randos and something written by the “home DM”. I’m certainly not making any judgments! I read a B/X game that was generally just random dungeons and it sounded like it was a lot of fun.

I am inside this. I have pierced my heart and what flows will stain my page, to be sent to the printers. I deeply feel that for me to create something worthwhile I have to create what I want – not what some audience wants. Hopefully there is an audience for whatever I make. I have to make it, regardless. And I think what I’m making is going to be the former of the two extreme types I suggested above.

Multiple Paths and Encounter Balance

May 4, 2015

I’m working on a sandbox adventure: lots of things in it, ways to deal with those things, and paths to travel between them. You could spend a lot of time ignoring the main dungeon or you could go straight to it.

How do you make the game interesting for players whether they encounter the Troll Bridge at level 1 or level 5? Another way someone might phrase that is, how do you balance the encounter and the loot? Here’s my take on this.

1: Not everything will be a combat encounter. If the creature is too tough or weak compared to the PCs it may turn into a chase or parley instead.

2a: If there is a fight: If the PCs are underleveled for the encounter, they will have a hard time with it. It might feel like a boss fight. They may turn away from the area, considering it too difficult right now, or may press ahead and use consumable, nonrenewable resources to overcome the encounter. When they eventually deal with it, they’ll get good XP and loot, perhaps beyond their normal expectations, and that will help boost them up to the level they should be in that area.

2b: If the PCs are overleveled for the fight, they’ll blow through the monsters quickly, get bad XP and loot which won’t change their power level much, and move on through to a higher-level area.

What if the higher level party doesn’t experience the area the same way because it’s too easy? But what if the underleveled party experiences a high level area as more harrowing and exciting than it would be at-level? I think the potential for the latter is worth the risk of the former.

Multiple paths.

Let’s say there’s a main dungeon, and to reach it you can go through a big nasty front door leading to Level 3, or go through an unguarded air vent to Level 1, or a very deadly pit leading all the way down to Level 6. Novice PCs will want to head in through the air vent because Level 3 is too tough for them. But once they’re higher level, even if they haven’t cleared out levels 1 and 2, they might just take the shortcut at the front door to save time and wandering monster rolls.

Now let’s say instead of just a different entrance, you have a pre-dungeon that leads into Level 3 and another that leads into Level 6. The PCs may not realize they lead to the main dungeon yet. When you enter the first pre-dungeon you find Level 1 difficulty, ramping up to Level 3 difficulty by the time you reach the main dungeon and pop into it at Level 3. Seamless! Same with the other pre-dungeon, where you enter at Level 2 difficulty and it ramps up to Level 6 difficulty just before it spills into the main dungeon. A faster increase, and more dangerous because player won’t as easily spot the higher level stuff in the pre-dungeon.

I love this method, and have used it in two adventures now.

In one, I had four 3-level pre-dungeons with a portal in the bottom of each, leading to the main dungeon, which started at difficulty Level 4 and didn’t have any direct connection to the surface. The idea was you could go through any of the four and get to the bottom, and then if you wanted to explore the other three, you could go in from the exterior top entrance as usual, or head across the portal room and enter another dungeon’s Level 3 portal room to get to the hardest part of it immediately. Each pre-dungeon was ruled by a high-level villain, and to protect himself from other villains each would fortify his portal room, making the fight very entertaining for the PCs. The players in my game explored two of the pre-dungeons but never took advantage of the portals to skip the upper levels of the second one, and never set foot into pre-dungeons 3 and 4. They just decided eventually to follow the clues back to the overworld where they gathered things they needed to banish and/or control the boss and reached the end of the adventure.

It worked well, but a party at level 7 or 8 entering a new dungeon and working their way down would have been tedious. Much quicker than a Level 3 party doing it, but it still takes time.

My second adventure using this method is the one I’m working on now. In it, there is a super dangerous and obvious entrance, a secret side entrance that’s actually pretty dangerous too, a pair of side entrances leading to a lower level that nobody will likely find except from the inside (meaning you probably have to reach the level and leave by the side exit to find the entrance), and – this is the important part – two pre-dungeon paths that don’t seem connected to the main dungeon.

I decided it might be cool to have the local awful human racist bandit/adventurer band discover the other pre-dungeon that the PCs don’t find, and explore it at roughly the same rate the players explore theirs. This gives me a reason to have these antagonists present themselves in the main dungeon rather than just being a camp in the woods and an entry on the random wilderness encounter lists.

Will the PCs fight them, considering them claimjumpers and unwilling to share loot that might be found in the dungeon? Will the PCs (some non-human in this case) overcome their revusion at the bandits’ attitudes and work together? Will they partition the dungeon somehow and try to avoid each other? And regardless of their political decision, what happens when they encounter each other in the dark, desperate corridors when one party of another may be injured or loaded with loot?

But you all may have an opinion on whether this is just annoying. Does it feel like having the NPCs explore the dungeon too is just taking away adventure opportunities from the players? Nobody wants to feel like someone else is eating his sandwich. But maybe this is a good spur to get them excited to get into the dungeon?

What do you think?


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