how to make a magic sword that everyone hates

October 24th, 2014 by paul

Because there's not enough magic swords, right? Here's a semi-cursed magic sword I made up for last week's game.

It's a scimitar that appears to be made out of pure gold, with a fanged mouth at the end of the hilt. Its name is "Feed me gold!"

The sword can be in two states: hungry or sated. When it's first discovered, it's hungry.

Hungry: The sword periodically roars "Feed me gold!" or "Give me gold or I will smite you all!" in an ear-splitting Yosemite Sam voice (audible for half a mile). It takes especial care to yell when enemies are nearby or when its owners are sneaking. The hungry sword is heavy and clumsy in combat (-1). Once per day, the sword can cast Knock. It does so only to thwart its owner or to change owners (for instance, by unlocking a door between it and a thief).

The sword requires 1 GP per day to be sated.

Sated: The sword acts as a +1 intelligent scimitar (it has Int, Wis, and Cha of 8). It will speak at a reasonable volume. It can cast Knock once a day at its owner's request. When it casts Knock, it yells, "Gold opens all doors!"

Here's how I introduced the sword: lodged in the back of a dark cave, shouting imperiously for gold in a scary monster voice, and bossing around the local peasants.

My group hates the sword. One character wants to throw it in the river. Others are like, "Well, it's a jerk, but it is a +1 sword. We should probably keep it." It galls them to pay an object; they'd probably be much happier if they'd bought it outright.

It's funny because the group also hired some mercenaries in the same session, for exactly the same price, 1 GP/day. To be fair, a henchman is better because when they die you can take back their salary.

diseases that make you stronger (and then kill you)

October 17th, 2014 by paul

I just recovered from a 24 hour flu. In honor of which, enjoy these plagues.

The Dancing Death: In its first stage, which lasts for weeks, this disease has no effect. In its second stage, which lasts several days, the victim feels energetic and manic, doesn't sleep very much, and probably seeks out scenes of feasting and celebration. Finally, in the third stage, which lasts about a minute, the victim begins a dance which becomes more spastic and terrifying, and dies. Anyone who sees the dance is infected.

Black Eyed Beauty: Stage one is a minor cold. When you recover, your eye color changes to black. Your charisma is now 18. Even people who know you're diseased must make a will/wisdom save to leave your presence. During this period, you spread the disease by touch. After a week or two of this, you die, leaving a beautiful corpse.

Brain Fever: Stage one: You are bedridden with a dangerously high fever for three days. You must make a DC10 Con check to survive, with appropriate bonuses if someone is tending you. Stage two: your intelligence and wisdom increase to 22. You can read at 10x speed and have perfect recall. If you're already working on a project, you become obsessed with its completion. Otherwise you become obsessed with the first project that's suggested to you. After three days of this, you die. During stage 2, Cure Disease does not work on you. When you die, a small spider crawls out of your mouth. Anyone bitten by the spider must make a DC 12 save or become infected. Evil wizards sometimes harvest these spiders and purposely infect peasants to act as their research assistants.

the Great Stag – a stellar one-page dungeon

October 10th, 2014 by paul

Here's a one-page dungeon that takes mid-level PCs out into the stars in a brand-new space ship. Each "dungeon room" is a planet. onepagedungeon

Download the PDF

SHIP: A richly decorated sailboat, the Omelet, teeters on a high cliff. A peryton sits upon black eggs in the gore-spattered crow's nest. She will attack any who try to approach. She leaves for an hour each noon in search of human hearts.

SHIP DECK: Single mast; aft cabin; fore ballista. A recent corpse, heart ripped out, lies on deck.

AFT CABIN: Ship wheel; tiny kitchen featuring pan and egg whisk; four beds; four foot lockers. One locker holds foppish clothes worth 150 GP, all monogrammed “Captain P.”

HOLD: 20 barrels, 6 containing water and 5 containing 50 pickled eggs each, no two alike.

SAILING THE OMELET: The "ship wheel" is a white stone disc graven with an unfamiliar constellation: the Great Stag. Each star can be pressed like a button. The PCs start at "Lawless World." They may navigate along constellation lines to an adjacent star by pressing that star. The ship will rise into space, automatically make sail, and cross the cosmic void. Each voyage takes a day and calls for a mid-trip random encounter roll. At its destination, the boat will land at a pre-programmed spot on the star's single planet. There is no way to alter the ship's route mid-journey. Characters can move and breathe normally on the ship's deck; if separated from the ship, they must swim and hold their breath as if underwater.

