Dwarf on Back
This article is intended for anyone who is a GM / DM or wants to try their hand at it. It’s a culmination of various things I’ve read and personal experience from GMing lo, these many years. It is doubtless chronically incomplete, I encourage folks to add their 2 cents and help flesh it out.
Sources of inspiration:
- Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering: http://www.sjgames.com/robinslaws/
- The Big List of RPG Plots: http://www.prismnet.com/~sjohn/plots.htm
- Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide: http://www.librarything.com/work/180821
- The Cambellian Hero Monomyth: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_For_Writers
- The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Six_Dramatic_Situations, http://www.archive.org/details/thirtysixdramati00polt
- GURPS: http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/basic/
- Numerous RPG-related bulletin boards and mailing lists that I’ve hung out on over the years.
Part 1: Theme
Most successful board games feature some kind of theme that masks the otherwise abstract game mechanics. Examples:
- Settlers of Catan has the theme of building a community on an island that competes / trades with neighboring communities for resources.
- Battleship has a theme of naval combat
- Ticket to Ride features railroad building as its theme
- Magic the Gathering uses the premise of two (or more) wizards engaged in a magical duel
A theme makes a game more interesting and gives the players something to relate it to. It both provides a model and begins to tell the story (as the players play the game, they will complete the story). Even chess, with it’s mostly abstract nature, features a theme of battle between two opposing armies. Without a them a game becomes an abstract game like checkers, connect-four, go, mancala or Blokus. While interesting, these games don’t tell any kind of story and RPGs are, in large part, about storytelling.
So, a good way to get the creative juices flowing is to just think of some kind of theme that the adventure will have. The theme you pick will determine the setting, mood, ambiance, backdrop and visual elements. Additionally, choosing a theme will often suggest villains, locations and goals. Examples:
- Gothic Horror (haunted houses, vampires, lighting storms)
- Ancient Egypt (pyramids, desert, mummies, tomb loot)
- Urban (town square, street market, local police, street thugs)
- Swamp (lizard-men, sinkholes, mosquitos)
- Jungle (trees, vines, humidity, gorillas, tigers, temples to ancient gods)
- Cloud City (giants, eagles, beanstalks, Bespin)
Part 2: Adventure Elements
Cooking recipes always list the ingredients first before describing how to assemble them. Similarly, you can pick your adventure elements before you try to solve the problem of how to string them all together. We’re solving this design problem one layer at a time.
Objective: Determine the “bone of contention” that the players are fighting for (aka “The MacGuffin”). The following is a list of examples with references to stories where this objective was used.
- Item (Holy Grail, The One Ring)
- Person (Willow, The Golden Child)
- Creature (Star Wars — R2D2 was the MacGuffin)
- Information (Sneakers)
- Alliance / Cooperation (Babylon 5, Deep Space 9)
- Town / Village (Seven Samurai)
- Fortress, e.g. outpost, castle (Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith)
- Choke point, e.g. bridge, mountain pass (Bridge on the River Kwai, 300)
- Survival (Robinson Crusoe, Die Hard)
- Escape (Apocalypto)
Antagonist: These are the “dogs in the fight” (along with the PCs). Typically, you pick from one or more mutually exclusive types:
- Impersonal (natural disaster, flood, fire, disease, planar rift, etc.)
- Personal: some bad guy(s) who need to be combated
- One villain (e.g. Jack the Ripper) vs. Small Gang (shipful of pirates) vs. Big Army (Bavmorda’s soldiers)
- Chaotic (The Joker) vs. Organized (The Empire in Star Wars, Nazis in Indiana Jones)
Villainous Motivations: If the antagonist is impersonal (e.g. a spreading plague) it has no grand designs and this section can be skipped. Most often, however, the antagonist is an intelligent creature with some nefarious motive. The core distinctions between a villainous and heroic motives are: villains are selfish (a hero acts for the good of others), and they don’t care who gets hurt along the way (a hero seeks to protect innocent bystanders).
- Discord: Spread hatred, fear, chaos, etc. There may have been a villainous hand behind an otherwise impersonal antagonist (e.g. in 12 Monkeys, the red-haired scientist released a plague that wiped out 95% of the Earth’s inhabitants).
- Destruction: There’s something the villain doesn’t like and he wants it gone. Hopefully this is something the PCs care about saving.
- Control / rule over people: The classic “rule the world” (or part thereof) motivation, enslave people, make them addicted to something only he can provide, corrupt the local authorities, control their children, etc.
- Personal gain: just money, some magical item (e.g. in “The Last Crusade”, Donovan didn’t care about the Nazi’s agenda, he just wanted the Grail so he could gain eternal life), personal power (e.g. in Aladin, Jafar wanted the kind of power the genie had)
- Regain something lost: The flipside of ‘personal gain’, they had something, but now it’s gone, and they want it back. Bad.
- “It’s personal”: The villain seeks revenge on someone who wronged him (e.g. Khan) or wants to ruin someone by destroying their reputation, driving them insane, etc.
