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 – Level 1

I’ve been meaning to post these, and now that there’s no chance that the players might be seeing portions of the dungeon that they haven’t explored yet, I can finally start.

These will give you an idea of what I’m working with, and I’m copying my key notes word for word from my legal pad. The great thing about this dungeon has been I’ve managed to run most of my sessions with virtually no prep-work beyond what’s already written down on my notepad. Mostly, I’ve just been winging it, which is good, because I haven’t had time to do much else.

I’ll note that the first floor is rather empty at the moment; this is meant to be an exploration-themed game, so I didn’t want it to be stacked floor to ceiling with monsters. Plus, as in-game time progresses, the side tunnels will be excavated and vagrants or monsters might start taking up residence in this upper level.

Short version of the setting:

-Big war between wizards 500 years ago.
-Monastery was built on the site of… something important that happened during the war.
-300-400 years ago, the monastery was buried by “rain of dirt” (probably a volcano)
-200-300 years ago, a smaller monastery was built on the origin site; it too was buried by a “rain of dirt”.
– < 100 years ago, small town was founded near the site; rather than build another monastery, they put a historical marker on top of the hill underneath which the ruins are buried.
-Present day: at the founding day festival, history wonks are showing up to see the marker because it’s the anniversary of the end of the wizard war, so it’s a bigger deal than usual. The young son of a local innkeeper is out playing on top of the hill when he falls down a sinkhole and into the upper gallery of the newer temple.

Dungeon Level 1.png

  1. Stone debris & dirt. Boy huddled & leg hurt
  2. Empty room w/dusty floors.
  3. Large, high-ceilinged room. 1d100 bats + 1d10 giant bats.
  4. Dusty, empty room.
  5. Broken, rotten barrels. Floor is stained.
  6. Empty room w/cracked flagstone floors. 5 “caches” 1 empty; 2 w/2d4 centipedes; 1 w/silver dagger + 2d4 centipedes; 1 w/scroll of Light
  7. Empty room w/cracked flagstone floors, 3 “caches” 2 empty; 1 2d4 centipedes + sack of 5d10 gp.
  8. 6 stone benches. Small piece of tooled metal
  9. Very dusty shelves. 2 empty glass bottles. Cloth fragments on floor. Mice
  10. Mouse & rat droppings. Venomous snake hiding in NW corner hole in wall.
  11. Wooden detritus; 5d10 rats + 3d6 giant rats; 4 silver torchieres (100 GP each)
  12. 2 rows of stone benches, cobwebs. Altar w/2 gold candlesticks (25 GP each). Hole down in west transept hidden by webs. 50/50 mage spider is here, will cast sleep [scroll] then flee.
  13. 2HD mage spider (will cast shield from a scroll; also knows Darkness). Scroll w/sleep + magic missile. Table. Skeleton. Holy Symbol (silver). Chest 500gp.

Further into the Ruins – It’s a Cruel World…

The thief who survived the last session with over 7k banked XP hired some new companions and low-level adventurers to guard the known entrances to the dungeon.

Rather than take lots of time to prepare and coordinate, they opted to go straight back into the dungeon the very next day. Because it took them the better part of the morning to resolve the previous session’s adventure and recruit new party members, they didn’t have their new guard posted before the rival adventuring party had a chance to start poking around the ruins of the buried monastery.

My players decided to try to talk things out with the rival party; it was nominally led by a cleric of the same local order as the PC who’d died in the TPK session. Cleric convinced the party that they were mostly looking for items of religious significance and were tasked with surveying the lower ruins. They wouldn’t join up as henchmen/hirelings, but would be willing to exchange information. Cleric also warned about the artificer’s workshop supposedly located off the south end of the abbey.

Satisfied that the party had bought their story, the Cleric’s party continued their looting while the players found the back entrance to the East Chapel’s relic room. The fighter made his poison check to open the reliquary cabinet and the party retrieved the blessed shield and mace within. While they could’ve kept the cabinet, the fighter smashed it up instead, costing them a decent chunk of loot XP. In a room off one of the naves, they found another +1 mace, and then, in the narthex, they found the secret passage to a supply room.

The supply room was haunted, and while the party leader was investigating the boxes, three faded wraiths rose up and attacked. (“I didn’t touch the chest, though!” “It wasn’t actually a trap. It was a ghost.”) The faded wraiths couldn’t get hits on the fighters, but they DID kill party leader before they were dispatched.

