Bargaining with hags

On Thursday nights I’ve been running Out of the Abyss with my Dungeons & Dragons group. Tonight a number of players weren’t able to make it, so I decided to run a little side adventure for the three players who were available, rather than advancing the main plot too much. Only one of the players is an evil character, but I was basically able to get get them all to make deals with a sea hag, Auntie Pong. It was a lot of fun trying to trick the players. One of the players was suggesting that the hag should be giving them cursed items, but my hunch was that she’d be more likely to give them things that she’d find amusing (like the cloak of displacement that looks like a frog onesie) or information that wouldn’t actually be very useful. But who knows, maybe the ‘croak of displacement’ will turn out to be cursed?

Here’s the Chant: Xanathar’s Guide, Mystara, firearms

I believe I’ve missed a couple of weeks again (due to urgent assignments and commissions) but this week I’m back with another roundup of content related to Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games. The first major rules expansion for 5th edition D&D has just come out, so there are a few posts about that.

I’ve also just started writing for Encounter Roleplay, so make sure you check out the site and Twitch channel.

Related to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything:

For players:

For players and dungeon masters:

For dungeon masters:

My recent content:

Dealing with slavery in D&D

Warning: this post deals with the topic of slavery, and it also contains spoilers for Out of the Abyss.


The last few Thursday nights I’ve been running Out of the Abyss for our Dungeon’s & Dragons group. Out of the Abyss is set in the Underdark, an immense and labyrinthine network of caverns miles below the earth and deals with a number of sensitive themes, including madness and slavery.

The adventure starts off with the player characters imprisoned by drow slavers, waiting to be transported to Menzoberranzan. The first part of the adventure is occupied with escaping the drow outpost. I expect a lot of parties would just try to get as soon as possible, but my group decided to fight the drow, despite being hugely outnumbered. (The reason was because they wanted to get their items back, which seemed to have been confiscated when they were captured.) After a lot of drow had been killed and the remainder were cornered in a tower, the dwarf druid brought up the possibility of negotiating with the drow in order to get the items back, but there was disagreement about whether it was okay to negotiate with slavers.

After the party (including a number of non-player escapees) had left the outpost and headed out into the Underdark, they ran straight into a group of goblins transporting two slaves. (We had a couple of new players joining the game, so that’s who the two slaves were.) After a little negotiation, the party ended up fighting the goblins, and once they had killed the leader, the others ran away. However, they managed to figure out that the goblins were a family group (the leader was their mother) and that they may have been acquiring slaves for the drow because their leader knew the drow would take her children as slaves otherwise. (Evil, but complicated.)

Later on, when they discovered a member of the party (a character belonging to a player who could no longer join us) had been brutally murdered in his sleep they began to wonder whether some of their fellow prisoners might have been imprisoned for legitimate reasons. (They know that one member of the party stands accused of murder in Menzoberranzan.) Since they don’t know who killed their friend, they’ve tied up the two main suspects and are marching them through the Underdark. They’ve figured out that this is likely to make them look like slavers themselves. Perhaps next session we’ll find out whether that’s helpful or unhelpful?

Cyborgs in D&D 5e

Today Nick from Owlman Press was asking me about how I would represent cyborgs in 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It wasn’t something I had thought about before. I don’t think I’ve actually used any constructs in my games so far, although I have included some elements that border on science fiction. A couple of times I’ve run adventures that involve spaceships (like the ones from the Spelljammer campaign setting) that crashed centuries or millenia ago.

I was thinking that to make a cyborg I’d probably start with stats for some kind of humanoid or beast, amke them a construct instead, raise their armor class and change some of their damage vulnerabilities, resistances and immunities. I thought I’d probably remove their regular attack abilities and give them an attack ability resembling one of the futuristic weapons from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I also thought of just giving them a set amount of damage for successful attacks, which is based on a planar effect applied on the plane of Mechanus in 2nd Edition.

