17 July 2024

DM201 discussion notes

Below the notes to the best of my recollection from a wide-ranging 2hr discussion I pitched as an Ask Me Anything session to those who come to our local games session. I thought I'd get a bunch of new folk but half the attendees were familiar faces who've played at my tables - and regularly run their own - so this was a little past the basics and more talked about progressing from good to great.

Prepping for one shots

I lay out the chunks of what will be done in the session and be prepared to snap-out some bits if time is getting tight. The “Five Room Dungeon” model is a good one for laying out sessions - a combat, a puzzle, a roleplay opportunity, the big boss and the reward. If you set it up so one or more of those elements can be skipped if time gets tight, then you can manage the session length that way. Dysons Dodecahedron goes into this a bit more and is a great source for maps.

People will bring their characters, DMs bring situations. It is good to have some ideas of how the players might solve it but players will go off in all sorts of directions or get incredibly lucky or have brilliant creative ideas so be ready for any given obstacle to get solved/eliminated more quickly than you thought.

Generally as set up, prepare a mystery (dungeon to explore, mystery to solve) have some folk in there to interact with and be prepared for people to lean combat or roleplay as they prefer. People say they prefer roleplay in surveys online 1 so be ready for things to get talked at

Prepping a session I try to have all my notes on a single-sheet so everything is in one place for a single glance.

Written adventures will usually have things laid out along these line but it is always worth reading through it and making your own one-sheet reference as they often scatter critical information around in a way that makes it easy to read, not putting it where you need it when you run at the table (major NPC name is in the intro, not at the place where the PCs encounter them, etc.)

General game-running

To make combat more interesting - Terrain, Terrain, Terrain. The same half dozen goblins in a flat arena, in a forest or in a trap filled ruin are very different experiences.

Without terrain, it is monster stat block vs character sheet, maybe some tactical movement. With static terrain, line of sight is a factor, cover comes into play, things get more interesting. With hazardous terrain - pits, fire, quicksand, hidden ambushers - there are lots more factors to work with and the same fight against six goblins has more to it. Frog Factory blog has a great set of terrain hazard generators

As a DM I suggest terrain hazards that trigger when the players act, e.g. fire burns those within it, rocky slopes need Dex checks to travers are better than those you need to remember to set off - pendulum-blades that swing at the bottom of the initiative tracker. You will already have lots of things to remember, ease your own load.

Managing combat duration - your legitimate dial is HP - any monster has xd10+y in its stat block, the range between the lowest possible dice roll and the highest is perfectly legitimate to use. My preference is to set the number just as the fight starts then stick to it - sometimes the monster will survive one more round on just that last hp and that is fine and fun.

DMs have lots of different styles, players come in lots of different types. Tell people what kind of game you like to run so folk have the chance to opt out if that is not what they want. The D&D pillars of Combat, Exploration, Roleplay is a decent model.

* Combat - tactical fighting
* Exploration - includes both puzzles to solve and mysteries to investigate
* Roleplay - interacting with NPCs (or maybe other players)

Those three pillars are what gets referenced a lot and I think they are more helpful as thinking about modes of play: Combat is more individual, working your character sheet, in initiative order Exploration is more free-form, collaborative but player-to-player-to-DM discussing the world, some character sheet use but less Roleplay is PC-to-PC-to-NPC, being in the world a bit more

Different players enjoy different things so try and figure out who you have at your table and where possible give them things to do that they will like. A good list of player types is here.

15 July 2024

13 July 2024

Sundered’s Encounter Stocking Technique (ZEST) test for Menagerie world

Poking about I stumbled over Sundered Shillings anti-Joesky tax - their Sundered’s Encounter Stocking Technique (ZEST) which I liked the look of because I do love a good unified table you throw different dice at depending on the circumstances.

To summarise the mnemonics -
For random encounters, we get IN FIVE (Interruption, Numerous, Friendly, Indifferent, Violent, Extreme).
For random structures, we get FLAVOR (Fane, Lair, Abandoned, Vault, Oddity, Ruin).

Tweaking their structure to create a combo d12/d20 table by re-stacking the entries we get a way to generate a unified travel/delve table - first IN FIVE then a gap then FLAVOR and a filler gap at the top.

