Saturday, April 29, 2023


I'd like to take a moment and give a public shout-out to Maxwell, one of my long-time patreon supporters and online friends.  For months now, Maxwell has been diligently giving attention to the Authentic Wiki, correcting spelling mistakes, adding links and generally shaping the pages up to be more attractive.  If any one here has used the wiki in the last six months extensively, you owe some of your appreciation to Maxwell's work.

Thank you, Max.  You've been terrific.

Friday, April 28, 2023


Remember what I said about the past.  Events of the past, and the present, make the future.

In this circumstance, let's have the players decide to surrender the wilderness and return to town.  They'll be the first to do so, for as the tale went, "none have returned" who sought this dungeon.  'Course, that could mean the players have found the wrong dungeon, and that there's one more dangerous and deeper in the woods than they went.  This could be a funny story, as the players come back to town crowing about their escapades, only to meet a grizzled old fellow, name of Renlo, who asks them a few questions before saying, "Ach, I know the dungeon you're speakin' of; me and my crew cleaned that place out some thirty years ago.  Everyone knows about that dungeon.  The one you were looking for, it's below the white mountain.  Were you under the white mountain?"

It's cruel, but effective.  But put that on a shelf, we're just going to talk about the players coming back to town.

Most games I played, for years and years, always assumed the town was going to be the same every time the players returned.  That sentiment is baked into the saw about how D&D can be shortened to town-dungeon-kill-haul-town, rinse, repeat.  But this is not a given.  Events do take place all the time, and a town will see more such events than most places in the game world, except a city.  People get arrested, buildings catch fire, new taxes are imposed, important people die of old age, visitors of one stripe or another arrive from distant places, natural disasters take place and so on.

For a period, in my late 40s, I found myself overusing a heavy-handed motif of turning over whole towns with great events, when the players just happened to be there.  I destroyed a city with a flood, I had the party come across a city under siege, I had a group of NPCs raise and enormous demon that slaughtered half the town, I imposed a pirate raid ... all designed to create a grand-scale dramatic moment that would capture the players' attention.  For the record, it works; but I definitely raided that cookie jar once too often.  I made a promise to myself to stop doing it.  Not that the players minded, but I felt that I needed to approach game play more subtly ... and nowadays I encourage the reader to do the same.

Suppose that, for a less heavy handed option, we'd like to have the players arrive back in town just as a peasant uprising is taking place.  That could be interesting.  The players find themselves surrounded by peasants walking in small groups at first, all carrying heavy farm tools, especially hoes and scythes.  Soon, they notice a few of the "farmers" are wearing some kind of makeshift armour, despite a lot of them without good shoes to wear.  Plus, everyone's moving in the same direction as the party.  Someone comes forward: "What're ya folks doin' here?  Are you mercenaries?"  The party answers that they're not, but a few more rustics come nearer.  "So, yer not fightin' fer the town?  Yer not takin' the barger's pay?"

Again, the party says no, they're not.  Some farmer says to the players, "So what's in the sack?" pointing at the bag full of silver and gold that the party has just collected from the kobalds.  The party make an explanation and some one else says, "If yer waitin' fer one of us ta pay ya, ya'll starve first!"  And everyone laughs.

Once upon a time, I'd have the party arrive at the moment the uprising was taking place, so they could see the peasants lighting the town on fire while knights on horseback slaughtered them like stalks of wheat.  The above is, um, more subtle.  It puts the players in a bit of a situation, especially as they're carrying all this treasure.  But I've done this kind of thing to players before and they get awfully threatened by it.  Bitter.  Because there's no good way to justify taking away the players' gold after they've earned it, or even look like that's something you might do, even if you don't intend to.

Subtle is good, but in fact we want more subtlety.  Rather than having the players stumble into a conflagration — which many online pundits will tell you is a GREAT way of getting the players' attention, and it is — I suggest a series of events that set up the great cataclysm, first.  Think of it as foreshadowing ... a storyteller's method of indicating something before it happens, by advancing material clues to the oncoming event with present-moment signs.  This is sweetest when the actual event's occurrence is made clear, but it's actual nature is not.

Let's take a simple, rather obvious and short-term example.  You're a union soldier sitting in your camp in Chancellorsville, in 1863, and you've been waiting all day for a fight that never seems to happen.  Suddenly, deer come bounding out of the forest and through your camp.  What does it mean?  Where are they going?


In the example above, the indication comes minutes, even seconds before an upheaval occurs.  It's just as possible to set up events that won't take place until next week, next month, next year or even ten years.  It all depends on what we want to happen.

Now suppose we decide that something BIG is going to happen, eventually.  Let's say, a peasant uprising.  But for the sake of a better game setting, we'll put the actual fighting off to some point in the future ... say, three months.  From here, for us as Dungeon Masters, it's a thought experiment.  As we already know what the future is, the challenge is to invent things happening in the present, around the party, that makes sense in the context of a not-as-yet happened uprising.  Abuse of the peasants is a fairly obvious cause, and not hard to portray ... and has the added benefit of the players assuming that peasants are always being abused, so what they're seeing isn't that important.  Such failure to pay attention has value.  It's how we catch the players with their pants down.

Another factor we can invent is some faction whose role is to stir up the rebellion for their own personal gain; a group not made of peasants.  This faction wants to upset the status quo so that a few choice murders can take place and some person at the top of the heirarchy pyramid can have a tumble.  This faction is careful to conceal their plans, yet they can't help noticing that the party seems to be made up of tough outsiders who maybe don't care much about the town.  Perhaps, in some manner, there's the possibility of recruiting the party.

This is tricky.  Players don't like to work for other people, but the also don't like authorities.  This means they'll probably say no when asked but they won't snitch on the faction, either.  Done just right, expecting the players to snub the request, we can get it across that something's afoot in town, without actually saying what it is.

Okay, we need something to start the fire ... that is, act as a torch that stops a bunch of disgruntled peasants from complaining into their beer and motivates them to pick up farm tools to risk their lives.  It should be something really scary, something that threatens the peasants with losing something more important than their lives, or equally important.  Something like a sudden mass-recruitment of town boys, not as soldiers but as camp servants — who will nonetheless be taken far from their families and maybe never seen again.  Or perhaps a plague.  One or two cases to start, but who knows.  If you're going to die of the plague anyway, you might just as well die of a sword wound.  Problem is, a plague is likely to make the players run for the hills.  Even one victim can make a party too skittish.

Mind you, the party hasn't actually gotten back to town.  They're still on the road to town.  This is our opportunity to set the scene three months from now with something they see out there amid the fields and the trees.

How 'bout an animal plague?  That's not too threatening.  The players aren't animals, at least not yet.  And we can have a convenient mage or cleric make it definitely clear that whatever these cows died of, it's definitely not something that can infect humans.  Still, if cows die, that less food, and less food means starvation, and a town that won't provide food makes a pretty good way to get a rebellion started.

So there's the party, all concerned about dungeons and preening themselves on being the first to return from this one, observing a few dead cows, and imagining to themselves its no more important than the guy they saw playing with his two little girls on the road out.  Ho hum, sure is a quaint little road.  Wait 'til we get back to the dungeon with our new weapons and armour.

'Course, running a game this way asks for a certain DM skill ... and that we can talk about with the next post.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Breather Before Town

It should be clear how I've been addressing this subject for these last weeks.   I started by exploring the DM's agenda with regards to role-playing, then discussing character generation and how the game deliberately limits the player.  There followed a discussion of the DM stepping aside to let the players set the game's agenda.  With that sorted, I talked about using the game's progress to set up the players for future events, while on their way.  A proposed dungeon was used as a simple pretext for game play, but nonetheless the next post addressed entering the dungeon and how that could be handled.

Having crossed the threshold into the dungeon, I discussed what inside might immediately confront the players; this progressed to a discussion of social monsters and the dungeon's layout, giving greater depth and rationality to that.  Without further ado, I brought forward a post on setting up combats; then plunder; then establishing clues that would take the party further into the dungeon's grip.  Finally, last Friday, I examined the subject of the players not having enough oomph to go on.  That brings us to here.

