Playing a one-on-one D&D game at home with Janaki. The Bingo XP Variant doesn’t work for 1 player, so I whipped up a milestone XP sheet that we’ll use to futz with the timing of leveling up. As we do with the Bingo board, we’ll use it to open up that discussion of what we’d like to see in game and how we’d like to see Makaris the Druid challenged.
Makaris is a Tiefling Druid returning to her birthplace, the Tiefling capital of Asmodeen. Makaris has been away from her home for a decade after a job for her criminal family went bad. During that decade was a war with the Dragonborn and the treaty ending that war has just been inked.
Aabria Iyengar is doing an amazing job as the DM of Critical Role’s latest mini-series, Exandria Unlimited. There was a moment I want to highlight as a technique that newbie DM’s need to know and veteran DM’s need to remember.
The moment is small, blink and you might miss it. It isn’t a moment where she’s making an NPC with depth and Machiavellian motivations. It isn’t a moment where she describes a magic elemental rift or a giving personality to a monkey made of fire. In the example below, she sets boundaries and lets her friends at the table know that she’s done and would like to move on.
The players have been shopping for more than 40 minutes and Aabria has been playing NPC’s, having those NPC’s cut deals and feel bad for characters, flirt with characters and quote prices for magic items (and just make items up) for that entire span of time.
Then she does this, watch for a few minutes, starting at around 2:47:18:
There isn’t enough of that in tabletop gaming. We elevate the DM/GM/Storyteller/Referee/Hollycock God above the table as if they are an omniscient party motivator/fantasy novelist. Putting the night’s fun on one person’s shoulders is a bad idea. Bad games become good and good games become great when everyone at the table takes responsibility for the table’s fun. DM’s are players too (not deities, not authorities on the rules, not judges who dispense blue lightning bolts when folk do wrong). Set your boundaries. Tell your friends that you are done with this and would like to move on.
Watch Aabria Iyengar at the table if you want to watch someone who is full of rocking descriptions, amazing NPC’s and cool fantasy ideas but will also pump the breaks and say, “I’m done with this, my friends. Let’s move on and get to something more fun.”
I don’t want to make a map and outline a world made of countless islands. I am already doing this in my head but I don’t want to make anything official until the players starting rolling up characters.
Here’s what I know about what I want in a pirate D&D game:
No real world analogues: No British Empire but they’re elves, no Portugal but dwarves, no New World filled with orcs. NO NEW WORLD BUT ORCS. This leads us to my next thing…
No Colonialism as we know it: Sure there will be political battles for resources and power dynamics in play but nothing analogous to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade nor the way Europe treated the New World with noble savages…
Dungeons might be:
Islands shaped like skulls
Abandoned ships from the Sorcerer-Kings’ ancient fleet
Corrupt merchants’ ships in need of pirating
Fire Vikings’ volcano barrows
Etc. (you get the idea)
Start with a ship: Name it, come up with the story of how you got it. Classes of ships are named after monstrous beasts (manticore, dragon, hydra, griffon, tarrasque).
Also, the ship has a character sheet. I’m not sure what this will mean yet but we’ll figure it out.
Wierd fantasy: Tiefling Altar Ships, Dragonborn Lair-ships, Elf Druid Ships made of Living Mangove Forests, Foating Mountain Dwarf Ships.
After stealing the last of the puzzle-cubes from the Yuan-ti, the players had to decide if they were going to kill the Red Wizards in their sleep while their spells were depleted.
The discussion took about 40 minutes and was really interesting. Jusko said something interesting: “Who are we? Are we people who crawl into our allies’ camp and slit their throats while they sleep?”
Drew (who players Jusko) did something cool and prompted everyone to step out of character and also discuss this purely on the terms of what would be fun. That is a veteran-gamer move right there.
I added that they could make this decision based on what their characters would do, based on the strategic advantages of having 4 Red Wizards and their 20 guards on their side and the general fun of who will betray who first.
