Monday, March 31, 2014

Discretionary Monsters

I realized in my game there are three kinds of monster: placed, wandering, and discretionary*.

"Placed" are those you know are in a particular place in the dungeon.  Whether a random roll told you they were there or you decided to put them, they are certain to be in a location.

"Wandering" monsters may appear, especially when noise is made, anywhere in a dungeon and at any time, if a roll says they do.  There is a certain line-up of possible creatures which might appear, but it is never certain they will, or which of them will.  Players could clear a whole dungeon and never encounter one of these.

"Discretionary" monsters appear when I, the DM, decide they do.  There are most likely one or two I've prepared ahead of time for any dungeon.  The monster comes and goes when I decide it does.

Now, hold on, you might be thinking, how is this old school?  It may seem a bit hypocritical for someone who believes so much that "story" is what emerges from play, and all the random rolls that move play forward.  But my game is fairly low magic, where you are likely to encounter wolves, and bears, and difficult terrain.  I like my game that way.  An adventure game that is so magical that wolves in a forest would no longer be considered a threat, because there are manticores, and minotaurs, and dragons in every hex, would lose much of what is thrilling about adventure tales from the real world.

And yet, I'm not trying to simulate frontier living, I want that spookiness of fairy tales.  If all that ever show up in my dungeons are wolves and bears and I have no control over when they appear, a dungeon might become a very mundane affair.  I want players that go underground to be afraid.  And to fear more than the loss of their lives.  And so I started keeping some monsters on "reserve."  They would show up at times players felt most vulnerable.  And it really worked.  It freaks them out.

Now, to avoid my becoming some adversarial DM that kills parties by making monsters show up and attack at my whim, I make these discretionary monsters non-violent.  They don't attack, even magically.  What kind of monster you might be thinking?  Well, old ghost story standards: a lost child, who by all rights shouldn't be down in the dungeon, who says something before slinking off into darkness.  A talking animal.  A little man riding a dog.  Something odd, but not outright threatening.

You might think that players will, after a while of seeing many of these, catch on to these non-violent monsters and no longer fear them.  But it turns out that it can be difficult to tell between one of these and a wandering monster, or if the characters have just entered a room, a placed monster.  In other words, it is never quite clear to them what type of encounter they are having so as long as a dungeon has all three types it will always be in a player's best interest to be wary, if not fearful.
"Might I hold your sword for just a moment?"
So, in a nutshell, here are some things I think required for a successful discretionary monster:
  • Appear when players feel vulnerable.  See here for some thinking on that.  I find when characters are climbing up or down long drops a perfect place, either the first person to climb down a rope is pulled aside and told about what they see, or the last person to descend is told something is stirring in the shadows.
  • Are hard to determine if they are a threat.  Something odd or off about a normal thing is pretty much the definition of creepiness.  The "why are you down in a dungeon, child!?" is probably the perfect example.  But a cat that comes out, sits, and offers a hand to shake, or a dog that comes out and starts coughing as if to vomit could work.
  • Not outright hostile.  I think a Blind Agnes is an example of a creature that, while not a pack of orcs with swords, would cross the line for me and be unfair for me to use when I choose.  It would steal the vision of a player, and while creepy that is an outright attack. And yet, these types of monsters don't have to be harmless, which leads to the next point:
  • Will make the situation even more dangerous if you engage with them.  The monster seems to want to lead you somewhere else.  The Blood Dove and Greater-Crested Potionguide would both work well as discretionary monsters.  But children or peasants might ask characters to do something that would be dangerous to do: "Close your eyes," "Hand me your sword for just a moment," "Follow me, I have something to show you."  I don't think it matters that few players would be foolish enough to do these things, even having the option presented to you is creepy.
  • Used sparingly.  This gives me the option to do something a computer can't do, make monsters appear based on what I can tell about player mood.  Good times to deploy are when players are getting bored, distracted, or play is starting to slow down into a slog.  These kinds of monsters allow me to put a spark back into the game.  But they work because they create tension, and if they appear around every corner there is no tension.  Once or twice a dungeon is usually plenty.
  • Aimed at particular players.  This is another thing that a computer or random system would find difficult to do.  I like for new players or quiet players to see these.  Then, it gives them something they can, and even need to tell the rest of the party, it gives them a reason to interact with the other players.  I like pulling them outside the room to tell them what they see because it causes tension with the other players, the rest of the party will really want to know, now, what that player was told.  It makes the new/quiet player the center of attention for a bit.  Note, that this all only works because these discretionary monsters are non-violent.  When a wandering monster shows up it is usually quickly evident to everyone.
I'm curious if other old school DMs use monsters in this way.  I think it is a pretty easy and effective practice though.