Site Encounter (d12)/Travel Encounter (d20) table
1. Interruption,
2. Numerous,
3. Friendly,
4. Indifferent,
5. Violent,
6. Extreme
7-12. No encounter
13. Fane
14. Lair
15. Abandoned
16. Vault
17. Oddity
18. Ruin
19-20 - no encounter

I recently had a game of my Brancalonia-mod go off the rails and while I was able to catch that one, it struck me that having a good random encounter table for that campaign locale could be helpful.

Version I am taking to table-testing at the Friday night open tables:
1. Interruption - the Law; Queens Guard on patrol against such knaves as the party
2. Numerous - the locals; pilgrims, farmers or others
3. Friendly - travelling performer - puppeteer or seer
4. Indifferent - non-hostile other knaves; curious what the players are up to may be tempted to follow
5. Violent - Hostile knaves - one of the NPC gangs the party has messed around in their adventures
6. Extreme - Stray monster - viperwolf or bavalisk
7-12. No encounter
13. Fane - Animalings - shrine to one of the small gods with lots of offerings
14. Lair - Bevana - cottage-in-the-woods with spooky hag resident
15. Abandoned - Elves - hunting lodge style luxury holiday spot - dangerously decayed magical nonsense
16. Vault - Insectfolk - stacked up eldritch weirdness
17. Oddity - Dwarven Great Works - Borehole - physically hazardous, potentially rewarding
18. Ruin - Predator Queen 'this is not a place of honour' castle-shrine - dreadful, players own fault if they go near it
19-20 - no encounter

10 July 2024

The Circular Spine (Barkeep Jam)

As an entry to Barkeep Jam hosted by Prismatic Wasteland - adhering to the Barkeep on the Borderlands Third Party License - we have the Circular Spine.

Marked by the great leviathans back-spine twisted into a ring that hangs above the door, the Circular Spine is a grotty fighting pit that smells like the inside of a sea cave. Muddy floor that floods with the tides, slick with seaweed. A chandelier made of a ships wheel dripping with tallow candles swings from the ceiling. The repurposed hull-planks that make up everything are sticky along the edges with old pitch.

When the jolly crew enters this pub, roll 1d6 on the table below. If a character’s number is equal to or below the result, they are in the pub right now.

d6 Staff & Regulars
1. Glargu the fishman barkeep - gruff until you entertain him, greatly appreciates an act that amps up his bloodthirsty patrons
2. Fleano, member of the Gatebreakers, bravos for hire, cocky, willing to make and take bets
3. Boris, dockmaster, slumming it for thrills
4. Miesmies, server, punk tabaxi, taciturn, observant
5. Bron, rowdy patron, loves the Circular Spine, judges others by whether they love it too
6. Herbert and Charlotte, nervous out of towners, feel out of their depth but were (wrongly) told this place was a must see

If the Risk Die rolls a Setback while the jolly crew is approaching this pub, roll 2d6 on the table below.
2. tidal wash - dex saves or knocked into wall, d4-1 damage from sharp shells, prone
3. badly injured survivor of previous act, demanding someone help them back to the bar so they can go another round
4. snarling scavengers tearing up a big dead critter dumped by the bar, failed act or beached sea-creature
5. mud-slick streets - approach is slowed or check to avoid falling, getting soaked, sand-covered and possibly stung
6. leafleteers insisting you come to their future act
7. barkers and challengers - catch their eye and get roped directly into an act (roll d6+6 on Setbacks).
8. rowdy patrons arguing over upcoming act
9. two upcoming acts (roll twice on Setbacks with d6+6) in heated argument over clashing booking, teeters towards violence
10. mudlarks rummaging through newly washed-in debris, warn off anyone intruding on 'their patch'
11. aggressive scavenger beastie tests your deliciousness
12. bar brawl, spill-out

If the Risk Die rolls a Setback while the jolly crew is inside this pub, roll 2d6 on the table below.