All this hasn't produced a lot of discussion, but I recognise the reader has been keenly interested and following along, appreciating the point-by-point elaboration on these subjects.  If nothing else, I should hope I've communicated that there's quite a lot going on with every facet of the game.  It matters that we're able to go on from here — and so we shall.  The players must bring out there gear and plunder from the dungeon, address their health, divide up healing, then choose whether it's practical to go all the way back to town or find a nearer place to hole up.  It depends much on how badly the party is hurt.

Before going into that, however, I wanted to pause briefly and talk about the method being employed with this series.  With each, there are three facets being examined: (a) what's gone before, that's brought the players to this place; (b) what specifically needs to be addressed in the present surroundings; and (c) how do these things press the party forward in some manner that keeps the game moving, without allowing a conclusion.

Winning the fight ends nothing; climbing out from the dungeon is not the end of the adventure.  There's obviously more dungeon that hasn't been addressed, there are the problems of getting back to town, and there's the power we have as DM to initiate some other ongoing situation or crisis that beckons the party's involvement in yet some other thing.

Recently, I stumbled into an ancient book by the name of Leucippe and Clitophon, written by Achilles Tatius in the mid-2nd century AD.  Take a moment and read the plot summary on wikipedia.  By the standards of a modern novel, it's ludicrous and melodramatic in scope, with new characters popping up to suddenly become villains, deaths that turn out not to be deaths, shipwrecks, kidnappings, betrayals and other such madness.  But as a narrative for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, it makes perfect sense.  Troubles beget troubles, with the players jumping from frying pan to frying pan, while still choosing which way to jump when the set up's been made plain and open.

We know that when the players enter the dungeon that there's going to be fighting; no one's surprised when it takes place.  We know that eventually the characters will run low on hit points even if they don't die.  We know they'll have to retreat.  None of these things are mysteries.  Yet the players can choose how they address these incidents that arise.  They choose when to keep going, when to retreat, and most important of all, how to retreat.  Later, it's up to them if they ever come back; no one's holding a gun to their head.  If it makes better sense, in this moment, to rescue the fellow with the children from the hangman's noose, leading to the adventure of what brought the noose about in the first place, and where that goes, then the players can follow up, or not, according to their whim.  Our role as DM is to go on making things happen; to go on finding things the players have to overcome; to create new situations the players have never met before.  To catch them off guard.  To thrill them ... over and over, no matter how many sessions we play with these same characters as they progress from weaklings to overlords.

I'm hoping the value I can add by deconstructing each part can provide insight into DMing skills that haven't been discussed, even with a blog this size.  By putting myself in the place of DM as I imagine the players moving onto the next thing — hauling their gear back to town — I can put the reader in both my place and that of the players also.  How would you address the players' return to safety and security: "You leave the dungeon ... and you're back in town" — would you do it like that?

I hope not.  I trust that we can see the players situation is tenuous at the moment, something we want to exploit with the setting.  They're hurt.  They're overloaded.  They may even be carrying an unconscious party member.  What might happen along the way.  Whom might they meet?  What's been going on in town since their leaving?  The setting is rightly in a state of flux ... and it in our interest to play up the melodrama somewhat, since the players aren't here to hoe crops.  They want drama, especially the kind that makes them think, that offers problems they can solve, that gives them something to exploit — if they're bright enough for that.

Thankfully, I can go on with this series indefinitely, even if the players do return to town safely.  Even if they arrive at the same dungeon again; because there are always different things to address.  I've not nearly said all there is to say about combat, treasure or laying further adventure hooks.  We could talk about returning to town in fifty different ways, because the game is that thick and deep.  There's never any "done" here.  There's always more.

Friday, April 21, 2023


To continue, the players have collected their treasure and discovered that there's a dungeon below the kobalds. As the reader can tell, the aftermath of combat produces multiple issues and downstream effects well past the actual fighting. Those who disparage the inclusion of combat in role-playing games conveniently overlook these effects, and their games suffer on account of that.

Here is another.  As the players contemplate the possibility of going forward, they're acutely aware of their hit points.  Without doubt, they'll have lost some to the kobalds, probably quite a few given how many kobalds there were, and what's wanted is sufficient healing to bring them to full.  Only, as the game was originally designed, and as I still play this part of it, healing at lower levels is in extremely short supply in the game world.  There are lots of ways to get healed ... but instant healing any time the party wants, even limited by some number of times in a given day, isn't there.

The so-called value of "super"-healing rules, such as developed in later games, is that the party can continue to move forward, practically indefinitely if need be, so that the whole adventure can be managed as a single narrative ... just like heroes manage in literature, when all the cuts and wounds they receive are either forgotten or fall just short of killing the hero before the quest is finished.  Many players want that exact arrangement.  They don't want to admit they're human, having to give ground to the enemy, having to retreat home with their tails between their legs like cowards.

Yet notice how often in books and films that the characters have to do exactly that — the way that Luke, Han and Leia have to escape so they can fight another day in the original film; or the way that Luke in the 2nd film, having lost his hand, has to escape so he can return in the 3rd.  He didn't spontaneously regenerate all his hit points.  He lost ... but losing isn't the end.

Most D&D battles are set up to give the players a Pyrrhic victory — named after the 3rd century BC general from a tiny country in northern Greece who repeatedly kicked the Roman's ass in fight after fight.  Though Pyrrhus lost less men than the Romans in these fights, he had less men to start with.  He couldn't exploit his victories.  He had to give up the ground he won, eventually having to fall back from Italy altogether, because he never had an army that equalled his genius.

That's the players at a low level.  They're smarter than the enemy, they have more options and powers than the enemy ... but from the beginning of the game, they venture into each lair by themselves, without a proper support network.  Most that I've run won't learn from this, because they think somehow that the rules of the game dictate that to be heroes, they must do it all themselves.  Instead, the players should build friendships and allies, with fortified encampments two or three miles from the dungeon, filled with supplies, replacement equipment, additional soldiers, a friendly cleric or two to give a little more healing and so on.  All these things are possible in the original game, but they're not even considered by a player party ... no doubt because many DMs refuse to reward players for rational thinking, loving to produce a situation where the players return to their camp to find they have to fight their own hirelings for no good reason except the DM is a fucking prick.

So, instead, we invent bottomless magical healing to overcome the "broken" parts of the original game, to spare the problem of players having to think.  And this naturally leads to other designs that circumvent the deadly capacity of the game as designed, assuring that no one's going to get seriously hurt or killed, at least not permanently, just so that dungeon can get finished without anyone ever having to take a break.

Like the fallout after combat, there's fallout after the players retreating back to town that gives the game a greater richness that punching monsters until they're all punched.  Players have to make choices, which gives them reason to consider their priorities.  They're reminded of their humanity, of the simple fact that they can't endlessly wade against an enemy like gods.  This humanity serves them very well when they're much more powerful and they remember the time when they were very soft and vulnerable.  The retreat gives us, the DM, to remind them that there is more to the setting — remember those examples of adventure hooks we set up while the party was on their way to the dungeon, that we can now bring round to fruition.  Other things, too, may happen on the party's way back.  They may get so invested in something else that they don't come back to the dungeon at all, at least not right away.  We give them choices.  We give them perspective.  We assure them that no, the game isn't just an endless cycle of replacing all their hit points and going around again.

Before we get to that, however, we have to talk about the party that decides, "We're just going to camp right here, in the dungeon we just cleared, until we get our hit points back."

This is always fun.  I've allowed it at times.  Online, I had a party moving through a cave that had been sealed off for centuries, sitting literally miles from the inhabited part of the cave, who camped out for four or five days, sending one player character back to town for supplies.  So yes, in the right circumstances, it's possible.

That scenario doesn't really apply to this kobald lair, however.  There are, to begin with, a lot of dead kobalds and dead rats laying around.  Far from being sealed off for centuries, the outer door is open to the world.  Is there a party of 20 kobald hunters on a 2-day trip, about to arrive back?  Have they absolutely killed every last rat?  Won't the bodies of the dead kobalds start to smell?  And — according to the rules of my game — the unburied dead do tend to rise as undead.

Now, it may be that because I grew up reading Weird War Tales as a comic, I'm naturally attuned to this concept ... but resting amidst scores of dead is just begging for a very bad scene.  How long does it take a murdered kobald to decay sufficiently in order to rise as a skeleton, when it's home is being occupied who have such contempt for the dead that they won't even stack them together?  And is it even possible for a human/demi-human cleric to give a proper burial rights to a kobald?  Surely these are questions worth considering.

Even if that's not a thing ... me, the guy writing this, would have quite a lot of trouble resting in the tomb I'd just created.  And I'm a 21st century fellow with a strong knowledge of science and not practicing a religion.  What does a 17th century player character think when he or she's lying, trying to sleep, and some mouse somewhere near by starts chewing on a kobald corpse, causing a random arm 50 feet away to slip and fall to the floor?  "Oh, that's a mouse"?

Remember that healing without magical means (or rule changes) takes a good long time.  A cleric has to get a full sleep, to pray again for a spell that only cures a little bit of the player's total lost hit points.  The party would have to rest for days, hearing every tiny sound gently echoing in hollow stone rooms that would be eerily silent when something wasn't skittering across the floor ... while waiting to see if it's our imaginations or if something real is actually happening.  While all the while being uncertain whether or not we've definitely killed everything that lives in this lair.

Running this is easy.  It's just a choice of picking words.  "You hear something very quiet; it sounds like it might have come from around the corner ahead; but it's probably nothing."  "Falling asleep, you feel like clawed hands are closing around your neck; you feel the boniness of the fingers as you have trouble breathing ..." [pause for effect]  "You wake up, gasping for breath.  It was a dream."

Takes about twenty minutes of this to get a party to smarten up, gather up their shit and head back to town.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Describing the Future

Following up on this post ...

The players are standing amid the bodies of the slain; they've observed their treasure and are somewhat satisfied.  Whereupon they fall into discussion about the encounter and someone notes, "They didn't seem that hard to kill."

"Yeah, right," says another.  "What was all that stuff about no one coming back from this.  Surely, they could have killed a few kobalds and gone back to town to tell others about this."

"Maybe this isn't it?" suggests another.

[If our players aren't having this conversation, than we've done something wrong ... most likely, we haven't sold the myth hard enough to worm its way into the player's brains]

If you want to hide a dungeon under a dungeon, it's not that hard.  My personal favourite is to locate a door somewhere at the bottom or the rear of the upper level that's been seriously blocked off against the other side: a bar on the door, extra wooden slats nailed into the frame, an extra steel gate in front of the door, a sign that says something obscure like "Remember Froed" or "Bad."  Even rocks piled against the door so all can be seen is a little corner, overlooked because no player carefully examined the heap of rocks against said wall.

Any of these makes it clear that whatever's on the other side of that door, the kobalds definitely didn't want to let it out.  The lower lair, whatever it is, may be a quarter mile deeper.  There may be older kobald rooms and even treasure on the other side of that door, while the kobalds were forced to hold that creature off while nailing the door shut, piling rocks against it, making sure none of the next generation got curious and went to see.  Whatever's down there, it's fun to play this mind game with the party, effectively saying, here's where the real dungeon starts.

There are other ways.  The kobalds might be friendly with whatever's down there.  In all the fighting and slaughter that's gone on so far, one or two kobalds may have slipped through a "secret" passage to give warning, so that now the lower lair is aware of the party.  They may already be sending aid.  The party could sit down, thinking this is a good time to rest, only to be assaulted by tougher humanoids, or twice as many kobalds.  They may open the doors and let trained dog monsters into the upper level, letting those deal with the party.  They may throw in flasks that explode in clouds of poison gas ... assuming they already know somehow that all the kobalds in the upper lair are dead.  Anything is possible.

Another way is to let the last few kobalds attempt to give themselves up, so they can tell the player characters, "You'll get yours!  When Marfon in his chambers learns of his, he'll make bread from your bones!" or some such.  It's all kind of tropey, but this stuff works.  The players are bound to ask who Mafron is, whereupon the kobalds conveniently die or kill themselves, straight out of an early Marvel comic.  In a movie, it's quite banal, but with the players needing to know who Marfon is and what he might do, it's rather easy to build them up with a cliche like this.

If we're willing to make the kobalds literate, the players can discover writings that describe sacrifices to Marfon, complete with commentaries.  The writing would be in the kobald language — though not in my game, because most creatures speak common due to several powerful mages reversing the effects of Babel Tower — but the players might decipher it, or take it back to town to be deciphered.  "Garog went bravely to his sacrifice," the papers might say.  "We opened the shaft and he climbed down, smiling at us and telling us to be happy that we did not need to worry for another year.  He made his father proud.  We covered up the shaft again and placed blankets to mute the noises, but the horror-sound could not be completely drowned out ..."

There's a common thread that runs through these examples: each of them speaks about the future.  As a dungeon mastering skill, the ability to portend the future, to act as a prophet, is critically important.  The present, and what's going on in it, can hold the players' attention for the most part, but the future — that part of the dungeon, or the game world, that the players haven't met yet — is the true bugbear in their plan-making.

We can invest hints of the future in a great many things: the way we describe the dungeon's front door, as we discussed earlier, or any door to be sure.  The evidence that's laying around for the players to find, which evinces images of what's been here, isn't here now, but may come back ... or be met on the players' way.  Things that are written or said about the past in such a way that it says, first, "Glad I'm not that person," but then also says, "If we keep pushing this quest forward, we may become that person."

The future works best when this kind of empathy is printed in the details.  This is the fundamental, underlying trope at work when a DM says, "The myth is that no one's every come back."  It implies, obviously, that if YOU go, YOU won't come back.  And that's something the players have to contend with every step of the way.

This is an important reason why a set of monsters cannot be balanced to the strength of the party!  The exciting part of the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug is that these two are very plainly not equals.  Bilbo is marginally protected by his ring, but he has to watch where he steps, because the ground is covered with coins that slide and ring as Bilbo walks across them.  Too, Bilbo smells, so Smaug moves his enormous nostrils about, trying to find Bilbo that way.

The best moments happen when the players struggle with their bravery to face the future: and then, all at once, find themselves in a deep, terrifying mess they can't get out of with a finger snap.  Our genius is to figure out a way, like with Bilbo, that gives them time to either extricate themselves or overcome the danger, because the danger isn't really as horrific as it appears, or the players have time to be clever.

Up front, as a warning, this is next to impossible.  Chances are you're going to find yourself giving the players some magic object that magically let's them any truly serious situation as long as they have it.  Then, in every combat, it's the object that wins, not the players.  That sort of solution ruins a game.  Whatever the circumstance, the players have to feel they've done something themselves that got them out of that terrible situation.  Bilbo's ring doesn't let him kill Smaug, or even nullify the danger presented by Smaug.  It merely allows him a chance to avoid Smaug.  Smaug then goes off to get himself killed by some other incredibly lame trope, the Achilles Arrow shot ... but it works because Bard the Bowman isn't an important character in any sense of the word.  He is, essentially, an NPC.  Moreover, the death of Smaug doesn't really solve the deeper conflict put forward by the story; it really only removes a catalyst designed to get the characters all in the same place.  By the time Smaug is killed, as a character he's no longer important.  Therefore, it doesn't matter how he dies.

But if the players are to live or die, their importance never ceases.  Their growth, their accumulation of power and wealth, therefore, must be based upon events that they feel assured came about because of their actions ... not the actions of someone else who rescued them, and not the actions of a magic item that solved all their problems.  And certainly not with the knowledge that they never had to fight anything that truly threatened them, as every combat was balanced.  Surviving, therefore, just made them lucky.  That's a terrible past to build one's future upon.

Like I said, threading your game world through these arranged moments is an enormous headache.  Most DMs get away with not doing it because they run players who are so anxious to push out their chests and lift up their noses that they're ready to believe they're the heroes they pretend to be.  Pretense, for many players, will fill plot holes and bad tropes, with last minute saves by NPCs and monsters that conveniently have heart attacks in the castle of Ahhhh.  Some players are quite able to kill a giant rat and convince themselves, in their hearts, that the rat was 10 feet tall and that village was definitely saved.