SHIP COMBAT: The Omelet: AC 10, HP 50. If reduced to 0 HP: immobile until repaired. Ballista: longbow range, 4d6 dmg.

STAR MAP KEY: Random encounter roll on arrival and every 8 hours.
Lawless world: The PCs’ home world.
Swamp world: d4 random encounters: 1-2: 2d10 cavemen (2 HD) who worship “Sky God’s Blood”, an intelligent deep red ioun stone which will orbit whoever praises it most extravagantly. 3-4: 2d6 lizardmen lying in ambush: their eggs were stolen by “Captain P.”
Egg world: d4 encounters: 1-2: Peryton. 3-4: Villagers (blue, humanoid, lay blue eggs) need “tributes” for next peryton meal. (The route from “Egg World” to “Swamp World” goes over a black hole: 2 in 6 to fall in, d6 ship damage, teleports ship to a random world.)
Dungeon world: Riddled with lost dungeons. Near the landing site is a random dungeon from the 2014 One-Page Dungeon contest, with reflavored alien monsters (three-armed goblins, etc). d3 encounters: 1: 2d6 zombies who repeat the last phrase they hear. 2: wraith lamenting world’s past glories. 3: 1d4 suspicious post-apocalyptic survivors.
Peaceful world: No planet, just asteroid field. Ship takes 1d4 damage.
Lawless moon: Much like the PCs’ world except everyone’s name has apostrophes. d3 encounters: 1: 2d10 bandits led by Chief t’Rath’ri. 2: Village of Hom’Leth, offers to pay 50 gold k’chaa to heroes who’ll save them from the bandits. 3: K’bold tribe, awaiting a Chosen One to lead them against the bullying bandits and villagers.
My world: Only feature is an oak desk near the landing site, containing a manuscript about eggs by “Captain Prometheus.” Allows reader to predict the effect of eating any pickled egg. (Secret space passage: PCs can fly directly to Ice World from this location.)
Deserted world: d3 encounters, all with invisible stalkers: 1: Child voice singing creepy rhymes. 2: PCs feel that they’re being followed. 3: Angry voice asks why the PCs, not content with making us perform their assassinations, must invade our home planet? Speaker then attacks.
Ice world: d4 encounters: 1-2: Dozens of hidden ice worms, each 100 feet apart and attached to a vast medusa head floating under the ice. 3-4: 1d6 frost giants. Will flee from fire, which they have never seen.
Mausoleum world: Deserted planet, covered with burial monuments and quarries. Landing plaza: a tower topped with a swivel mirror in each corner, a huge door in the south wall. If all 4 mirrors shine sunlight on the door, it opens, leading to a mummy and four coffer corpses in an underground funeral barge. 5 pieces of jewelry (1000-6000 GP each), 1 of which fuses permanently to its wearer.
??? Asteroid field. The PCs must turn back, unless the DM has devised another constellation for them to explore.

RANDOM SPACE ENCOUNTER: roll d12. One roll per journey.
1: Blue dragon. Captain P stole her egg; wants it back.
2: Wolf-spider slavers in war galley (AC 13, HP 60). Will catch and board the Omelet in 3 turns. 10 Wolf-spiders: attack as dire wolf. 50 slaves: noncombatants. Hold: 600 GP in ivory and silks.
3: Lurker Above disguised as starry sky, will attack anyone on deck.
4: Solar storm lasts 3 turns. Does 1d4 ship damage each turn, -1 damage for each intelligent countermeasure.
5-8: Uneventful passage.
9: Herd of pegasi in the distance, attracted only by other equines.
10: Merchant ship (AC 12, 100 HP, 30 crew, 3 ballistas). Ask “Where’s Captain P?” Will buy eggs for 10 GP each, sell laser swords (as longswords, d10 fire damage) for 300 GP, repair the Omelet for 100 GP.
11: Migrating flumph tribe. Describe the perils of PCs’ destination.
12: Cthulhoid space leviathan. Will ignore PCs unless they act foolish.