And just like that, 7000+ party XP was gone with one character.

Now, they DID have a chance to save him. There were no wounds; he’d just stopped breathing. He expired right next to a box full of holy water and holy symbols–I would’ve allowed the players to use those to revive him, since he’d been killed by monk ghosts; if the party had a cleric, they would’ve known this could’ve worked. Also chest compressions could’ve worked. Instead, they dragged him back to town, where the healer said he was probably too far gone to help.

On the plus side, one of the thieves who missed the TPK of the second session got enough XP to reach level 2.

 

Prelude to the Death Crypt of the Ultralich

I don’t have a better name for my current game yet, and it ultimately may not take the direction implied in the name (though the mass combat game I ran two weeks ago did serve as a “distant prologue”).

I’m experimenting with a dynamic exploration-focused dungeon, one which begins… almost empty!

The design concept ties into adventure hook that got the party there:

There’s a small town celebrating its founding day, which is normally a smaller affair, but this is the anniversary of the end of the Wizard War. There’s a stone marker outside of town on a hill, and it’s an “historical site” which Wizard War nerds might want to check out on the 500th anniversary. Between the end of the Wizard War and the founding of the town, there was a “rain of dirt” (possibly a volcano, possibly magic upheaval) that buried whatever was there. Folks didn’t want the spot to be totally forgotten, so they put up a plaque. The party found the ruin because a child playing on the hill fell down a sinkhole.

The complex is actually a small buried temple built on top of a previously buried monastery that was built over a series of crypts to seal up some of the residual evils of a Lieutenant of the Ultralich who was defeated on that spot. Below that are caverns and who knows what; I haven’t even fully keyed the crypt area.

The top level is mostly empty, stripped bare, and even the purpose is somewhat of a mystery until the players find the chapel. There are a few collapsed tunnels at the edges of the map, and a room with bats indicating that the room is near the surface of the hillside. Eventually, these tunnels may become excavated as more adventurers and possibly clergymen and historians begin to explore the upper ruins. These empty rooms will serve as future sites of minor archaeological base-camps or refuges for vagrants and bandits. But for now, the party has the ruins to themselves.

I remembered how much I hated the Bruce Heard game I was in because, despite all of the cool fair and carnival stuff around, I didn’t get a chance to interact with it, so if my players decide to do some carnival games, I’ll let them. We’re going to Millennium Fair it. I’m also allowing them to create a bit of the town themselves, picking what they need to have in the town, letting them name places and people. We’ve already ended up with an awesome tavern keeper named Crazy Jim, whose specialty is Owlbear stew. Over the course of the evening, it was established that Crazy Jim is a retired adventurer of ridiculous level.

My DM (a player in this game) is on a Delicious in Dungeon kick, and I’m happy to oblige. Turns out, the secret to making top-notch Owlbear Stew: you gotta make em good and angry. Most animals if they’re all riled up, the meat can get tough and gamey. But Owlbears are different—when an owlbear gets mad, their muscles get all loosened up, like they’ve done a bunch of stretches and then gotten a massage; makes em move all fluid-like. So, if you want the best Owlbear meat, you’ve gotta get em real good and pissed off before you kill them—the meat’ll just fall off the bones.

So, for now, my dungeon chef is contenting himself with frying up centipedes and mice with the wild green onions he’s picked.

Interestingly, my three players have all opted to run Thieves. They reason that this way they’ll always be able to be sneaky and at least one of them will always get a backstab. They have a fighter and Halfling for hirelings; we’ll see how all of this will work out. The halfling’s probably better at hiding from things than they are at this point, but there’s been very little to hide from so far.

The downside of everyone playing thieves, I can’t use this as an opportunity to really go for broke on sticking to the book on Moldvay magic rules. I went out of my way to stock the dungeon with scrolls to reward someone who picked “Read Magic” as their one first level spell. There’s an NPC elf lady whose spell is read magic, but the party didn’t pick her as a hireling, so she very well may end up as part of a rival adventuring party.

The second level of the dungeon, once they reach it, has two mini-side dungeons off of it. One is a workshop with a few high-loot-value mechanical monstrosities that are terrifyingly out of depth. The other is the original monastery’s library, which has been taken over by Aranea.

A lot of the treasure will be hidden in the crypt below the 2nd level, but opening the vault to the crypt will trigger some stuff that will turn much of level 2 “active”. This could upset anyone trying to set up shop on the first floor, definitely a corner of the 2nd floor, and maybe even the rest of the town.