- Warped heroic goal: “just doing my duty” / “I’m just trying to win this war” (but they’re loyal to an evil leader), “I’ll do whatever it takes to make the world a better place” (The Operative in Serenity), save humanity (Ozymandias in Watchmen), “In order for humanity to evolve, things have to be stirred up a bit” (The Shadows in Babylon 5)
- The reluctant villain: Some NPC is desperately needed for some power / information he possesses, but doesn’t want to get involved and will lash out at those who bother him. Alternatively, he just wants to go about his daily routine but said routine causes damage to innocent bystanders (e.g. Galactus innocently eating planets)
For a much more extensive list, see: A Guide to Villainous Motivations
Welfare: For whose benefit is the objective achived?
- Our own (PCs)
- Somebody else’s (NPCs) – if it’s NPCs, the PCs have to care about them
- Both (e.g. in the movie ‘Speed’ the heroes have to save themselves plus other passengers on the bus)
Where: Pick the location of the action:
- Right here: The adversaries are invading the home town (Helm’s Deep), the contest is happening in our own backyard (Goblet of Fire)
- Over there: This is the typical case and typically involves some kind of journey (e.g. the One Ring must be taken to Mt. Doom). Additional concerns here are: how far away is it, how are we going to get there, (and possibly) how are we going to get back?
When: At what time does the action occur:
- Going to happen: PCs have been warned that something will happen. When will it happen? Can they prevent it from occuring? (E.g. the “ticking time bomb” scenario)
- Happening right now: PCs either hear about or witness the crime-in-progress and have to act quickly.
- Already happened: The damage has been done, the PCs need to figure out what happened (e.g Sherlock Holmes), try to repair the damages, etc.
Terrain: One of the reasons why people play RPGs is so they can go someplace new and see something different. The theme you picked in Part 1 should inform the kind of terrain you choose. Successfully navigating through terrain under various weather conditions typically requires some use / expenditure of the PCs equipment as well as some skill rolls. It is highly likely that your adventure will include several different land features; the following is not a mutually-exclusive list:
- Natural: mountains, desert, jungle, swamp, aquatic, plains, moors, ice / snow, natural caves
- Man-Made: city streets, marketplace, tavern, outpost / tower, keep, castle, bridge, hewn caverns, catacombs, pyramid, mausoleum
- Combination: Elven / Ewok tree village, half-natural / half-hewn caverns.
- Planar: These may have some magical or paranormal features that defy typical notions of natural vs. man-made (e.g. a a valley of gears on the Plane of Mechanus, or a labyrinth of spiderwebs in the Demonweb Pits)
- Enclosed: Meaning there are finite boundaries to the terrain. This is almost always the case for man-made structures, but can also be the case for some natural structures (e.g. natural caves, a lake, etc.)
- Open: No significant borders to the terrain. Typically the case for natural land features or planes. Because this incurs a heavier management load on the DM, it’s not uncommon to simply divide the otherwise open terrain into “regions”, at which point it effectively becomes a “bounded” enclosure insofar as the game mechanics are concerned.
Choice: By whose volition are the PCs brought into the adventure
- Voluntary: The PCs choose to take the quest. This is the most common approach.
- Involuntary: The adventure is thrust upon the PCs by someone else. A villain may be driving the action by threatening the PCs with: blackmail, revenge, ransom, imprisonment, etc. Alternatively, the PCs may be part of a group that gets called on to save the day: police cops, army, part of the rebel alliance, etc. If the bat-signal goes up, Batman’s gotta respond.
Rewards for success: What can the PCs expect for emerging victorious?
- Magic Items (or technological goodies)
- Level up!
- Renown / Reputation
- (More) information
Consequence of failure: What’s at stake if the PCs don’t successfully accomplish their objective?
- Death (their own, some important NPC)
- Loss (of a plot item, existing treasure, expected treasure)
- Destruction (e.g. of a valuable resource like a silvermine, HQ, farmland, etc.)
- Disolution (of an alliance, fellowship, etc.)
Part 3: The Hook
This is the “introduction” to an adventure; it’s the piece of information that the DM feeds the PCs to establish the story and get the action started. (Cooperative players should obligingly “play along” because hey, we came here to game and this is what the DM prepared, okay?)
Any number of leads might be included in the hook, probably drawn from the list of structure elements in Part 2. A good artist conceals more than he reveals, so too a good hook will divulge some — but not all — of the information the PCs need for their quest. For example:
- The objective; why the task needs to be done
- The antagonist(s)
- Where they have to go
- Some of the obstacles that they might encounter
- Timetable: when do they have to start, how quick do they need to accomplish the task (e.g. is there a ticking time bomb or similar)
- The payment the characters can expect to receive (gold, treasure, magic items, etc.)
- Hint at what a successful conclusion might look like
- The dire perils that will ensue if they don’t succeed
Keep in mind that when a player gets fed a hook, the question going through their mind is “What will be my reward for biting at this hook?” The information you give them should speak to that question.
