DMing is Not the Same Thing as Writing Prose Fiction: This Should Not Be Controversial

The other day, some folks were discussing 5e’s Appendix E (the PHB’s “new” Appendix N) and how most of the new additions were not very good. I pointed out that while App E is bad, it is nothing compared to the DMG’s Appendix D whose “Dungeon Master Inspiration” list is actually detrimental to DMs, particularly inexperienced ones trying to learn the game, because they will see all of those books on fiction writing and assume that a DM must be a fiction writer.

appendix d list

That’s right, guy I stole your spreadsheet you tweeted at me.

Someone tried to point out that books on writing fiction only make up 25% of the list, but that means that 25% of a list of books meant to provide inspiration for DMs are actively sabotaging their understanding of what makes for good D&D, because it implies that DMing is writing fantasy fiction and storytelling. It’s not.

The DM’s job is NOT to write their fantasy story and have their friends live it out for them around the table. The DM’s job is to create game content within reactive environments for their players to interact with. The story that happens in D&D is not the story that the DM tells, it’s the emergent story that comes from the players’ interaction with the content that the DM provides.

As both a fiction writer and a DM, I understand that the storytelling skills involved in writing and structuring fiction are not the same skills that bring a story to life at the table.  It’s apples and oranges, and trying to use the approach of one for the other can be detrimental.

Though it’s a different medium, an excellent example of emergent story is the history of Boatmurdered. Boatmurdered was a succession game of Dwarf Fortress, where each player played for an in-game year before passing off the save file to someone else. Each player chronicled the history of the fortress of Boatmurdered as it played out. What resulted was an absolutely legendary story of murder, madness and rampaging elephants.

Take a bit and read it.

You don’t get that sort of story from using the tools that a writer uses to write fiction; you get that from the game-content components and the emergent events surrounding them. It’s the way you get “truth stranger than fiction” from a purely fictional setting.

So what IS the approach DMs should take? What IS “inspirational reading” for DMs? Honestly, one question does not answer the other.

A DM needs to first gain a good grasp of the system and mechanics. Once that’s achieved, it becomes easier to pull in outside ideas and inspirations. The question is not “what weird thing do I want to put in my game?” but rather “how do I put a weird thing in my game?” A DM’s ideas must be translated into game content that players can interact with.

The answer to the second question is “anything, really”. Sure, Appendix N has great stuff and helps answer “what were the literary antecedents of the mechanics used in D&D”, but a DM can get inspiration from just about anything. And with a grasp of system and mechanics, it’s easy to drag and drop content to your game.

Want combat robot maids?

4HD*, AC3, 40′ 1d6*/1d6. (*stun for one round)

They’re almost tough as ogres (4HD), hard to hit (AC3), quicker than encumbered humans (40′), and high output with flip-kicks and one-two punches (1d6/1d6).

Need a reason for them to be somewhere?

A mad scientist somewhere in part of the dungeon built them because he was lonely.

Do you need to have a grasp of the finer points of fiction writing to include weird stuff in your D&D game?

No.

 

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Keep on the Borderlands (Sort Of)

At Free RPG Day, I got to game with a buddy who runs the local RPG con–B/X is his jam, and I love him for it.

He runs his somewhat uniquely, and there are aspects I disagree with (using a d8 base for semi-non-variable damage rather than d6), but there are others which I’ve stolen to make my own game run smoother (rotating initiative by side).

But the most important way he runs his game is that it’s fair–he’s not going to kick you when you’re down, but when you’ve goofed you’re done. PC death can and will happen in his games.

He’d run off some fairly wacky pre-gens from a site that gave stats and equipment that were all over the place. I ran a thief with 17 STR, 18 Dex, 8 Int, 18 WIS 14 CON, and CHA 4. Crusty Jim! I’ve learned from my own players and realized that Thieves have the potential to be the most stupid overpowered class, especially at lower levels. I cut my way through several orcs, bugbears, and giant spiders with my trusty Zweihander. With an AC of 4 and the potential to do over 20 damage in a single hit, I was a force to be reckoned with!

