Monday, 15 January 2018

Here Be Dungeons 12: Icewind Dale

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The DM's map for conducting the hunt for Isarr Kronenstrom: the so-called "King of the Wolves" (Dungeon 220: "King of the Wolves").

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Here Be Dungeons 11: Path of Blades

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"The Path of Blades", a deadly set of trials designed to test the assassin devils of the "Stygian Masque" (Dungeon 219: "Blades of the Stygian Masque").

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Here Be Dungeons 10: Hall of Tragedies


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"The Hall of Tragedies", gothic hideout for a clan of assassin devils named the "Stygian Masque" (Dungeon 219: "Blades of the Stygian Masque").

Saturday, 30 December 2017

New Oath of the Ancients Tenets

The Oath of the Ancients paladin subclass bugs me. We have this fascinating concept: a mysterious, “green knight” bound to the ways of the Old Faith: a figure straight from Arthurian or pagan myth. This is the horned knight who appears from the primal woods, draped in thorns and riding a giant stag. Unfortunately, its oath reads like something from a New Age relaxation tape. “Kindle the Light, Be the Light”, etc. It’s just too goody goody. Three times now I’ve had players get excited by the concept only to reject it due to the tenets of the Oath. I’d prefer an Oath that’s inherently good yet wilder, more in tune with the mercurial ways of nature. Here’s what I’ve come up with:


OATH OF THE ANCIENTS 

The Oath of the Ancients is as old as the race of elves and the rituals of the druids. Sometimes called fey knights, green knights, or horned knights, paladins who swear this oath cast their lot with the side of good in an ancient struggle against evil that plays out across the wild places of the world. They adorn their armor and clothing with natural forms - leaves, flowers, antlers or bones - to reflect their commitment to preserving the circle of life and death.

Tenets of the Ancients 

The tenets of the Oath of the Ancients have been preserved for uncounted centuries. This oath emphasises the principles of good as they occur in nature: wild and untempered. Its four central principles are as follows:

    Defend the Wild. You are a guardian of the world’s wild places. Where aberrant monsters, meddling fey, or dark magic threaten to pollute the wild, you rise up to defend it.
    Shelter the Lost. The world is full of dangers, and the innocent can tread unwittingly into dark places. You guide the lost back to the light, and shelter the weak from harm.
    Test the Faithful. Deeds, not words, stand as testament to your faith. To win your trust, others must prove themselves to you on your terms.
     Punish the Wicked. Those who commit senseless acts of evil undermine the circle of life and death. You are the thorn that shall tear them from this world.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Mapping Omu

Omu was a once-great city that faded into ruin following a self-inflicted separation from the rest of Chult. Now inhabited by monstrous warring factions, the city is ruled by an unelected government of snake people led by a dying ruler hellbent on self-destruction.

I chose Britain as the outline for my map.

There was an interesting, historical reason for doing so. Omu was inspired by I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which was memorable to me for its isometric city map. I'm a big fan of pictorial maps, and I loved the idea of presenting players with a handout map of the city when they arrived on the scene.



In researching Dwellers, I found a thread that suggested the original map's outline was based on the state of Alaska. I don't actually think it was, but as a Brit, I thought it would be fun to do something similar for Omu. For the outline, I just flipped Britain on its side. This provided an organic shape for me to trace in SketchUp, which is my preferred program for blocking out city maps. With the outline in place, I extruded some buildings in 3D to sculpt the basic shape of the city.

 

Initially, I thought I'd differentiate Omu from Dwellers by placing it atop a high jungle plateau surrounded by sheer cliffs. Chris wasn't keen on the idea though, so we stuck with the ravine layout. His brief for designing Omu was very flexible: it needed to have nine trickster god shrines, and the Fane of the Night Serpent underneath. The Tomb of the Nine Gods was originally supposed to be under the fane, but I thought it was more compelling to place the entrance within the city itself (primarily so I could present an Indiana Jones-style race for the puzzle stones against the nazis *ahem* red wizards).

TRPG cartography is a tricky mix of design considerations: gameplay, visual aesthetics, clarity on the page, and an interesting theme. For Omu, I wanted the city to look exotic and full of adventure. I flooded a large part of the settlement (as per the original Dwellers), and then collapsed a section into a lava-filled rift. I loved the idea of steam coiling up from where the water plunges into the lava, cloaking the city in hot mist. I also had an idea that the lower levels of the tomb would be a bit like Temple of Doom.

Replicating the rival factions of Dwellers was very important to me: it's what made that adventure so open-ended. I added a ruined market for my shrine-repairing kobolds, placed some grungs in the swampy section, created a palace district for the yuan-ti, and put the red wizard camp near the entrance so players could encounter that faction early. The "King of Feathers" was a nod to one of my one-page dungeons: Island of the Lizard God, which was set on an Isle of Dread-styled island and featured a roaming, godzilla-sized T-Rex (I was also keen for Chris to include a feathered dinosaur to represent current thinking on these species).


One of the first things I settled on were the raised boulevards. I wanted something that would provide quick travel through the city, but also expose you to its monstrous inhabitants: a classic, risk/reward choice. Thinking about how to navigate the city also gave me the idea for Bag of Nails: a crazed tabaxi hunter who came to Omu to die in combat with the most fearsome beasts he could find. His predicament (and his final treachery) were somewhat inspired by Laurence Fishburn's character in Predators.

