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?
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:
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.
Laser. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 40/120 ft., one target. Hit: 10 radiant damage.
This will contain spoilers about some of the short Adventurers League adventures from the Tomb of Annihilation storyline.
Last weekend I was at PAX Australia, helping run games with the Dungeons and Dragons Adventurers League. Merric has written about it here. I thought I’d also write a bit about how I found the experience.
Firstly, it was great being part of something that was attracting so much interest. Over the three days we were running eight tables, and they were booked out pretty much the whole time. It was actually hard to get into games as a dungeon master when I wasn’t busy, so I just ended up running more games!
PAX was one of only a few times I’ve had the opportunity to play through adventures before running them. Playing before running is very helpful. The first adventure I was running was A Day at the Races at 2pm on Friday, so I booked in for the 11am session of the same adventure. I was able to see that the race map included as part of the adventure was kind of hard to understand. So I chose not to use it when I ran the same adventure. As I’ve mentioned before dinosaur races are a lot of fun. However, I think that the dinosaur race from part 2 of City on the Edge are a bit more fun than the one in A Day at the Races, particularly due to the obstacles included in City on the Edge.
There’s a difference between parrots and raptors. When I played through A Day at the Races I didn’t answer the jumbled letters puzzle since I’d already read the adventure in preparation. The group initially thought the answer was ‘parrot’ and not ‘raptor’ – and it could have been the correct answer as they are made up of the same letters. However, the dungeon master just said that it wasn’t the right answer, and then they guessed that it was ‘raptor’. When I ran the adventure myself, the group also answered ‘parrot’ first, so I let them go with that. But when they tried to open the combination lock by turning the dials to spell ‘parrot’ it didn’t work. They realised they must have the answer wrong, but couldn’t figure it out, so I said, ‘Imagine a giant parrot that’s about to rip out your guys with it’s hooked claws.’
A couple of times I jumped in to run adventures at short notice. There was one session where the dungeon master (who was meant to be running the same adventure twice, back to back) couldn’t be found. I hadn’t prepared to run the particular adventure at PAX, but the dungeon master who had been running it in the previous session agreed to run it, and I was able to join in so that I could run it myself afterwards. In some ways, not being over-prepared made it pretty easy to run the adventure.
I also put my hand up to run some tier two (level 5 to 10) adventures, when we had only planned to run tier adventures (level 1 to 4). A guy who I’ve previously run a one shot adventure for was asking about tier 2 adventures, so I said I could run one outside the official program on Sunday when I wasn’t rostered on. Then when we had another group who all wanted to play tier 2, and since I’d been preparing tier 2 adventures I was able to offer to run them for this group as well. They were also able to give me advice afterwards about how to make the most of the monsters in the adventures. This meant I was able to provide a better challenge the second time I ran the adventure.
When running these adventures there was some stuff I ignored or changed because it felt awkward. I don’t feel comfortable using accents as a DM ordinarily, and some of the dialogue for Chultan characters felt pretty stereotyped and and cringeworthy. So I just ignored it and had them speaking normally. If you want to get a sense of how some black players have responded to Tomb of Annihilation, read this or this. I’m confident that Wizards of the Coast are wanting to improve in this area, and I hope they can take on these critiques in order to publish better content.
I found out that tortles are cool. Before PAX I made a player character that I hoped to play with. I haven’t played as a fighter before, even though it’s the most popular class, so I made a fighter. But I made him a tortle fighter called Yog. I found out that tortles can actually be a pretty viable player character option. In part 1 of City on the Edge, Yog was quite effective at dragging adversaries underwater in order to drown them, bringing a bit of a horror element to the game. The dungeon master of that game suggested that he should have been called ‘Yog the Baptist’.
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.
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:
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:
- Open terrain – this was just flat terrain, probably grassy.
- Watery terrain – this was difficult terrain, covered by waist-deep water
- 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.
- 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.
- Leafy terrain – this was terrain covered by trees, providing half cover
- 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.)
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:
For players and dungeon masters:
- ‘Documentary proves girls will play D&D with boys’ Boingboing – this short film shows what happened when a group of nine to eleven year old boys who played D&D together were challenged to include some girls at their table
- ‘Weapons for Halflings and other small sized creatures’ Stocking the Dungeon – this article has a table of small-sized weapons which you could use in your game
- ‘A Forgotten Variant: Loera, the Massively Multiplayer Tabletop RPG’ Playing at the World – this article looks at an early attempt to run a huge game with fifty referees, each running a section of the game-wrold for a group of twenty players
- ‘D&D Creature to Character Conversion’ Nerdarchy – here we have options that will allow you to creature a darkling player character
- ‘The Swordmage’ Geeks New England – here’s a homebrew class oiption that combines martialk prowess and magic use
- ‘So you want to play Evil in D&D?’ Another RPG Blog – this article looks at some of the overdone sterotypes of evil characters, adn suggests some alternatives
- ‘My guide to making characters that are fun to roleplay’ reddit/DndNext – this post givesd some guidelines that will help you work out the idea behind your next character. There’s a focus on ways the chartacter will connect to other characters and to the story world.
For dungeon masters:
- ‘Sigil: The City of Doors’ The Flows of Magic are Whimsical Today – this is a comprehensive digital map of the Planescape setting’s planar city of Sigil
- ‘Rats Revisited’ Notes of the Wandering Alchemist – this post suggests some ways to use rats in your game
- ‘Duergar Tactics’ The Monsters Know What They’re Doing – this post has some suggestions that will help you use duergar to their full tactical potential in your adventures
- ‘Shades of Magic: The Magical Wild’ Kobold Press – here are some magical items, enchanted by the power of nature
- ‘Adding Horror to the Mix’ Bell of Lost Souls – this article has some tips about how to run a horror adventure
- ‘Leveling Up: The Invaluable Benefits of DM Practice and Preparation’ D&D Adventurers League – this article has some suggestions for DMs that will help us run better games
- ‘Encunter vs. Narrative Based Preparation’ Reality Refracted – this article looks at the differenc ebetween praparing encounters versus preparing for narrative. While reading this I realised I’ve been unconsciously shifting towards preparing encounters rather than preparing for narrative, and I think that needs some further reflection on my part.
