Posts Tagged ‘Shadowfell’

One night during a fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons game, my players got completely trounced by an evil tiefling necromancer and his undead minions. During the battle the party was separated. Half of them could only retreat through a portal to the Shadowfell, while the other half ran away to lick their wounds inside the villain’s stronghold. At the end of the session, though the characters were miserable, the players themselves had a blast. Still one of them couldn’t help be feel they had done something wrong.

That player would later ask me, “What were we supposed to do in that last battle?”

My reply was simple. “Win.”

“How?” he asked.

“That’s not up to me.”

Why Single Solutions Are Bad

In the days of my youth I often planned the solution to every challenge I lay before the players. I thought if I didn’t provide specific solutions to every single challenge I was a bad DM. I thought that I hadn’t planned ahead properly without those solutions.

There are problems with this philosophy. If you have a single solution for everything players will feel frustrated and railroaded.

For instance, the only way to get a world-destroying elemental orb from an ancient altar is to hit it with a crazy dwarf king’s magic hammer. The only way to get the secretly-hidden-away-in-a-special-plane-which-only-the-dwarf-king-can-access hammer is to speak a special phrase verbatim to the mad monarch. The only way to learn the phrase is by talking to his brother in a small village before heading out to see the king. The only way to know to see the brother is to ask the right questions at a dinner party with a group of nobles. At any point during this scenario, taken from the published Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle adventure, adventurers could easily skip over something and end up not getting the world-destroying orb. Instead a rakshasa gets it. He already has every other world destroying orb too, because the all-or-nothing quest won’t work out if he doesn’t. Awesome. So one enormous dungeon crawl later, your players are frustrated and unfulfilled.

There’s another problem with single solution challenges. The DM can become married to the solution and less likely to reward out of the box thinking. In the example above perhaps players think outside the box and decide to try to read the mad king’s thoughts to find his hammer or they go for a more gruesome option and kill the king and cast speak with dead on his body. Certainly these are outside the box ideas that get results, but I’ve played with and been one of the DMs who blocks every solution that comes up that isn’t one they thought of. Let the players make choices, roll dice, and you check out and adjudicate the result. The creative solution is not only fun, it moves the game along and provides a dynamic future for your story. Sure the PCs could have spoken the phrase from the brother, but now that they magically read the kings thoughts won’t he send his armies after them or their patron? If they kill the king what crazy consequences that would that have? Letting the players figure things out on their own will provide a much richer story.

In the example I give at the start of this post the fight was unlucky for the PCs. A few bad dice rolls and a few precious resources used generously in previous encounters meant that they’d be turning tail and running. It was a classic mistake. They thought they’d have one more chance to rest before coming upon the villain. Rather than me giving them an out or killing them for foolish resource management and bad luck, they came up with their own. Suddenly I had half the party in the Shadowfell and the other half licking their wounds and trapped inside the villain’s abode. If I had simply had them stumble upon a portal which allowed them to return to town or slaughtered them because “they weren’t supposed to escape,” that would be a far less interesting story.

Make Specific Single Solutions Clear

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a few single solutions. That’s the kind of thing that defines a big, mythic story. Here’s an example from Lord of the Rings. The One Ring can only be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom where it was forged. Now, note that the route Frodo and his fellowship take to Mt. Doom is up to them to choose. The story doesn’t say, “And to cross the Misty Mountains, you need special boots. You can only get those boots by speaking the name of Gandalf’s grandma in Elvish to her long-lost brother in Bree.” Sure their might be some single solution puzzles along the way (looking at you, “Speak, friend, and enter”), but for the most part the solutions of problems are left to the minds of the adventurers.

One other thing I’d note is that this single solution, which drives the story, is loud and clear. There isn’t a lot of guesswork involved and it’s known as soon as the quest is assigned. I’m not saying you can’t have mystery in your campaign, but at some point big story single solutions should be made clear to players so they know what they’re doing and where they’re going. It’s fine for the occasional door to be opened by the answer to a riddle, but don’t make your players guess which of the 50 ancient swords they’ve come across will slay the dark lord.

Let Players Solve the Small Stuff

When I’m setting up a challenge or problem for my players to solve, I find it always helps to think of at least two ways it might be tackled and solved. This will open your mind to any other ideas the players may think up and get you thinking beyond the single solution.

Let’s face it. As a DM you’re busy. You may not have time to think of two solutions for every challenge you throw at the PCs not to mention the challenges you may be coming up with on the fly. Let your players solve the small challenges for you. Write your traps, encounters, hazards, and anything else you create and let the players be the ones to come up with a way out. Odds are if you haven’t thought of a solution you’ll be more open to anything the players want to try. It makes less work for you and more fun for them.

Track Those Consequences!

As I mentioned above, sometimes players will think of solutions that have lasting consequences. Maybe the wizard chops off his hand to get out of a devious trap or maybe the PCs sink an evil artifact to the bottom of the ocean rather than destroy it. Whatever the action write it down in your notes or the digital tools you use to track your campaign. Trust me. This method makes life easier, your game more fun and relaxed, and your story richer.

I’d love to hear more stories of players coming up with creative solutions. If you have one from your gaming sessions please share in the comments below.