As for how the PCs receive the hook, there are numerous approaches:
- The PCs meet in a tavern and someone walks up to them offering them a quest: It’s the oldest trope in the book, but it’s practical, plausible and convenient, and that’s why it’s in the book.
- Some important NPC summons them for a task: The prince regent needs your help with a royal matter, the constable has a crime they need help solving, the local clergy needs a religious artifact recovered, the boss of the trade guild needs them to accompany a caravan, so on, so forth.
- An NPC races into the town square grabbing people and yelling “Please, can’t someone help me!”
- The local soothsayer has a vision of an impending doom!
- A dying messenger clutching a note stumbles into town: I love this one.
- The adventurers see a quest posted on a bulletin board in town. Don’t laugh, it works.
- And many, many more.
A common practice is to have a “hook layer” and a “core layer” in an adventure. This means that there’s information divulged in the hook that pulls the PCs in, but when they get there, they find that the real story is bigger or different than they expected. One such twist can make for an interesting story. More than one such twist will tax the patience of the players.
Part 4: Types of Encounters
Every adventure is made up of several encounters. A long run of only one type of encounter (e.g. combat, combat, combat) can become a little monotonous for the players. The following are examples of encounters and ways you can jazz them up.
This is a catch-all that refers to all of the movements and interactions necessary to move the story along. It could include any / all of the following:
- Getting the hook
- Gathering more information (based on hints dropped in the hook)
- Buying equipment
- Travel / exploring terrain (more of a “transition” than an “encounter”, but still)
- Reporting to the quest-giver at the end
Free-Form RP: Interacting with NPCs is an important part of “plot” encounters. Typically, free-form RP with a quest-giver is where an adventure begins. Occasionally, you’ll have a setting where some important NPCs reside that will serve as a “home base” throughout the adventure: it’s the place where the hook gets dropped; if the adventurers have questions along the way, they can come back here; it can act as a “safe place” if they need to heal up; and it will probably be the site of the denouement when the adventure wraps up. A good setting for free-form RP is one where there are lots of interesting NPCs to interact with. The sites mentioned in “The Hook” (tavern, royal court, town square, guild hall) are all examples.
PCs will naturally “attract” certain types of NPCs based on their common characteristics. Said NPCs will usually provide a specific type of information based on the circles in which they run. Examples:
- Occupation / Class: Rogues will probably want to go sit with other rogues and talk about the latest heist, mages will want to go con-fab with other mages and talk about recent magical events, etc.
- Social Standing: Higher-class characters (e.g. royalty) will typically know more about matters of state, while lower-class characters (e.g. “the help”) can give the “unofficial” account of things. The worm’s-eye view of a humble beggar can, in some cases, be more valuable than the nobleman’s.
- Merchant: The twin concerns of needing to purchase some equipment and gain some useful information are both embodied in this type of NPC.
- Bartender / Barmaid: Because they were going to meet in a tavern, right?
This is the classic encounter, and the bread-and-butter of many a roleplaying system. The party could encounter the villains, some of her mooks, creatures in the wild, or irate business owners from whom they just stole. The possibilities are limitless.
Good combat encounters typically have some / all of the following traits:
- Room to move around (e.g. a big room or an open area)
- Interesting / colorful terrain features
- Terrain features that create obstacles: a large central fountain, a staircase / steps
- One or a few big baddies (for PCs who deal lots of damage to a single target)
- Many small baddies (for distraction & area-effect spells / powers)
The formal idea of a skill challenge was introduced in D&D 4e. Its main goal is to provide a rules-oriented encounter without having to resort to combat. The players demonstrate their ability to think creatively about a situation and how they might be able to solve it using the skills in which their characters are trained rather than using the techniques they learn for combat. “Uncle Mark’s Skill Drill” is a variation on this same idea.
Skill challenges are best used for complicated situations which require intense or long-term attention, such as research, investigation, negotiation or performance. Many traps require a skill challenge in order to deactivate them.
This thread contains some good discussion of skill challenges, as well as examples: http://www.enworld.org/forum/4e-discussion/260244-skill-challenge-play-examples.html
An important point brought up is that a typical 4-success skill challenge lends itself best to a 4-part narrative comprising: introduction, buildup, climax, and conclusion. Structuring a skill challenge this way turns it into a little mini-story.
These are obstacles typically found in a natural / outdoor environment. Nobody purposefully designed these to obstruct the adventurers’ path, but it’s in their way and now they have to deal with it. Overcoming a hazard typically requires some use of equipment, spells / powers, and some skill rolls. Hazards make great “impersonal” villains in the story. The terrain you choose will usually determine the kind of hazards it contains. Examples include:
Natural: Mother nature made these hazards all by her own self.
- Burning forest
“Man-made”: Men made some useful structures, but nature has turned them into hazards.
- Creaky old rope bridge
- Rickety old stairs
- Rotten floorboards
- Burning / crumbling building
- Broken / destroyed bridge
- Narrow path around the mountain
Where hazards are naturally occurring, traps are typically man-made, and deliberately designed to harm intruders. These are good encounters on their own, but they can be part of another, larger encounter.