- ‘Players Self-Assigning Rolls’ Run a Game – this article talks about problems that can be created when players make die rolls they haven’t been asked for
- ‘Why Did You Change That Rule?’ Classic RPG Realms – this post discusses whether it is okay to change, add or ignore rules
- ‘How Many Peasants?’ About Bruce Heard and New Stories – this article looks at estimation of population density in medieval societies and how this can be used in roleplaying games
- ‘10 Travellers with Personality’ Raging Swan Press – here are ten non-player characters who your players might meet on the road
- ‘D&D Beyond Campaign Creation Walkthrough’ Nerdarchy – this article will help you get the most out of D&D Beyond’s current campaign management functions
For anyone who is interested in reflecting more deeply on the themes of the games we play:
- ‘Why Are So Many Monsters Hybrids?’ Nautilus – this article looks at how we categories pehnomena, and the fear that can be created by the mixing of categories
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:
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.
- ‘Dungeons & Dragons, Satan and Psychology’ Psychology Today – this article asks why our society is vulnerable to moral panic
On Ravenloft and vampires:
- ‘Review of Curse of Strahd: Bringing Ravenloft to D&D 5e’ Nerds on Earth –
- ‘Curse of Strahd: Resources and Bonus Content’ Nerds on Earth
- ‘Nerd Nostalgia: The Story of Ravenloft’ Nerds on Earth – this article gives an overview of the Ravenloft setting
For dungeon masters:
- ‘Top Ways to Terrify Your Players’ Tribality – here are some ideas about how to keep your players on edge
- ‘Alternative Lore for 5E Ghouls’ Tribality – in D&D, the origins of ghouls tends to be linked to to elves, but here are some other origin ideas for your adventures
- ‘Madam Versiliplex’s Magical Wonders’ Nerdarchy – here’s an idea for an encounter with a night hag
- ‘Jason Voorhees’ The Black Coyote – here are monster stats for Jason from Friday the 13th
- ‘For the season: A free horror template for your rpg session’ My New Adventure – here’s an adventure template for running a suburban horror adventure
Here are a couple of zombie illustrations I’ve made to us at PAX Aus this weekend:
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
- ‘Human, Subraces’ Dungeon Master Jeremy – here we have some human subrace options designed for Sasquatch Games’ Primeval Thule setting
- ‘Warlock Pact: Interplanar Imperator’ Kobold Press – here’s a new patron option for warlock player characters
- ‘9 Must-Have Tools For The Vampire Hunter’ High Level Games – if you’re making a character with a focus on hunting vampires, these are some items they might need
For dungeon masters:
- ‘The Cailleac Bheur (or the Blue Hag)’ Kobold Press – last year Volo’s Guide to Monsters gave us Wizards of the Coast’s take on the bheur hag, but here’s Kobold Press’ contribution: a legendary bheur hag
- ‘Making the Best of the 5-Minute Adventuring Day’ DM David – this article looks at how wilderness adventuring can skew the balance of D&D and how to address this. As I’ve just started running Out of the Abyss, which involves a lot of Underdark travel, I think this will be helpful.
- ‘Players Create the Best NPCs’ The Weem – this post talks about how you can let your players guide which non-player characters are important in you game
- ‘Top Tips from A Sample of 4.000 Dungeon Masters’ Sly Flourish – I’ve often found it helpful being able to look at the data Mike Shea gathers from dungeon masters, which is why I’m always recommending his book The Lazy Dungeon Master. Here he’s posted the top advice received in his 2016 Dungeon Master’s survey.
For anyone who wants to reflect more deeply on the themes:
- ‘How Dungeons & Dragons and Theoretical Physics Create the Basis of Stranger Things’ Nerdist – this article looks at the complex relationship between D&D and ‘the Upside Down’ in Netflix’s Stranger Things
- ‘Why the trial by ordeal was actually an effective test of guilt’ Aeon – this article explains why medieval European practises of trial by ordeal (eg. requiring the accused to fish a ring out of boiling water) may have actually been quite effective
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:
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.)
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.
A couple of weeks ago I was reading Zygmunt Bauman’s book Community – Seeking Safety in an Insecure World in preparation for a book review. It was the same week that I first tried streaming my illustration process on Twitch. In a conversation with my friend Nicholas Moll (from Owlman Press) I mentioned that once I’d finished reading Bauman for the night I’d probably jump on Twitch and start drawing requests. Nick suggested I draw a flesh golem, and somehow we ended up with the idea of a Zygmunt Bauman flesh golem. (A flesh golem is basically Frankenstein’s monster – a person made from the parts of deceased people and animated through the power of ‘science’.)
I decided to draw the Zygmunt Bauman flesh golem with a third eye surgically added in the middle of his head, suggesting that his mind has been awakened. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the ‘monster’ is more enlightened than the scientist who created him by the end of the novel. From reading Bauman’s book, I think he is also pretty awake to our current global situation. Bauman talks about how global elites have refashioned our society to suit their own ends. The problem is that because society has become very fragmented it is now very difficult to organise effectively. I think what my own country’s government is doing at the moment is exploiting some of these divisions through the public debate about marriage, in order to distract from the growing economic inequality, which I think is the real threat.