This got me thinking about how I could incorporate a cyborg (possible from a crashed Spelljammer ship) into an adventure, so I had a go at making one:

Cyborg Rabbit

Small construct, lawful neutral

STR 15 (+2)   DEX 10 (+0)   CON 10 (+0)
INT 16 (+3)   WIS 14 (+2)   CHA 12 (+1)

Challenge: 1 (200 XP)
Armor Class: 17 Half Plate
Hit Points: 27 (6d8)
Speed: 30 ft.
Skills: Deception +5, Insight +4, Investigation +3, Perception +4, Persuasion +5, Sleight of Hand +4, Stealth +4
Damage Vulnerabilities: Lightning
Damage Resistances: Force
Damage Immunities: Poison
Condition Immunities: Poisoned
Senses: Darkvision 60 feet, Passive Perception 16
Languages: Deep Speech, Undercommon

Cunning Action. On each of its turns, the cyborg rabbit can use a bonus action to take the Dash, Disengage, or Hide action.

Actions

Laser. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 40/120 ft., one target. Hit: 10 radiant damage.

Combat in Limbo – beware the chaos beasts!

Today I was involved in running a Dungeons & Dragons event at Games Laboratory in Melbourne CBD. Our previous event was a cooperative evnt, so this time we ran a tournament intead. Competitors formed teams of three, with each player creating a fourth-level character. We had four rounds of three-on-three combat, in arenas designed by the dungeon masters. After the fourth round, the top four teams fought it out in an arena based on the Alchemist’s Refuge (Games Lab’s bar) complete with shelves full of random potions.

I decided that my arena would be on the plane of Limbo, which consists mainly of elemental chaos. There are a whole lot of rules in 2nd Edition D&D about the environmental conditions in Limbo. The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide also has some suggestions. I wanted to keep the rules simple so that we could get into combat quickly, so I only used some of the rules from the 5E DMG.

Elemental chaos

If a character entered the elemental chaos or started their turn in the elemental chaos, they would take 1d6 damage. I would roll 1d10 to determine the kind of damage:

  1. Acid
  2. Cold
  3. Fire
  4. Force
  5. Lightning
  6. Piercing
  7. Poison
  8. Radiant
  9. Slashing
  10. Thunder

Stabilising terrain

I decided that each player could use their bonus action on their turn to try to stabilise some of the elemental chaos, so that they might have some safe terrain. In order to suceed, they would have to make an Intelligence check, with the difficulty class depending on the size of the area they were trying to stabilise. To stabilise an area that was 5 feet by 5 feet it would be DC 5, to stabilise 10 feet by 10 feet it would be DC 10, et cetera. If they rolled a natural 20 for the Intelligence check I would let them choose the kind of terrain that was created. Otherwise I would roll 1d6 to decide what kind of terrain was created:

  1. Open terrain – this was just flat terrain, probably grassy.
  2. Watery terrain – this was difficult terrain, covered by waist-deep water
  3. Boggy terrain – this was difficult terrain, covered by stagnant, waist-deep water, providing half cover, but also producing toxic gases. If a character entered boggy terrain or began their turn in boggy terrain, they had to make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw. On a failure they too 1d6 poison damage.
  4. Rocky terrain – this was higher ground. If a player was standing on rocky terrain, they could have advantage on attack rolls against characters in another kind of terrain. Rocky terrain also provided full cover for characters on either side of it.
  5. Leafy terrain – this was terrain covered by trees, providing half cover
  6. If I rolled a 6 I would let the player decide the kind of terrain

Players could choose to stabilise terrain anywhere on the table. They could choose also use the same mechanic to try and transform already-stabilised terrain.

To represent stabilised terrain, I cut up about 50 basic land cards from Magic: The Gathering. (I also stuck coloured stickers on them, to make them easy to identify.)

Chaos Beasts

I also adapted a monster from 2nd Edition D&D to use in my arena: the chaos beast. Chaos beasts don’t do a lot of damage, but the real danger they pose is caused by corporreal instability. Contact with a chaos beast can cause a player’s character to destabilise, losing a lot of their abilities and eventually becoming a chaos beast. A lot of the players freaked out when that started happening!