Aspects of a trap:
- Detection: How (easy is it) to spot it?
- Magical or mundane?
- Trigger: What sets it off? (pressure plate, doorknob twist, moving the treasure chest, etc.)
- Effects: Any number of harmful results: arrows fire, rocks roll, flames spurt, poison gas fills room, etc. There may be more than one effect.
- Reset: Does the trap reset itself, or does somebody have to manually reset it / replace parts?
- Bypass: If you’ve detected it or set it off already, is there anyway to avoid it in the future?
Places where traps could occur:
- Loot, e.g. the classic poison needle concealed in the lock on the treasure chest. Be sparing with this one; it can get old fast.
For some inspiration, here’s a link to “101 Traps, Puzzles, and Challenges”: http://hubpages.com/hub/101rpgtrapsandchallenges
Not to be outdone, here’s 1001 traps: http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75882/19903478/1001_Clever_Traps_for_Beginners_%28DMs_especially%29
Grimtooth’s traps are considered the definitive source for spiteful, over-engineered traps: http://www.amazon.com/Grimtooths-Dungeons-Dragons-Fantasy-Roleplaying/dp/1588461394
Both traps and hazards threaten the adventurers with some sort of dangerous consequences if they don’t successfully bypass them. Puzzles, on the other hand, tend to be less dangerous, while still being an obstacle. Before the magic door will open, or the bridge will extend, or the hidden room can be found, a puzzle often needs to be solved. Sometimes the distinction between a puzzle and a trap can become blurred, and there is no need to un-blur it. Puzzles can offer a small diversion by temporarily suspending the normal rules of the game in favor of the puzzle’s rules. Playing a bar game at a tavern with the locals or participating in the town’s festival games could be considered types of puzzles.
Examples of puzzles:
- Riddles: Bilbo & Gollum’s exchange in the dark is the iconic example here.
- Word puzzles: anagrams, cryptograms / ciphers, word scrambles, word searches, crosswords
- Number puzzles: sudoku, magic squares,
- Mechanical puzzles: Rubik’s cube, Towers of Hanoi
- Logic puzzles: Knight’s tour (chess), Eight Queens (chess), peg solitaire
- Mazes: In many ways, the dungeon itself is a type of maze puzzle.
- A word of warning: avoid complicated mazes, particularly if they serve no other purpose than to provide hours of map-drawing.
- Picture-forming puzzles: jigsaws, tangrams
Examples from literature / media:
- Indiana Jones movies are famous for their puzzles: exchanging the idol head for the sandbag, figuring out the right length for the staff of Ra in the Well of Souls, figuring out where the ‘X’ is in the library, solving the 3 trials before reaching the grail room.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The series of challenges at the end of the book leading up to recovering the sorcerer’s stone: fluffy, the chess game, the vines, the flying keys, the mirror.
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The trip through the hedge maze and various things encountered along the way. (Sphinx’s riddle, gravity-inverting golden mist, Bogart in the form of a Dementor)
- In the movie Labyrinth, Sarah had to solve various puzzles & traps as she made her way to the Goblin King’s castle. (figuring out that the walls were illusory, logic puzzle of the two doors, escaping from the oubliette, “the cleaners”, the bog of eternal stench, the false masquerade party, etc.)
There are a few situations that are not exactly “encounter locations”, but the PCs will run into them along the way.
Looting: An inevitable conclusion to a combat encounter is picking through the bodies for loot. Some things to consider with looting:
- Players want valuable loot. This ought to go without saying, but loot the DM has hand-picked with all of the various PCs in mind goes a lot farther than just random-roll stuff that is useless to the party and they’ll have to hawk later.
- It’s better if loot “makes sense”. You would expect for a wizard to have a magic wand, but you wouldn’t expect a swarm of rats to have full plate mail.
- The loot might not be “right there”. In “The Hobbit”, after the trolls get turned to stone, the party had to follow their tracks to a nearby hidey-hole where the trolls had stashed the loot from their previous victims.
- The loot might be part of the monster. If the party just killed a dragon, the scales could be used to make armor, the teeth / claws could be used to make weapons, and the eyes / tongue might be valuable spell components.
- Not all loot is good. Sometimes loot is poisoned, cursed, or contains some demonic spirit that wants to possess the owner. Word to the wise: do this “once in a while” to spice things up, not in every single batch of loot, which will make the “cursed loot” trope tedious and expected.
Bookwork: Sometimes done at the table, sometimes done between adventures, bookwork is an inevitable part of the roleplaying experience. Examples of bookwork include:
- Creating a character
- Buying / selling equipment
- Making a “Wishlist”: choosing magic items that the GM can give you later
- Leveling up your character
- Looking up rules
- Planning an adventure (if you’re the GM)
Part 5: Adventure Structure
From ‘The Big List of RPG Plots’: “In particular, don’t fuss too much over plot, as many GMs do. All of the plots here can provide a tried-and-true, simple structure, and structure is all you need a plot for in a roleplaying game. Remember to play to the strengths of the medium – most all of which are about character, not plot. Only in an RPG can you experience a fictional character on a personal, first-hand level.