While I was working on these features, Chris requested that I flip the map to portrait layout. This distanced the map from Dwellers, but made better sense for layout. I exported my map in wireframe from SketchUp, printed it out in blue ink (so it could be erased later in Photoshop), and began the process of fleshing out the final draft in pencil and black fineliner. Here's what I ended up with:

 
Such detail would probably have been fine for the cartographer to work with, but colour adds much-needed clarity. As with all my best maps, I leaned on my fiancee Stacey to give the finished piece her magic touches! Here's the final draft we supplied to Chris:


This final version was then passed to the cartographer, Mike Schley. I've had a few of my D&D maps worked up by Mike (my first ever Dungeon mag adventure had his expert hand all over it). He's one of the best RPG cartographers out there, so it was an honour to have him tackle the maps I drew for Chult. Best of all, studying his work led to many improvements in my own, as I could see first-hand how he modified my drawings to improve them. This was his final version of Omu!


Drawing Omu also inspired me to tackle Chult's original lost city, Mezro. Using similar techniques, Stacey and I created the following map for my Ruins of Mezro Guild Adept supplement. I think it's one of the best maps we've ever made!

 
I couldn't end this without sharing the amazing model version that Mat Smith (aka czarofhappiness) made for the live game set in Omu. When I saw this for the first time, I almost fell over:


Next time, I'll try to offer a glimpse into one of my other contributions: the Tomb of the Nine Gods. 

Until then, Merry Christmas! 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Here Be Dungeons 9: Ragatromo's Store

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Ragatromo's store: the premises of a mirror-merchant in the city of Sigil ('Blades of the Stygian Masque', Dungeon 219).

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Running Tier 4 D&D Adventures


Epic play sometimes benefits from epic terrain!

Tier 4 (level 17-20) is the most challenging tier of D&D to adjudicate. At these levels, characters wield earth-shaking powers and legendary magic items that make each group wildly different. Consider the following guidance before tackling this tier as a DM.

Note Down Items, Allies and Enchantments

Before play begins, jot down all the goofy stuff that your players have available: shield guardians, wyvern steeds, simulacrums, rare and legendary items, ongoing spell effects, etc. Consider whether these features increase the group’s APL: but most important of all, ensure you know how they function.

Apply the ‘Rule of Cool’

Assume every combat challenge will be easily overcome. Up the difficulty as needed, but let the players enjoy their capstone powers before searching for ways to counter them. You’re good so long as everyone has fun. During combat, find ways to introduce character interactions and thrilling choices instead of just resorting to raw power. 

Adjust Encounters on the Fly

Every group plays differently at tier 4. More than ever, it’s your responsibility to shake up encounters on-the-fly until you hit the right balance. Here are some simple tricks you can employ:

  • Introduce waves of reinforcements. Players sometimes blow their big powers early, leaving them exposed to new threats. Just add more enemies of the types listed in the encounter.
  •  Counter magic with magic. Consider adding an evoker for every spellcaster in the group.
  •  Maximize enemy damage instead of rolling (including spell damage!)
  • If you overcompensate, introduce an evoker or a champion as an ally at the start of the next round. At these levels, the characters should have plenty of allies to fall back on.
 

Know Your Spells

High-levels spells often have complex conditions and limitations. To avoid slowing play, refresh your memory of the most troublesome spells before the game begins (start with antimagic field, gate, imprisonment, simulacrum and wish). In addition, don’t be afraid to ask players “what powerful spells do you have prepared?”.
    In the hands of enemy casters, some spell combinations can be especially potent. For example:

  • A 4th-level glyph cast into the hood of a cloak could polymorph a wizard into a Tyrannosaurus Rex when they drop below half hit points.
  •  A globe of invulnerability protects a high-level caster from counterspell, allowing them to unleash their most powerful spells in relative safety.
  • Spellcasters can use the Ready action to cast a short-range spell outside of counterspell range, then move into range to release it without risk of being countered.  
  •  A contingency spell can trigger a dimension door to whisk a spellcaster to safety or cast greater invisibility on them when they take damage.
 

Exploit Epic Terrain

High-level encounters feature fantastic locations: falling sky-ships, the ever-changing soup of the astral plane, walking castles, and more. Consider making the terrain itself an enemy. For example:

  • Slaves trapped inside vampiric orbs inflict necrotic damage to characters who start their turns nearby. Players can spend actions to deactivate the orbs – or simply kill the slaves!
  • While the dark druids wear their thorn bracelets, their forest grove has a suite of legendary actions you can employ each round to damage and entangle the characters.  
   

Impossible Choices and Epic Sacrifices

Try to include dilemmas that can’t be solved with the wave of a magic wand. For example, there’s enough antidote to save just one character from the demon lord’s poison. Sacrifices also create memorable moments for high-level games. Perhaps the only way to close the gate is to snap the wizard’s beloved staff, or hold off the demons until the gate explodes? 

Drain Player Resources

The difficulty of the game spikes at high level as characters burn their most powerful abilities. Consider adding time-limits, environmental effects that prevent rests, or waves of enemies to wear down player resources. If time is short, include traps and curses that sap spell slots and drain hit dice.

Make It Epic! 

The days of treasure hunts and caravan treks should be distant memories by Tier 4. Quests at these levels have the fates of worlds at stake, with gods and demons lords as patrons and villains. When crafting the adventure, always ask yourself how you could dial it up a notch. Go gonzo!


(This article was inspired by advice found online from Mike Shea, Teos Abadia, Alan Patrick, Merrick Blackman, and others.)