Mass Combat System Play Analysis

So, Friday before last, I got to test run my mass combat system. Essentially, I tricked my players into playing a hex & chit wargame with my by disguising it as Dungeons & Dragons, but it actually went really well! Much better than I expected, in fact.

The sides were comprised of about 40k humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings and just over 100k (mostly low-level) undead. The PC factions were led by 20th level Humans and max-level demihumans, while the undead were led by 9HD vampires and a level 30 MU lich.

Most undead units were 5k in size, each taking up 2 hexes. Smaller units (1000 or less) took up 1 hex and ignored facing rules, and a pair of 10k strong human infantry took up 3 hexes.

The undead’s objectives were to a)Cross the map with one of a various combination of units or b)kill a certain number of the PC heroes. The PC’s objectives were to either a)eliminate 6 units, b) destroy the lich’s siege engines, or c) force the lich to use half of his spells.

While I gave my players a few options of how they could set-up (envelopment, one-sided flanks, meeting engagement, or a prepared defense), they opted to run a prepared line defense in the middle, with cavalry on the flanks.

In about 11 turns over the course of 5 hours, the PC’s pulled off a stunning upset victory against the Lich.

Here’s why:

  • I forgot to put Permanent Fly on the Lich; I wasn’t going to pull a fast one after I’d already showed everyone the ins and outs of what I’d be running. This deprived him of his ability to do ranged spell damage as often as he should’ve been able to.
  • I allowed some of the smaller “special” units of undead to count towards the 6 unit count; I also forgot that I shouldn’t have allowed wights to take casualties from normal units.
  • The lich had no missile troops. My players did pretty well with their archers and skirmishers. While I did manage to collapse their left flank, many of my troops did so right into clerics who could blow up the weaker skellies.
  • Vampires are too weak to go up against the PC party I’d created pre-gens for; I should’ve used much more powerful undead, but I wanted to keep things simple.
  • Magic Missile was broken; I’ll fix it when I rewrite the rules; it should’ve been a fixed amount of damage based on the unit size (perhaps in relation to the target unit’s average HD) rather than multiplied by the die-roll. The elves were doing maybe 1/3 to half a brigade worth of damage per round.
  • Because I did not want to deal with 3 full levels of spells I didn’t have physical books for, the Lich didn’t have a number of abilities and additional reality-shaping spells that would’ve made this a cakewalk. As such, while he did death-touch a 20th level fighter at one point and began to rout PC units just by wading into the fray himself, he couldn’t have held his own if the PCs ganged up on him, in large part because of an absence of “contingencies”.

Here’s what worked:

  • The combat damage system. Once everyone wrapped their head around how easy it was to figure 10% of the highest two digits, calculating damage was a breeze. The rolls to hit and against armor class were simple enough that the players figured out how the system worked pretty quickly.
  • Leader Combat. Well, okay, it kind of worked. It needs to be improved maybe, or maybe implementing it on a smaller scale would work better. Really, the PCs cleaved through the Vampire colonels like butter; the unit regulars could only hit PCs on 20 and even the Vampires had a tough job of landing a blow on the heavily armored PCs.
  • Cavalry are weak in numbers but can do massive damage. They do the most damage with charges. It made me smile when the players came to the realization on their own that they were using their cavalry wrong; they realized what they SHOULD have been doing was, instead of leaving their cavalry in melee, withdrawing after a charge, regrouping far enough away that they couldn’t be attacked by a charging unit, then charge again from a flank to get the charge damage bonus.
  • Turning worked almost just as planned. 2d6 x 10% of a cleric unit divided by the defending unit’s hit dice. I required that the unit the clerics were attempting to turn must have line of sight on the cleric unit. This meant that cleric units staying behind other units, performing first aid, couldn’t turn; they had to come out where the undead could see them.
  • Giving the cleric units a 3 shot ability to prevent ½ damage to an adjacent unit, up to the total number of clerics in the unit, worked pretty well.