*Yeah, it's an accurate but horrible name.  If you have an idea for a better one let me know.

Friday, March 28, 2014


Not a lot to say, but that his art was what D&D looked like for me.  I blogged about it here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Monster Themes

In this recent post I tried to find a way to flesh out and differentiate monsters that have similar mechanical undercarriages.  It didn't work that well.  Now I'm thinking the simplest approach might be to just pick a theme and apply that to the different monster behaviors.

Here are some simple themes:

Monster Themes
  1. Ancient
  2. Cave
  3. Chaos
  4. Disease
  5. Faerie
  6. Insect
  7. Magic
  8. Prehistoric
  9. Reptile
  10. Evil of __________
"Ancient" I see as dry, mummified, or maybe your typical skeletal creatures- things that have been hidden away in this place for ages.  "Cave" is like albino, blind cave things.  "Evil" is basically full of possibilities.  If you have a cult of worship for gluttony, the monsters can all be variations of fat, huge-mouthed things.  Fear, pain, lust, etc. will provide lots of unique monster opportunities.

Let's try a few.

What about "Faerie"?  What would vermin be in that context?  How about little faeries themselves, flitting just out of reach until there is a large enough gathering of them that they are bold enough to attack.  That's pretty predictable, how about little bluebirds that fly in and peck you, or butterflies that swarm you and start putting you to sleep with their touch.

What about "Magic"?  Magic vermin might be blink rats that teleport to your shoulder and start chewing your ear off.  Or maybe even more magic, little, floating orbs that sizzle with energy and sting when they touch.  Or maybe a snake that cycles into a rat into spider and back again.  Or maybe that would be more suited to Chaos.

In the end, this isn't giving us the specific monster-making help I would like, but it may be the best possible.   Why am I posting this now?  Because we'll need this table for the next step in making our dungeon together.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Let's Make a Dungeon - Map

Want to make a dungeon with me?  I'll show you a method that is quick and easy and yet still a good stand in for natural caverns.  If you get tripped up on your own perfectionism or are just too tired from work to make a dungeon come game night, this is dedicated to you.  I'll break this up into several posts because blogging about the process actually takes longer than using it.  So, today we'll just do the map.

Get 12 dice of various shapes.  Make about half of them visually distinguishable from the rest.  I chose dark and light:
Whoops, my d10 with the dark 7 should be on the other side

Toss the dice on the paper.  If  some roll off the paper just move them back to the closest edge:
I use blank paper but if you feel more comfortable using graph paper go right ahead.

Now trace the dice in pencil as you remove them and write down the number they rolled.  Light, sloppy, and fast is good.  If several dice clump together, trace around all of them like its one lumpy room.  Also put a little dot for the dark dice:
Now, draw connections from odd numbers to odd and from even numbers to even.  Not all of them have to connect but try to avoid a a simple circle. or completely linear arrangement:
If there is no connection between the even and odd caverns you'll need to arbitrarily make one. (luckily, our clumpy room connects the 3 even elevation rooms here.)

Now, clean up the connecting passages and draw little curved lines to indicate differences in elevation.  I draw them like little steps leading from the lower areas to the higher, each indicating a rise of 10'.  If a difference is too much, make it a sharp cliff:
Now, those dotted areas where the dark dice fell are "Fat Man's Misery" type passages, they're passable, but just barely.  Characters will either have to crawl on their bellies, or sidle along sideways. The chambers can be very low-ceilinged or choked with stalagmites. (I decided to make the passage from the elevation 3 room to elevation 13 very narrow, and make the 1, 3, 10 elevation rooms with dots have low ceilings)

One last thing.  If we roll a 12 sider and just count clockwise (roughly) to pick a room, we can place a water source and see what it does.  If there are lower elevations nearby, let it flow along.  If not, it can be a pool, or you can disregard- not every cave has to have water.

The largest numbers are the exits to the surface. So, here the 15 and 13 have entrances from surface caves or sinkholes.