To represent the chaos beasts I used eldrazi miniatures from the Magic: The Gathering board game, Arena of the Planeswalkers, but I also prepared a few weird-looking paper minis in case player characters were transformed, as chaos beasts can take all kinds of weird forms:

Here’s the Chant: darkling player race, narrative preparation and a massively multiplayer tabletop RPG

For players and dungeon masters: 

For players:

For dungeon masters:

For anyone who is interested in reflecting more deeply on the themes of the games we play:

Some of my recent content:

  • on the weekend I was dungeon mastering with D&D Adventurers League at PAX AUS. (Merric has written about the event here.) I haven’t written about the event yet, but here are some monster illustrations I used in one of the adventures I ran: 

Here’s the Chant: scaring your players

Each week I post a roundup of roleplaying game content, mostly for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. This week I’m posting from PAX Aus, and following a horror theme, since Tuesday will be Hallowe’en.

For everyone:

On Ravenloft and vampires:

For dungeon masters:

Here are a couple of zombie illustrations I’ve made to us at PAX Aus this weekend:

Here’s the Chant: problems with Chult, Eberron aasimar and trial by ordeal

Each week I put together a roundup of content related to roleplyaing games (mostly 5th edition D&D). I’ve just recently started publishing these on Thursdays instead of Wednesdays. Here’s this week’s roundup:

For players and dungeon masters:

  • ‘Dungeons & Dragons Stumbles With Its Revision Of The Game’s Major Black Culture’ Kotaku – this article looks at the problems with how black characters and cultures have been portrayed in D&D in the past. Cecilia D’Anastasio says that in Tomb of Annihilation there are some improvements but many of the same mistakes.
  • ‘Knife Theory’ reddit/DND – this thread shares a way of writing a player character’s backstory, which offers the dungeon master lots of options for raising the stakes of the story for each player character
  • ‘Dragonmarks: Aasimar’ Keith Baker – in this post Keith Baker looks at how the aasimar player race could fit into his Eberron setting

For players:

For dungeon masters:

For anyone who wants to reflect more deeply on the themes:

My recent content:

  • ‘Thoughts After Running In Volo’s Wake’ – last week I finished running In Volo’s Wake with my regular D&D group. Here are my thoughts on how I think this simple adventure can be deepened, and also some observations on how I could improve my DMing if I was to run it again.
  • ‘Zygmunt Bauman, Social Division and Flesh Golems’
  • I’ve just started running Out of the Abyss with my weekly group. These are some character illustrations I made for the non-player characters who the party found themselves imprisoned with: 

Thoughts after running In Volo’s Wake

This post contains spoilers, mostly from In Volo’s Wake.

* * *

The last couple of months I’ve been running a regular Wednesday night D&D table at Games Laboratory in Melbourne CBD. I’ve been using In Volo’s Wake, a series of six adventures that showcase some of the monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. As these adventures were released through Adventurers League, they are pretty straightforward and don’t have a lot of options for taking the story in different directions. (Adventurers League needs to release adventures like that so they can offer a consistent and balanced D&D experience, where people can take their characters between different tables.)

Outside the Adventurers League environment, I don’t think it’s appropriate to run these as they are written. I think the dungeon master needs to prepare some other possibilities and also be open to new directions that the players might come up with.

I don’t want it to sound like I haven’t enjoyed running these adventures. I think they provide some great seeds to branching off into other possible stories. I also really enjoyed playing and running the second and third adventure in the series. The quest to save the dwarf children from gnolls involves a lot of suspense. Delsy and her magic house also provide a lot of opportunity for humour and player frustration.

Follow the Twig Blights to Sunless Citadel

One possible path I’ve had prepared the whole time has been Sunless Citadel. In the first adventure in the collection, the party meets a treant called Tinus Redbud who needs assistance in fighting off twig blights. If the players want to pursue this story, they could find out that the blights are coming from the ruined village of Thundertree. If you have a look at Lost Mine of Phandelver, from the 5th edition D&D starter set, you’ll find that the ruins are plagued by twig blights. If you also have a look at the Sunless Citadel adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal, you’ll find that the Sunless Citadel is where twig blights originate, and that it’s quite close to Thundertree. Maybe Reidoth, the druid of Thundertree, would point the adventuring party toward Sunless Citadel? (Tales from the Yawning Portal also places White Plume Mountain nearby, so you could have that as another direction your party could explore.)