RANDOM EGG INGESTION: roll d12. Effects last d4 days, 1 at a time.
1: Alien parasite: Cure Disease before d4 days or things get crazy.
2: Sickened: Max HP lowered by 1d6.
3: Polymorphed: into egg-laying species, DM’s choice.
4-9: No unusual effects.
10: Sated: PC needs no food, water, or air.
11: Lucky egg: player can reroll any one die roll.
12: Good egg: Random attribute raised 1d4 points.

random city charts for chase/exploration

October 1st, 2014 by paul

I wrote up these urban d20 charts a while ago, when I was in Venice and Florence. I based the street-exploration and roof-exploration charts on the sights around me; I'll admit, I didn't explore the sewers (does Venice even have sewers? I bet they're not much fun to explore).

How are these charts different from other urban random tables?

1) They're architectural. You'll have to go elsewhere for random monsters or for random tavern names.
2) They generate complex results. In old cities like Venice, you don't just find a canal or a courtyard; we found a canal with an overgrown garden on the other side, and a courtyard with a tavern right in the middle of it, and a bridge over an alley. For each of these charts, you roll 2d20 and come up with some combination of the two features.

I think these tables are especially useful for chase scenes. You don't care if you're passing a drainpipe unless someone is after you. For chases, make a 2d20 roll each turn, and let the PCs and villains react to the environment. If players take some time to investigate the area, make a third check and integrate that result. ("From the bridge over the alley, you can jump to a rickety outer staircase.")

florence-alleyPART 1: STREETS:

1) What's the defining characteristic of the city or neighborhood? Venice has canals. Greyhawk's Old City has ramshackle buildings. Empyrian, your campaign's capital of the Empire of Fire, has basalt air bridges. And so on. Work that into your descriptions.
2. Roll d20 twice and combine the two architectural features, keeping in mind the city's defining characteristic.

1 blind alley: dead end, unless you can climb the wall at the end
2 courtyard: dead end, unless you want to knock on people's doors
3 well/cistern
4 roofed alley: roof is uncomfortably low for tall people
5 lost courtyard: tiny, dark, between tall buildings. There may be one day in the year where the sun shines in.
6 small bridge: over a river, canal, or street, or maybe between spires.
7 large bridge with market stalls: generally over the city's main river, but it might be between palace towers.
8 market square
9 church square
10 street of shops
11 tavern
12 outer stairs
13 archway
: may have a gate that's locked at night.
14 weird statue/carving
15 walled or fenced garden
16 mansion
17 fountain
18 stairs to higher/lower street
: usually in a small street, since it's inaccessible to wheeled vehicles.
19 obstruction: wooden door, metal grate, canal, wall
20 unique city landmark: palace, giant statue, ziggurat of blood, floating gardens, or something else that everyone in the city has heard of.

Dubrovnik RooftopsPART 2: ROOFTOPS:
You're not on a rooftop unless you're involved in a chase or a heist, so this is tailored to action sequences.
Roll d20 twice and combine the architectural features, keeping in mind the city's defining characteristic.

1 balancing act: archway, clothesline, or wall to adjoining building
2 vertical jump: big height difference between adjoining buildings
3 wide jump: main street - wide gap between rooftops
4 slope: sharply slanted roof (possible loose tiles) or dome
5 mansion: flat roof with glass-covered or spiked battlements (possibly patrolled by guards)
6 nice view: roof garden (possible garden party), Assassins Creed-style vista, or hidden spot that lets you spy on an interesting location
7 flat roof: possibly containing a family, who might be eating or sleeping
8 end of the neighborhood: internal city wall or river
9 descent into building: trapdoor, door or stairs down, chimney or skylight
10 tower: guard tower, bell tower, clock tower, or mage tower
11 town square: extremely wide gap between buildings; crowds below
12 coming through: adjacent higher building with accessible windows or doors
13 long drop: perilous but climbable ledge, gargoyles, or carving around side of building
14 descent to street: drainpipe, external stairs
15 safe to jump off: jutting flag/signpole/awning/balcony
16 internal courtyard
17 hiding spot: cistern, crevice, bell tower, hole into attic
18 delicate roof: thatched or glass
19 danger: trap, collapsing roof, guard post, bird nails
20 something unexpected: complete sailing ship, trampoline mushrooms, lightning circle, bridge, cannon, climbable smoke

Roll d20 twice and combine the architectural features.