It’s also nice to play Borderlands without the moral quandaries that modernist gaming culture has tried to impose on it. We were told up-front: there are no orc babies; greenskins are creatures of evil that are born from, created by, and composed of evil and chaos taken shape. The goal was to kill them, rescue humans, recover treasure, and work to make the Borderlands just a little bit safer.

It wasn’t run straight from the module, but rather thematic, adjusted for a one-off. The keep was there, but we were given the choice to look for caves, small ruins, or large ruins (all home-made content). So I’ve still never played Borderland proper, but it was still a lot of fun cleaving through gobbos.

Death Crypt of the Ultralich – The Artificer’s Workshop

The artificer’s workshop is below the south end of the abbey. It can be reached either by the stairs in the annex behind the hidden door or via the well.

Dungeon Level 3 - Workshop

  1. Artificer’s Bedroom. Skeleton*. Desk w/notes–Read Language will reveal his attempts to build “Daughters”. +1 Plate.
  2. Inner workshop. All manner of tools & blueprints, cogs, springs. A desk, tables, half-assembled bronze constructs. 4x “Daughters” 4HD*, AC3, 40′ 1d6*/1d6. (*stun for one round). Scrap worth 6k gold.
  3. 2x Iron Living Statues. 500 steel ingots.
  4. Workshop supplies. 100 hammers. 25 screwdrivers. 50 wrenches. 25 unknown tools.
  5. 3 patrolling bronze walkers. HD2, AC4 30′ 1d6 (will flee if attacked and summon LS then Daughters.
  6. Anvils, barrels of springs (5x 100 gp each) and gears (5x 100 gp each).

*:active if seal in L2-26 is broken.

Death Crypt of the Ultra Lich – Old Buried Abbey (Level 2)

This second level is the lower, original abbey that was buried under a layer of dirt and ash. The hole in the chapel of the newer, upper church leads to room 10. The stairs north of 1 lead to the Library. Well in 22 is the back door to the Artificer’s workshop. Capstone in 26 leads to the Crypts (Level 3). Stairs in 27 are the main entrance to the Artificer’s workshop.

Space between 16, 19, 22, and all between 17 and 20 used to be an herb garden for soap-making; it can theoretically be cleared enough to create a “short cut”, but it would hardly be worth the effort. Exterior doors open to solid walls of dirt, stone, and ash. These can be excavated, but will take much longer than the upper tunnels.

Dungeon Level 2 - Main

  1. High arched wall w/stairs going down; spider webs
  2. 1d4 crab spiders
  3. 1d4 crab spiders; rack w/tattered clothes
  4. 1 Mage Spider (2HD)–Light, Read Magic; Scroll of Magic Missile x3; 5pp
  5. Several tables w/books. Most crumble at the touch. 1 is open to an illuminated page showing battle of wizards. Falls apart when touched.
  6. Webbed antechamber
  7. Narthex. 2 empty fonts. Door cannot open. Lever to secret door by west font
  8. 1d4 faded wraiths (2HD, drain only on a 6); 8 vials of holy water. 3k gp, 8 holy symbols
  9. Caved in room. Can be tunneled/excavated
  10. Four Saint Statues making holy gestures (1k gp each)
  11. 1d4 crab spiders; 22 cp, +1 mace
  12. Rows of wooden benches; Altar w/book (scroll of Bless, 5x charges)
  13. Missing door, 2 skeletons*
  14. (Monks’ cells) 2 skeletons*, 85 sp in d
  15. Long tables w/benches
  16. Kitchen. Oven. 4 bottles of wine (bad); rotted, useless ingredients; 24 blackened silver plates (1gp each)
  17. Prayer room w/empty pool
  18. Cabinet reliquary, trapped door (poison needle on cabinet door); Gold Chalice (500 gp), +1 mace, +1 shield
  19. 1 wight*; 700 gp, tapestries/fur blankets, +1 robe
  20. Soap making chemicals, dried plants, 20 bars of fragrant soap (10 gp each)
  21. A piece of tooled metal
  22. A well in the middle of this room goes 50-ft deep; there are buckets (4), rotting rope and 60 ft of chain; 1d8 fire beetles in the well
  23. 3d4 skeletons*; south door has holy symbols and writing. Read magic, languages or local cleric “Beware the life curse”; below is carved “Blessed be the Resurrection”
  24. A bronze, bi-pedal construct [1.5′] wanders these halls clockwise. 4 mauls
  25. Shelves. 2x sets of thieves tools
  26. 9 ghouls – 3 in each alcove. Attack when party enters the room. Jars w/3k cp, 5k sp, 900 gp, jeweled bracelet (1.2k gp), and rosary. Stone circle [capstone] in center of room. Sigil reads “Beware the life curse”
  27. Two metal faces in corners of the room. Stepping into the room triggers them. 1d6 arrow. 1 per round. Attacks as 1HD monser, 30 arrows. Disassembled, worth 1k gp each
  28. Barrels of nails (3), scrap metal (all rusted together)
  29. Barrels of scrap copper 4x (200 gp each)