Outline your adventures to make the most of that. Any plot that contains more than a basic structure is more likely to pull attention away from character, and that’s burning the bridge for firewood. All you need to do is be ready to roll with the curves and have fun hamming it up.”
With that in mind, I present a list of things that will help you come up with a structure.
Word to the wise: Keep your story structure simple. Do not complicate it with lots of extra crap; your players will be more than happy to complicate it for you.
Designing the Structure: Effectively, structuring an adventure boils down to these decisions:
- Design the “set pieces”, i.e. the encounter locations. The two most important “sets” are:
- The “starting” encounter where the hook is dropped (there can only be one of these)
- The “ending” encounter where the final, climactic scene will take place (there should really only be one of these)
- Decide if it will be linear or branching. If branching, decide how much choice the players will have.
- As a general rule, at any encounter there should only be 1-3 available “exit points” leading to another encounter
- Bear in mind that as P.C.s discover new clues, that might create new choices
- Plan transitions between encounters
- From a literal point of view, this means “how / where will they travel from one set piece to the next”
- From an outcome-based point of view, this means: if they succeed in the current encounter, where will that lead them vs. where will a failed outcome lead them
Part of the reason why dungeoncrawl adventures succeed is because they present an easy-to-understand structure where the rooms are the encounter locations, the unopened doors are the choices a player can make, and the hallways connecting rooms are the transitions. Note that the players do have choices, but the number of choices is manageably small.
For vastly more detail, see:
- Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering under “Common Structures”: http://www.sjgames.com/robinslaws/
- The Big List of RPG Plots: http://www.prismnet.com/~sjohn/plots.htm
Part 6: Player Considerations
You can draft the best adventure in the world but if your players don’t like it, it’s a flop. The story should be written not for the delight of the DM, but for the delight of the players.
The following is a list of player styles articulated in “Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering”. Ideally, you will learn the styles of the players around the table, and plan some part of your adventure that will appeal to them.
- Power Gamer: Likes to min-max characters. Combs through sourcebooks for any item / power that will give him another +1 to the stat he’s trying to optimize.
- Butt-Kicker: Likes to kick in the door and bash baddies. Uses RPGs as a way to let off steam. Not as concerned with optimization as the Power Gamer.
- Tactician: Relishes in battlefield scenarios where he can plan & carry out attacks.
- Specialist: Always plays the same type of character every time (e.g. always plays a ninja, always plays a paladin, always plays a cat-person).
- Method Actor: Loves the expressive / dramatic component of role-playing. These types of players will occasionally have some kind of acting background.
- Story Teller: Favors narrative over all. Wants the adventure to play out like a well-written book / movie. These often become GMs.
- Casual Gamer: Just there to hang out.
One of the reasons why video games succeed is because video game designers understand the psychological value of rewarding players for accomplishments. Such rewards can come in many different flavors: a new item, a new level, a bonus to a stat, an upgrade, or simply a shiny “You Win!” screen complete with some multimedia extravaganza. A good adventure, and one that the players want to play, will similarly reward them, not just once at the end, but numerous times along the way. “Loot” rewards for the PCs have already been addressed. The following are rewards for the players.
Vicarious Thrills: The player will enjoy it when they see their character:
- Win valuable prizes!
- Experience the thrill of the chase
- Fly by the seat of your pants, throw caution to the wind, and dash in where angels fear to tread
- See the energy crackle around the Fabulous Magical Obelisk™
- Dazzle the NPCs with your witty banter
- Have some half-baked plan actually work
- See a plan fail in the most entertaining way possible
- Have Princess Leia hang a medal around your neck
- Experience a satisfying conclusion
Dirty little thrills: Only in RPGs do you get a chance to:
- Break stuff
- Kill monsters
- Inflict collateral damage
- Break into places
- Steal things from people
- Destroy a tavern in a bar brawl
- Win over NPCs with one or more of: charm, threats, bribes, intimidation, etc.
- See wondrous fairy castles & magical pixie forests… and burn them to the ground
- Knock off an annoying NPC in one shot by rolling a nat 20 at just the right moment
- See the hideous face of evil… and ask it if it likes apples
- Finally getting revenge on that bloody obnoxious NPC
- Embarrass the villain
- Boast at length to gawking NPCs about all your numerous accomplishments
- Get away with doing all of these nefarious things!
A Chance to Strut Your Stuff: This speaks in large part to player styles. You need to learn what your players like to do and give them an opportunity to do it.
- Some people are prima donas that love the spotlight. They love to dazzle the crowd with their method acting and sparkling wit. Make sure there are some good free-form RP encounters for them.
- Some people just like to kick in doors and bash skulls. Throw monsters at them.
- Some people like to solve puzzles. Research a good one for them.
- Some people love to invent grand, strategic plans and watch them come to fruition (or even spectacularly fail!)
- Every player wants a chance to use those cool powers they picked for their character. Make the times where they get to use them plentiful and the times where they can’t (or are prohibited to) use them rare.
- Some people like to sit back and watch. Let them be.
J. Michael Straczynski once said: “The purpose of an author is to put his characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Funny thing, a DM’s job is about the same.
But therein lies the great contradiction in RPGs: players want to take their characters adventuring, but adventures are dangerous! How do you show them a fun time while you’re throwing the hideous hordes at them?
Well, as it turns out, people actually enjoy fiction that portrays more danger than they encounter in their own lives. Put another way, people who want large doses of reality do not watch shows, read books, or play games. People like simulated risk because it’s exciting, but they can withdraw from it whenever they want to.
It also turns out that simulated rewards are, at times, more enjoyable than real-life ones. Magic wands are way cool, but they don’t sell ‘em at Home Depot. In the same vein, narrowly slaying that dragon that took your hit points down to single digits is far more pleasing than narrowly avoiding getting in a car wreck. As long as you make your players sweat, but not suffer, they’ll know you’re really on their side.
So by all means, stick them up a tree and throw rocks at them, but be sure to leave some gold pieces, healing potions, and magic swords on some of the branches. Do that, and they’ll keep coming back for more.
George took the time to use this setup in order to design his last adventure. He provides most of it now as an example of how this works. (Parts of the adventure may have been removed in order to maintain some DM-related secrecy.)
You may note how much is here versus how much actually happened during the campaign. You may also note that there was a certain lack of continuity from the notes to the table. There’s only so much one can (or should) plan for; many things are to be done on the fly. Other things happen as a result of the Option X factor. In addition, George had an entire hand-written page of reference notes.
Urban / Gothic horror (town square; street market; local police; street thugs; haunted houses; undead; lightning storms)
Objective: Restore the town to order.
- Save villagers who are dying from the undead plague; as many as possible.
- Exterminate infected undead in order to prevent further spread.
- Remove the presence which instigated the infection.
- The local apothecary, who worships Vecna(?) and who spread the pathogen by mixing it into products he then distributed.
- Villagers transformed into undead. (Perhaps there are plausible methods to bring these undead back to the world of the living.)
- Other undead as conjured by the apothecary.
Welfare: This is to save Shadowdale. Should the PCs require convincing that this is a Good Thing, the Bahamut-Amaunator coalition is willing to shell out two or three treasure portions in order to requisition the party’s assistance.
Where: Shadowdale: the outside village, the Temple of Bahamut, the apothecary, the brewery, the Rose and Weasel, and perhaps various houses.
When: Already happened – the plague began to take hold after the PCs left Shadowdale.
- The village (outside): man-made; open; dark and stormy; minor roving undead:
- “It’s overcast; the sky is covered with dark, threatening clouds. Rain begins pouring. Very soon, it’s too dark to see far.” <lightly>
- “It seems unusually dark, even for a thunderstorm. It’s as if the sun is being blotted out…”
- “Several forks of lightning flash, revealing humanoid figures a short distance away. A few are shambling around; one is kneeling on the ground and appears to be eating something… or someone. One looks in your direction just as the light fades.”
- “The lightning flashes again. The kneeling figure has stood up; bright-red gore drips from its mouth. All of the figures are now facing you.”
- “The lightning flashes again. The figures are gone.”
- Disperse some sick villagers. They can be healed or ushered back to the Temple of Bahamut.
- As the party approaches the apothecary, display a group of undeadlings attacking villagers. Any who die will later rise as infected undead, unless they’re treated; survivors may be sent back to the Temple of Bahamut for treatment.
- The tavern (The Rose and Weasel):
“The tavern is mostly empty; the barkeeper (now armed) sits here along with some of the regularly, all of whom are drinking.
- They report no problems.
- On leaving, trigger a “failure” attack. (This isn’t due to any failure; it’s a reference to the pre-made attack group used.)
- The brewer:
“The brewery is clearly closed. A nearby house, presumably that of the brewer and his family, is streaming light from a window.”
- “There is no answer at the door.”
- If the party enters, the family is dead in their beds. Finding them triggers another “failure” attack, which includes the family’s members. This may happen when the party is leaving.
- The herbalist:
“This is a house surrounded by a vast array of flora. The various plants are obviously well cared-for.”
- There’s no additional content here.
- The apothecary’s shop: man-made; enclosed; creepy; trapped; more powerful undead:
“The inside is lit, and is stocked much like how you would expect. A young man stands behind a counter, looking preoccupied. He looks up as you enter. ’I’m sorry, we’re closed. Haven’t you heard? You should be inside…’”
- See the Whodunnit puzzle below.
- When the party discovers the apothecary’s deception, he escapes into a large basement. Encounters ensue.
Choice: Voluntary; the PCs will (probably) choose to help the village.
Consequence of Failure:
- Loss of expected treasure.
- Possibly their own death.
- Destruction of the largest town in the Dalelands, and possibly the loss of Hades Manor for use as a base.