1 intersection with big, well maintained, main sewer tunnel with sidewalks and bridges
2 intersection with medium tunnel where you have to wade
3 intersection with small tunnel where your head is barely above the filth
4 intersection with tiny tunnel where you have to squeeze and might get stuck if you backtrack
5 barred or grated tunnel: must backtrack unless your other roll lets you continue
6 dead end: must backtrack unless your other roll lets you continue
6 dangerously rapid underground river
7 street grate above
8 climbable privy shaft or well shaft
9 sloping passage: to deeper level, difficult to climb up (on lower levels, all passages to surface instead lead to a higher level of the sewer)
8 entrance to hidden location: dungeon, cavern system, forgotten city, crypts, secret temple, secret entrance to fortified part of the city, private mansion with wine cellar
9 lair: monsters, cultists, ratlings, outlaws, grimlocks, thieves guild, sewer workers, gelatinous tube*, etc
10 hiding or rest spot: dry nook with door/concealable entrance
11 You are here: sign or map on the wall saying where you are in the city
12 what's that sound? It's a sluice that opens/closes every once in a while, changing water flow and possibly crushing PCs: it might be horizontal or might be a drain below
13 forward progress is completely underwater
14 pipe above that's dumping filth
15 check again in 60 feet: boring ol' continuation of the pipe you're in
16 breakable wall: roll to see what's behind it
17 gadgets: pumps, valves, levers, or other machinery that may or may not cause problems if messed with
18 danger: poison gas, bad air, portcullis trap, rising water level, pit
19 treasure cache: wedding ring that was lost down a drain, floating corpse with treasure, stolen items hiding spot, or just copper tubes that can be sold
20 wondrous vista: magnificent thoroughfare of forgotten city or palace, with mosaics and statues, now used as sewer tunnel, or chasm criss-crossed with sewer pipes and lit from below by distant torches, or huge cavern with crystal stalactites and glowing birds flying around, or massive body of dead god, or portal to the plane of air. Max 1 wonder per sewer system! It's a civic ordinance.

*A gelatinous cube that has adapted to sewer pipes.

no, use THIS Monster Manual index by Challenge Rating

September 24th, 2014 by paul

I have a new index for your Monster Manual. Here's why it's useful.

So every review of the Monster Manual that I read - EVERY review - said, "Great book, but why is it missing a monster index by Challenge Rating??"

In his review on Critical Hits, Mike Shea not only noted its absence but provided one, building on Mouseferatu's sortable monster list. Mike's list was especially cool because it fit on one page, so you could tape it inside your Monster Manual's back cover. Sweet!

A few days later, WOTC released its own MM index by CR. This one was cool because it included XP values and used shorter and more wieldy monster names. However, it was several pages long, so it was a little harder to keep with your Monster Manual.

Both indexes shared a problem: it was hard to look up some monsters because you weren't sure where they were in the book. Is Awakened Shrub alphabetized under "Awakened Shrub," or "Blight," or "Treant" maybe, or is it in the Animals appendix?* Which of the following monsters get their own entry and which are in the Animals appendix: Blink Dog, Death Dog, Displacer Beast, Winter Wolf, Worg?*

I've made a Challenge Rating index that brings it all together: it
a) includes XP so you can budget an encounter without looking up the monsters
b) includes monster page numbers so you can actually find the Awakened Shrub entry
      but it all still
c) fits on one page so you can tape it inside your Monster Manual
      all while
d) having a much larger font than the one used in the actual Monster Manual index!

Here is the monster manual CR index! Clip and tape.

*Awakened Shrub in the Animals appendix.
**Displacer Beast gets its own entry; the rest are in the animals appendix.

Rory and I are credited in the Monster Manual!

September 22nd, 2014 by paul

Rory and I were both 5e alpha testers. Not only that, we were among a handful of people who got alpha drafts of the Monster Manual, upon which we each submitted volumes of feedback.

mmcreditsCheck it out - here we are in the credits. There's about 30 people who provided "additional feedback," so Blog of Holding makes up about 7% of that list.