Consequences of killing a hag

The third adventure in the series involves Delsy the green hag luring innocent people into the forest for use in dark rituals. My party ended up killing her, with some assistance from the rest of her coven. (The other two hags were concerned that the disappearances would attract attention to the coven’s presence in the forest.)

In Volo’s Guide to Monsters it says that when a hag coven loses a member, the two remaining hags will organise a contest of cruelty for other hags who want to join them. I kept this in mind as an unintended consequence of the adventurers killing the hag, but didn’t end up using it.

Where did Delsy’s kobolds come from?

In the adventure involving the hags, Delsy constantly summons kobolds to hold the adventurers back while she escapes into a different room of her magical house. I found myself wondering where the kobolds come from? I wondered whether Delsy might have captured members of a nearby kobold tribe and imprisoned them in the Feywild, ready to be summoned. I decided to have the kobold tribe turn up camping outside the village of Hallfway, and ask the party if they could help rescue any kobolds who might still be imprisoned in the Feywild – but we didn’t end up pursuing this quest.

Signs of madness

What’s going on behind a lot of the adventures in the series is the story of Gavmogon’s vengeance against the mind flayer colony who enslaved him. Gavmogon was a beholder who was captured by mind flayers, who transformed him into a subservient mindwitness. While Gavmogon was scouting on behalf of the mind flayers, he discovered the Hollow of Dominion (carelessly uncovered by Volo?) which allowed him to break free of enslavement and exert dominance over the mind flayer colony and surrounding area. Using the Hollow of Dominion, Gavmogon was able to inflict madness on the creature of the surrounding area, leaving the mind flayers with few healthy minds to feed on.

I think this series of adventures is improved if there are more signs of Gavmogon’s madness. The main sign of Gavmogon’s madness in the surrounding area (if you just look at the adventures as published) is the angry eye goblins, who worship Gavmogon. The cave where they live is painted inside with burning eyes. I decided to make characters who went inside and saw the eyes do a Wisdom saving throw in order to see if they were also inflicted with madness, which caused them to see eyes everywhere.

I also added a mad bugbear bard to my story. One time when the party was travelling through the Sword Mountains, they met some bugbears, who they ended up awkwardly befriending. The second time they met the bugbear tribe their bard had gone mad, and this was what prompted them to go and investigate the mind flayer colony.

Connect Old Owl Well with the yuan-ti

Since Old Owl Well is close to the quarry where the yuan-ti are performing their evil rituals, I think it makes sense to incorporate the red wizard from Lost Mine of Phandelver. I’ve already written a bit about that here.

Make the mind flayer colony more dangerous

I think the fifth adventure adventure in the series does a bit of a disservice to mind flayers and particularly the elder brain. Even though the adventurers are accompanied by Cerali, the sane mind flayer, I think there should be some risk that the the insane mind flayers in the colony will try to enslave the adventurers, devour their minds or transform them into mind flayers themselves. I think it’s always a bit odd when the collection of stat blocks at the end of one of these adventures doesn’t include stats for the monster supposedly being showcased.

There isn’t a stat block for the elder brain either, because the elder brain just summons minions to defend it in the final scene and makes a psychic attack each turn. I think this could give the impression that an elder brain isn’t really a big deal. (I missed the detail about the psychic attack when I was running this scenario, which was my fault, but I think this made the elder brain seem particularly disappointing.)



Take advantage of Gavmogon’s psychic attacks

In the final adventure, where the party confronts Gavmogon the mindwitness there are opportunities as the adventurers approach the Hollow of Dominion for Gavmogon to make attacks on the adventurers’ minds, which may cause them to accrue levels of exhaustion. When running this part of the adventure, I think it’s really important to make sure you take the opportunities to inflict exhaustion on the adventurers, so that they’re vulnerable by the time they reach the Hollow of Dominion. I let my players take time to recover from their exhaustion, so when they reached Gavmogon I think they were able to fight him too effectively – although Gavmogon was able to take one of them down to zero hit points.