- Loss of favor in the eyes of Bahamut and Amaunator, which directly relates to the scepter and amulet.
The party returns to Shadowdale and discovers that in their short absence, a strange plague has begun to take hold. On reporting to the Temple of Bahamut, Cardinal Strongheart informs them of the outbreak of a strange plague which kills quickly and causes the corpse to rise as a zombie mere hours later. He requests that the party attempt to find the source of the outbreak, report on whether it’s possible to stop the spread (and do so if possible) and rescue as many villagers as possible.
Loot: standard parcels; gold and an item or two may be discovered in the apothecary.
Dirty little thrills: get to kill townsfolk (albeit as undead); “interrogate” the various suspects.
Puzzle: Whodunnit? (Who started the plague?)
- The plague started locally. No reports from elsewhere yet, but there have been a lack of inbound travelers.
- The corpse of Patient Zero, an elderly male, is kept at the temple. The medic was examining it.
- The plague afflicts people seemingly randomly. It seems incommunicable save through contact with an infected party.
- Nobody has thought about edibles; the brewer, tavern and the apothecary are all obvious choices.
- The tavern gets its supplies from the local brewer. The brewery is near the edge of town, as is the house in which the brewer lives with his family.
- The brewer and his family have turned into zombies by the time the party arrives.
- The brewer gets his supplies from the local herbalist.
- The herbalist is friendly toward the party; even when he is under suspicion, he surrenders the key to his house for the PCs to search.
- The herbalist grows all of his own stuff.
- The herbalist is assisting the medics in the temple of Bahamut in attempting to slow the tide of sick villagers turning to undead.
- The apothecary also gets all of his supplies from the local herbalist.
- The apothecary received a shipment of oil base for tinctures. The apothecary expected it, nobody else did; this, however, was largely unnoticed.
- The apothecary informed the assistant that the shipments come in from the west. When the shipment arrived, it was from the south.
When the party first approaches the apothecary, the apprentice is inside the shop. He will say that a recent shipment came into town from an unusual direction. As far as the assistant knows, he is telling the truth. Investigating the apothecary’s records or asking virtually any of the townsfolk will reveal that the apothecary gets all of his supplies from the herbalist. On questioning the assistant, the party will find that the apothecary had mentioned to his assistant in passing that the shipment came in from the south instead of from the west, thus attempting to set the assistant up as a “fall guy.”
Unbeknownst to the assistant, the apothecary is upstairs. He’ll look surprised at the mention of any shipment, and deny any such shipment having come in at any time. He’ll speculate that the assistant is pretty new. At this point, one of two things could happen:- If the party indicates that they wish to take both the apothecary and the assistant back to the temple, then a strangled cry comes from downstairs; when the party finds the assistant again, he’ll have turned into undead and will attack the party. - If the party leaves and comes back, the assistant is no longer in the shop; he is instead upstairs where the apothecary was, and he has turned into undead and will attack the party.
On his death, the assistant drops a symbol which a Religion check reveals to be part of a transformation ritual; a high enough check reveals that it’s a ritual used by relatively powerful followers of Vecna, remotely, and on the unwilling.
While this battle takes place, the apothecary makes his escape, ostensibly through a secret passage in his bedroom. Searching the place will reveal an incriminating journal detailing the expectancy of the shipment of tainted supplies. It also hints that Johan is a minor piece in the game that’s afoot; as is standard for practitioners of Vecna, only the secrets which are needed by his followers are revealed.
Perception reveals that the apothecary chose this spot long ago because of its proximity to an ancient tomb spoken of in a history book. He seemed to be on the verge of discovering its location, but had little time to devote to the search.
“Teach ’em a lesson” encounter.
The entire house becomes unlit after the apothecary’s lie is discovered. (All undead have darkvision.)
Attack: per claw or bite attack from an infected zombie.
improve DC 15 + (1/2 of infecting zombie’s level);
stable DC 10 + (1/2 of infecting zombie’s level);
worsen DC 9 + (1/2 infecting zombie’s level) or lower
Initial: only 1/2 healing from healing effects; can heal damage from disease
Cured: no longer suffer 1/2 healing penalty; can heal necrotic damage suffered from disease
Worsen: when failing to improve, 5 necrotic damage/tier that cannot be healed
Final: immediately rise up as an infected zombie of the former creature’s level
For further details on how a disease works, see the DMG (or just ask George).
