Archive for March, 2015

When I start a campaign I know the story I want to tell. I generally know how I’d like to see things begin, how they might end, and a few good plot twists in between. It takes a lot of hard work to craft my tale and come up with something that isn’t too cliché or totally and completely stolen from somewhere else. Then my players come along with six separate, bizarre, interesting back stories full of NPCs, plot hooks, and villains THEY created and they want me to work them into MY story?!? What’s a DM to do so he doesn’t end his game with more hanging plot threads than a Game of Thrones season finale?

Give Them An End Point

As I’m working out the main arch of a campaign before it begins, my players are building their characters and backstories. In general I don’t usually have time to weave the backstories into our first session, especially when I’m being emailed the information 15 minutes after the game is already underway. Those players who do give me ample time with a backstory are the same players who give me 30 pages to read. Because I may not have time to read a lengthy backstory and can’t read one I’m handed right before the game starts, I always give my characters an end point for their backstory. In other words I tell them, “Hey make sure your character winds up in Oliath, capital of Aeranore.” Doing this and having the characters tie their backgrounds together makes for a very smooth first session. The PCs already know one another and I don’t have to spend half the first session convincing the paladin and the rogue to play nice with one another to move the story along. As a bonus if you tie PC backgrounds together some backstory stuff comes out in that first session as the players interact with one another and I don’t have to prepare for any of it.

Tracking the Stories

Once the campaign is underway, I sit down and read the PC backstories. As I read, I have a Google Doc open upon which I bullet point all threads the PCs leave dangling for me. Some are intentional (e.g. A PC never saw the gnolls that destroyed my village again) and others are details I could use to create a thread. (e.g. A PC receives a locket from a former lover… and unbeknownst to player and PC alike the former lover can track the PC’s every move through the locket.)

I keep them simple and quick. After all these bullet points are only for me. My Google Doc of PC backstory hooks looks like this. This example is taken from a fourth edition D&D game I ran about six years ago.

Fizzlebottom Cloisternook, gnome warlock

  • His immediate family was mysteriously murdered the same night he made his warlock star pact. He has no memory of what happened that night.
  • His daughter, Stella Cloisternook, was her father’s favorite and thought the world of him. Unbeknownst to Fizzlebottom, she walks the world as a revenant, searching for her family’s killer.
  • A mysterious star appeared burning red in the sky the same night he made his pact and has remained since.
  • In his early days of adventuring, Fizzlebottom learned how to survive in the wilderness from a tutor named Douvan Stahl. Douvan has gone missing.

Once I’ve made my list of threads, I go back to each thread and add a few details about how these hanging threads might get resolved. Sometimes a PC will have only two or three threads and sometimes a PC will have ten. See which threads are related and if you can tie the resolution into all of these threads together, the backstory of the PC will feel cohesive. If many threads are related, the player will have more of a mystery to unravel about the character’s past. There may be a thread or two which can’t be tied to others which is fine. I add these resolutions as sub-bullet points beneath each thread point. Here’s the same example, now with the thread resolutions.

Fizzlebottom Cloisternook, gnome warlock

  • His immediate family was mysteriously murdered the same night he made his warlock star pact. He has no memory of what happened that night.
    • Vecna, god of secrets, has granted Fizzlebottom his warlock powers. The making of the pact drove Fizzlebottom mad and he murdered his family. Fizzlebottom can uncover this mystery by destroying one of Vecna’s elite undead secret holders.
  • His daughter, StellaCloisternook, was her father’s favorite and thought the world of him. Unbeknownst toFizzlebottom, she walks the world as arevenant, searching for her family’s killer.
    • Stella seeks the death of her father. Upon meeting him she will reveal he killed his family, but Fizzlebottom will not know why until he kills the secret holder.
  • A mysterious star appeared burning red in the sky the same night he made hispact and has remained since.
    • This star appears in the sky once a millennia when Vecna chooses an unwilling champion. It unknown to many what this star means, but Vecna’s cult leaders know the secret. These leaders will seek out Fizzlebottom. Some will try to worship him and bring him sacrifices, others will try to murder him out of jealousy.
  • In his early days of adventuring,Fizzlebottom learned how to survive in the wilderness from a ranger and scholar namedDouvan Stahl.Douvan has gone missing.
    • Douvan has been captured by servants of Orcus because they wish to obtain some of his scholarly secrets about the demon lord.

As threads are resolved I’ll make them red or strike them out to indicate they’ve been taken care of. If new complications or ideas arise (e.g. Fizzlebottom’s daughter fought him to a stalemate, revealed herself, and ran away), I simply add to the bullet points.

Random Encounters, Interludes, and Partnerships

How do I actually use this information? Well one thing I do is incorporate backstories into my random encounter charts. Rather than having all encounters be run-ins with roving beasts and bandits, plug-in at least one option per PC which could help resolve a backstory thread on your random tables. In the example above Fizzlebottom could have a random encounter with a cultist of Vecna trying to kill or worship him, his revenant daughter, or a passerby who has word of Douvan. I aim for at least one of these encounters to happen during an extended journey (even if I’m using a random table and I don’t roll for a backstory thread encounter, I’ll throw one in).

Interludes occur when the PCs take a break from the main story to pursue a backstory thread. This often happens organically, after the PCs have had enough random encounters with a thread they want chase down its conclusion. If the PCs don’t decide to go after a thread, but you feel it’s time for an interlude because you want to change-up the monsters they’ve been fighting, need to give your villain some time to plot and recover from a defeat, or just want a change of pace, go ahead and drop a smoking gun into the PCs’ laps. In the example above, Fizzlebottom and his party might decide to seek out an elite undead secret holder of Vecna after meeting some cultists and his daughter. Alternatively they might seek out the secret holder because Fizzlebottom receives a magic dream from an enemy of Vecna telling the gnome that he can find the identity of his family’s killer if he kills the elite undead holed up in some underground cave.

The final way to work backgrounds into your story is with what I call partnerships. Partnerships are when your main campaign story overlaps directly with a PC’sbackstory. Theevil necromancer the PCs have been fighting turns out to be the fighter’s long-lost father. The mysterious paladin who saved the rogue’s town from marauding orcs is also the party’s patron. This can make your life easier and is a great reveal for the players but use partnerships sparingly and varyingly, otherwise the PCs will suspect that every masked villain is a lost relative. Partnerships make one PC the star of the show, so be sure to give everyone a turn in the backstory spotlight! In the example above, Douvan Stahl was not just Fizzlebottom’s old mentor, but actually everyone in the party’s mentor. Their first task was teaming up to find him, which is the suggested hook of the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure we were playing.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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Last night was the Battlesystem BrawlJohn Fischer DMed Allison Rossi, Rudy BassoAlex Basso, and me in a massive battle of the elements. Using the new Dungeons & Dragons Unearthed Arcana Battlesystem,Unearthed Arcana Eberron racesElemental Evil Player’s Companion it was a livestreamed D&D encounter like no other!

You can checkout the battle on The Tome Show’s new Twitch channel or on YouTube.

In the coming weeks, we’ll release the audio as a podcast on The Tome Show’s feed and post an edited video on YouTube for ya!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!



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If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Say hello to Krutzworth Steelbelly! He’s my character for the Battlesystem Brawl – coming this Sunday night at 7:30 to The Tome Show’s Twitch channel.

PDF Character Sheet – Krutzworth Steelbelly

Krutzworth Steelbelly’s father, Malick, was a general in the army of allied earth forces who died in a battle against the forces of air, fire, and water. Since birth Krutzworth was weak and small, but tried to live up to the Steelbelly name. He found an ancient tome in his family’s crypt one night while praying to his father for strength. This book taught him the secrets of the arcane. He has sworn to use his magic might to wipe his father’s enemies from the face of the planet and plans to erect a monument in the likeness of Malick from the bones of the defeated foes.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Say hello to Slorn Battleborn! He’s Alex Basso‘s character for the Battlesystem Brawl – coming this Sunday night at 7:30 to The Tome Show’s Twitch channel.

PDF Character Sheet – Slorn Battleborn

Slorn “Battleborn” was just a warrior for his tribe.  After a yet another victory in battle with a rival tribe, Slorn participated in the customary raising of weapons toward the sky.  *ZAP* *BAM*  LIGHTNING!  His battleaxe was struck by lightning, thrown from clouds that gathered in an instant!  Slorn was knocked unconscious for 3 days.  While he was out, he had visions of a minor deity named Ragnor.  Ragnor claimed to be a powerful god of war, and demanded that Slorn spread the word of his name.  He gifted Slorn with divine powers, which he utilized to slay the leader of his tribe when he awoke.  This new power commanded the respect of his tribesman, who did not question his rule.  Slorn now wanders the world with his tribe, following visions from Ragor that lead him toward pending battle.  When battle is found, Slorn and his followers join whichever side will take him, only looking to further spread the name of their new god.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Dungeon Brawls!

Posted: March 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

I know the title of this post sounds like it should be the name of my high school metal band‘s album but I’m writing about one my favorite formats for dungeon crawls.

The History of the Dungeon Brawl

Dungeon brawls were first incorporated into my game when I was DMing a campaign using the D&D Next Playtest rules and The Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle published adventure. The adventure itself isn’t awesome (it’s a little too railroady for my taste), but there are a lot of interesting ideas, NPCs, dungeons, and encounters one can easily adapt.

I was running Part Three of the adventure, “Ironaxe Halls,” the majority of which is a three-level dungeon crawl. The first level of the dungeon has 48 baddies… and absolutely no doors between any of the rooms. No doors on the first floor of the dungeon?!? Why?!? Check out the excerpt from the adventure below.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 12.16.46 PM

So the party of 5 PCs backed by some allied elf NPCs went in swords swinging and magic blazing. All out chaos ensued. Fireballs were hurled, greataxes were swung, and healing spells were depleted. It was glorious. Instead of several small fights in tiny rooms, waves of enemies came out of different hallways at different times as the PCs constantly shifted and repositioned themselves to meet their foes. At the end the PCs were exhausted, but accomplished.

I’ve since adopted this style of gameplay for other encounters which I (oh so cleverly) refer to as dungeon brawls.

What Makes A Dungeon Brawl?

So do dungeon brawls only happen in mines without doors? No! The fact that a door can dampen the clash of steel on steel or the explosion of magic thunder so much that it could never be heard is frankly ridiculous.

Dungeon brawls don’t always have to be in dark, dank areas. They could take place in a necromancer’s tower, the mansion of a tyrannical noble, or the castle grounds of an evil warlord. I draw inspiration for dungeon brawls from action movies like Commando or Dredd. In a nutshell a dungeon brawl consists of a few heroes teaming up against a whole compound full of baddies. Here’s how I go about creating mine.

  1. Create a 5 – 12 room dungeon, complex, or level of a structure.
  2. Prepare 3 – 5 encounters that average medium difficulty. If you build a hard encounter, that’s ok, but make one of your other encounters easy to balance it out. Even if your dungeon is mostly populated by one type of monster, mix things up a little. Goblins, for instance, might have warriors, assassins, shamans, and worg riders in their ranks. You’ll also want to be sure to have at least one oh shit monster, that is to say a monster that is larger, smarter, or has some special attack (like a beholder’s eye rays) that players aren’t expecting. Ya know, the kind of monster that makes your players say…
  3. Place one encounter’s worth of monsters in the room you think players are most likely to enter first, or at least the first room they’ll enter which has some baddies.
  4. Spread the rest of your monsters throughout the dungeon as you see fit. They might be on guard duty, sleeping, eating, gambling, training, etc. Whatever makes the most sense.

Running A Dungeon Brawl

Your dungeon brawl begins when the first loud, all-out battle is going down. The rest of the complex is alerted by the noise and know it’s time to throw down. Quick note: remember a dungeon brawl is multiple encounters tied together so they work best if your PCs are at full strength.

Adding Waves

Take these steps to run a successful dungeon brawl.

  1. As part of your prep, separate your monsters into waves. Waves are usually an encounter’s worth of monsters who will all appear on the battlefield at one time. Mark your minis or make note of which creatures are in which wave. To keep things simple you could have each wave made up of one create type, but if you have the time, mix it up and spread out creatures of one type across various waves.
  2. Roll initiative for each wave involved in the brawl, even the ones which cannot be seen.
  3. On its turn decide if a wave enters the fray. Unless you’re using an online game table that has a fog of war function like roll20.net, you probably won’t be able to keep track of precise monster movement. So how do you know when it’s time to add another wave? As a general rule, if there are less enemy combatants than there are active PCs, add a new wave. Use your best judgement. If the PCs are struggling, don’t add another wave of its a hard encounter. Wait for an ray or medium to roll around.
  4. Be prepared to adjust. I admit this method is pretty swingy. Be prepared to hold a few monsters back if the PCs are really getting their butts handed to them or add a few creatures if you feel the combat is too easy or going too fast.
Encourage PCs to Move

Dungeon brawls can be great fun in one room, but they’re even better if the PCs have a reason to move. Each new room can changes the dynamics of combat with varying hazards, choke points, terrain, sizes, and opportunities to gain cover and hide. A new room can break up the monotony of a long combat.