Here’s what was a little iffy:

  • The Combat Order in general worked just fine, and I’m still sold on doing initiative per melee, though the players did say that it slowed things down a bit. BUT if you weren’t using initiative per melee, I’d probably go with the following order within the combat phase:
    • Declare unit combat pairings and splits
    • Unpaired attackers do their damage first
    • Paired/split attackers do damage simultaneously (i.e. use the unit sizes of all units at the beginning of combat to calculate damage, rather initiative-loser potentially takes losses and inflicts fewer casualties)Now what’s with split attacks? When units were being attacked by more than one unit, I allowed the defending unit to make attacks against all attackers, splitting damage proportionally.
  • Magic. Some of the spells worked out, others didn’t. The biggest problem was that I used 1d6+1 x 10% of the casting unit calculate damage for Magic Missile. While it was fine for the 500 strong MU unit, it made the 3500 strong elf unit a murder machine. Additionally, there are just some spells that either don’t really work for mass combat or would require some additional development

Here’s what could stand some further development:

  • Accounting for hit die differences. This isn’t something I did, in part because a) I didn’t have time and b) it would’ve bogged down an initial test more than I wanted. I DID have one unit of 100 bone golems where I had their HP as the true unit strength, and, because they were a small unit, each individual could inflict a kill. So, with 4 attacks, the unit could theoretically kill 400 per round while they had an effective HP of 2400 instead of 100.I treated the PC units as “elites”, using the 2nd column of the to-hit and saves, and the ability to cast spells as a 5th level MU x3. This didn’t mean that everyone in the unit was 5th level, just that the average quality of the troop was such that it had a to hit bonus and a save bonus. This wasn’t reflected in unit strength/hit dice.

    The starkest difference was between skeletons and zombies, 1 hit die monsters vs. 2 hit die monsters; in theory, the zombies should be twice as hard to kill. I didn’t treat it that way (except for Turn results). You could do some tweaks to kills, where there’s a base 10% damage then reduce it proportionally by the number of hit dice. For monsters with more than 3 hit die, I think it makes sense to treat them like I did the Bone Golems (a large group of individuals attacking and simultaneously, while tracking the collective HP, but not treating them truly as a regular unit per the system). Because really, when the bone golems attacked, I was rolling 4 attacks for each one once rather than 100 times, and therefore assumed that those attacks all succeeded against individuals in the defending units rather than an attack against the unit itself using unit to unit resolution. This may actually be the best fix, as it can account for smaller numbers of large monsters (ogres, owl bears, whatever) fighting against mass combat scale units. The entire unit may not be attacking monsters, but all of the monsters are attacking someone in the unit.

  • Morale. The morale mechanics ended up not being used or tested, in part because I didn’t really write them down, so meh. Also, being undead, the Lich’s units weren’t subject to morale per-se. The players didn’t quite figure out just HOW killing the Vampire colonels affected the undead units. Being undead, they didn’t break and flee; they kept fighting, though they didn’t pull back or move further. I noted each time a vampire colonel was defeated that they dropped a sword that glowed black. These were +1 swords of control undead; if any PC had picked one up, they could either command or dispel the brigade the Vampire had been leading, but no players bothered.
  • Fleshing out the system for purposes of accounting, to better tie it to your B/X game. There are book prices for mercenaries but I think it would be worth crunching the numbers for custom equipping units, as well as figuring what “elite” means for both cost and ability (especially for casters).

I really think that there’s some potential to this system. It would absolutely work great with fewer units and at lower levels, I think, but hey, we wanted a stupid-high level battle against a lich.

Skeletons Need to REEEEEEEE!

I feel like skeletons have kinda lost their luster in a lot of games, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. They’re often used as obvious tableau monsters–skeletons at a table playing cards? They’ll get up and attack you; skeletons laying down in beds? They’ll get up and attack you. At one hit die and easily turned by priests, they just never seem like that big a threat unless they can get economy of action on you. And even then, they’re often mundane mooks; players aren’t really scared of them. Then I remembered…

Skeletons are supposed to REEEEEEEEEEEE!

Skeleon Reeee

None of the games I’ve been in have done this, and I’ll admit I’ve failed to include it myself. But when skeletons attack, they are supposed to shriek for up to three rounds. And during each of those three rounds, there’s a 50/50 chance that a wandering monster will come check out what the hell is going on.

So, you go from a blah encounter with a few skellies that the clerics turn and the fighters hack to bits to a cascading nightmare as the dungeon’s alarm system has just alerted half the dungeon to your presence.

Edit: Oops! Looks like I screwed this up! The picture for skeletons are under the entry for Shriekers. No wonder! But hell, why not have skeleton shriekers?

skeleshriek