Why Do Boring Stupid Combats Happen

April 14, 2017

I have two specific situations where boring stupid combats happen, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make them not happen.

Imagine a scenario where the PCs encounter something and they fight it and they’re just the right power level for it. The fight lasts a normal amount of time, they get to use some special abilities on it, they have a chance of dying, random chance matters, they might have to make interesting decisions (use up more spells now and not have them later? Use up consumable magic?), and they get to see the monsters’ gnarly abilities, and they might consider fleeing or roleplaying instead of rolling for initiative. So I’d call that a fulfilling combat encounter.

What happens when the PCs are way too weak? 2nd level PCs fighting some Trolls. I’d say this encounter works just great; it’s clearly too tough, the players can choose to try to parley, flee, or almost certainly roll up new characters.

What happens when the PCs are way too powerful? 6th level PCs fighting 20 Kobolds. I’d call this encounter boring because there’s no risk, no real reward. But at least it’s over very quickly so we can move on to better things, and because the PCs know they outclass the monsters so much they’re more willing to try parleying for information.

What happens when the PCs are just a little too weak? 3rd level PCs fighting 20 1st level pirates. The encounter might be surmountable, or they might fail. But the PCs will probably use up consumables to survive, so they have a fine chance of victory. The outcome is shabby though because the fight takes a long time and they burn up more resources than they could gain from the spoils. I find these encounters to be very dissatisfying mostly because they take up a ton of table time. I hate when a game session boils down to a single combat encounter and limping away to lick your wounds. I’ve seen the big dragon fight take one session and the treasure take another, and players don’t seem to mind – but that’s a pretty epic encounter. Not just 20 dumb sailors or skeletons or whatever.

What happens when the PCs are just a little too strong? 4th level PCs fighting a big pack of wolves. They can’t get out of it by just Fireballing them, and the wolves do chip away at the PCs. The players are loathe to use consumables or even memorized spells because they feel the encounter is going to be easy enough. They may fail to take tactical advantages. So they end up wasting a lot of time and end up getting almost no reward for the investment of table time.

One could argue that skilled play is rewarded with more and better play opportunities. If the players decide to avoid a lengthy fight they can enjoy a better-balanced encounter that they choose later. And a DM carefully balancing fights reduces the incentive to learn those gameplay skills. But then again if you have three or four bad game sessions in a row it could seriously affect player enjoyment (and even attendance). It’s worth thinking about this.

But I don’t have many good answers.

One solution was present in BECMI, where extremely high THAC0 on the table that more than guaranteed a hit, would deal extra damage to that very vulnerable target. So there was still a benefit for a high-level Fighter vs. a low-AC monster. You could say this is like a 3E Power Attack, except automatically applied when it would have a benefit. Which I feel makes Power Attack a better rule because it involves interesting choices. The BECMI rule however could have a houseruled corollary where a very low chance to hit against a very high AC would deal reduced damage even if you hit. Or you could remove the “natural 20 is always a hit” or “nat 20 is counted as 30” that a lot of groups use. The high-AC rule makes it clearer when a fight is out of the PCs’ league, and means a really tough monster will not only deal more damage to weaker PCs but take less from them.

Another solution I’ve used is that subsequent low-level encounters in an area will have heard of the PCs and avoid them, or surrender, etc. These Kobolds found the bloody mess of the last Kobold band the PCs slaughtered. This helps prevent the fight that’s boring because it’s way too easy. Another option is saying the encounter is “played out” and the PCs actually only encountered an empty Kobold village that cleared out because the PCs were in the neighborhood.

You could also use that kind of logic to shift the encounter into a higher or lower level. 0D&D had an encounter table that said larger groups of PCs would draw correspondingly larger groups of monsters. I guess this meant the monsters would pay more attention to a big group of invaders and amass more of a resistance. It also might have been a way to discourage players bringing hordes of NPC hirelings along.

Maybe if you roll a third “Kobold band” encounter, and the PCs dealt with the last two handily, this last encounter is with the rest of the tribe trying desperately to defeat these powerful invaders. That way the encounter shifts into interesting territory, and if the PCs prevail there won’t be anymore Kobolds in the neighborhood to encounter. Either the area becomes more desolate with “empty” encounter results, or something else moves into that encounter space. Perhaps civilized people like merchants or hunters taking advantage of a safer area, which would slowly result in a civilized part of the frontier (and if you roll a multiple encounter result you could end up with some Giant Lizards that encountered some Pilgrims – so what happens next?). Maybe some other monster moves in.

Generally I want the verisimilitude of the world being described by a good set of random tables. So adjusting the roll result after seeing what the dice said feels like I’m not letting the table do its work. But I shouldn’t feel constrained to stick with a basic table regardless of how lame it makes the game. Philosophy that encounters reality either creates a bunch of side rules to cover special cases, or it steadfastly ignores its own terrible outcomes in favor of the simplicity of its basic tenets. I’m happy to use encounter tables and the oracular power of dice to guide the game, and apply reasonable adjustments later. And I feel that adjusting an encounter on the fly in the way I was describing is fine, specifically:

1: To shift encounters out of the “long, drawn-out, boring hell of a game session” either up or down to make the outcome resolve faster.

2: Avoid “waste a ton of time on an encounter without reward” as long as the players had a chance to experience that at least once or twice.

However, I still feel that beefing things up just because the PCs are too effective is outside what I’m comfortable with. Justifying it doesn’t take a lot of effort. “The Orcs were desperate because of your victories and made a pact with an itinerant Necromancer who raises their dead but keeps their souls in his amulet, to their dismay.” Bam, made the area tougher, added some interesting roleplaying opportunities, did good work. Tacking on a couple extra hit dice on those Orcs instead feels like lazy and churlish DMing antagonistic to the players sitting around the table.

As with a lot of things about this game, I bet a lot of people won’t see a big difference between those two. And after a couple years or a couple drinks I could persuade myself there isn’t.

It’s occasionally dismaying to realize I spend a lot of time thinking about D&D and come up with few concrete answers. Everything changes. There are always new things to try. I still love the game, on both sides of the DM screen. But I tell you, if you enjoy sausages, don’t learn to make them.

Who Knows if the Gods are Real

July 24, 2016

I’ve been tinkering with an idea for a while, a way to divide the Cleric spell list from the M-U spell list (because there’s some thematic overlap). All Cleric spells are non-visible.

For example, instead of immediately healing damage with a Cure Light Wounds spell (stopping bleeding, restoring lost blood, setting and knitting broken bones), nothing visible happens. Either the Cleric amps up your natural healing ability and you get more healing by resting tonight, or the wounds look just as bad but you John McClane through the pain and stand up to fight. In the first example, the healing still feels miraculous but it’s delayed and the Cleric’s magic is less powerful. In the second example, we’re explicitly on board with explaining HP as stamina / willpower / fighting skill / morale.

In both cases a skeptical observer could argue some non-magical explanation. Maybe his recovery outcomes were just way better, or the wound wasn’t as bad after all. Maybe the Cleric has just given him a really good pep talk. Either way, a Cleric’s abilities aren’t obvious enough to be proven, and by extension his claim to receive them from a deity. Let’s ignore the possibility he could be deluded or lying and receive his spells from some mortal source.

I’m also assuming the players around the table will always be able to spot mechanical effects. You might be able to put everything behind the DM screen but that would be much more difficult. But if your goal is to make the players wonder whether Jimmy is actually playing a Cleric it can be done for a little while but again it’s tough.

Another example is Animal Friendship. Sure it’s weird that he can get a wild animal to follow him around and clean his dishes, but maybe he’s just an animal trainer!

This unfortunately prevents us from having a Flame Blade spell. But the primary purpose of the spell is to give a melee attack, which is better against Undead, with a secondary purpose of having an instant magical fire which can ignite objects and shed light. The primary spell effect could be replicated with an unarmed damage bonus. A skeptic would say maybe the Cleric just smacked the guy really hard or in the right place, or the guy was intimidated by being attacked by a Cleric and went down easier.