Here’s the Chant: Out of the Abyss

On Wednesdays I’ve been posting a roundup of content related to D&D and other roleplaying games. It’s on Wednesday anymore, and that’s because I’m finding my Wednesdays a bit too busy. I’m going to have a go at posting on Thursdays instead.

This week I thought I’d focus specifically on Out of the Abyss, and adventure that was published about two years ago, which I’m going to start running for my group next week. I’ll probably keep adding to this as I find more content on nthe Underdark, demon lords, madness, the drow, mindflayers. I can guarantee that this will contain spoilers, so if you’re looking forward to playing Out of the Abyss, you have been warned!

For players:

For players and dunegon masters:

For DMs:

  • ‘Out of the Abyss Walkthrough Poster’ Wizards of the Coast – Jason Thompson has illustrated a party of adventurers playing through Out of the Abyss. There are quite a few ideas here that could help you inject some humour into what could be a rather grim adventure.
  • ‘The Insanity of the N.P.C.’ Dragon+ – some crowd-sourced nonplayer characters to incorporate into your Out of the Abyss adventure, with illustrations by Richard Whitters
  • ‘Unearthed Arcana: Fiendish Options’ Wizards of the Coast – this playtest package includes lists of spells that different kinds of demon cultists would be likely to have
  • Tribality’s Out of the Abyss review – this review gives a pretty thorough overview of what’s in the adventure, as well as some thoughts about who this book is for and who should avoid it
  • Power Score’s Out of the Abyss review – the assessment here is that the book provides a lot of interesting NPCs and dungeons, but also requires a lot of planning and note-taking for the dunegon master
  • Power Score’s guide to Out of the Abyss – since Out of the Abyss requires a lot of notes to run, why not take advantage of these notes from Power Score?
  • Elven Tower’s guide to Out of the Abyss – more notes for dungeon masters
  • ‘A Guide to the Drow’ Power Score – more from Power Score? This blog just happens to publish a lot of great content, from across different editions of D&D. This article pulls together content about the dark elves of the Underdark.
  • ‘Out of the Abyss Needs More Mind Flayers!’ reddit/DnDBehindTheScreen – a lot of folks (myself included) were surprised at how little mind flayers feature in the books, especially since they were used to promote the story! This thread has some suggestions about how to involve them more in your own adventure.
  • ‘Mind Flayers Revisited’ The Monsters Know What They’re Doing – this post suggests that mind flayers as they are presented in 5th edition D&D don’t have the kind of stats and abilities that would allow them to achieve any of their schemes. It suggests some simple modifications that should make them a greater challenge.
  • ‘Survival Days’ Charm Person – Out of the Abyss involves a lot of walking through tunnels, often for weeks at a time. The published adventure presumes that characters will be foraging for food each day, which sounds tedious. This article looks at an alternative from the Dark Sun campaign setting.
  • ‘More Fungi for the Underdark’ Charm Person
  • ‘The Mock Dragon Turtle’, ‘Virnig the Dracopillar’, ‘The Similodon Cat’Charm Person – here we have some encounters based on scenes and characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which could be added to your Out of the Abyss adventure
  • ‘The Duchess’ Charm Person – another encounter based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which allows you to incorporate Malcanthet, the demon lord of succubi, into your Out of the Abyss adventure
  • ‘Alternative Indefinite Madness Table’ reddit/DnDBehindTheScreen – here’s a madness table that will give your players some serious drawbacks
  • ‘NPC Companion System Idea’ Giant in the Playground – this forum post is about a system for simplifying NPC party members – because you’ll probably have a lot of them to manage if you run this adventure

My content:

Here are some creatures I’ve drawn recently, which you might expect to find in the Under dark – a quaggoth, a kuo-toa, a myconid, a rust monster and a grick: