Posts Tagged ‘D&D fourth edition’

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


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Rudy Basso and I have some exciting news to share! Plus a very special not-so-mystery guest who will soon be much more! This podcast was recorded on December 6 and 11, 2016.


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Open Gaming Store Pick of the Episode: Lord Orkus


DMs Guild Pick of the Episode: Encounters in the Savage Frontier


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Have Spellbook, Will Travel


If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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


I sit down with game designer, podcaster, and all-around great guy Jim McClure to discuss the gaming great’s history with RPGs. This podcast was recorded on October 11, 2016.


Open Gaming Store Pick of the Episode: 13th Age Bestiary

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If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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


I sit down with game designer Shawn Merwin of Encoded Designs. Shawn has written numerous adventures for Dungeons and Dragons including fourth edition’s Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, and fifth edition’s Harried in Hillsfar. Shawn is always turning out great content and is one the best adventure writers of our time so follow him to see what he’s doing. This podcast was recorded on September 17, 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!

One of my favorite books for fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons was a little number called Dungeon Delve. The book was simply 30 three-room dungeons complete with traps, encounters, a few story hooks, and advice for continuing the story or further fleshing out the dungeon. It was basically a tome of a single, four-hour, one-shot adventures for every character level in the game (each of which could be turned into something more if so desired).

Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons plays a lot faster than fourth, particularly where combat is concerned, which is a good thing. I regularly play D&D on Monday evenings but the sessions are only about three hours long. On average it seems the combat encounters I plan take 30 to 40 minutes. I know that seems a little long but because of our limited time I usually plan only hard encounters to force the players to use up some of their resources and feel a sense of challenge. That means smaller dungeons in fifth edition are perfect for my game because they pack in enough action and my players still get to interact with NPCs and get in some exploration.

I know there’s a lot of other adults out there who have similarly tight schedules, so I’m going to share with you how I craft tiny dungeons for my games.

Why Tiny Dungeons are Great

One of the best things about tiny dungeons is they’re designed to be completed in one session or less. If your group doesn’t meet weekly, completing a longer dungeon can be daunting. When too much real world time passes between sessions in a single dungeon, players can lose track of the story and the point of being in the dungeon in the first place. They forget why they’re holding a key and which door they were saving it for. If the last session didn’t end with an extended rest, they might forget how many resources they’ve spent. So for my biweekly games huge dungeons aren’t the best. Tiny dungeons, by design, are perfect for games that meet on a less-than-weekly basis.

Another win for tiny dungeons at my table is that my players don’t really enjoy long dungeon crawls (and maybe yours don’t either). They like to get engaged in the story and interact with the cultures and societies of the world. Most dungeons are a lot of exploration and combat, with only a little interaction here and there. They get bored if I lock them in a dungeon for multiple sessions so our play style is suited by tiny dungeons, since they can be explored in a three-hour session. Maybe they’ll suit your play style too.

Finally, tiny dungeons are great for us Dungeon Masters! Making a big, sprawling dungeon crawl is really good fun, but there are occasions where I have less time to prepare than I like. Designing a tiny dungeon is quick and easy. These little nuggets pack a lot of punch and allow for some really creative thinking as you’ll see in the next section of this blog post.

Designing Tiny Dungeons

Here are some guidelines for creating a tiny dungeon. Remember the guidelines are just that. They’re meant to help you out when designing. Feel free to break the mould! That’s what D&D is all about. The guidelines are the ones I use specifically for designing dungeons for my typical three-hour sessions, so if you have sessions which are longer or shorter adjust accordingly.

Tiny dungeons…

  1. consist of three to five rooms. Sticking to this guideline keeps the size of your dungeon manageable and quick to explore, but also big enough to present multiple combat encounters and interesting exploration challenges. Some of the rooms can be enormous if that helps make sense. For instance the soldiers of a bugbear warlord might hide in a ruined temple submerged in a swamp. The complex holds many bugbears, but most of them sleep, eat, and live in the temple’s spacious grand cathedral. Just as many bugbears as might be in a sprawling cave complex, but in this case they’re all in one room.
  2. contain no more than three combat encounters. If you’re trying to get through a dungeon in a three-hour session and still want some time for the PCs to interact with NPCs back at the ranch, you won’t have time for more than three combat encounters. Depending on how much time your PCs are spending in town, on the road to the dungeon, etc. you might be able to get away with one more combat encounter if the dungeon is right next door and they’re headed there as soon as the session starts. If the PCs are going to spend more time in town, and maybe get caught up in a combat encounter on the road, consider capping the in-dungeon combat encounters at three or possibly bumping it down to two.
  3. contain combat encounters of a hard or greater difficulty. Since you’re limited on time, to give your PCs a challenge, crank up the difficulty on those combat encounters. Get your PCs to use up some of those resources and bring ’em to the brink of death because that’s dang good drama! Seriously, don’t be afraid to turn up the heat since the combat encounters are limited. When you’re experience budget is bigger, you can dream bigger. Go nuts! Give that orc chieftain the wyvern mount she deserves!

What Can Be A Tiny Dungeon?

Any complex with a few rooms can be a tiny dungeon. Get creative when you’re thinking about yours! Here’s some examples of a tiny dungeon.

  • A necromancer’s five-story tower, wherein each floor is an entire room.
  • A small, fortified outpost of violent separatist wood elves hidden high atop the trees.
  • An underground bunker full of goblin cultists convinced the end of days is coming.
  • A genie’s extra-dimensional pleasure den hidden in a small demiplane.
  • A small tavern run serving as a front for a wererat criminal enterprise.

Next Week…

How about I give you a look at a tiny dungeon? Maybe one that lives on the Free Game Resources section of this site as downloadable PDF? Sounds good!

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 Roll20 cofounder Nolan T. Jones to discuss the storied history of the virtual game table, Roll20’s business and gaming philosophies, the capabilities of the table, their new Apocalypse World web series, and future updates coming to the product! This podcast was recorded on May 27, 2015.


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

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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!

I sit down with Jeff Greiner, Sam Dillon, Tracy Hurley, and Liz Theis to discuss Gen Con‘s reaction to the Indiana religious freedom law and the delay of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons conversion guides. After that I interview Eberron campaign setting and Gloom card game creator Keith Baker to discuss the Kickstarter for his new card based RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command. This podcast was recorded on April 7 and 8, 2015.

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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!


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.

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

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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!

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


I sit down with Greg Blair, John Fischer, Dave Gibson, and Mike Shea to talk about the official Elemental Evil announcement. D&D’s next story line affects not only the TRPG, but also the Neverwinter MMO and the Adventure System Cooperative board games. This podcast was recorded on January 25, 2015. Stay tuned for Part II next week all about organized play!


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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!

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


I sit down with Vegas Lancaster, Sam Dillon, Tracy Hurley, and Round Table newbie Wade Kemper. We talk about the last Legends and Lore column heralding the arrival of three new D&D digital columns in 2015. Then we discuss the recent availability of Dungeon and Dragon magazines on dndclassics.com. This episode was recorded on January 15, 2015.


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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!