We can replicate the secondary benefits of the Flame Blade and also the Light spell if the Cleric has a spell to make lighting a fire extremely easy (which could be worth a 1st level spell slot in a wet environment the same way Create Water is worth praying for in a dry environment). If he casts it on an oil lamp, torch, etc. the fuel also lasts longer (which gives us a reference to Judaism too!) which makes the spell worthwhile in low-fuel situations too.

Instead of Create Water, the Cleric is able to find nearby fresh water. Same with Create Food and Water – maybe this guy is just really good at foraging!

Hold Person is problematic as written. But it’s also an extremely powerful combat spell that can safely be canned because Clerics are already really strong characters. Or give a weaker version that halts people while the Cleric harangues them and stares them down impressively – but if they are attacked they’re no longer affected. Because the effect is weaker you could increase the number affected to compensate.

Instead of Invisibility or Silence, give enemies a lower chance to notice the party. How many times has a guard suddenly realized a small animal has wandered into his area and he didn’t notice? Or a fellow guard? Embarrassing but explainable.

Instead of outlining enemies in Faerie Fire, enhance the vision of a friend so he sees an extra reflected glint or just feels where the enemy is, and can attack accurately.

1st and 2nd level spells are so easily reskinned so nobody knows if the Cleric is legit. Typical village priests will still need to work to convince laypeople instead of impressing them by flaunting amazing magic spells.

There should also be a spell as a reversal of the intent of Locate Animals or Plants, which helps reduce random encounters.

Only once we get into 3rd level magic do we need to make things truly visible. By the time we get to Raise Dead it becomes difficult to keep things ambiguous. Then again, according to the 1E DMG 1st and 2nd level spells are cast through the Cleric’s own study and influence, 3rd and 4th are granted by lesser divine intermediaries, and 5th-7th are granted by the deity itself.

I love the perspective this puts on the spell lists. Cleric levels 5 and 9 are super important because they represent gaining a connection to powerful servants of their deity or the deity itself respectively.

At level 5 you can cure diseases / blindness / deafness / curses / paralysis, create food, animate skeletons and zombies, speak with the dead, walk on water and flames, and call down lightning bolts from storm clouds.

At level 9 you can speak directly with your deity, raise the dead, walk through the air, travel to a different plane of existence, and call down pillars and walls of flame.

So there’s really a limit on how far you can go making Cleric powers ambiguous in roleplaying. But I think it’s worth it enough to make the effort to reskin 1st and 2nd level spells.

Ah, the old “get us to smash stuff” gambit

July 11, 2016

Imagine you’re in a scary mansion and everything is cold and dark and covered in dust-cloths. You’re some kind of investigator or adventurer or couple driven in by a storm and a broken-down car. A monster pops out (as they do) but not from around the corner or something, but from a mirror. Cliché by now, right?

Said monster, after being shotgunned or pushed over a banister or whatever, runs over to the nearest mirror and pops into it. OK fine, you think, I’ll just go around busting all the mirrors.

So you go around ripping off dust cloths and smashing priceless heirloom mirrors with a big old candlestick. It seems like the monster is running around in its mirror-world trying to get ahead of you, because you’re so successful at smashing mirrors you stay ahead of it.

By the end of it you’re exhausted but triumphant. You even went into the basement (or sent a hireling down) to get the mirrors you know must be lurking down there. Heck, you even emptied the bathtub in case the DM says that counts as a mirror. Great work!

But now the monster is stuck in his own world. What if you wanted the monster to stay out? Like, let’s say the monster is causing problems and in order to attack it you need to lure it out of the mirror-world. You’d need to find a room with a few mirrors (so it feels safe coming out) but just enough that your party can smash them all at once. Is there a way to make a mirror you can control? Does a window between a dark and bright room count, so that you could flip a switch and remove the mirror? Would the monster be able to understand that vulnerability?