In the end, they decided not to attack the wizards and continue this frenemyship.
Jusko gave Mykal, the leader of the Zhentarim thugs employed by the Red Wizards a small fortune in gold to switch sides when the time was right in exchange for not only the gold but safe passage out of Omu.
Mykal, leader of the Red Wizards’ thugs, let them know that no one can figure out how the team got in and out of the Yuan-ti nest. The Red Wizards think Bugwump might be Arch-Mage Bugwump and is hiding his power levels from them. Jusko made an Insight Check to see if she would keep to her word. “Probably…”
The group marched up the main boulevard towards the tomb entrance on the northern cliff-face. Kuru and Trundle (Rogue and Ranger) scouted it out and saw the Queen of Feathers dragging some kind of beast westward. Kuru used an illusion of a wounded pterodactyl to send the Legendary T-Rex northward to flush out any enemies who might be in their path.
Trundle marked the hidden kobold cave entrances in case the wizards need to target them in the future.
The Queen of Feathers was driven away by kobolds. A kobold in a wooden Acererak mask spoke to her in draconic; having tried killing kobolds in the past and finding them too difficult an effort for the scant meat, she headed westward.
The kobold in the mask told the approaching adventurers that they should be honored to die in the Great Acererak’s tomb, where their bones will surely turn to dust as the ages spin by. Bugwump destroyed the kobold with a spell.
They made their way through the True Door and into the Tomb. I cut the dungeon WAY back, using only one final level. They solved the Trial of the Triangle by accident, surrounding the blocked lever they had to switch to open one of the five locks on the door and forming a triangle.
I hate puzzles but enjoy seeing this posse interact with it all. one level will be more than enough. They know that Acererak’s godling and soulmonger engine fueling its birth is on the other side.
No levels this week but they are close to getting bingo on a few different axes.
Playing a one-on-one D&D game at home with Janaki. The Bingo XP Variant doesn’t work for 1 player, so I whipped up a milestone XP sheet that we’ll use to futz with the timing of leveling up. As we do with the Bingo board, we’ll use it to open up that discussion of what we’d […]
Aabria Iyengar is doing an amazing job as the DM of Critical Role’s latest mini-series, Exandria Unlimited. There was a moment I want to highlight as a technique that newbie DM’s need to know and veteran DM’s need to remember. The moment is small, blink and you might miss it. It isn’t a moment where […]
I don’t want to make a map and outline a world made of countless islands. I am already doing this in my head but I don’t want to make anything official until the players starting rolling up characters. Here’s what I know about what I want in a pirate D&D game: As the Alexandrian said, […]
Listen here and come to know how Gentleman Bill Jaggard, the most polite pirate to ever sail the Summer Ocean, became a consort to a Storm Goddess, a pawn of the Mists and a wraith on the Dread Seas.
When he was living Gentleman Jaggard robbed the Summer Queen’s ships for the better part of a year from his ship, The Forbidden Folio. Her majesty put a price on his head, demanding that he be brought to her alive. The Queen wanted him alive as a courtesy for his mindful manners, as a method to enrage her jealous husband – the King, and as a centerpiece for one of her famous parties.
The King’s most leal captain was irate that he could not kill the pirate outright. Captain Robin “Puck” Goodfellow set a trap for Bill and captured him aboard the H.M.S. Merry Wanderer but could not kill him because of the Queen’s powerful magic. Instead, he took the captured pirate to a fell shrine honoring the Mother of Storms, a vicious stone statue of a mermaid as tall as a castle tower made of sharp stone and coral. The shrine was a finger of land only inhabited by vicious crabs and mocking seagulls. Captain Goodfellow put Bill in a crow’s cage hanging from the Storm Goddess’ trident. Puck spilled blood to the Mother, asking her to destroy any ships that approached to try and save the pirate.