I've gotten quite off the track, however, so let me pull it back.

I encourage DMs to worry their players by describing uncomfortable futures, preferably where the players can paint themselves into the story.  I encourage the DM to go some distance towards having the more frightening monster to come actually BE legitimately dangerous to the party, enough that if the party mis-steps, they could get themselves all killed.  This requires the DM to set up that encounter in just such a way that the players have a reasonable chance of surviving, if they're smart, innovative and they use their resources wisely ... which I'd describe as recognising it IS a rainy day, right now, and not the time to save spells and other powers, in case they might be needed later.  I've seen many parties go down when the spell that could have saved them wasn't used.

It's hard to set up an encounter just so.  It takes lots of reading of good books, and thinking about those books after they're read, to figure out how the author solved this specific problem.  How did the author get the characters to walk into trouble?  How did the author arrange the situation so they could get out?  A dungeon master has to read, a lot, with this notion in mind, if he or she wishes to ever grasp the intricacies of setting up any encounter, ever.

But once this is mastered; once the players can be hooked into the next step, without that step being a death sentence or a cake walk, then a DM can produce a phenomenal set of events that players will rave about.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Interruptions ...

Going to interrupt the series again, but rest assured I'm coming back to it.  Some here may have noticed that it took a number of days before writing the last post; I feel compelled to explain why, as it's disrupted my free time and equilibrium.

As I've explained, my day job these days is to provide material for, and editing of, business quarterly reports for a third party company that helps write reports as part of their service.  Work arrives inconsistently in my inbox, usually every day, inconsistently, while I receive a monthly salary.  In the meantime, I observe a non-disclosure agreement about what company's content I write on, and the company I work for.

About six weeks ago, as near as I can figure, the "deciders" of one of the companies in our former repertoire allowed himself to be talked into using ChatGPT to write a substantial amount of their quarterly report.  This ... did not go well.  In fact, as you might imagine, it went, um, badly.

It's been two weeks of steadily ascending work to clean the mess up ... and as such, during that time, I haven't been writing on the blog, nor my book, nor any pleasant material, nor has anyone else connected to the matter.  As of the weekend, we finally put the thing to rights, a couple of weeks past the posting deadline for the report, for which there will be fines and rolling heads, I'm sure.  It's not my problem, any more.

So yesterday I wrote a post and today I'm ... resting.  The book will get addressed, I expect, this week, but I'm not rushing myself.  This sort of thing makes a good time to re-evaluate, as being away from it for awhile gives me a perpective I lacked while buried in the daily routine of writing it.  No worries, I'm happy with the book, and the content, but I've been reading bits and pieces of it and I'm under no obligation to pick up the writing again this minute.

I may post a preview this month, I may not.  I'm going on vacation in 25 days; gonna drive through some obscure places of Alberta and British Columbia, then out to Vancouver Island and Victoria, and then back through southern B.C. to home.  A day trip into Seattle is planned.

So, I'm prepping this, handling my usual daily work load, thinking about the book, sporting around writing some content for the wiki as a way to relax, and intending to write a follow up to my last post on this blog soon.  All is good.

Monday, April 17, 2023


Frankly, regarding Encounter Area "A" of the Keep on the Borderlands module, I can't see how a player part of five characters could survive.  From the group that jumps the party just before reaching the entrance, through to the common chamber, there are 65 kobalds and 18 giant rats, altogether.  These have a total of 210 hit points.  Though only one of these has more than 5 hit points, and most have less than 4, it would still require a total of 83 successful attacks to kill them all, more than 16 rounds of attacking, assuming no player character missed or rolled less than the number needed to kill.  In the meantime, the number of attacks the kobalds would have in their turn, even as they died in heaps, would probably kill the party unless the party were somehow possessed of above average armour for a party of 1st level.

At least, if I were to run it.  The huge distances between rooms were obviously a set up for the party to be able to dispatch the kobalds in isolated groups, in tight spaces, helping to balance every combat in the party's favour.  This, of course, makes the lair fairly useless to the kobalds.  They'd do better if they were camped outside on the grass, so they could attack any invaders en masse.  The only reasonable argument for humanoids to live underground is to construct that underground in a way that makes them impregnable ... not in a way that divides up their numbers and scatters them so a small group of pillagers can butcher them.

Let us, however, ignore all that and allow that somehow the players have won.  After killing the forward guards, they've moved through the lair and cleaned it out.

To remind the reader, we suggested giving information about the dungeon to build the player's expectations.  We suggested that this dungeon was one to which a princess was kidnapped, and that although there were rescuers, neither they nor the princess were ever heard from again.  This doesn't seem to fit with the presence of a lot of kobalds, that somehow mere 1st levels could dispatch.  For the sake of continuity, this is a matter that has to be addressed.

But first, consider the party as the last kobald falls.  Their first concern is not going to be with the unremarkability of the kobalds, but with treasure.  Therefore, let's dedicate this post to treasure and pick up the continuity later.

[as a DM, we have to think about more than one thing at a time, but as a blogger, we shelve whatever we want]

The treasure given for the kobald lair in the Borderlands module is an average coin total of 89 gold, 235 silver, 22 electrum (2 electrum per gold) and 203 copper.  In addition there are three objects amounting to 1,650 g.p. (though the description of one object clearly defines it as being worth 400 g.p. and 300 g.p. at the same time; an error).

Assuming the old AD&D experience award for combat, each kobald or rat is worth 5 x.p. +1 x.p./hit point.  The chieftain might have a rating of 10 x.p. +1, but that's arguable.  All experience, counting coins, equals 2,383, assuming the AD&D rule of awarding 1 x.p. per g.p.

For five 1st level characters, this is a very shitty haul.  The odds are decidedly stacked against them, and if I were running the players would definitely die, but the total treasure given, divided evenly among the party, gives the fighter less than 25% of what's needed for second level; the mage doesn't get as much as 20%.  A thief gets 38%; a cleric, 31%; a ranger, 21%.  It means that for most of these characters, they'd have to fight the same total combat, with the same skills and hit points, four or five more times just to reach 2nd level.  That's appalling.  It indicates tremendously bad design, from the number of kobalds met to the amount of reward for killing them, all of that past the layout of the rooms and virtually everything else about the encounter.

These were things that my early D&D companions and I spoke about with nearly every running.  What is too much treasure?  What is too little?  Gygax talks about this in the original Dungeon Masters Guide, but personally I don't believe he mastered the solution, or perhaps his head was so up his ass he couldn't master it.

I don't agree that automatically giving the players a level for having beaten the kobalds is a good solution.  It sounds like one; and for games with non-tactical designs, it's nearly always the only solution, since the one alternative is for the DM to produce a number out of the air and go with that.  Unfortunately, not every combat is "level-award" worthy, and they become less so once the players advance past fourth level.  For myself, I have zero desire to increase a druid's level from 12th to 13th on the basis of one encounter, then from 13th to 14th on the next encounter.  This drastically cheapens the meaning of level and fails to give the player any sense of hard-fought-for accomplishment, as all they need do is pick a fight they think they're sure to win.  And if I punish them for that by not rewarding them with a level, because the fight wasn't "dangerous" enough, then they've just fought a battle for no good purpose at all, encouraging resentment of me and the game.  This is encouraging a bad pattern.

I have created solutions that reduce the problem, and written about them both here and on my wiki, but as I've said before, this is about your solution as a DM.  You need to find a way to reward treasure without your influence deciding by fiat what treasure is given.

When you figure that out, please tell me ... because I haven't found that particular solution yet.  After the designing of many tables based on elements like how long did it take the players to overcome the obstacle, how much damage did they take, how many creatures did they face, what ratio exists between the players' average level and the monster groups total hit dice, etcetera ... and every calculation I've made along those lines has proved unsatisfactory.  The result is either too little treasure, or too much.

The only solution I've found is this: give what seems right.  Unfortunately, "right" is an extremely squidgy subjective thing, requiring the DM to understand elements of the game according to an esoteric perception accumulated through thousands of hours of play.  And I've met many DMs who, despite those thousands of hours, don't seem to understand one damn thing about the game at all.