*Become active undead if capstone seal in room 26 is broken.

The Ghouls’ Chapel

Last session, we had our largest party yet. One of the new players rolled a Cleric and I convinced another to play a MU to take advantage of the surfeit of scrolls the party had stockpiled.

A player who’d been a Fighter the previous session misplaced his character sheet for a bit (it was found later that evening) so ran a Cleric. The guy whose thief died last session rolled another thief, and we still had a thief who lived and was level 2.

Unfortunately, someone who’d played a fighter last session wasn’t there and had taken his character sheet and the party’s +1/+3 vs undead sword with him.

With some Clerics finally in the party, they had a bit of the benefit of the NPC party being led by a fellow member of the order. They got to know the layout of the lower abbey, some more of its history, and what the order was looking for. I figure I’ll give them more hints as they level up. If they survive…

On the way in, they noticed one of the 4 saint statues at a principal junction had been removed, but more on that later. They found the old abbot’s cell, looting it of some, but not all of its treasure (they missed out on the +1 robes). They also checked various doors that opened onto solid walls of dirt and rocks and figured out that a small central garden had probably been buried with the rest of the temple.

In the well-house, one of the thieves found the “back entrance” to the artificer’s workshop, but determined they’d be unable to easily carry any of the heavy loot through the side tunnel and back up the well. He went back up before any of the metal walkers (think children of Karras)  made their patrols through the room.

The party found a workshop for making soaps using the herbs and flowers from the now-buried garden before checking out the southeast corner of the abbey, which is just above the entrance to the crypts.

Here, there was a room full of smashed up and battered skeletons, all outside a door with the cryptic phrase “Beware the life-curse” and an indistinguishable reference to “the Blessed Resurrection”.

One of the clerics opened the door and stepped into the room, which had a large capstone on the floor with sigils. Nine ghouls sprung out of various alcoves and were all over the cleric. And somehow, out of nearly 30 attacks, all of the ghouls missed! To be fair, the cleric was in plate and had something like AC 1 or 2, but still!

There was a brief argument about the treasure value of scrolls vs. their situational efficacy, which ended in the MU fireballing the room. But with 13 damage rolled, and half of the ghouls making their saves and clinging on with 1 HP, they weren’t out of the woods by a longshot. Oh, and the Cleric was barbecued and the loot from the soap room ruined. The party managed to kill most of the rest of the ghouls, but one lone ghoul kept dodging and taking down party members one-by-one. The MU was prepared to run when the thief finally got him. I would’ve laughed if a single 1HP ghoul had TPKed them after his buddies had all been killed.

The party waited for their paralyzed companions to come round while they gathered the coin treasure that had been scattered throughout the room (the fireball had shattered the jars that coins were in). They left the charred meat of their cleric friend on the capstone to see if that would bring him back to life. I mean, it will, but they’re not doing it right, and when it works, it won’t be what they were hoping for. Other than the faded wraiths guarding the stash of holy equipment, level 2 has been mostly empty. Because as soon as they open that capstone, the abbey will become haunted as fuck when the sealed powers of the least-lich necromancer who’s been buried there will seep out and taint everything.