And they tried. Pirates from every corner of the sea came to try and save Bill. Starving, dehydrated, hanging on the crow’s cage, Bill’s hope died as he watched familiar sails approach on the horizon and unnatural storms sink them one by one.
Finally, a young captain named Petra Quince, guiding his ship, the Roaring Lion, got closer than anyone had yet. Petra had been born on Bill’s ship and had come up through the pirate ranks and now had her own ship. When the Roaring Lion set anchor, an ugly laughter tried to escape Bill’s dry throat. The bloody laughter turned to agonizing sobs as a storm approached and smashed the rowboats into the Mother of Storm’s shrine, sinking the Roaring Lion under the waves.
As the crabs ate the last of his friends who had given their lives to try and save him, the Mists rolled in and Captain Jaggard’s Fleet was born. The Jaggard Fleet is made of the dead friends he watched sink trying to save him, now his undead armada.
They say he is not a gentleman no more. He likes to say that he is the Mother of Storm’s consort and often makes sacrifices to her, turning prisoners without use into chum.
There is no known way to kill Captain Jaggard or keep his fell fleet sunk. Since the Mists have adopted him he has been drawn and quartered, tossed into a Leviathan’s mouth, cut into pieces and fed to a Dragon Turtle and beheaded by a named Holy Avenger whose blade’s edge had been kissed by an angel. The only way to exorcise him and his fleet from the seas forever would be to capture him and bring him to the Queen of the Feywild.
But what crew could take and hold an undead pirate and what ship could survive the Mother of Storm’s wrath? It is said all of the elements of Jaggard’s bloody path to Ravenloft were captured by the Mists from the Mother of Storm’s fell shrine to the Puck’s Merry Wanderer. However the Summer Queen kept the Mists at Bay with her arcane might, despite her part in Jaggard’s rebirth. In order to exorcise the wraith pirate, he would have to be brought outside of Ravenloft to the Summer Court. No sailor has navigated the Domain of Dread’s seas (Sighs, Souls, Secrets, Storms, Shoals, Sorrows) into the outside world…not yet.
Until someone does, when mists roll in on ports and bloody laughter is heard by the City Watch, the Jaggard Fleet will follow, bringing death and devastation in their wake.
Captain Bill is a Wraith while his crew is a mix of Ghouls, Wights and Zombies.
Darklord: Captain Bill Jaggard
Hallmarks: Nautical Horror, Port and Island Domains
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In which Yuan-ti are robbed and multiple magicide is discussed.
The Yuan-ti have the last pieces of the cubes needed to open the door to the tomb. The Red Wizards of Thay were throwing Fireballs and such as a distraction while the team sneaked in.
After some discussion, the team decided to use their access to the Godroads, as there is a fell shrine in the Yuan-ti compound. They found themselves in a serpent cathedral in the middle of their fort.
They had several choices for exits out of the cathedral and they chose the hallway to the throne room. The guard was sleeping, as was the Yuan-ti leader. Stealth rolls were rolled and made.
Kuru the Hobbit thief, covered in mud spread on his face in Conan-and-company-invade-the-serpent-cult-orgy-style, mage-handed the cubes to his comrade, Jusko after looking closely for traps (I should have asked HOW he was looking for traps; I’ll ask more before hitting the dice next time). He also took the sleeping Yuan-ti leader’s gladius-style short sword, which turned out to be a flame-brand.
The team spread out across the room while Kuru used Mage Hand. Bugwump climbed up the wall above the door. When the yuan-ti knocked to tell their leader about the attack and no one answered, they were too scared to knock again. The team got out without any blood spilled – a flawless heist.
The Red Wizards met them afterwards and were shocked to find them entirely unharmed. None of the Red Wizards saw them go in. They were unnerved but low on spells.
During the week I wrote a dream for each character with questions. Some of the players responded in the comments, others responded verbally before the game. Bugwump had dreamed about his Arch-mage self, before his power had been taken away by the Lady of Pain. His Arch-mage self gave him advice but he couldn’t remember what it was.