Now we have some treacherous terrain to explore: narrow passages, long drops (one 60', one 100'), and even a dry cave hidden by a nearly impassable underwater one.  Next we'll place some monsters.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 9

76. Moth Fogs - Marshy lands where any movement causes millions of tiny, white moths to rise up and flutter about.  They are drawn to faces.
77. Rushlight Berries - Inedible berries that glow as bright as a candle when ripe.  Dim as they overipen.
78. Lichen Field - Above the treeline, a valley filled with yellow-orange lichen.  Eating a handfull allows a person to go a week without food.
79. Balancing Bole - The trunk of what was once a huge fir balances precariously on a point jutting out from a high cliff.  It is said that if you say a name as you push on the trunk it will rotate so the small end points toward where that thing is in the world.
80. Balancing Rocks - Above the treeline, a whole valley filled with piles of balanced stones.  Make your own pile and gain luck for as long as it stands.  The higher the pile, the more luck but the more likely it will tumble once you leave.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 8

I've been fighting a cold for a week now.  It isn't bad, but I feel too tired to be very creative.  Here are a few wonders just to keep the blog active:

73. Wandering Grove - Within a large area of plains, a particular grove of trees is never seen moving but often found in different locations.  Some say it hides a ancient shrine and moves to keep it safe.
74. Cypress Stands - These low, rolling hills are peppered with lines and stands of Italian Cypress.  Close inspection reveals they outline former lanes and villas.  Somehow, the trees survived the complete destruction of the rest.  Reading a map here will cause ancient dwellings, cities, and roads that no longer exist, to appear on the map.
75. Winter Boulders - Above the tree line there is a area that looks clear, but in winter fallen snow reveals the shapes of invisible boulders.  The boulders have centuries of graffiti and recesses carved into them.  Placing objects into recesses will make them invisible too.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Creepy Vermin

I mentioned in this post that I could use the behavior categories also as a kind of template, so, as a base, vermin have giant rats stats by default, and then I can differentiate them from there.  I've been thinking since that post about about how to do this.

Someone might call this "fluff" but, to me, this is where much of the game lies.  If I can freak out my friends just by describing what is slithering towards them, I'm happy.  Also, just mechanically, there isn't much range of damage or hit dice you can give creatures and keep them within the same dangerousness.  I mean, start giving giant rats 2 HD and they are no longer vermin, they start functioning as some other kind of dungeon monster.  So, in the end, a lot of creatures, unless you've given them a cool special ability, will be palette swaps for previously encountered creatures.

Anyway, on to what I came up with.  I started by trying to come up with a list of adjectives that might describe what I consider creepy or verminous.  I made a chart.  Then I thought it might be simpler and more strightforward to just combine creepy critters, so I made a second chart.  I'll show you that second one first because I don't think it works as well:
You can see above that I tried a second draft of this chart.  I cut bat and leech, because mouse/pigeon in my mind is much like a bat, and worm and leech seemed too close as well.

Again, I still didn't like the results much; how much different from a centipede is a worm/centipede or a maggot/centipede for that matter.  I think the problem is that too many characteristics that ick us out are packaged into each verminous thing and we need to tease some of them out to get more possible, and novel, combinations.

I think now, that a way to fix this might be to have the creepy stuff in one column and then fuzzy-pet stuff in the other (you could get like maggot-kitten hybrids, ick) Anyway, I just wanted to share it with you so you could see my process.  So, now back to the first attempt I mentioned:
I'm thinking now another possible column would be to add a "target," because an easy avenue to body horror is to tell you the thing is crawling toward your ear or burrowing into your armpit.

Anyway, let's try a few:

8, 9 , 2
Naked skin, it glides, and has teeth, okay maybe flying cave squirrels.  Or to try and get weirder, hairless Chihuahuas that bark continuously and glide at you with little needle teeth.

8, 8, 4
Okay that's kind of gross, it looks like a hairless hamster with a long proboscis and it will hop suddenly and try to plunge it into you and suck your juices.

2, 5, 6
This is scaly like a small lizard and it moves on shaky legs like it is sick or dying but it has a stinger on its belly.

5, 5, 3
This is slimy and shaky, sound like a newborn.  So, maybe this looks like a newborn puppy that shakily approaches with eyes closed and then pounces with sharp claws.

Not too bad.  I might use some of those.  One of my players is a dog groomer and I think having new-born puppy-things following her around the dungeon trying to do her harm might freak her out.

