Draw from your genre, follow your plot

There’s not a great deal of descriptive language in 1968’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep (which would become better known as Blade Runner once the film was made). In the opening scenes we’re on the roof top of an apartment block where the tenants tend to their gardens and – most importantly – their livestock, electric or not. The surrounding buildings weren’t really described, but imagination fills in the blanks with run down, abandoned high rises. It helps that we all know the dystopian genre of the book going into it making it easy to summon up descriptions we’ve seen from other books and films.

For the DM, leaning into genre like this means you can focus more on your story than room-by-room descriptions. Setting your campaign in the Underdark does a few things which homebrewing your own world fails at: veteran players already know a lot of history that the Underdark brings, as well as letting everyone know you’re in a fungus coated cave system the size of a continent. This isn’t just for brevity (and the fact that you’ll probably run out of synonyms for “mushroomy”) but the less you describe the more freedom comfortable players have with adding to the scene. Setting the scene doesn’t require a full inventory of a room and doing so means their imagination is limited. You should be able to say “yes” whenever someone asks, “is there a sconce I can take?” They’ll do cool things with that sconce.

The fact of the matter is that our brains do a good job at filling up the spaces which narrators leave for us. This is likely why nerds who with vast amounts of cultural references to pull from enjoy D&D so much. What we need help with is filling that world with function. As the DM, in your prep time, you should be thinking about the impact of your plotline on the world. Philip K. Dick spends most of his book on this: what if there are drones? Smart drones – smart enough to do their job creatively. Well, these drones won’t want to keep working if they had a choice. So, there would have to be bounty hunters who seek out these escapees. Since these drones are so well camouflaged as real, red-blooded humans, the hunters will need a way of sussing them out. Some sort of weakness. Maybe they struggle with comprehending the full range of human emotions. In a world full of suspicion, actual humans would want to show off their emotional aptitude. Taking loving care of an animal would do that.

So, a trait of all humans is that they want to have an animal to take care of and advertise. In a world where most animals are extinct, that makes a curious market appear…

Following this one quirk of the story fills of a society of nameless NPCs to life. Maybe there’s a curiosity of society that comes from a conceit of your campaign. Are devils slowly infiltrating all levels of government? That must have an impact on something – certain rules getting laxer in places where a devil really wouldn’t care. Temples defunded, just enough to notice. Follow the premise of your campaign to its natural, societal conclusion. You’ll be building a much more tailored world to your story. As an added bonus, your group will be constantly reminded of their current quest which some players are in dire need of…

Adventure prompt: Sputput, the most famous gnome tinkering in this neck of the woods, has been produced a shocking number of Whizzbangs, Tidbits, and Doohickies. Until one day his factory goes quiet and nothing comes out. As the characters venture inside to find out what’s happen to the well-loved inventor, they discover his collection of unlawful clones have taken over the shop. It’s time for the adventurers to save the day, but which of the identical Sputputs are they supposed to be saving..?

Cut throats, inescapable explosions, and other misadventures

A while ago, I found myself in Peliad in a caper which we hoped would seriously disrupt the environmentally disasterous growing of exquisit silk, known as dekaffle. (What on Earth would one be doing in Peliad concerning ourselves with dekaffle, you might be thinking – surely I mean Kaffle, many miles away? But no!) We’d lured the leader of the farming group into a backroom at a pub where there was moderate privacy. We hypnotised the leader and our rogue made their way, unknown, behind them.

I was expecting that she would simply one-hit kill the oblivious, incapacited human. Hit points, I was assuming, wouldn’t need to come into it. There was a grumble around the table when the wise and well learned DM said, “roll to hit”. Dude can’t move – how’s he going to survive getting his neck sliced?

Mike’s response brought me around immediately: hit points aren’t about how much health someone has but rather their will to continue winning, which includes the amount of luck they have.

My aim with this blog post was to suggest an “assassination” house rule where appropriate situations can call for such one-shot attacks. However, after doing some more research, I’m even more brought into the idea that the current system is just fine.

  • Even paralysed, something might help the the victim survive; there are literal gods in these worlds, who may have a vested interest in keeping this person alive. In fact, we see these gods give characters hit points all the time.
  • People survive really weird things. Have you seen Hostel? Eyeballlady should be dead. But they’re still happily getting trains across Eastern Europe.
  • Players would fudging hate it if an NPC killed them in their sleep, or have to live in a constant state of fear.
  • Removing hit points is a represenation of how many blows a person has left before they pass out/die. It’s obviously rules as written, but also makes role playing your character with 1HP remaining. You don’t need to boringly play a half-dead character.

So anyway, I’m totally on board with not being able to just ignore HP. It’s a much better mechanic than I gave it credit for.