2. mud- hidden critters attempt their escape (avoid or engage a crab swarm)
3. aggressively passed hat
4. drinking contest
5. bar brawl, good natured
All below have the crew dragged, pushed or falling into the main act in the pit
6. dwarf brawler taking all comers
7. knifethrowers routine
8. fire dancing
9. beast fighting
10. screaming bards
11. beast riding
12. tide racing

Signature Drinks for the Circular Spine
1 silver coin - 'Grog' watered rum & lime juice served in a soggy wooden mug
2 silver coins - Salt Beer - brewed down the coast, a touch of salt and iodine, leaves you thirsty
3 silver coins - Rum
4 silver coins - Far Shores - thick viscous juices spiked with spirits
5 silver coins - Glargu's Best - Rum spiced and doctored with herbs and squeezings, energises
1 gold coin - Neptunes Bounty - dredged up sparkling wine (excellent)

This place cropped up during a one-shot where the PC's side-tracked looking for somewhere to show off their big beast companion; this place sprang near fully formed into mind inspired by sea-caves, tide-pools and the kinds of holes-in-the-sand you find dug on beaches. This was an open table and the party turned out to be a pair of bard, a pair of halfling rogues and a blade-singer wizard - very well set up for putting on a show. They wowwed the crowd with a truly profligate spend of spell-slots and animal handling chops to do a fire-juggling while beast-riding act.

08 July 2024

Shiny TTRPG links #180

More archive diving during this holiday period. For yet more links, see the previous list found here or you can check the RPG Blog Carnival or on Third Kingdom Games news roundup. Originally inspired by weaver.skepti.ch End of Week links.

Roll to Doubt gives us Playable Setting Features

Sea of Stars asks What happened here? for RPG Blog Carnival.

Aboleth Overlords writes The Myth of Free Improvisation

Zedeck Siews Writing Hours asks WHO GETS TO BE A PERSON?

Goblinpunch shares Random Ship Encounters on the Sea of Fish

Campaign Mastery gives us Order In The Sandbox

Weird & Wonderful Worlds gave us Micro-Settings

07 July 2024

Campaign Retrospective: Spelljammer Light of Xaryxis

Since a campaign finished, let us do a retrospective Against the Wicked City style as is now traditional.

Spelljammer: Light Of Xaryxis (2023-24)

What it was:
- Follow on from 5e Spelljammer rules test two-shot which were a pure systems test of the Spelljammer 5e rules. People liked that enough that it continued.
- My first attempt to run a 5e campaign off book - which was heavily remixed as described here
- My first 'formal' VTT campaign with battlemaps, tokens, getting the scales right and all that jazz
- 26 sessions from Oct 2022 to April 2024 with a slow burn start of getting in a session a month then a pause through April 23 after struggling to schedule sessions. We finally settled onto a base assumption of 'every second Monday night' which ran relatively smoothly through 2023. After smallest house-holders sleeping pattern fell apart that put a hard crimp on things as both I and the in-house test team were in this one. So we had a couple of chunky gaps for what was nominally a bi-weekly game - Jan-April 2023 and Jan-Feb 2024. The 'finite' nature of the campaign helped get things restarted in the sense that this was not an infinite committment.

What worked:
- Bonkers planets (toroid world, mindflayers) generated using the AD&D Spelljammer box set
- Getting to deploy to table my ancient Spelljammer folder, vintage ~1993
- Sandbox-ing remix worked well with with players creating their own plan/sequence to deal with things
- Player choices mattered - about 20% of the sessions being pure 'sandbox' adventuring
- Just enough Roll20 to get by
- "Great Projects" with game time invested into madcap schemes for one-shot spectacular effects
- Impromptu NPC romance based of cute NPC token
- Juicing a published book to run a campaign

What didn't:
- 'Back-to-back' scheduling when this initially ran on the 'off week' of a different campaign with high but not complete player overlap - leading to cancellations, uncertainty on when/if the game was running and generally a layer of stress
- Some players felt they came off the plot - which is the hazard of open world - but also the big hook motivation of 'why are we here again' rattled a bit loose as scheduling left some long gaps between sessions
- Hard meta-gaming 'what kind of session do we want to have tonight - ship combat or roleplaying' was not fun for me as a DM
- My personal note-keeping for this one went to hell. Bad DM, no biscuit.
- Squeaky early Roll20, harder to be flexible in face of choices as you might not have the available map or tokens or have the battlemap set up with both of those.
- Fully utilizing adversaries - getting the layers and other buttons on Roll20 to work meant I was not playing things to their tactical utmost
- Long-haul travel was streamlined - we did not lean into the interesting potential of multi-month Spelljammer journeys for crew tension, monsters-on-board, supply shortages or any of that good stuff

Lessons learned:

Have to think through potential encounters - considering what tokens and maps to have handy - and set them out fully in Roll20 beforehand. It takes too long to patch those things together on the fly and that kills momentum. An option would be to call a bio-break for everyone else and set things up but still that is dumping energy and requiring a spin back up afterward.