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Is there anything tougher to crack than cosmology? For me the answer is no. Throughout its history, Dungeons and Dragons has handled various planes of existence in all sorts of ways. There is The Great Wheel, Spelljammer, the oft-malign and easily understood Fourth Edition cosmology, World Axis (I got your back, James Wyatt), and so on. What’s a designer to do when in creating one world he realizes now he needs to create a whole multiverse to go with that world?

How I felt when I discovered I had to create worlds beyond Canus to make Exploration Age feel complete.

Personal Likes and Dislikes

My biggest problem with multiverses is that they always seemed overly complicated. I know I’m going to get some flack for saying that, but that’s my personal opinion. Don’t get me wrong, as a DM I love delving into the more complicated minutia between various planes. There are connections and pathways and Demiplanes, Outer Planes, Inner Planes, coterminous planes, coexistent planes, and on and on. Yet for players these complications are dull and slow down gameplay. For the most part they don’t care which plane borders which and how the map of multiverse is drawn.

The thing I love most about the planes are the little details which affect gameplay for the players – the silvery chord tethering a creature back to its body on the Material Plane when traveling through the Astral Plane, or the ability to travel more quickly in the Plane of Shadow are good examples. These concepts are more easily understood by players because they have tangible and immediate effects. They remember the Elemental Plane of Air because they have personal directional gravity in a huge, open, infinite expanse of sky, not because it’s one of the inner planes. These are the details which make planar travel in an RPG interesting.

To be honest I enjoy the variety of planes within The Great Wheel. I want that level of variety in the multiverse of Exploration Age. However I want the simplicity of a Fourth Edition World Axis layout for my players who don’t care that the Elemental Planes are Inner Planes and Celestia is an Outer Plane and all the details which go along with those distinctions.

If your planar map looks like this something has gone wrong.

Sweet, sweet, easy to understand World Axis cosmology.

Cosmology in Exploration Age

So first things, first. Let me be clear here – if you choose to run an Exploration Age campaign you can use any cosmology you want. If you don’t like what I’ve laid out here, that’s totally, 100% fine. Bring The Great Wheel, Fourth Edition’s World Axis cosmology, or any system you want into Exploration Age and play with that. That’s what tabletop RPGs are all about and 95% of Exploration Age’s content deals with the Material Plane anyway.

That being said, here’s what I’d like to present as the default cosmology for Exploration Age is this – certain planes, such as the Ethereal Plane and Plane of Shadow are Coterminous. They overlap completely and in all areas with the Material Plane, like they always have been. This allows for use of spells like shadow walk and blink to be used and to get some of D&D’s most classic planes into the Exploration Age multiverse. Many other planes, not just The Material Plane, have an Ethereal Plane and Plane of Shadow which are coterminous.

Then there are the Reflections – worlds of the same size and with similar natural landforms as the Material Plane. This includes Fourth Edition’s Shadowfell and Feywild and allows for the freaky fun looks-like-our-world-but-totally-isn’t-our-world effect that one gets while adventuring in a plane which reflects our own world.

Other planes are not Conterminous nor Reflections, but they do overlap with The Material Plane in certain places. These areas of overlap are where one might find a standing portal on Canus to a particular plane. One must be careful when using these gateways for sometimes they only work one way. So an adventurer might be able to leave Canus through a portal, but not return, or a monster could wander through a portal in an Overlap Zone and be stuck on the Material Plane.

This overlap also creates Overlap Zones – small areas where the barrier between worlds is thin creating strange environmental effects. It is even possible, in rare places, to have overlap between Overlap Zones. These planes do not just overlap with Canus’ Material Plane. They can overlap with one another (so it is possible to be travel through the Elemental Plane of Fire and encounter an Overlap Zone with The Abyss).

Of course it is possible to travel from one plane to another without being in an Overlap Zone. Spells, rituals, magic objects, and more can take a person from one plane to the next. Overlap zones just make extra-planar travel much easier.

The Astral Plane, which is technically the space between the other planes and the Far Realm are exceptional planes and do not fall into any of the above categories.

In Exploration Age when people die, their souls eventually pass onto the unknown, beyond the multiverse and if there are any gods, they too are beyond the multiverse. This changes things a bit for a few of the classic D&D planes, since the gods and the dead will be spending their time elsewhere.

Let me know what you think about the proposed layout above. For the most part Exploration Age’s planes will be familiar. I’ve already made an entire world with tons of adventure hooks and I didn’t feel the need to remake the wheel when it came to the multiverse (pun intended).


I couldn’t resist adding a few planes of my own design. Take a look at the two below and let me know what you think!


There is a strange Reflection plane where what are considered monsters in Canus rule the land, while what would be considered civilized humanoids live in caves, swamps, and dank, dark ruins. This strange world is ruled by well-dressed ogres, gnolls, and more, who try to keep the humans, elves, and other savage species at bay. Humanoids from the Material Plane who travel to this world are as misunderstood as they are confused.


An infinite region of mountains, forests, tunnels, and swamp makeup Murderfall, the land where everyone wants to kill everyone else. When outsiders enter the plane, they must make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or attack any living creature they can sense until it dies. They make a new saving throw after 24 hours to try and end the effect. If they leave Murderfall the effect ends. Creatures native to Murderfall are immune to this effect, but they are all vicious, territorial loners, so it may seem they are under this effect anyway. Essentially everything in this plane is stalking or being stalked.

Overlap Zone All critical hits deal twice the maximum amount of damage.

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