The only problem is that many players have a dungeon crawl mentality of clearing one room at a time. You’ll need to adjust that if you want them running through rooms battling it out. There’s a few ways to tackle this.

The first is to simply talk to your players before the dungeon brawl and let them know they’ll need to make a mental shift in order to get the most out of the encounter. While this method is simplest it’s the least interesting and takes away player agency. Plus if you have a PC die during the dungeon brawl because he ran off into another room and got stabbed, now you’re partly to blame.

A more enticing way of getting your players to move their characters around the dungeon is to have monsters use ranged attacks from other rooms. There’s only one way the great weapon fighter can hit the goblin mage who keeps ducking behind full cover after blasting everyone with a fireball.

Another method you could use makes for the most daring and exciting of dungeon brawls, and only requires a little more planning on your part. Give the players a timed objective. For instance a devastating ritual to crash a flying city nears completion or the Brotherhood of the Moon plans to turn the dean of The Arcane College into a werewolf at midnight tonight are great objectives for the PCs to stop. Remember a round of combat is only six seconds long. Unless your dungeon is huge the timed objectives should have limits of five minutes or less. Alternatively the PCs could not know their exact time limit but be given the impression that if they don’t keep moving a massive army of devil-aberrant hybrids is going to rise out of the ground.

The Oh Shit Monster

This oh shit monster is inspired by every action movie ever. The heroes think they’ve won the day, and are catching their breath when a creature unlike anything they’ve ever faced suddenly shows up. In dungeon brawls, one of your waves should include an oh shit monster. Savor the moment this creature shows up and revel in your description of its power. Get the players good and scared when this baddy shows up, preferably at a moment the PCs are close to thinking their job is almost done. Think cave troll in The Fellowship of the Ring movie.

“Oh shit.” – Gandalf

Improvised Weapons

Because a dungeon brawl is actually multiple encounters strung together the combat has the potential to drag on and feel like a tiresome slog. In order to keep things fresh you should have a bunch of different monsters and a reason for PCs to travel through different rooms in the dungeon. Finally, adding some fun environmental props will really take things to the next level.

When building a complex for a dungeon brawl, I like to think about the environmental props that populate some of my favorite video games. Video games high on action are most fun when you can shoot barrels full of oil to make them explode, throw baddies off ledges to their doom, and stealth attack an enemy below by jumping down on them from a gargoyle. Stock dungeon rooms with interesting objects, even if you don’t have ideas on how they could be used as weapons. I promise your players will find a way to turn anything into an instrument of destruction. When they ask if they can tip the deranged wizard’s tank of piranhas onto the flesh golem, for the love of all that is holy say yes. Let the effects be just as devastating if not better than the PC using its action to attack. Even if damage isn’t dealt by an improvised attack, think about conditions it might impose on a target, like dumping a barrel of glue onto a kobold shaman. If your PCs see their ingenuity pays off and soon they’ll be trying all kinds of high action antics!

Batman in a classic dungeon brawl.

Why Dungeon Brawls?

Dungeon brawls are a fun way to clear out a level of a dungeon without the traditional time sucks of listening at every door and searching every 10 feet for a trap. It’s not meant to replace every good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl, but it’s a nice change of pace, especially when you need to save some time. They’re a challenge, but done well they’re also extremely rewarding. If you give it a shot, please let me know what you think in the comments below.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


I sit down with Rich Baker, game designer, novelist, and cofounder of Sasquatch Game Studio. Rich helped created the Birthright campaign setting, the seventh edition of Gamma World, the third and fourth editions of Dungeons and Dragons, and the soon-to-be released Princes of the Apocalypse adventure for fifth edition D&D (among many other successful games and novels). We talk his past, present, and future in the gaming industry. This podcast was recorded on March 10, 2015.

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If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, The Round Table and Bonus Action, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I recently wrote an article titled “Give Chase,” for the fabulous EN World EN5ider magazine from ENWorld.org. The team over there is great and it was a ton of fun collaborating with their editor James Haeck.

The article I wrote is about running a successful chase sequence. The chase rules in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide are inspiring. My article has tips, tricks, and brand new complication tables you can add to your chases.

So to commemorate my first official published credit in a paid publication and to encourage you to go check out the magazine, I’m posting some complication tables different from the ones in the article. Read below or in the Free Game Resources section of this site for Sewer Chase Complication Table and the Treetop City Chase Complication Table. Of course if you want the Underground Chase Complication Table caves or Castle Ground Chase Complications Table, you’re going to need to buy the article.

One of my favorite chase scenes.

Tables

Sewer Chase Complication Table
d20 Complication
1 A roaring river of sewage blocks your path. Make a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check. On a failed check, the sewage counts as 10 feet of difficult terrain.
2 Disorienting echoes cause you to question your current path. Make a DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check. On a failed chec, you move in a random direction determined by the DM.
3 A pipe opens next to you releasing a spray of sewage. Make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, you are knocked prone by the sewage.
4 You disturb a nest of rats. A swarm of rats chases after you.
5 Ahead of you a mechanical iron portcullis begins to shut. Make a DC 15 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check or use 10 feet of movement to go around a different way. On a failed check, you take 1d4 bludgeoning damage and have to use 10 feet of movement to go around a different way.
6 You must cross over the top of a pipe opening. Make a DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check to jump over. On a failed check, you fall 1d4 x 5 feet (taking the normal 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10 feet) and land prone.
7 You run through a cloud of noxious fumes. Make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, you are poisoned until the end of your next turn.
8 An ochre jelly falls from the ceiling and attacks you.
9 You must cross a pool knee-deep sewage. Make a DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check. On a failed check, the sewage counts as 10 feet of difficult terrain.
10 You run through a pocket of explosive gas. If you are carrying a lit torch, candle, lantern, or other fire-powered light source, open flame, or create fire by magic or mundane means this round, make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, you take 2d6 fire damage.
11 – 20 No complication.
Treetop City Chase Complication Table
d20 Complication
1 You cross an unstable rope bridge. Make a DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check or fall prone on the bridge.
2 You cross a crumbling bridge. Make a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, you fall 1d3 x 10 feet (taking the normal 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10 feet) and land prone.
3 You run across a narrow bridge. Make a DC 15 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. On a failed check, you fall 1d3 x 10 feet (taking the normal 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10 feet) and land prone.
4 The bridge before you is broken. Make a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check to jump the distance. On a failed check, you fall 1d3 x 10 feet (taking the normal 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10 feet) and land prone.
5 You disturb a hive of hornets. A flying swarm of insects chases after you.
6 You have reached the end of your path on this level and there is nowhere for you to go but up. Make a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check to climb up to a new level. On a failed check, the effort to climb costs you 10 feet of movement.
7 You accidentally knock over an irate druid. Make a DC 15 Charisma (Persuasion) check or she chases after you.
8 A large puddle of tree sap is in your path. Make a DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check to avoid it. On a failed check, the sticky grounds costs you 5 feet of movement.
9 A large gap between structures blocks your path. You can make a DC 15 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check to swing across the gap on a vine or use 10 feet of movement to walk around the gap. On a failed check, you fall 1d3 x 10 feet (taking the normal 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10 feet) and land prone.
10 An overgrowth of razorvine blocks your path. Make a DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check to jump over it. On a failed check, you take 1d10 slashing damage and lose 5 feet of movement.
11 – 20 No complication.

PDFin’

Do you want these chase complications to have and hold and keep and love forever in PDF form? Great news, people! Check out the links below to grab the chase tables or if you want to pick them up later, they will live indefinitely on the Free Game Resources section of this site.

Chase Complication Tables

Sewer Chase Complication Table

Treetop City Chase Complication Table

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Just a quick post here to let you all know that my first published article, “Give Chase,” is currently available through EN World EN5ider. Morrus, EN World King, and his team are awesome and have been putting out great fifth edition content and they have a whole catalogue of stuff still to come. I definitely recommend you check out the work over there.

“Give Chase,” is all about running a successful chase sequence in fifth edition. There’s advice for running a chase with miniatures, advice for running an abstract chase, and new chase complication tables for mountain, castle, and underground environments. The art and layout are amazing. I could not be prouder to be a part of the team which made this awesome article.

Tomorrow I’ll be writing a companion piece to go with the article on this blog so stay tuned!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new episode of my podcast, The Round Table, is up on The Tome Show’s website.


I sit down with Rudy Basso, Alex Basso, and Allison Rossi to discuss the new Unearthed Arcana Battlesystem rules and not one, but two vague tweets from WotC employee and LeBron James of DMing Chris Perkins. This podcast was recorded on March 15, 2015.


Please rate and review us on iTunes, it helps a boat load!


Links:

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!