As the Red Wizards flew away, I asked John if Arch-mage Bugwump would have told him to always kill rival wizards after they had been in a big battle and spent their spell slots – he agreed that was the kind of advice his old Arch-mage self would have given along with, “Never trust wizards.”
They discussed murdering the Red Wizards. After an Insight check, they think one might switch sides if offered but they are not sure. That one knows they are from Sigil.
After last game, we began this game in the midst of combat. The following things happened in no particular order:
Trundle and Kuru ended up on the Queen of Feather’s head, trying to hit the sword embedded in her skull but missing. Still, leaping on a T-rex’s skull is cool.
The Queen of Feathers bit Failed Soldier nearly to death but spit him out because she was wounded, he tasted funny and Kuru hit her in the face with pepper spices.
Trundle ran into an old Tabaxi hunter, praying to the Cat Lord before letting arrows fly. Trundles whispered, offering the support of the Omuan deity in his head.
The Red Wizards let loose some vicious spells; they are formidable.
Jusko saved his doomed pterodactyl and named it Mishka. It was touching af.
The blade in the legendary T-Rex, the Queen of Feather’s skull was dislodged – turns out it was a +3 vorpal longsword (snicker-snack, mofo’s!) made for human pets kept by giants during the ancient wars between the giants and dragons.
They know that Red Wizards are here to grab either the young god Acererak is growing or the battery he’s using to grow it.
The Red Wizards do not know about the party’s access to the Godroads. They are keeping it as their hidden ace.
The Queen of Feathers side-stepped through reality to gain access to a wall she should have not been able to climb with her natural gifts. She wandered northward after taking a grievous headwound.
Jusko was frustrated by the whole mess and suggested the Red Wizards relocate to a nearby pillar of earth that he thought was easier to defend than their camp. They agreed and moved.
Failed Soldier, Corpseflea Grave Cleric and Trundle, Dwarf Ranger, both leveled up.
Next game – the Red Wizards will toss up a series of distractions while the party sneaks into the Night Snake’s Fane to get the key-cubes the Yuan-ti have in hand.
Used the Insight rules as Jusko took stock of the Red Wizards as they ate their first good meal in a long while.
5e enemies have LOTS of hit points. Dag. Still, they put a hurt on the Queen of Feathers.
Next session will start with another bang, looking forward to it.
NOTE: Trusted friends told me my math was off. Hence the crossed off numbers. This is a work in progress.
Your character meets an NPC and you don’t trust them, not one bit. They are hiding something but you aren’t sure what. Roll the dice, then role-play a bit and step out of character to ask the DM questions as they occur to you or role-play through and ask the questions at the end.
DC 5 – a little detail, if you are going against a skilled liar and they rolled better than you, it might be something planted to lead you the wrong way. The DM can ask 1-2 questions to get information that the NPC has picked up about you.
DC 10 7 – Ask the DM one question about the NPC you are evaluating but the DM may ask you a question because the NPC gets a read on you too.
DC 15 12 – Ask the DM one question about the NPC you are evaluating.
DC 20 17 – Ask the DM two questions about the NPC you are evaluating.
DC 25 22 – Ask the DM three questions about the NPC you are evaluating.
DC 30 27 – Ask the DM three questions about the NPC you are evaluating and they will tell you any remarkable statistics.
The questions should be things Sherlock Holmes could pick up about a suspect. The DM might ask you how you picked up such information from your interaction with the NPC; feel free to make up cool shit about how your character picked that up.
An opposed Deception roll can add to the DC and/or let the NPC pick up details on the character trying to learn about them.(NOTE: A trusted friend says this opposed roll will make this endeavor all but mathematically impossible. Noting this here while we discuss it).
From Matt Weber:
So, here’s the deal. By RAW, to make an Insight check against an NPC, you roll their Deception against the PC’s Insight. Many GMs will also just use the NPC’s Passive Deception, which is 10+(whatever their modifier is). Either way is valid, but that of course is using a binary pass / fail model, rather than your more interesting gradations.