I'm reading the official Monster Manual now, and I'm pleased that a lot of my suggestions were taken. In fact, about 50 monsters seem to have been changed based on my feedback.

I'd love to share all the changes with you - I'm absurdly proud of some of my tweaks - but I'm still under NDA. I'll non-specifically break down the general categories of my comments.

About 1/4 of my suggestions were prose fixes and copy editing. These are all things that would have been found on the editing pass anyway, so they're not really changes I can take credit for. It may have been a waste of time for me to submit them, but it doesn't hurt to have more eyes on the document, and I'm sure WOTC doesn't mind a little unpaid copy editing.

Another 1/4 of my edits were questions that led to rules clarifications. Again, I'm not particularly proud of these (or ashamed of them either). It's nice to spell out how monster attack A interacts with monster attack B, but 5e tries to empower the DM to make this kind of judgment call anyway. My questions led to a little more precise language, which makes things a little easier, I guess.

I am proud of some of my fixes, though. Most of my remaining changes are gifts to the DM: things that make the world make more sense, and things that make monsters scarier or easier to run. This guy should do more bite damage, considering the size of his teeth! This guy should have a higher INT, since he's described as a mastermind! Can we get rid of this complicated mechanic? Can this guy use a stat-block ability instead of a spell I have to look up in the PHB?

Finally, I'm most proud of my handful of changes that are gifts to the players. When it comes to players, the Monster Manual is a book that's heavier on tricks than on treats, but I got a couple in. When you and your party are dogfighting a dragon on your exotic flying mounts, say, "Paul, you are the wind beneath my wings."

I also had tons of suggestions that weren't taken. Dragons have great lair actions, but I wish they had more varied normal attacks. I wish there wasn't a Neutral Good slaver race. And I know it's minor, but I wish that goblins didn't have 2 HD. They're goblins!

I submitted one more type of feedback I haven't mentioned yet: praise. The 5e monsters have so many great, inspiring new details. I'm sure WOTC won't mind if I'm specific about some of the things they did right:

The solar has a legendary action that permanently blinds people who presume to look upon it. This is resoundingly mythic.

The stone giant story about the "dreaming world beneath the sky" is beautiful. Stone giants were dead last in the giants-I-want-to-use race; now they're first.

The lich has great lair actions. I particularly like the clever mechanic that recharges spells on a roll of a d6. The details of the mechanic encourage the DM to use the lich's low-level spell slots, since they have a greater chance of recharging; this is fun because it makes for a more unpredictable fight.

Have you seen this detail in previous editions? If they don't have specific orders, skeletons tend to perform the habitual actions they did in life: sharpen swords, patrol, etc. I love the idea of entering a skeleton-ridden town and finding some skeletons out in the fields behind skeletal oxen, some raising empty tankards in the inn, and some plucking at looms empty of thread.

whoa, D&D 5e economy is compatible with ACKS

September 18th, 2014 by paul

I crunched some numbers. 5e doesn't have a super fleshed-out economy, but the few data points in the PHB match up pretty well with Adventurer Conqueror King, which has a very robust and internally consistent economic model.

This is good news. ACKS expands D&D's footprint in some cool ways, into a high-level world simulator and war machine. Slotting this into 5e is very appealing to me.

What does a gold piece mean?

Compatibility basically rests on one question: does a gold piece mean approximately the same amount of money in both systems?

Equipment-wise it does. A 5e longsword costs 15 GP. An acks "sword" costs 10. The longsword has cost either 10 or 15 GP since the D&D/AD&D split. What about the high end of the equipment list? Admittedly, armor prices are way off. Plate armor is 60 in ACKS and 1500 in 5e, but armor prices are generally peculiar in 5e. Ship prices match the traditional D&D prices in both games: 10k for a sailing ship, 30k for a galley, etc.

It's not surprising that 5e and ACKS start with a similarly-priced equipment list, since they're both descended from TSR D&D. Things get more interesting when we look at the non-equipment extrapolations: price of grain, income for laborers, stuff like that.

First of all, both games have a very similar "cost of living" chart. 5e's is presented as a fixed daily number and ACKS as a monthly number range, so I've converted them both to fixed monthly numbers. I've left out some brackets to match them as well as I can. ACKS, for instance, has tons of high-income brackets, as befits a game focused on high-level play, while 5e simply says "in the Aristocratic tier, you can spend as much as you want."