It doesn't completely solve my problem because I have scavengers and pack creatures to worry about too, but it's a start.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 7

More sandbox locations meant to evoke a sense of wonder in your players:

63. Sculpted Forest - Old oak forest carved in marble.  Each leaf and acorn detailed realistically.  It's said each acorn if planted and watered, will grow a 20 x 20 x 3 section of stone wall.
64. Rust Beach - Run of beach made of rust.  Rumored that a god corrodes under the water nearby.  Eat the rust to immunize your body to magic.
65. Glass Fumaroles - Natural glass extrudes in strange spindles from these steaming, sulfurous holes.  Glass so pure and fine that, if struck, the noise made is only heard by elves.
66. Leaves with No Trees - These grassy plains are covered in colorful leaves in the fall, though there are no trees for miles.
67. Hidden Valley - A small, fertile valley with a creek that no one knows about, but you.  Maps don't show it.  Travelers will route around it and not realize the extra time their journey took. 
68. Beast Amphitheaters - Natural, rocky concavities where, at midnight, all the animals from miles around gather in, to sit in silent circles until dawn.
69. Twin Valley - Every tree here is next to an identical tree, every flower, an identical flower.  Each squirrel you see, each deer is a pair.
70. Punctured Lands - These grassy, foggy flatlands are treacherous because the ground is full of holes.  Fist-sized to horse-sized, the holes plunge hundreds of feet into darkness.  Listening at the holes, will let you here the voices of the dead, different hole, different voice.
71. Bright Hills - Everything here seems normal, except there are no shadows.
72. Coral Road - A sinuous, bright-red road that might be aeons old, it curves to miss mountains no longer there, bridges over rivers now dry, before disappearing under the sea.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Silhouettes - LXII - Badass Women

If you've been following this series for a while, you know I make silhouettes from public domain images I find, and that some things are quite hard to find good examples of.  I've been searching for images of warrior women for a long time.  Today I am happy to present you with what I think are some decent example of just that.  For your maps, handouts, and rulebooks, badass women adventurers:

First, a fighter or rogue, or maybe even a kensai or ronin, :
Next an archer.  I personally wouldn't go into a dungeon topless, but she looks pretty confident so I'll let her decide:

A big woman with a club.  Maybe she's a bouncer:
I think this could be a martial artist.  She looks ready to bust out some savate:

Finally, a mage invoking some devastation:
Okay, the last one doesn't look too threatening, just imagine her spell stripping your skin off or something.  I'll keep looking for images of women in traditional medieval armor or from warrior societies, but these are the best I have so far.  I hope you find them useful.

You can use these images in any way you wish and they have all been added as vector graphics to the zip file linked in my sidebar to the right.

p.s. I gathered all the npc portraits together with every intention of making them all available, when I realized the zip was over 40 megs which is too much.  I'll have to go through and resize them all I'm afraid.

Friday, March 7, 2014

3 Knowledge NPCs

I've posted about npcs several times before but I wanted to zoom in on a particular type that I haven't handled very well in the past: the npc that helps players figure out magic items.  If you imagine a game world stripped down to having only one npc, it would probably be one of these.

I can imagine a game that doesn't require figuring out what rings do or how wands work, for example, because players are told immediately upon finding them.  The point of the items is for them to feel like rewards, to allow for new abilities, and to provide some fun toys, after all, so why not just streamline towards those ends.

And yet, there is some mystery lost by doing that and some possible fun, tense situations are lost where players have to experiment with potentially dangerous items.  So, the compromise is to have a way for low level players to find these things out if they go back to town.  Traditionally I've used cantankerous and greedy npcs to do this, but that gets annoying for players fast.  And charging too much eats into the idea of the items as rewards (especially keeping in mind that some of these might be single-use).

Another thing to keep in mind is that I'm a ham and like to roleplay a bit to try and make my players laugh.  So I want to allow for that without being too annoying.  So here is my idea of a new way I might handle this with three different  Knowledge NPCs.  All of these would be free of charge to talk with, but have some downsides.

The Veteran
"Have I ever told you about the time I . . .?"
Upside: The veteran will tell some ridiculous story that actually has good tactical gaming advice embedded in it.  Ever wonder how to teach new players what to do with a potion of diminution or a wand of mineral detection, this old soul can tell them a specific example involving an amusing anecdote.
Downside: The veteran has a poor memory so activation words or potion tastes might be slightly off.  For example, he knows a common wand activation word is "something like loose, or lute" when it is actually "luz."  The players will have to experiment a bit, but should be able get the right answer without too much trouble.

The Storyteller
"Ah, the lay of Phineas mentions such an item, let me sing it for you . . ."
Upside:  Get your DM singing and rhyming fun here.  A bard type or maybe just a village gossip, this person can help players understand the range of possible items.  So, what are the most common ring types in your world?  They might reveal a few common types each time.  This can help players know what they might want to find or later make themselves.
Downside: Not every story you hear is true.  The storyteller will give the truth + some ridiculous baggage.  For example, "The wand's activation word is "Luz" but beware, for every time you use it you will shrink 3 inches."  The idea is to make the players a little hesitant.  The false part can't be too scary though, or they will never want to use it.