If you have a set DC *and* the NPC gets to add their entire roll to that DC, that’s “double dipping” because fixed DCs are essentially supposed to replace a roll of the d20+(skill mod). Many NPCs don’t have much in the way of Deception, it’s true, but those that are trained in it could easily have +9 or higher.
UPDATE: Rather than a Perception vs. Insight roll…
If the villain has Deception, roll to see how ensconced they are in the area. Their Deception check is an optional roll to get an idea of how well their lies are covered. A good roll could get local NPC’s covering for them or insisting that their lie is truth, depending on the context. You don’t need to roll for this kind of thing but if you are building this situation on the fly, it can help give background.
When the dice hit the table, the status quo is going to be upended, tables will be flipped and secrets will be spilled.
After 4 sessions in Tomb of Annihilation adventure, the players landed their pterodactyls in the Lost City of Omu. 1 session was getting to Port Nyanzaru, another couple of sessions shopping and dinosaur racing in the city and another flying pterodactyls across Chult.
This is our second session have switching over to 5e. The party just got to 3rd level.
They decided to land on a pillar of land above the lava, hoping that the lack of easy access would keep them safe.
Their Gnome-inventor friend, Dosk, is setting up her equipment to see if she can figure out exactly where the Soulmonger is pulling the ghosts.
“I am going to use the Gem of True Seeing to make sure no invisible wizards fly in and sneak up on us,” Kuru said, right before a pair of Red Wizards tried to fly in invisible and take stock of them. Contact was made and the group was invited to the Red Wizards’ wreckage of a camp.
Jusko was worried about the letter of introduction Vandrilla Shadowmantle gave them to give to the Red Wizards, worried they might get Rosencrantz-&-Guildenstern’d.
Kuru removed the wax seal and Bugwump read the letter in ancient Mulhandori. It was legit, no coded kill-orders.
They split the party – Failed Soldier (Corpseflea Cleric of the Grave) and Trundle (Dwarven Ranger) looked into the Godroad entrance near the shrine to an ancient Omu God while Jusko (Human Fighter) and Bugwump (Frog-kin Wizard) took Pterodactyls to make contact with the Red Wizards.
Kuru remained at camp with the guides and the remaining steeds, using his spyglass to keep track of things.
The camp was a mess, having just survived a Yuan-ti attack. Bugwump corrected their assessment of the Yuan-ti as “snake people” repeatedly. Jusko invited the Red Wizards to dinner at their place that night.
Failed Soldier and Trundle looked at the local Godroads, making contact with an ancient Omuan deity who Trundle took into his flesh for the power of Invisibility.
They could see the other shrines to the other Omuan deities and some fell shrines in a temple complex that would turn out to be run by the Yuan-ti.
On their way home, Jusko and Bugwump are hit by a flurry of arrows from Yuan-ti scouts who were watching their approach. The archers targeted their pterodactyls, killing one.
Jusko and Bugwump wade in and drive 3 of the 5 scouts away with spell and steel.
Kuru sees something moving towards Jusko and Bugwump from the north of the city.
The Queen of Feathers, a legendary t-rex with a beautiful ridge of black and blue feathers, attracted to the sounds of dying pterodactyls is making her way south. It has a sword stuck in it skull, flesh and bone healed over it, from someone who tried to kill her and failed.
Next game will begin with Yuan-ti, Red Wizards, Queen of Feathers and a few new faces colliding as Trundle and Failed Soldier enter the fray from a nearby shrine-door from the Godroads.
The amount of hit points things have in 5e is shocking to me after months of 5 Torches Deep. I’m wondering if an E5 hack would be the way to go. I’ll give 5e a go for a while.
I think I got distracted by the combat and maybe didn’t split up the spotlight time as well as I should’ve. Something to watch out for in the future.