Or what if you want to enter the mirror world? Maybe the monster took something or someone in there that you want to retrieve. Could be some difficulty acquiring the correct item if the mirror-world version is still in there too. Or maybe you want to get the mirror-version of something. What is the mirror-version in relation to the regular? Is it evil and has a goatee? Left vs. right handed? Opposite magical effects? And how do you enter the mirror world – does the monster leave a slime you can coat yourself with, or do you have to grapple it and pass through at the same time? Maybe whoever owned the mansion was researching magic to pass through but it requires components / ingredients or is limited-use or requires good timing.

Was the person who made the mirrors important? Is the monster trying to drag him back through the mirror to his original dimension?

How I Want to Build a Module

July 4, 2016

Still working on the module. I have a few basic layout assumptions that differ from how a module is typically done, so I wanted to talk about them and see if anyone has input.

One Page Dungeon Format Extended
The One Page Dungeon layout puts a map on a page, with a sidebar for an encounter table, and the room key below. The map is typically 30×30 squares, which means the key can’t have too much detail. My version puts the key on the facing page and any map notes under the map instead. This way if you have the module open to a given page, you’ll have all the info you need for that area or dungeon level without page flipping. I find that I still need to be terse in room descriptions. Other tricks help this terseness!

I have minidungeons with their keys, and the tentpole dungeon has a map-and-key spread for each dungeon level. Outside that format I change it up as needed, again minimizing page flipping.

No In-Line Descriptions for Monsters or Treasure
You’ll see a monster listed in the key, but it has no stats. WTF? The monster list is on the inside cover of the module and you’re expected to (A) unstaple it and use the cover as a DM screen, (B) make a photocopy and use up some of your table real estate, or (C) flip to the cover to refer to monster stats – which is pretty easy to do because of the difference in paper textures. Monster stat blocks also suffer from repetition, wasting space in the key repeatedly. Magic items mostly don’t need in-line descriptions of their powers because those come into play generally when PCs use them, and you can flip to the magic item section to see that. I can see an argument for having in-line magic item descriptions though, especially for monsters who use them during the encounter.

Art is Strictly Kept in the Player Handouts
I believe that art in a module is there primarily to clarify and to direct the imagination. There are subtle areas where the art can conceal a clue or something, but that’s typically not the case. For example, in my copy of Temple of Elemental Evil, there’s a Trampier illustration of a rat on a shelf. It’s lovely, and I would hate to see it left out of the module. But if the DM is the only one who sees it then the art is working only upon a tiny fraction of the people at the table. If he has to cover up the rest of the page and awkwardly show the players, it takes a long time to get the art out there and the DM might make the decision to just not show it. If the players don’t see the art, the only way it affects them is indirectly, if the DM is inspired by it and puts more into his game as a result. So my criteria are (A) the art will be present only if it’s going to be viewed by everyone, and (B) the art should be easy to pass around. So there’s an art handout with numbered pages and the DM can pass the packet around and trust the players won’t go flipping through it to see the rest.

How to Use a Module

June 28, 2016

This is going to be elementary for a lot of you, and a lot of modules say this stuff in the intro. But maybe someone out there missed the memo? You can’t just tear the shrinkwrap off a module and throw down some dice. Here’s my advice. Please do not consider me an authority on this; it’s just how I do it. I’m interested to learn how everyone else does.

1: Make sure everything’s there. This is more important with boxed sets and used material. You need all the maps, handouts, notes, etc.

2: Read through the module gently, as if reading a novel for enjoyment. Get a feel for what the module has in store and make some notes in pencil in the margins for things that don’t make sense or that are really damn cool. This is your book now, and it’s a workbook. You write in modules. You can try to keep your module pristine by using post-its or a separate notebook but it’s a huge pain. Also, it’s amazing to find a module in a used bookstore and find someone’s old campaign notes in it. You’re not only using the easiest note-taking method but enriching the future a little.