Advancing some principles underlying my convictions on this would be appropos at the moment, so I'll try ... but these are not things roaming through my mind during the game itself, when I have to produce a number from the air and make it the right number.  That I do by instinct.

To begin, characters never deserve to go up a level.  The value of the level itself is that it provides an option in play that did not previously exist: an action, an extra spell, a type of spell, meaningful improvement in some former ability and so on.  The player should NOTICE this change sufficiently enough that it's highly memorable from the last time the character advanced.  If the effect of the level change is so meaningless that the player failed to notice, then he or she won't care about the next change.

To put this another way: Geoffrey entered the campaign at 1st level and found that in each combat he barely had enough hit points to sustain two hits.  He found himself at zero, or less than zero, on more than two occasions and it produced a feeling of wanting to hold back rather than wade in.  Then Geoffrey went up a level; he rolled his hit points and found, lo and behold, he could sustain three hits instead of two.  This appealed to his consciousness the first time he took a hit and found himself down to 9 hit points.  "Hm," thought Geoffrey.  "I've been here before.  I've fought quite a few battles where I started at 9.  I'm doing okay.  It's good to be 2nd level."

It matters that Geoffrey spent enough time at 1st level to feel what it's like to be 2nd.  It matters that Juliette discovers, upon reaching 2nd level, that she has two or three spells to choose from, instead of just one or two.  And while we're on that point, if all of Juliette's spells are the same spell, then the difference between two and three isn't that great ... because it's not noticed until the END of the combat, rather than at the beginning, like Geoffrey's hit points.  By the time Juliette gets around to noticing she still has one spell left, a lot of the combat has happened and that third spell feels like a bit of a let down.

I hope the reader understands how these tiny nuances affect play.  If Juliette goes from two different spells, that do different things, to three different spells, it doesn't just increase the number of times she can cast magic missile.  It affects the number of different situations she can counter, getting rid of her being the one trick pony she was at 1st level.  Unfortunately, the choice by many game designers and DMs to allow players to simply up the number of times they could cast a favourite spell butchered any possibility of that character's growth as an INVENTIVE influence on the campaign.  Not to mention that it drastically limits every other character as well, who know that the mage is going to bring the thunder over and over, no matter what I do as a fighter or a thief.  So who cares?

Maintaining this adjustment from a lower level to a higher level says that we cannot give so much treasure that the players simply jump level after level without gaps between.  Thus, the kobald lair described shouldn't include so much treasure that everyone in the party goes up a level, especially if this is their first encounter in the campaign.  Even if the battle almost killed every one of them, even if they find they've got a collected hit point total of three, with two of them unconscious, this does not mean they "deserve" to level.  They deserve to know that this is what life is like at 1st level.

I couldn't rightly say, however, how much treasure ought to be given, because that depends on a lot of things.  First, that the kobalds ought to have an amount that fits with their presence in the game world.  We should calculate treasure according to logical assets.  At any given time in my life, the amount of money I held in a bank account was never meaningful compared to the value of the things I owned, that surrounded me.  Everybody understands this, when they finally accept that the bed they're sleeping on will no longer do, and they'll have to find a thousand dollars or more from some source to get another one.  That means that bed has been worth a thousand dollars to us, every day, just because we didn't have to replace it ... even if it's a pretty lousy bed.  The same goes for the computer, the wall screen television, the car, the cups and saucers and silverware in the kitchen, our tools, our towels and linen, the vibrating toothbrush we use at night and so on.  It's a long, long list, and if you had to replace everything from scratch, you'd be damned glad that your friends have extras of this stuff and could let you have it for free.  Most of us have an extra garbage set of silverware kicking around in a box somewhere.

It makes no sense that the kobald chieftain has a gem worth 1,200 g.p., as described in the module.  His lair has no means to make metal weapons, which break, or leather armour, which breaks, or even the animals and the ores from which to make leather and metal.  He can't count on all the kobald weapons and armour, and all the other things besides, to endure every day for years.  Plus, the very existence of the gem is like asking someone to kill you and take it.  That's why, if you suddenly won a lottery that gave you $1.9 million, you wouldn't spend it on a Bugatti while continuing to live in your second-rate downtown apartment, trusting that of course you can park your car on the street.  You want to hold onto a gem worth 1,200 g.p., you better have more than 8 h.p. and a non-magical battle axe that inexplicably does 2-8 damage, unlike every other battle axe in the game's rules.

[if we give him a 17 strength, that would be 2-9 ... with a better average damage, and in keeping with game rules.  sheesh]

So, forget the huge gem and spread three times that amount throughout the whole lair, sinking it into tools, more valuable stores, a bunch of smaller more negotiable objects like gauntlets, lamps, combustable oils, bottles of medicine, semi-valuable chests for holding keepsakes, totems or goblets; and putting dozens of silver rings into most of the upper scale residents throughout the lair, that the players can obtain only by taking a knift and cutting them out of each kobald ear.  Perhaps the chieftain has nine of these altogether.  Makes for a cringing moment, but I've never known a party whose greed wouldn't overcome that discomfort.

I'm certainly more likely to give more treasure if the players had a harder time.  Is that logical?  Yes, as a matter of fact, it is.  If the creatures are hard to kill, they've survived longer, and had more time to accumulate stuff.  This particular kobald hive, with it's 65 kobalds (not counting non-combative children), is quite a little collection of persons.  It must have taken some time to organise themselves and divide their labour ... and if it turns out that they're such a bunch of whiffs that a 1st level party wades through and wipes them out in a couple dozen rounds, then I guess those kobalds were lucky to have lived as long as they did.  On the other hand, if a third level party has so much trouble with them that they have to give ground, run away and then lick their wounds for a while before returning and recommencing the battle, then I guess those kobalds have probably fought off a few other beasties in their time.

Consider that 3rd level party: mage, fighter, ranger, cleric, thief.  Total experience earned by the player party, assuming they're all halfway between 3rd and 4th, is 28,500.  If half that is from treasure, and this group can't take on a group of kobalds the first time, there's an argument to be made that the kobald's assets should rate somewhere around 14,000 g.p.  'Course, if players want all that to be in easy-to-carry coins, and not doorlocks and iron spikes for the pit, or brass fittings around each table and chair, or bits of ivory kobald cuticle prongs, or nice linen sheets for 65+ beds — and are therefore ready to leave a lot of wealth just laying around, ignored, while carping about the fact that there's only 1,400 g.p. in coins, gems and bits of jewellery, then that's not my problem, is it?  Treasure is only treasure if recognised as such.

And it's not my purview as a DM to put a price tag on everything.

This, I think, is all we need say about treasure for now.

Saturday, April 15, 2023


Okay, combat.

The party crosses the threshold into the dungeon and encounter a group of  six kobalds dwelling in the forward guard room of a kobald lair.  As described in Keep on the Borderlands:

"1. GUARD ROOM:  6 kobold guards (AC 7.  HD 1/2.  hp 3 each, #AT I, D 1-4, Save NM, ML 6).  They will throw their spears the first round if they have initiative.  Each carries d6 silver pieces. One will run to warn areas 4. and 6.. The guards will be alerted by loud noises or lights."


This is 43 years old so it begs the question, is this still interesting?

The answer is yes.  I can still make this work, because it advantages some tried-and-true tropes that are no easier for players of the same game than it was then.  The one that runs to warn the rest of the lair virtually assures that the party achieves no surprise going forward, while the possibility exists of them having to fight all the rest of the kobalds in the lair in one combat (though I knew no one in my youth with the nerve to run the Caves of Chaos that way).  The volley of spears is a good start, especially if the mage is one of the targets, though the chances are only one or two spears will hit and, being kobald spears, won't do much damage.  Still, the format is sound ... and if it's six ogres and they start the combat by all throwing rocks, that makes a strong encounter for a higher level party.

But we can obviously do better.  We don't need to send one kobald to warn other areas, because we don't stupidly build a lair where room (4) is 150 ft away in one direction, while room (6) is 110 ft in another:

If rooms 3 through 6 are a rational distance from room 1, where the guards are, then the one kobald can shout, or bang a cymbal, or ring a bloody bell, and then fight with the others.  And this means it only takes two or three rounds for another 20 kobalds to appear, plus maybe the big one in room 5.  In quick order, the party does well against the first six, finds themselves getting rushed come round 4, give ground and stumble outside, and then it's a running fight through the forests to the keep, unless the mage has something that can turn the tide.  Better combat.

Better still, we can put all the kobald rooms, including the guard room, in a more logical arrangement: we put the guard room around a blind corner, with the same pit trap.  Only now the situation is this: you see the end of the passage and the hall becomes a 10 ft. wide, 20 ft. long area of worked stone.  On the far left side of of this small rectangle is a 3 ft. high wall, which a player can easily jump over.  But when the player moves to jump over the wall, they set off the pit trap at the hall's end.  Now they can't jump straight over the pit, because straight over the pit is a wall.  And if they do somehow get over the 3 foot wall, well ... I'll give you a diagram:

See?  The guards don't have to SEE the party coming, they can hear them; and the guards can't be seen because they're around a 180-degree corner; in fact, the players have no idea there's anything around the corner but more hallway.  As the party comes within 15 feet of the pit, they're just as close to the guard room.  As they chat to each other, with their clanking metal armour and so on, the kobalds can hear everything.  And if the players won't set off the pit trap, the kobalds will.

Furthermore, from the hall beyond the guard room, we can add all that other help from rooms 4, 5 and 6.  Who are at least partially protected by a simple 3 ft. wall that the players will have difficult getting across faster than one at a time.  That's all the advantage the kobalds need.

Better combat still.

So your first task is to figure out a better arrangement for the combat based on the intelligence of the creatures being attacked.  Kobalds aren't that smart, but even a small child knows to put a gate in front of a house.  Imagine the kind of obstacle course a group of elves could invent with blind corners, three foot walls and pit traps.  And other things too, obviously.

You can go with the tried and true method of just throwing the bad guys willy nilly at the party.  I did it last week, sort of.  And the 2nd-4th level party had a good time slaughtering a gang of 22 goblins, though six of those were archers, who started targeting the 4th level, 52 hp fighter with every volley.  They drilled "Hof" down to 14 hp before the archers had to run away; they were a bit slow; Hof got one.  The targeting was logical: Hof wreaked absolute havoc on everything near him.  He has an 18 +1+3 strength and a +2 trident.  It's not pretty what that does to goblins, even when one is 3rd level with 25 hp.

But putting the players in a situation where they find themselves at the top of a hall going, "Huh?  This doesn't look right ..." is miles better.  I haven't done the blind corner bit above, not yet ... but my party is moving into a drow elf lair, so, it should get interesting.

The party's not high enough level, obviously.  But so long as this group beats a hasty retreat at the right time, it's a collection of the players' henchfolk they're running, so they have access to their own higher level characters.  To whom they'll bring valuable intel.

If you can design combat fields that belie the standard D&D models, you'll give the players a far better combat experience and increase the intensity of your game by quite a bit.  But to do so requires that you embrace an aspect of game combat that many, many dyed-in-the-wool D&Ders eschew with great bitterness.  You'll have to adopt a tactical model.

Now I ran combats like the set up shown for years using paper and pencil, sometimes making a notation for who was who but most of the time not needing to.  The distances were meaningless, it only mattered who you attacked last time and who was attacking you now.  This is rather easy and provides no valuable tactical intel.  The only value it adds to a combat is that you can see how many of the enemy is left, and enjoy a small dopamine thrill when one of the X's get scratched out.  Players are always O's.

I can run a non-tactical combat if I so desire.  For example, the players are coming through a forest and get attacked by a swarm of giant ticks.  The ticks attack and scurry off, disappearing into the undergrowth, so I can randomly attack a party with random ticks for a few rounds before they're "fought off" and the party can count their number.  I don't need a map for this.

But doing it with a map would be better.

I understand, however, why many DM's resent any notion of making combat tactical.  It takes an enormous amount of time, years, to (a) get used to a tactical system; (b) build a tactical system that can rationally handle anything you throw at it; (c) and learn how to educate new players and old into how your tactical system works.  This also requires patience and belief in a system and the ability to change as a person.  Most of these demands are quite beyond the sort of stale, lazy, fussbudgety DM heels who hate combat anyway, with a passion, because they believe D&D is not about combat.  Despite the fact that 160 pages of the original DMG's 200 are dedicated in some manner to combat and it's rewards.  

I'm not concerned that there are loads of DMs running around trashing tactical combat.  I'm concerned about you, reading this now.  Games are inventions that depend on hitting the right buttons with human persons.  Several centuries before the invention of RPGs, tactical combat board games proved their value to millions of persons ... far more than will every play RPGs, as those games remain wildly more popular by far.  Whatever our feelings about combat board games, we can't disparage their popularity.  Rather, we should maintain an open mind about how to steal some of that popularity for ourselves.

Non-tactical D&D combat is, to say the least, forgettable.  It doesn't lend itself much to story telling.  As a result, the "rule of cool" model that discards all logic in non-tactical combat modelling has become the guideline in many existing communities.  It isn't what your attack does, but how you describe your attack.  It's the same die, and the same metric of removing points, but your ability to graphically explain a profound set of expressible actions within a three foot space defines whether or not the DM's light shines upon you.  Call the "move" you make whatever you want; it's still just a die and a number.  To paraphrase a physicist talking about how many subparticles exist in the universe, "If I wanted to remember all the combat feats that are available in all the splatbooks related to D&D, pathfinder and other games, I'd have been a botonist."

The second path is to avoid combat like the plague ... or, when it happens, get it over with quickly and move on.

The third path is to build a tactical system.  Or adopt one.  And get so good at it that you can run your tactical system so fast the players won't give a damn.  Which is what I do.  What's rewarding about it is the way players use a tactical system to make amazing things happen.  In a session I was running a month ago, I had two players do tricks with light and fog during a combat so profound I'm still trying to figure out how to write it in a blog post.  It unfolded unexpectedly to me, and I guess you had to be there to see it.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Living Space

We may divide the possible monsters at the dungeon's entrance into two general groups: (1) social monsters, including those with intelligence enough to be self-aware and directed towards a cause; and (2) low-intelligence creatures whose primary motivation is the obtaining of food, interrupted by periods of procreation.

Non-intelligent creatures, in particular, must be where food is; the dungeonscape is, if we accept the Earth model of caves, stone tunnels and the absence of things that grow in pitch darkness, bereft of nutrients — except for very tiny creatures.  If we're dealing with the second type of monsters above, we might view the outer dungeon as a "naturalised" setting, a place where creatures from outside occasionally come in for protection from the elements or as a place to breed, or where they might potentially hibernate.  Depending on the species, bats retreat to a cave during the cycle they do not hunt.  These things would apply most to creatures of animal intelligence, especially mammals, though in very hot climates there are reptiles and amphibians that seek caves for the coolness or the presence of water.  Non-intelligent animals, like insects, see a cave entrance as a place to lay in wait, as larger creatures move past the entrance; this would be the best time for a giant monster spider to strike the party, just as they're approaching within 10 feet of the open entrance.  This is how many hunters obtain their food; they employ camouflage, lay waiting and not wasting energy, until a large enough creature moves within range of a quick dash forward and SNAP!  Dinner.

This tactic is so effective that guerilla soldiers use it — and obviously that could apply to an orc or kobald laying in such a hole for days before relieved.  But set that aside for the moment.

Other forms of non-intelligent creature, like undead, attach themselves to a place because its where they died, or were raised in an unholy fashion and then abandoned.  They have no understanding of place or what they're doing, but if something or someone approaches, they automatically attempt to kill it.  This is done without any sort of strategy or logic, because as I say, "non"-intelligent.  Still, we should have some conceived reason for why these things are here at this time, and in this place.  They may be purposefully intended to die; their death may trigger some magical device that tells an intelligent monster deep in the dungeon that the outer perimeter has been breached, because the zombies are dead.