Using the Bingo Style Experience Points, we started the game writing up the outer ring of the Bingo Board. Bingo chips can be taken off the board to be used as Inspiration.
The covered squares from this session are: Discovered Secret Lore, Earned the Trust of a Wondrous Ally, Added a New Detail to the Map, Built a Bridge (relations with the Red Wizards).
After reading over the full Tomb of the Nine Gods, I’m trimming that dungeon way, way back. More on that later…
Once upon a time in Innistrad there was a werewolf…
Lots of talk about funny voices, world building, narrative decisions and encounter design but I rarely see folks talk about the skill behind GMing during character creation. It is a subtle thing and if done right can solve or uncover 99% of other problems that might have hit the table down the road.
I was chatting with a good friend, Tom, on twitter because I know he’s hungry to game and is a Magic the Gathering fan. I asked him a question because I thought he’d enjoy it. The conversation is an interesting way to dissect what would have happened in 2 minutes at the table but is slowed down in amber on the twitter.
I chose Innistrad because of Tom’s link to Magic the Gathering; I know he’d know the lore. I chose D&D because I know that is a game he’s familiar with and likes. Going to switch to screen shots.
Tom: Werewolf Shaman.
Tom: I was thinking in terms of Magic creature types. In DnD terms, that’s probably a human druid werewolf.
I jumped into the Innistrad pdf but didn’t read it too carefully – no need to just yet. Skimmed for werewolf material. You can see the details I found in my skim below:
Judd: Solo hunter or park of a howlpack? In doomed love with a Stromkirk vampire (name chosen because it was the ony I liked the sound of)? Mother heads up a witch coven?
Now I’m on the hunt. I want some Situation. In Sorcerer terms, I’m looking for something kickerish, somewhere to start the game that has…if you’ll forgive the pun…teeth.
Tom: Solo. More comfortable alone in the wilderness than with a pack. No. Detests vampires and other unnatural undead things. Mother and father both minor Thraben nobility/knights who morn their “missing” son.
He shrugged off my first two attempts to find a handhold on this character and then hands me the campaign in the third sentence. I have no idea what Thraben means and didn’t need it to get started. I’ll do the deeper lore reads later. I would’ve dug into it more if I didn’t feel like I had enough.
I felt like I had enough.
First game/first scene – You wake up having devoured a noble entourage. They were on their way to your ancestral home, upon closer inspection they were on their way to a wedding, the name on the wedding invitation is yours. How is that possible?
I have no idea what any of this means yet. I will know what is afoot before we begin play. I’d think that the answer will be inspired by lore. Not only do I have the free pdf but I bet I can find Innistrad-related cards and their bite-sized lore chunks online. That stuff is perfect for us. I’ve gotten to this point and had a lukewarm response or found that I had setting assumptions that the player didn’t have. It happens and it means I have to circle back or toss an idea into the scrap-heap or ask questions to figure out what is wrong,
Sometimes the whole concept is wrong or it is too much like something they just played or too close to real trauma or brushes against a trope they detest. It happens; that is why this stage is about questions and brainstorming – fast and furious – and not deep lore dives or heavy labor just yet.
Not this time, though.
Tom: OK! I’m in. When we playing? Who is actually getting married? Do I recognize the names? I also want to search the remaining belongings very carefully for clues.
Hell yeah. This is where I had to make the shitty adult communication that with everything going on in my life, I don’t think I’ll have a moment for a new game until autumn but the good news is we have a game ready to roll and if I visit NJ, we know what we can do should we meet up and have an afternoon together.
Ask questions, act on the answers, listen, empathize, expand and know when to STOP. Don’t give it all away during character creation. Save something for play.
This kind of collaboration makes the game much easier to run and heads off problems before they occur. It is not necessary for every game. With some games the players randomly generate a character and jump into play with both feet but even then I take a moment and just ask a few questions.
Questions and comments welcome. How do you deal with character creation?