3: Read through again and pick out the actual challenges. Monsters, traps, obstacles, secret doors, puzzles. You can underline or put a symbol to the side in the margin. Make sure there are the right pegs and holes for your game system. Roll and write down HP for monsters if it wasn’t already done for you. For example, if you use 3E D&D, everything is going to need a DC. This is the stage where you convert the module to your system if it isn’t there already; usually theme and fat doesn’t change, only the bones, so you don’t need a deep appreciation of the module to accomplish it. Also, if this is as far as you get, you’re prepared for play better than if you mix up the order.

4: Now look over all the tools given to the players. These can include magic items, NPC help, hints, or just normal equipment. How will those tools help the party overcome the challenges? Does it seem like some challenges require the party to find certain tools first? It’s better if finding a tool makes the challenge easier, because clues can be like needles in a haystack for some parties.

5: Pick out the treasure. Note it in the sides.

Now you’ve read through the book once, and skimmed it three times. This is about as prepared as most module writers expect you to be. But you’re going to destroy their expectations in an exultant orgy of preparation.

6: We’re analyzing the module now. Back to challenges. Look over the monsters.
* Does each group have a motivation? Why are the Orcs here anyway?
* Are there interesting motivations you can give any individuals in the group? What is the Orc guarding the well trying to do around here?
* What will happen if these monsters are alerted to the party? If a fight happens in the guardroom, who can hear it? Are there alarms?
* What happens if the party fights a bunch of them and leaves? Do they re-fortify and what resources do they have for that?
* What happens if the party steals their treasure? Do they hang around, do something desperate, or emigrate?
* What happens if the party destroys them and loots? What, if anything, fills the void?
* What happens if the monsters achieve their motivations?

Next look over the other challenges with the same mindset. What if the secret door is left open? What if nobody can figure out the puzzle? What if the party burns down the palisade?

Now go over the tools. Are there obvious scams that can be pulled that will invalidate large sections of the module? Is that ok? Is it possible to use up a tool elsewhere and no longer have it for a challenge that requires it?

Don’t feel like you have to plan out everything, and definitely don’t try to create storylines that the players will follow, because it tends to reduce the game to a few IF->THEN branches. But thinking it through now might give you some really weird ideas that would be great in the game. For example, you might see a connection between the Kobolds and the Orcs where if they’re both kind of devastated they will join forces. Or maybe a band of thieves will call in mercenaries. But if your plan would be pretty obvious at the table, you don’t need to write anything down.

Now you’ve picked the module apart and figured out how it ticks. The next step is adding your own touch to the module.

7: Is the treasure appropriate for the challenges? Maybe you can hide extra treasure in places where players can find it if they play very well and creatively. What is the future impact of this treasure if the players use these characters in another adventure? It might be better to replace a permanent magic item with a charged one to limit its use to this adventure plus a few more times.

8: Are there any ways you can tie in your previous campaign events into the module? Can an informant, spy, assassin, or humble townsperson participate? Can you replace a flavorless flat NPC in the module with a cameo from a prior adventure? Try to  figure out how the adventure outcomes will affect future adventures in the area. Mostly this will need to wait until after the adventure because you don’t know if the party will slay or join the bandits or miss them completely.

9: Read through again and find the places where there is very little detail. Maybe there’s a thief hiding in the storeroom. If there are a few traps that are identical, change some of them up a little – but try to keep the trigger methods and the general theme the same so the party can learn from their experiences.

10: Replace magic items that don’t have an explicit purpose in the module with more interesting or exciting ones, especially ones that will have an impact on this – or the next! – adventure. Same with very basic monsters, changing “goblins” to “blue goblins who are pottery experts and can squeeze through tight spaces like an ooze and take half damage from blunt weapons because they have cartilage instead of bones”. If there are bandits, give each band a name and a gimmick – the Merry Men give to the poor, the Compassionates never slay prisoners and use nonlethal weapons, the Rivals are always trying to one-up the other bandits.

At this point your module is coked up with some weird shit and you know it inside and out. Now is the time to trim it down.

11: Replace special rules with things that are already in the books, but only if it’s an exact match. If there’s a special table with % chances for escaping the pursuer, but your game already has it, just write the simpler rule in the margin so you don’t have to look it up. If the monster has a funky method for determining if it will flee, use a morale roll instead. This is definitely a place where you can make the game run smoother, but it’s also a place where you can accidentally lose some quirky charm in the module.

12: Can you find places where you need to roll all the time and replace it with some other method? Can you come up with a simple rule instead of a big chart to track things? You’re trying to reduce your overhead at the table. But this is also a place where you could lose something cool in the module.

By this point you’ve altered the module so much it’s possible a player wouldn’t recognize it. There is something to be said for running a module straight, unaltered, so that players across generations have a shared experience. But sometimes that experience is not so great, and sometimes the module is little-known so there isn’t much historical value. Make sure as you change things that you’re learning why the designer did it in the first place. Frequently something inexplicable is just misunderstood. You’re now deep enough in the module to figure that stuff out.

While running the module, continue to make notes. You should be able to start a game session knowing where you ended last, what timers are ticking down, and what the party was planning to do next. Keep track of player HP and such if they end in mid-dungeon just in case they lost their notes.

When you complete the module, look through to find any loose threads you can weave into the next adventure.

In summary, we have three phases of module preparation. First you read it and make margin notes to improve flow. Second you analyze it and look for connections and weak spots. Third you “improve” it by adding and removing as necessary. Each step is dependent on the previous and you can stop anytime and just play. For new DMs I would definitely suggest just going through the first phase and see what happens.

Tavern Tales, Code Wheels

March 26, 2016

The old SSI video games in the Gold Box series (Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, etc.) featured some “feelies” which were physical objects that came with the game. Among them were a rulebook (which was kind of a D&D Lite for planning your character even though the game handled all adjudications – which is an interesting take on a Players’ Handbook) and a code wheel (two paper circles with a grommet connecting in the middle, and tiny holes so you could see through the top to view word strings underneath when the symbols on the edges aligned properly). These are some interesting ideas.

For the first one, the rulebook always had a section of text you would read during the gameplay because the game interface couldn’t easily handle large paragraphs. The sections were out of order, like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, and lacked context which made it difficult to read ahead for hints. But what hints you found were tantalizing! Among those were “Tavern Tales”, or rumors you’d hear in taverns. Some were true, others vague half-truths, others outright false.

I always wanted to implement tavern tales into my tabletop games, as a table of rumors you could roll on. But you only have so much development time between game sessions, which is better spent elsewhere. BUT! You can just roll on your Table of Contents for your module to generate a tavern tale topic. Even rolls are true, odd rolls are untrue (which means some topics may always have true or false rumors). Feel free to pepper occasionally with red herrings and misinformation if the two dice fall farther than a hand-span apart, giving exceptionally good info if they land touching each other, and a key, map, or some other aid if one lands on top of the other.

You may need to be clever with the die roll to prevent a result curve weighting heavily the middle of the module. If your book has 30 pages, maybe roll 1d10 x 1d3. Or if the material in the middle is the meat of the adventure, and you want fewer rumors about the introduction / town at the beginning or the deeper levels / boss fight at the end, 3d10 could be your friend.

You can also use the dice drop on the page to decide what exactly you’ll give information about. Or just use your knowledge of the topic on the page and come up with something related.

If you wrote your adventure and you don’t have a table of contents, you can number the pages in your notebook and roll for that number. Or if your notes are very scattered, write up a topic list of areas or phases of the adventure, special weird stuff, important monsters and treasures, and assume each has equal weight. If you write adventures like me, you’ll have an outline with a few dozen phrases lying around from your preliminary draft which you expanded later in your notes. Some of those ended up being very minor points in the adventure, others became central, and others changed or were left out. Perfect for a tavern tales roll.

What should be in a tavern tale? You don’t need to actually read from the page and give info from your adventure. Here are some examples I’d use:

Reality: Lizardmen in a ruined swamp castle just want to be left alone. Their god is a (long gone) dragon and the shamans brew weird potions that have unpredictable effects on mammals.
True tale: Explorers in the swamps regularly find weird totems made from bones and stretched skins.
True tale: Some plants in the swamp seem alien and rare, confounding even druids as to their uses.
Half-truth: A priest doing auguries about the wilderness, in his hallucinations and tremors, mentioned terrible reptiles stalking the swamps. He spoke in tongues which a wizard identified as Draconic.
Half-truth: Last year an adventuring party tried to explore the swamps and were driven out by scaled demons that hurled tree roots for javelins.
Falsehood: Merchants passing the swamp have described a city where savages traded gems away for iron tools.
Falsehood: At the center of the swamp is a fallen log that crushed a prince; his golden regalia remains under it where he was suddenly buried.
Dice land stacked: A Fighter Lord scouting for a wilderness territory to clear and claim gave up on the swamp as too filled with lizardmen to ever conquer – and to what end? Who can farm or mine, or harvest good straight trees, in a swamp? He has left for other conquests but a hireling of his can be persuaded to sell copies of his maps showing solid islands and the castle’s location.

Code wheels could be used for deciphering a language. That was the original theme: you’d line up two runes and the revealed word was the “answer” to the copy-protection question on startup. You could probably develop a lockpicking minigame for the Thief player to do. I haven’t thought about code wheels in a long time and the memory popped up when talking about the tavern tale thing. But if you had the code wheel drawn up in software that allowed you to write text along a vector (like Illustrator, probably Photoshop, maybe Gimp or Paint.Net) you could very quickly and easily change up the text for a new set of codes.

What’s Up With This Thug?

January 19, 2016

Been a while since I posted, but we’ve been gaming pretty regularly. Just completed an adventure I wrote for a campaign phase for level 1-7, so the next phase is for levels 7-14. After that I’m going to shove them into either Spelljammer or Planescape, whichever they prefer. I’d like to do the former but some people don’t like the aesthetic.

I need to type and print up the adventure and have a couple other groups play it and give some advice. After some revision and art I’d like to put it out as a module. But this stage takes a while and I want to strive for quality.

Anyway, here’s a thing I was tinkering with for a while. It’s like the “what is this group of monsters doing” tables but specifically for a gang member. One of those tables you don’t really need but would be nice to see printed in tiny font in the sidebar of the city encounter table. I used terms like “police” and “gang” because they’re shorthand with a lot of baggage – you could substitute “city watch” and “thieves’ guild”.

What’s Up With This Thug?
1: Fresh face tattoo, just joined the gang and swaggers with extra bravado.
2: Has been hiding loot from his comrades and is paranoid and defensive.
3: Recently failed on a job and is desperate to make it up to the gang.
4: Pressure from family outside the gang life to go straight, seriously considering it.
5: Contacted by police recently, considering whether to cooperate with them.
6: Regularly sells gang info to another gang, will betray a friend to avoid attention.
7: Secretly in love with gang leader.
8: Secretly wants to take over the gang, has a few supporters.
9: Publicly wants to challenge gang leader at the next contests, all his supposed supporters are really spies for the leader.
10: Next in line of succession for gang, looking for opportunities to bump off leader.
11: Has some side work he’s keeping secret from the rest of the gang.
12: Has been squirelling away supplies in a secret hideout.
13: In love with someone outside the gang, cuts them slack when he shouldn’t.
14: Under pressure to perform well, erratic, makes mistakes.
15: Deep in debt to someone outside the gang.
16: Family member has been arrested by police, forced to give info on gang to them.
17: Sees gang as family, will give anything.
18: Tired of another member’s shit, will try to betray him.
19: Addicted to thrills, will take on challenges and risks.
20: Religious fanatic, views gang leader as messiah.

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.