Fantastic and Normal Terrain:
- Sacred circle to Vecna: +2 to attack (if your alignment matches Vecna’s)
- Font of Necrotic Power: +5 dmg to necrotic attacks if you’re within 3 squares of the font
- Pillar of Unlife: 5 healing to undead; 5 damage to living beings
- Magical Suppression – certain minor light effects (sunrods, for example) are suppressed
- Highly overcast – dim light; lightly obscured nearby, heavily obscured when over five squares distant
- Rain – lightly obscured
- Highly overcast and rain – heavily obscured nearby, totally obscured when over five squares distant
- Dark – totally obscured (inside any uninhabited building and inside the apothecary’s shop after the lie is discovered)
A) Roving “failure” undead:
(8) Carcass Eaters Lvl 5 Minion XP 50 (400 XP) Pg. 196 OG
(2) Putrescent Zombies Lvl 11 Minion XP 150 (300 XP) Pg. 196 OG
(4) Mummy Guardians Lvl 8 Minion XP 350 (1400 XP) Pg. 192 MM
B) Teach ’Em a Lesson Combo (Pillar of Unlife; Font of Power (necrotic)
(4) Sodden Ghouls Lvl 4 Soldier XP 175 (700 XP) Pg. 155 OG
(4) Flameskulls Lvl 8 Soldier XP 350 (1400 XP) Pg. 109 MM
C) Servant /Dead Betrayer Combo (crypt)
(4) Pale Reaver Creeper Lvl 6 Minion XP 63 (250 XP) Pg. 176 OG
(2) Reaper Lvl 9 Lurker XP 400 (800 XP) Pg. 178 OG
(3) Shattergloom Skeleton Lvl 8 Soldier XP 350 (1050 XP) Pg. 181 OG
D) Final Battle
(1) Apothecary Johan Lvl 8 E. Controller (Leader) XP 700 Pg. 178, 182 DMG; Pg. 62, 63, 65, 66 PHB
(2) Deathhunger Offalian Lvl 6 E. Brute XP 500 (1000 XP) Pg. 144, 216 OG
(4) Blazing Skeleton Lvl 5 Artillery XP 200 (800 XP) Pg. 234 MM
|Deathhunger Offalian Level 6 Brute|
|Large Natural Animate (Undead) XP 250|
|Initiative + 8 Senses Perception + 5; darkvision|
|HP 88; Bloodied 44|
|AC 18; Fortitude 21, Reflex 18, Will 15|
|Immune disease, poison; Resist 10 necrotic|
|Speed 7, climb 7|
|(M) Bite (standard; at-will)|
|Reach 2; + 9 vs. AC; 2d6+7 damage; and the target is|
|grabbed; see also Clamp Down. An offalian can have only|
|one creature grabbed at a time.|
|(M) Clamp Down (standard; at-will) * Necrotic|
|Targets a creature grabbed by the offalian; 1d10 + 7|
|necrotic damage (no attack roll required).|
|(A) Effluvia Explosion (minor, recharge 5 6) * Acid, Necrotic|
|Close blast 3; + 7 vs. Reflex; 2D8 + 11 acid and necrotic|
|damage, and the target is blinded (save ends).|
|Consume (immediate reaction, when an adjacent creature is|
|reduced to 0 hit points or fewer; recharges when first|
|bloodied) * Healing|
|The triggering creature is killed, and the deathhunger|
|creature either regains hit points equal to one-quarter|
|of its maximum hit points, or gains a + 2 bonus to any|
|defense until the end of the encounter; see also fast|
|Bloodied Ferocity (while bloodied)|
|The deathhunger creature gains a + 2 bonus to damage|
|rolls. This bonus increases to + 4 at 11th level and + 6|
|at 21st level.|
|Alignment unaligned Languages -|
|Str 22 (+ 9) Dex 20 (+ 8) Wis 15 (+ 5)|
|Con 18 (+ 7) Int 5 (+ 0) Cha 11 (+ 3)|
|Apothecary Johan Level 8 Death Master Cleric|
|Medium Humanoid elite controller (leader) XP 700|
HP 152; Bloodied 76
AC 25; Fortitude 23; Reflex 18; Will 24
Resist 5 necrotic
Saving throws + 2; Healing surge 1 (38 hp)
Action Point 1
Aura Shroud of the Grave (DMG 178)
(M) Righteous Brand (standard; at-will)
As PHB 63, except necrotic damage.
® Lance of Faith (standard; at-will)
As PHB 63, except necrotic damage.
Call of the Grave (standard; encounter)
As DMG 178.
Channel Divinity: Bolster Undead (standard; encounter)
As Turn Unead (PHB 62), except heals undead
Healing Word (minor 1/round; encounter)
As Healing Word (PHB 62)
Strengthen the Faithful (standard; encounter)
As Strengthen the Faithful (PHB 66)
Desecrated Ground (standard; daily)
As Consecrated Ground (PHB 65)
Alignment unaligned Languages common, undercommon
Skills religion (+ 9); Insight (+ 12); Diplomacy (+ 11)
Str 18 (+ 8) Dex 12 (+ 5) Wis 16 (+ 7)
Con 12 (+ 5) Int 10 (+ 4) Cha 14 (+ 6)
Treasure levels for six 8th level characters:
2: 2 6: 6 10: 2
3: 4 7: 6 11: 1
4: 5 8: 6 Total: 259
5: 6 9: 4 Avg: 43
Treasure levels for eight 8th lvl characters:
2: 2 6: 8 10: 4
3: 4 7: 8 11: 2
4: 6 8: 8 Total: 364
5: 8 9: 6 Avg: 45