I don't want this to devolve into example after example.  The sense is that if the dungeon is occupied by creatures of lower intelligence, then they're just doing what's natural to that species or type.  They're either retreating into the cave for protection, or using it as a means to obtain food, or acting mindlessly as some monsters do.  This may not seem like much logic for a dungeon, but then this may be only the outer cave of some elaborate, deep complex.

Taking in the first option above, the intelligent creature.  If a humanoid lair is only a few hundred feet from the outer entrance, it makes sense to fortify the entrance and post guards; it makes sense for some of those guards to participate in patrols, to see if anyone is roaming around outside or just showing up to randomly homestead too close — having no idea there are 40 orcs living and working in this cave just a quarter mile away.  If the party should stumble upon such a lair, they'd have a fight right off; they might find themselves facing just four outer guards at first, but then moments later a second team, having spotted the party hours ago, appears behind the party to trap them at the entrance.  Now the party cannot leave or easily get inside, while fighting on two facings.  It's a tough way to start a dungeon.

In either case, if the cave is infested with bats or ticks or spiders, or if it's a humanoid lair, this may only be the first upper part.  The humanoids may not even be aware that there are other beings living deeper down; the party may not learn it until following some "abandoned" tunnel to it's end, detecting a hollow sound from the rock and breaking through to an entirely different dungeon below.  By laying out the dungeon in pockets, players can experience different sorts of monsters logically divided from one another by long tunnels, sumps that must be swum through to reach the other side, very deep holes that must be descended with ropes and other climbing gear ... whatever we can dream up.  The separation of monster lairs by geologic formations produces a different wilderness that, like the outside world, still separates various entities logically.  The silliness of many modules can be corrected simply by putting greater distances, and more elaborate obstacles, between one part and another.

Thus, the players may start out by killing the humanoids, but then may find themselves on an seemingly purposeless quest roaming around in a dozen miles of caves fighting non-intelligent serpents, a giant worm, a termite-like colony with two many warriors, before discovering an unlikely race of "deep gnomes" who are in a continous war with the race that lives in warrens even further down, separated by half a mile of clefts, extrusions, torrential streams and mud bogs.  If the characters are searching for some McGuffin they must have, such an arrangement would demand tireless persistence ... especially as no one they've met or fought has even heard of the beholder they're looking for.

Intelligent races set out defenses; they organise themselves into rational arrangements that allow the obtaining of arms and the protection of the offspring.  They need some sort of food to eat, so we must imagine a host of fabricated fictional non-chlorophyll based plants that can be grown, or passive slugs or warm-blooded beasts that can be raised as food.  They must have some way to occupy themselves, either in tunnel-building, farming, gathering and purifying water, making art, making tools and arms, telling stories to one another, eating and whatever.  Fire is impractical because there's no wood; and if there is a substance that burns, smoke would gather and ultimately would reveal their location, even if some sort of chimney could be sustained.  Yet how do you make hard metal objects without fire, and how do you make tools without either wood or stone?  The very fact of underground creatures defies any sort of logic — so invention must create circumstances in which these things may be feasibly pursued.  Perhaps there are plants that can be grown upon a ceiling, that consume smoke and produce food as a consequence.  The game Oxygen not Included has creatures that automatically expel coal, slime, light, crude oil, gasses and so on.  Any of these might live in our D&D underground.

Keep in mind that a dungeon may have multiple exits; some might be naturalised, some not.  Those that are not actively defended will accumulate creatures from the wilderness, or from places deep within the caves.  Those actively defended will have characteristics that makes them good places to dwell ... natural water sources, protective outcroppings, large natural spaces that reflect light and so on.  Creatures do not settle randomly.  They find a place that suits them and then they make adapy that space to their needs.  Just as we do.

No one digs a 75 foot tunnel if no tunnel is needed at all.  It's incredibly hard to dig through rock; the rock must all be deposited somewhere, which is more work and produces a huge dump of obviously mined rock that can't be concealed easily.  It's 75 feet we have to walk and walk again just to get from A to B.  Just as we build homes as tightly as possible to make them convenient for use, monster lairs would also be built so that you don't spend all day walking down ludicrously long hallways to get a bite or let someone know they're needed elsewhere.  Closely-packed rooms benefit communication, distribution of labour, protection against outsiders and communal feeling.  None of the dungeon layouts I've ever seen of a monster lair makes any sense on this point.

I'll put this down.  As the players in our example are about to fight a bunch of goblins, we'll need to talk about combat.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023


I've seen other examples of this, but none quite so lazy.

Starting with this webpage from "Medieval Britain," no date (though I'd guess in the last 5 years):

"Inn-keeping was formalized around the 14th and 15th centuries, when traveling was much more common than we normally imagine. The roads were bad, sometimes even impassable for loaded wagons (and not to mention, frequently visited by outlaws and robbers).  Between the villages, there were long stretches of forest."

Then this from The Laws of Innkeepers, by John E.H. Sherry, 1972, 1981, 1993 (published by Cornell University):

"There was a surprising amount of travel in England in the Middle Ages.  The roads, to be sure, were very bad and in general were impassable for loaded wagons, and the transportation of goods from place to place was therefore almost impossible ... the roads were not only bad, but they were infested with outlaws and robbers of all sorts.  Between the villages there were long stretches of forest, and these forests were the refuge of the outlaws who formed a considerable proportion of the population of the country.

Here's a little bit from Cases and Materials on the Laws of Innkeepers, by John Harold Sherry in 1956 (a snippet is all that's available online):

"... apparently peculiar doctrine of the law regulating the rights and liabilities of innkeepers, in order that we may learn the extent of their responsibilities and understand their limitations, we must examine briefly, the early history of innkeeping in England; the character and nature of inns, and the functions which they performed in the social life of the English people at the time when the law of innkeepers was forming, that is, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries."

And now, The Medieval Innkeeper and His Responsibility, by Joseph H. Beale, Jr., in 1906:

"... apparently peculiar doctrine of the law regulating the rights and liabilities of innkeepers, in order that we may learn the extent of their responsibilities and understand their limitations, we must examine briefly, as has just been said, the early history of innkeeping in England; the character and nature of inns, and the functions which they performed in the social life of the English people at the time when the law of innkeepers was forming, that is, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries."

Now, lest you think the above is merely a quote of the below (and what a strange quote it would be, since it's an introduction to the topic, and not fact-based), Beale's account also includes this:

 "There was a surprising amount of travelling in England in the Middle Ages.  The roads, to be sure, were very bad, and in general were impassable for loaded wagons, and the transportation of goods from place to place was therefore almost impossible ... The roads were not only bad, but they were infested with outlaws and robbers of all sorts.  Between the villages there were long stretches of forest, and these forests were the refuge of the outlaws who formed a considerable portion of the population of the country."

The Copyright Act passed by Theodore Roosevelt was signed into law in 1909; the law only granted protection  if the published work gave proper notice.  Likely, as Beale was writing for a magazine in 1906 called The Green Bag, the effort to follow up and make sure the material was properly protected was likely never done.  As such, Sherry was most likely legally free to copy Beale word-for-word, but consider:

Is this "scholarship"?  Beale is writing for a law magazine; there's no corraborating evidence for any of his statements; and he's talking about a time many centuries before his own.  What are Beale's credentials for writing history?

From my own readings and history education, there are multiple points in which Beale's wrong.  Yes, there were bandits, but they weren't hanging from the trees.  They had no reason to attack people without money, while numerous peoples travelled in multi-family groups and were therefore largely safe.  Bandits were much more interested in charging for passage than causing harm ... but then Beale is writing post 19th-century, a very different time, when bandits were much more dangerous and desperate, and more numerous, despite there being less long stretches of forest.  Imagine being a bandit sitting around waiting for an absence of travellers, week after week ... wouldn't they, you know, haul their ass to where the people were, like on the fringes of the rural districts, and sometimes within them?  As, we know, they did?

 And while places were impassable for wagons, they weren't for carts and mules, which is how most material was delivered at the time.  Donkeys deliver munitions throughout Afghanistan, a country ten times a mountainous as Europe, with no roads at all.  Yet not "impossible."  Beale is making it up as he goes along ... and who cares anyway, it's a law review.