5e                                     ACKS
Wretched: 0 gp (outcast)               Wretched: 1 gp (serf)
Poor: 6 gp (unskilled laborer)         Meager: 7 gp (unskilled laborer)
Modest: 30 gp (laborer)                Adequate: 26 gp (laborer)
Comfortable: 60 gp (skilled tradesman) Comfortable: 70 gp (master craftsman, 
                                                          farmer w 85 acres)
Wealthy: 120 gp (favored of royalty)   Prosperous: 275 gp (patrician, 200 acres)
Aristocratic: 300+ gp (noble)          various brackets: 450+ (noble)

These charts are strikingly similar. It's almost as if the 5e guys took a look at ACKS... for which I wouldn't blame them. If you're serious about having a rational economy, you need to consult Alexander Macris's work at some point.

Here are the 5e prices of the main agriculture and mining staples:
1 lb wheat: 1 cp
1 lb iron: 1 sp

I can't find direct prices for ACKS good by the pound, but in the mercantile rules, I find that 80 stone of grain costs 10 GP. That comes to... 1.12 cp per pound of wheat. Pretty damn close. In ACKS, "common metal" is 200 GP per 100 stone, or 1.4 sp/pound. Given that "common metal" is already an abstraction, that's close enough for me.

Livestock are easier: no stone-to-pounds conversions here. Here are the 5e and ACKS prices: pretty similar, except for the big markup on ACKS chickens.

               5e    ACKS
1 chicken:     2 cp  1 sp
1 pig:         3 gp  3 gp
1 cow:         10 gp 10 gp
1 draft horse: 50 gp 30-40 gp

Here's something interesting: a "comfortable" ACKS yeoman farmer has 85 acres and makes 70 gp/month. Farmers don't really make monthly income, though; more likely it's around 420 gp at each of the two yearly harvests. That means that, after harvest, a farmer has a LOT of wealth in the barn - but instead of gold, it's in the form of several tons of grain and vegetables. Murder-hobo adventurers, try to figure out some way to make a profit out of that.

There are still some potential speedbumps in the so-far-unreleased 5e Dungeon Master's Guide. How much does a 5e castle cost? How much treasure do PCs earn? 5e could wildly diverge from ACKS at high levels. So far, though, it looks like you could coherently play 5e and use ACKS for your treasure, trade, and domain management.

20 more trinkets

September 5th, 2014 by paul

5e's d100 starting trinkets are all very well, but after a few campaigns, you're guaranteed to roll repeats. I don't want too many characters starting with a "small, weightless stone block" or whatever.

It would be great to have a backup list of mysterious trinkets, so you could Cross Out and Write In as you used 'em. I'll start; leave more in the comments.

A tattoo that specifies the time and place of an unknown future appointment.
A padlock that can be opened by all keys except the one it comes with.
An architectural schematic of a vast baby.
A botany book filled with dangerous misinformation.
An order for your own execution.
A wooden coin on which is written a curse.
A membership card to an exclusive club.
A list of six names, including yours, with three crossed out.
An obsidian figure of a panther; it has absolutely no magic powers.
A map with several strange inaccuracies.
A badge from a forbidden order of fallen paladins.
A doll-sized sword of masterwork quality, useful as a razorblade.
A tiny scroll bearing nine unusual names.
The deed to a house in an underwater city.
The recipe for a Potion of Deafness.
A dragonchess piece with a hidden compartment: inside is a human fingerbone.
A flute; its out-of-tune notes can play no known song.
A moss-covered book written in Druidic characters.
A green copper tool with no obvious function.
A piece of amber containing an insect; the insect wears a tiny saddle and halter.

surprising PC demographics from the 5e backgrounds

September 1st, 2014 by paul

Let's assume that all PC backgrounds and traits are assigned randomly (there are 13 backgrounds so about 7.5% of PCs have each background).