Some Encounters In The Maze

I ran the Wedding part of the Maze of the Blue Medusa recently and I think it went mostly well. One of the things which improved my DMing as the sessions went on was that I stopped using the Random Encounters pages at the start of the book, and wrote up some 5e specific bits on other sheets. These were super easy to flick through and had all the story bits I wanted to remember.

Here are those notes.

If me and my group ever go back to the Maze, there’s some bits I need to change about these creatures though.

Action economy

We were running with a large group of players; six players, plus the DM who might be running a large number of monsters (in order to put up some amount of a fight). In order to keep the combat round time as short as possible I decided I’d play easily beaten bad guys, but a number of them throughout the adventuring day. The aim here was that there was more strategy required around how the players use their resources.

Unfortunately, I made them too easy. I could give the sharkman like 90 hit points, but they’d grind them down in a turn or two, giving him no time to do his cool thing. I could add more hit points, but then, meh, you know? I should have given some creatures legendary actions. I don’t think my group would have felt cheated by this; afterall there’s usually six of them and 1 on my dude.

So, next time I come back to these encounters, I’ll add those.

Encounters feel out of place

I began by rolling on the Encounters Table (but quickly stopped) but it lead to some people being where they had no right to be, sometimes. The mummies are super cool, but usually need an escort to get back home. However, access to the Archives is secret, I think.

My players very eagerly wanted to follow Torgos home, but that would require going through dozens of rooms. Many of them I’d not yet read. And most of them have something interesting in that would otherwise slow the characters down. In a crawl, this is a bit difficult. I fudged it, I suppose. But it was a bit of a shame.

Pick relevant random encounters and probably don’t bother rolling to see which one comes up.

 Redemption Army

Gargonox is a beholder… well, he used to be. He died a few thousand years ago, but still ticks along, trying with all his might to muster an army in the hopes that it’ll impress his mother, a medusa. The medusa actually. The first. Unfortunately… she’s long since forgotten about him.

It’s probably best if your party of level four or five adventurers put him out of his misery. You’ll be helping all the corpses stay in their eternal rest much more peacefully.

I wrote this adventure to play in the middle of Maze of the Blue Medusa, replacing one of the rooms, because I needed to take a break from the crawl, really. I also needed an opportunity to give them a few magic items, which went well.

I was hoping originally to put this on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild, but then realised that the Dyson map I’d built the adventure around wasn’t one of their commericial ones. So you get the adventure here, for free!

I pushed along anyway, because I wanted to play around with Affinity Publisher, which is lovely. I’d quite like to get better at design skills, so taking large gulps of inspiration from MotBM was the way I went. I hope you like the look of it.

There’s also a d40 random loot table, for those of you who enjoy them.

Grab the adventure here.

Roll on your own time

For a dungeon master, tabletop games are really a hobby in two parts: preparing the game and running the game. It’s fine to prefer one over the other, and we all get short on prep time when life gets in the way. I’d like to suggest that one of the parts of a published adventure you should prepare is getting rid of any random encounter table rolls you have to do during the game.

Roll them before the game for infinitely better results, always.

I’m running Maze of the Blue Medusa at the moment, and there’s a great deal of prep that has to go into it. I’d only recommend running this adventure to the most dedicated of DMs; there are hundreds of rooms each with their own ploy, either a kind of trap or a piece of the story for the players to put together. I spend a few hours before the game to look around the potential rooms but even then, the randomness of the player choices makes anticipating their moves difficult. During the game, there’s a great deal of time where I’ve needed to tell my players to talk amongst themselves whilst I flick to the right page.

There’s not much to be done about this – other than study the book more.

There is another area of the game which slows things down though; random tables. The Maze is not a safe place, and random encounters are supposed to happen whenever the characters make too much of a disturbance or when they let their guards down. The book suggests an excessive “every twenty minutes”. These random encounters are to be rolled on a table – the table changes depending on where in the maze they are.

I’ve come to the conclusion that these tables should never be rolled on in the middle of a game. These tables aren’t unique to MotBM. You’ll find them in most published adventures. Random loot tables are less time consuming, but they also have a similar missed opportunity.

Instead, roll on these tables during your prep time. This is where fudging the dice roll can really come into its own. This buys you time during the game because you don’t need to scramble for the next battlemap or spend three minutes looking up creatures in the monster manual. More interestingly though, you can think of the story of the fight.

Nearly always your players are looking for more information about their current quest, and any smart group keeps back one of the combatants for questioning. Just give them the right person for the information they need.

In The Blue Medusa, there are a large number of potential encounters. There are half a dozen mummies, for instance, each with their own goals in the maze. Throwing those out during my game at the moment wouldn’t do anything but confuse the players. Their logic, most likely, would be that the DM is offering this NPC who’s carrying a history golem, and so it must have something to do with the quest at hand. Almost always, these random encounters don’t push the story forwards. The just distract.