Cornell University is, on the other hand, an ivy league school, considered one of the eight best in America ... and yet here they are printing work from a scholar cribbing sentences like a junior-high school student putting one over on the gym instructor teaching social studies.  Including the introduction, for heaven sake, which is non-fact writing we do to preface the subject material.  It's ...

Exactly what I'd expect from a university professor.

Monday, April 3, 2023


Back to running the game.  We had last discussed players crossing the threshold into a dungeon, with emphasis on a distinction between what the players believe and what is so.  I haven't covered this fully, so let's pause and consider perception.

Having run a number of games and parties, and watched others run, there's no question that many players don't feel hesitation before committing their characters into a dungeon or other challenge.  This is most likely because no real danger has asserted itself.  If the characters are used to walking in and walking out, then the practice of entering the dungeon becomes a routine.  At best, we might get something akin to the Halloween House that's set up in October, to provide thrills to guests.

Of course, such places are used to visitors pooh-poohing the show, despite all the quick-scare design and atmosphere.  This has led to some places asking that you, before entering, sign a liability waiver to participate.  That idea originated with a place called McKamey Manor, an "extreme" haunted house located in San Diego.  The waiver is quite specific about things the Manor can do to you if you enter.  Other manors, less ludicrously staged, have adopted the waiver (but not McKamey's sadistic practices) because it builds the tension for the visitor.

As a people, knowing that safety laws and what else protects us in the public domain, blissfully subject ourselves to outrageous dangers while having a scoffing, frankly contemptuous manner.  I've seen many a D&D player respond like this to a dungeon, presuming that obviously it can't be that dark, or dangerous, otherwise "we'd all lose our characters and where's the fun in that?"

What, I ask, has "fun" to do with it?  "This is Omaha Beach, soldier!  Get your knickers up that hill or I'll kick your dick up your arsehole!"  Going into a dungeon ought to incorporate at least some of the experience of jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft with your chute and gear, or "going over the top."  Thinking that a dungeon won't kill you, because it oughtn't, is anathema to the game.  Adventure is meant to be dangerous.

Lewis & Clark took birch canoes down rivers no European had ever seen; even with guides to reassure them, imagine what it was like to find themselves pulled into strange rapids, when suddenly it was too late to paddle out.  Instead, they had to commit themselves, to life or death — the same commitment they made when they left St. Louis.  People died on that trip.  Everyone involved expected that they'd be the one to die next.  The reason people went, however, was that it was exhilirating to know they might die ... and the reason they were celebrated so highly was that they did something most stay-at-homes were too cowardly to do.

When a player carps that the dungeon isn't really dangerous, that's a coward talking.  That's someone who wants reassurances and legalese of some kind to prove that it only looks dangerous.  Not that it is.

As can be seen, belief vs. reality cuts both ways.  Players can drastically overestimate the danger of a dungeon and resist going inside ... they can also drastically underestimate it and all die.  Where's the solution?

There isn't one.  There absolutely shouldn't be one.  This is not a bug.  It's a condition of play.  Players need to correctly assess a danger and be completely prepared for it, as much as they can be, the same way that soldiers and explorers were prepared.  There is no way to be entirely prepared.  Sgt. Charles Floyd of the Lewis and Clark expedition was as prepared as anyone else, but three months after departure he contracted appendicitis and there was nothing to be done.  This is life.  No one gets out alive.

But, as I've said, the player characters have crossed and they're inside.  Now what?

As a DM building the dungeon, we have two general courses of action: have a monster of some kind at the start of the adventure, inside the door or nearly so, or don't have a monster.  The original Keep on the Borderlands favoured plenty of monsters inside and outside various entrances.  Many later dungeons considered this quite gauche and began to "build the tension" for players by having them enter into the underground space, to find clues and suggestions that something is somewhere up ahead, like wandering around in the game Myst, solving puzzles and shuffling, shuffling, shuffling.

The argument is, again, "less is more."  Supposedly, since the players know there must be something here, the longer we make them wait for it, the more impressive and exciting it will be.  This is an extension of the dungeon's threshold that we've discussed.  The players must find the nerve to enter the dungeon; then they must find the nerve to cross this room to the next room; where they must find the nerve to examine the pool that might potentially grab them and swallow them down.  And when it leads to the puzzle, the players must find the nerve to so solve it, and when the do, then must find the nerve to move through the door the puzzle protected, where they must find the NERVE to open the next door, and the next, and the next ...

Oh, for the love of crispy jeebus, fuck the fuck off.

It's quite possible to milk the players' nerve dry as a bone, as Death Frost Doom did to my players back in 2010.  They were used to facing an enemy, being personally, directly threatened, that the idea that their imaginations could produce enough "scare" to make them feel tension was a joke for them.  For example, I can think of a number of ex-military friends who could take McKamey's Mansion to heart and break a few bones of their own, as some of them spent time in really horrific places.  Once a party is tempered to the point where surviving monsters and near death are the stakes, "surviving" a room with squiggly lines, pools of water and random noises seems ... kinda childish.  It turned out to be quite easy to wade through Raggi's dungeon.  Don't touch anything.  Done.

This is why I'm not a fan of the "empty dungeon."  Or the megadungeon either, since it must be empty to justify the scale on which it occurs.  The wilderness is empty enough.  It's bigger and more threatening as well, for like I said, the farther one gets from civilisation, the larger problems like finding enough food or a new axe to replace a lost one becomes important.  Scale and emptiness fit the wilderness motif brilliantly.

Dungeons ought to be compressed experiential pockets in the game world.  If some group of creatures hasn't taken one over, then it's just a hole in the ground.  And what makes a hole scary?  The notion that there's something down there.  That if you stick your hand in, some unseen creature inside will bite it off.  This is demonstrably true.  In the last five years, I've seen Netflix steal this scene twice.

It matters in the plot that both characters are in the process of lying to each other.  It may also spoil the scene to mention that Audrey Hepburn didn't know that Gregory Peck was going to do the trick with the hand.  Her reaction is real.

So, take the route of putting a monster in the dungeon, right up front.  We'll need to talk about what kind of monster in the next post.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Elaboration of Things

I do have a post for what happens after entering the dungeon, but first ...

Would anyone like the comment on the absurdity of including this in a book for dungeons and dragons?

It's taken me some time to realise that part of the reason people aren't more inventive with dungeons or outdoor settings is that most people don't actually know anything.  Until researching the above, I didn't know most of this about marmalade.  I know what it tastes like.  I didn't know it came from quinces, I didn't know it was as old as the Romans and I certainly didn't know about the development of the mixture.  Since I'm the sort that usually knows about things, I feel safe guessing that the above is new to most of you.

There are a few things in the above that have D&D applications, at least as description fluff.  The mage can have a garden full of quince trees, the innkeeper might be brewing honey in the back yard to make next years marmalade supply.  Really expensive marmalade can be used as a sort of treasure, as anything made of boiled honey keeps for a long time.  I have a container of honey in my non-refridgerated pantry that's been there for two years.  Still good.  But ... I live in a cold country.

It's larger that this, though, because marmalade's not the only thing on this very large list.  There are four complete pages on confections, odd beverages and condiments, together suggesting a complicated state of affairs that gives some sense of what cities and towns are really like.  It's not just people buying and selling, there are hundreds who are fixated on the manufacture of substances that won't keep long, that must be rushed out to inns and ornate houses in time to appear on someone's dinner table.  This puts something on the carts being pushed around, or the boxes being carried, that can be tripped over by thieves or smelled as the players step out the inn's door.  All this adds tactile sensory detail to the game world that gives dimension ... but if it never occurs to the DM that none of this is going on, because the only things that seem to exist in the world are a few animals and bits of equipment that adventurer's might need, then city life is rather stale, all round.

Which is what I mean when I say that a lot of DMs, including both adults and children, have simply never had cause to search for far-reaching and elaborate details that could be used to describe the game world.  I believe that the overall collection of things, things of every kind, might insidiously fetch themselves into the DM's thoughts, so that suddenly all sorts of fascinating things emerge inside dungeons or along the roads, or on a tavern's eating bench.  I mean, things other than beer.