conan book returnOut of every 1000 Player Characters:
15 are fire eaters. (d10 entertainer routines, of which you get 1d3) Makes sense that this number is so high, since every bad fantasy movie has at least one fire eater per crowd scene. Fire eating is apparently riveting entertainment in Fantasy Europe.
10 are librarians. (d8 sage specialty)
10 are blackmailers. (d8 criminal specialty) Blackmailers are not the most dashing of outlaws, and it's hard to reconcile them with heroic fantasy. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to many D&D adventures inspired by the life of Charles Augustus Howell..
A whopping 19 are raised by wolves. (d8 outlander personality trait, of which you get two)
4 are guild blacksmiths. (d20 guild business) This might sound naiive, but I absurdly thought that a smith background would be MORE common among adventurers than a raised-by-wolves background. Obviously I was off by a factor of 5. That's why "Smith" is such a rare last name and "Wolfson" is so common.

a D&D player’s advice to DMs running mystery games

August 25th, 2014 by paul

Mike Shea has an interesting article about running mystery/investigation games. Running a mystery game is famously difficult, and Mike has a lot of great advice: don't kill player involvement by dead-ending all their efforts. Don't slavishly follow the letter of the module. Don't bury the clues. And finally, change the mystery as needed.

If PCs seem to be spending all of their time in one line of investigation while the real answer lies somewhere completely different, we are well within our power and authority to move the clues. ... Maybe NPCs begin to learn things they hadn't known or the map is hidden in a completely different part of the mansion after all.

This last piece of DM advice is something which I've done many times before, and which makes total sense to me as a DM, but I'd like to add a note of caution as a player.

For a DM, it's just good sense to rewrite the story; the players need never know, and everyone ends up having a better time. But as a player, I find myself quixotically kicking against this kind of good sense. As a player, I don't want to solve a mystery because the DM moved the clues under my nose. On the other hand, I don't want to waste a lot of time because the DM put the clues in the wrong place, either.

Here's the thing: from my player's perspective, sometimes it's OK to move the clues and sometimes it's not. Here's my advice as a D&D player to DMs running mystery games:

Don't let us players rewrite the mystery - unless our version is better

Even though you as the DM are constantly making up bits of the world for us, you are still capable of feeling suspension of disbelief yourself - and that's important to maintain. At its best, DMing feels like channeling a world with a reality of its own. If the murder took place in the conservatory, it took place in the conservatory, even if we're wasting our time investigating the billiard room - because, even though this statement sounds insane, "that's how it really happened." Once you've fixed something into the history of your game world, don't excise it lightly. As a player, I want the game world to have reality and weight to it. I want to make some good choices and some bad choices, and look back with hindsight and know the difference. As a player, I want to take your world seriously, so make sure you do too.

There's an exception to the "no rewrites" rule: one of us players might have a theory, or you might later come up with an idea, that's better than your original plan. Now's the time to rewrite history! The murder took place in the billiard room after all, because it makes more sense that way! Maybe I reminded you that Lord Wolfson loves to play billiards, so, now that you think of it, the billiards room would be a more logical place for the deadly confrontation. Retcon your story and change your plot, not for our convenience but because, now that you think of it, "that's how it really happened."

Honor our important choices, not our unimportant ones

Over the course of an investigation, PCs make a lot of significant choices. We might decide that the butler is on our side, and anyone who disagrees with the butler's testimony is clearly lying. We might gamble on a risky Intimidation attempt, which might anger a key suspect or elicit new clues. The paladin might even decide that it's dishonorable to read a gentleman's letters, and burn a lot of key evidence unread. As a DM, you should honor those big choices, even if they make the investigation much easier or harder than you expected.

On the other hand, we also make a lot of insignificant choices. If you ask us which guest bedroom we are searching, we might say, "Uuh... the first one." We might never visit the greenhouse because you forgot to mention to us that there's a greenhouse. These are non-choices. Feel free to move the clue from the third to the first guest bedroom, or from the greenhouse to the ballroom.

Don't figure out all the details beforehand

Let's say the manor has 20 rooms and there are three important clues. Do we poor players really have to grind our way through a search of up to 17 meaningless rooms before we find a clue?

Here's a reality-bending trick that doesn't get my player hackles up:

Leave a lot of investigation details vague. Maybe you've decided that the chambermaid has a clue. You don't need to key the chambermaid on the map. She might be in the second room we investigate, or the first, according to the dictates of pacing.