The Scholar
"Where exactly did you find this again?  I have the memoirs of Helen the Bald in which she describes exactly how she made that item . . . and an indication of her heir."
Upside: The scholar has original sources, or photographic memory of triple-checked accounts and can give you three possible activation words and a recipe for making the device yourself.
Downside:  The scholar wants to know where you found this, when, who was involved, all the details.  This is a way that any player tomb robbing shenanigans (or thinly veiled lies about such) might spread.  It could be a way that rival adventure parties or disgruntled heirs get on the trail of the party.  But mostly it will create a bit of worry by implying to players that those are definite possibilities.  Also,I think it could still be fun to have a little experimentation involved to discover the actual knowledge.  For example, "Helen made three wands of this type, one was said to activate by speaking the word 'Luz,' one with 'Beleuchten,' and one with 'Nur.With the actual word for this wand being "Luz," but if similar wands are found in the future, the players can try the other two without even consulting the Scholar again.

So, one of these might be more helpful for particular items, for characters of particular level, or even for DMs of different proclivity.  One thing you might do is have each of them available nearby and let players alternate and discover the weaknesses of each type.  Another idea is, once players are familiar with the npcs throw in a complication, for example the Scholar acts like a Veteran when thoroughly drunk.

But, I'd love to hear details about how you handle this part of DMing in your campaign

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Monster Tactics / Encounters

So I blogged here and here about wanting to have a simple system to help with how creatures will act when they become hostile, but I realized that I was trying to solve another problem as well.  I most often run small dungeons and trying to come up with wandering monsters is always tough for me.  Sure, you can come up with a cool showcase monster, but a dungeon needs a whole array of possible creatures to encounter.  And, come the end of the week my tired brain has always struggled with that.

With the creature behaviors as a starting point I can, hopefully, more easily flesh out the ecosystem of each new dungeon.  If the dungeon is submerged, for instance, the vermin can be little crab-things, and I'll up their AC.  If the dungeon is a sewer under a urban area, I can have down-and-out humans act with the behaviors of creatures: scavengers and vermin.  Or I can just palette swap -- these vermin are worms not rats-- or riff, these spiders act like slavers, these termites are soldiers with different castes.  Etc.

Another thing I want to address is the method I've been using to keep track of wandering encounters.   What I've done for a quite a while is, for each dungeon, make little booklets made with the cool telemonster tool Jensan made.  But I've found the little booklets fiddly in play and hard to store along with their dungeons because they aren't a flat piece of paper.  I'd like a single, letter-size piece of paper that I can fold in half.  That way, with a single-sheet map, and the encounters I can walk around DMing with two sheets of paper.

Here is a form I've been working on to help with both of these issues at the table.  I'm not done yet, but the idea is you pencil in whatever adjustments you want to make to the standard monster type (I'll probably add standard HD and dmg values), generate a few encounters worth, and then draw the hit points of these in boxes on the graph paper (a great trick I got from ZakS).

I've simplified the encounter results roll to 2 and increments of two from there, to try to help me memorize this and do things quicker at the table.  If I remember correctly this will make packs and scavengers more likely to show up than vermin, which makes some sense to me. 

The asterisk could be the cool showpiece monster.  It will also most likely be placed in a specific location, but this would mean you encounter it outside of there.  Or, heck, the asterisk can just be overtly aggressive things like zombies or rabid bears.

I mentioned in the last post that the number appearing will be important.  I thought about it a lot and I think, with my play groups of around 4-6 people that sometimes have hirelings, 2d6 for packs, 3d6 for scavengers and 4d6 for vermin should work okay.  With the understanding that packs get overtly aggressive when they are twice as many as the party, scavengers when they are triple, and vermin quadruple the party number.  I'm going for simplicity and the ability to easily recall these. 

The way I have the table set up in this draft, a result of 11 or 12 would bump you to the second table of intelligent opponents.  That would make them pretty unlikely to be encountered.  But, I can flip those tables and have some locations far less likely to have wild creatures wandering around.  Which makes sense, because the cult temple guards would probably want to deal with roving packs of predators.

I'll try it out, next dungeon I run.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Silhouettes - LXI

More silhouettes for your maps, handouts and rulebooks.

Fighter with two-handed sword:
Another warrior with sword and shield:
A staff slinger:

A crossbowman:
an adventurer with torch and knife:

A hanged man:
Several stages of tadpole:

Another church:

More ruins:

Some manacles, handcuffs, or leg irons I plan to use to indicate slavers:

And a tuft of grass I used to indicate lushness:
These have all been added as vector graphics to the zip file linked in my sidebar to the right.