Getting fluent with the Roll20 system is troublesome and even with familiarity there are a lot of buttons to mash to 'trigger' an encounter which leaves lots of room for error in getting things spun up - so I kept things simple and for-went potential fun stuff because of its complexity to execute on VTT

Spelljammer campaigns run on ship-battlemaps, keeping those combats fresh because a challenge once you hit the fifth fight on the 'same' terrain. Different foes on board and greater use of the whole of the ship map can help.

Players appreciated being able to follow their whims, even where sometimes that left them with brief decision paralysis. On balance the momentary stall outs were forgotten while the freedom to roam wherever they wanted is more remembered.

The stuff that got the most 'wow' were things brought in from AD&D Spelljammer - weird planets - and exploration of implications like the mix of instantaneous communications (sending) with very long travel times.

I ended up having to stop after a dozen or so sessions and go back and re-do everything to put the stuff I was continuously look up on some digest pages. The key things I needed to pull out - where were the milestones for levelling / what level were people supposed to be for which encounters; ship names and sequence things were supposed to have happened in; what chapter different encounters were from.

NPC use was a mixed bag - I feel I could have used them more but also did not want them to just be 'quest-givers' - I think a happy medium might have been making them more useful in a fight but then it would have been one more thing to juggle on the battlemap.

Ship travel - I feel both that an opportunity was missed to make long-haul Spelljamming travel feel more weighty but also that this was not necessarily what the table would have wanted. We did not have super long sessions so I think further monkeying around with just getting to the places where they wanted to do stuff would have been friction not fun. So I think it was the right call.

Using a published campaign as opposed to writing my own was novel for me - most of my tables are very open-world gamers and the work involved in trying to steer them to a plot is more than I can be bothered with. I might follow this approach of stripping a campaign for parts again in future.

06 July 2024

On the morality and intricacies of love, passions and marriage in dragonblood-led societies

Guest post from the in-house testing team, on topics that have become relevant during our long running Ducal House campaign.

Dragons are among the most unpredictable creatures in existence. When they bred with humanoids, chief among them the ever-unsteady humans, their bloods mixed together in strange ways. All except the most distant of dragonbloods are fundamentally the same, their dominant draconic heritage an internal unifier, almost no matter to which extent their blood carries human, elf, or even, rumor has it, goblinoid parts; and yet, they can be fundamentally different in what drives them. There is no predicting the passions of a dragonblood - only the fact that there will be passion for something, be it buried deep or spilling out of every word and gesture.

A dragonblood-dominated society lives by unwritten, oft unspoken rules where passions of the flesh are concerned, necessitated by the potentially vast differences in the extent of such needs and wants between individuals of even the same clan.

For obvious reasons, marriage and offspring are vitally important concerns to titled individuals and families. Owing to the ancient magical prowess and recipies of the elves, however, these have little bearing on how an individual dragonblood chooses to live out their passions.

Two maxims appear to rule intimate relationships: discretion and plausible deniability. If an innocent bystander observes something they may well have overlooked had their gaze been turned a different direction, it is presumed by all parties that nothing of note occurred. Indiscretion and carelessness, however, are frowned upon and will lead to gossip and/or pointed questioning, particularly in repeat occurrences.

No dragonblood need fear moral outrage for engaging with their passions, even well outside their own species, as long as a certain amount of deniability is maintained.

Two dragonbloods who are courting may do so openly with decorum. Sharing a residence or discreetly sharing a bedroom before or without marriage will not be commented upon by society at large, though it has been observed that the closest acquaintances will take particularly the latter as permission to ask, nudge, jibe and joke with incongruous relentlessness.

Most dragonblood marriages among the higher strata of society take place under the patronage of Bahamut rather than one of the goddesses. What couples promise to one another in front of the altar of the Oath-Keeper allows for some variation, and the clergy of Bahamut does not concern itself with the policing of such vows (any who swore an oath in the Platinum Dragon‘s name will have to answer for its keeping before being granted his eternal rewards, after all), except perhaps for a gentle reminder in particularly ostentatious or high-profile cases.

However, engaging with one‘s passions outside of one‘s established marriage is a vastly more risky proposition among dragonbloods; the reason for this lies not in social repercussions or admonishment by the church, but rather in the well-documented irrationally possessive nature of draconic creatures.