Maybe you haven't thought at all about what's in the stables, or what's in town. If we investigate the stables, or start interrogating every shop owner in town, you as DM have carte blanche to make up clues: the more clues the better. It's fine that these clues didn't exist until we looked for them, because you're not rewriting the mystery for us; you're just filling in blank spaces in the map. That's exactly what we expect from our DM.

So our group decides to search the stables, for which you prepared nothing. OK, you think, what's in the stables? Let's see, the victim arrived at the manor last night, so it makes sense that there's an extra horse in the stables. And the stablehand would have seen the victim, and fed the horse. What's in the saddlebags? Maybe a letter from Lord Wolfson to the victim? Maybe you roll a die to see whether that letter exists. Go ahead, you're the DM.

What's in town? Maybe we notice that the inn is called "The Wolf's Arms." "That must have some connection to Lord Wolfson," I say, and we start coming up with a theory implicating the landlord. But the landlord wasn't involved, and you as DM don't need to retroactively involve him. Sometimes we'll hit dead ends, and that's OK.

provide interesting dead ends

Just as not every dead end in a dungeon has a secret door, not every area in an investigation yields a clue. Sometimes there are areas that don't further the investigation.

But remember, you're the DM of a living world, not just a mystery puzzle. Every area in the world can be interesting, even the places that have nothing to do with the mystery.

If you're running a one-shot and trying to shepherd it to its conclusion by 10 PM, you might just want to say "You investigate the Wolf's Arms Inn and find nothing to connect it to the murder." But if you're running a long-term campaign with no time pressure, then offer us a chance at some interesting new decisions: a fight, a quest - even a new mystery. Hey, we might find the second mystery more engaging than the first.

This might seem like a lot of improv pressure at the game table. After spending hours developing a mystery adventure, you're supposed to come up with a new mystery, on the spot, in the, what, thirty seconds you have to think while we chatter about our crackpot innkeeper-did-it theory? Well, keep in mind you don't need to come up with a solution to a new mystery right away, just a premise. And don't worry, thirty seconds should be plenty of time.

To test this theory, I brought up the stopwatch feature on my phone. Let's say the PCs start poking around in the Wolf's Arms inn, which you haven't prepared at all. I'm giving myself 30 seconds to come up with and develop a new tavern-based mystery as far as I can. At the end of the 30 seconds, I'll write down what I come up with. I'll try to do this four or five times.

The innkeeper doesn't know anything about the murder, but..... three, two, one, go!

  • When lone foreigners come to the inn, the innkeeper invites them into the wine cellar, kills them, and pickles them in wine. When he has collected six pickled people, he ships them on a cart up north. Right before the PCs come in, the innkeeper spotted a potential victim in the common room.
  • The inn is filled with smuggler thugs, waiting to make a pickup of, say, silks. If the PCs come in with full bags of loot, they're likely to mistake the PCs for their contacts. Otherwise, they'll want to size the PCs up and figure out what their angle is.
  • The innkeeper is a vampire. The bartender is a brand-new vampire spawn just learning the ropes, and the innkeeper is parentally anxious about the bartender's fledgling abilities.
  • The inn is used for a Hellfire Club of sinister and decadent nobles, and there's a secret room filled with incriminating evidence. The innkeeper will act perfectly normal at first, but if the PCs seem too inquisitive on any subject, the innkeeper will assume that they're onto the club and get nervous.
  • One of the rooms has a ghost, so the innkeeper will claim that the inn is full even though the PCs can clearly count four rooms and only three NPC parties. One of the stable stalls is similarly off-limits, haunted with the ghost's spectral horse.

    OK, one thing I noticed from this exercise: in the first 10 seconds, I came up with a trite adventure hook - more of a trope than a mystery. Any twists were generated in the last 20 seconds. So while DMing down a dead end, tune out player chatter and give yourself the luxury of a full 30 seconds, not 10 seconds, to decide what's going on.

    By the way, this is a fun home game! Try it yourself, using a stopwatch and any of the following red herrings. Come up with the seed of an unrelated new adventure. 30 seconds each!

  • The innkeeper doesn't know anything about the murder, but...
  • The jeweler who bought the signet ring has never seen the victim before or since, but...
  • The town guards didn't investigate the screams at the manor house because...
  • Oops! The DM forgot to come up with an alibi for Lord Wolfson's wife. She was away from home the whole time because...