On the way out of the dungeon, they ran across the NPC party trying to move out the other two statues (this time without the help of the elf’s magic; she’s a scroller and only had one Floating Disc). Unfortunately, the party had their hands full with other loot and were pretty banged up, so they declined to help the NPC party with the last statue. So, they’re slowly losing a chance to get any XP for those, or the saint statues in the library.

Still, the party got a decent haul for the session, with just over 900 XP per person. That was enough to bump the longest-lived thief up to level 3.

The only thing the party has left, really, of the lower abbey is the sealed annex to the artificer’s workshop and the more-or-less empty monks’ cells. If and when they unseal the capstone, there may be more stuff in this level of the dungeon again, but things are pretty cleared.

If I remember, tomorrow I’ll post my map of the lower abbey with my notes for it.

Morrowind Day

It’s the 16th Anniversary of the release of Morrowind. To celebrate, I recommend you check out some of the in-game fiction. A lot of it is actually really good.

A Dance In Fire is a good one, if you haven’t read it, but so are Bone and The Locked Room.

And hey, if you missed them, here are a couple classic Cirsova Posts about Morrowind.

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/another-long-and-rambling-post-about-elderscrolls-games/

https://cirsova.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/a-very-long-and-rambling-post-about-morrowind-the-elder-scrolls-and-maybe-a-little-jack-vance/

 

Death Crypt of the Ultralich – The North Library

Since my players have only explored the north part of the second level of the dungeon, I’ll avoid posting it here for now. But I will eventually, I promise.

This is a faction sub-dungeon off the north of second level. It’s the monastery’s library and at one time, it boasted a rather impressive collection. Some of it is still intact. The large collection of knowledge attracted a clan of Mage Spiders who have peacefully inhabited the ruin for nearly 200 years. Content to study the old scrolls and tomes, none have bothered the nearby village in all their time occupying the site.

If cleared out, other inhabitants from the wild or brigands might take up occupation here in this easily defended complex.

Note that the southern defenses are included on a different map. Because of the open layout of the interior, spiderlings will be quick to spread the word about intruders so that the other spiders can mount a coordinated defense. The exits lead to the north side of the hill; it’s an easy climb back up to the historical marker the level 1 entrance and only adds maybe 5-10 minutes or so to the walk back to town.

Dungeon Level 2 - Library

  1. An owlbear has made its lair here. 3k SP. 3 jewelry 800 GP each. Sword +1/+3 Undead. [1a: webs in this hall discourage the owlbear from bothering the spiders]
  2. Spider Archmage – 6HD, AC5 – Read Magic, Charm Person, Magic Missile, Phantasmal Force / Scrolls: Ventriloquism, Charm Person, Protection from Evil, Levitate, ESP / Ring of Protection +1. 2 Spiderlings 2HD AC7.
  3. 1000 gp in a chest. 100 jars of ink % still good. 20 blank codexes. 100 feather quills. 4 crates of good paper.
  4. Reading Room. 1 Spider Mage 3HD – Magic Missile, Read Magic, Light / Scrolls: Mirror image, Locate Object
  5. Lower Stacks. 1d4 Crab Spiders, 2d4 Spiderlings. Scrolls: Continuous Light, Locate Object, Mirror Image, Fireball, Know Alignment, Bless, Snake Charm, Growth of Animals
  6. Reading Room. 1 Spider Mage 3HD – Detect magic, Protection from Good, Silence 15′. 2 Spiderlings 2HD AC7. 1 Prayer book w/cleric scroll Protection From Magic, Detect Evil, Detect Magic, Remove Fear, Protection from Evil.
  7. Scriptorium. 1d4 Spiderlings. Golden quill (100gp)
  8. 1d4 Spiderlings. 3x illuminated manuscripts (150 gp each)
  9. Upper Stacks. Spider Mage 3HD – Floating Disk, Read Languages, Phantasmal Force. 2d4 Spiderlings. 10 books 20gp each + scrolls: Shield, Ventriloquism, Detect Magic, Phantasmal Force/ [cleric scrolls] Light, Protection From Evil, Detect Magic, Snake Charm.
  10. Webs cover this statue of a saint. 1 Black Widow
  11. Webs cover this statue of a saint. 1 Tarantella