Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Sunfall Cycle Playtesting Rules: Character Creation, "Dark Souls," The Clock

Now that we've had two episodes of The Sunfall Cycle, it's time to look at some smaller rules.

Let's take a look at this part of the dungeon:

Character Creation Rules

  • Allowed books are: Player’s Handbook, Xanathar’s Guide, Dungeon Master’s Guide
    • I've allowed these books specifically mostly because they're the books I own!  Also, I personally am not a huge fan of monstrous PCs, because I like my monsters to be truly monstrous.  If players can be Goblins just as easily as Human, then all of a sudden, slaying a dungeon full of Goblins becomes an exercise in grotesquery.  But if Goblins are the fantasy equivalent of the xenomorph... let's just say that, colonialist underpinnings of D&D aside, that's a world structure I'm more comfortable playing in.
  • Stats: standard array, point buy, or rolled
    • Geoff (Armaros) decided to roll his stats; he rolled a wider spread, with some obvious peaks and valleys.  His original roll was even worse, so I let him reroll two new results, and then trade out one of his low rolls for one of the new results.  Ultimately, I think he's got a pretty balanced set of stats!  (18, 15, 13, 9, 7, 11)
  • No feats, no multiclassing- working together and playing clever is the key to success in the dungeon!
    • A certain structure of D&D since 3rd Edition has valued powergaming and optimized builds.  I want this game to be about learning how to play D&D better as a team, rather than learning how to take the proper character options to powergame your own individual character.  For that reason, there's no feats or multiclassing in The Sunfall Cycle.  I'm hoping this not only pushes more group cooperation, but also pushes my players to rely more on cleverness than on taking strong feats.

Dark Souls Rules

  • Entering the dungeon from the Gardens of the Moon, taking a long rest at a Sunfire Brazier, or a party wipe all cause combat encounters to respawn.  Certain modifications to the dungeon are unchanged by this; opened doors, secret passages, ladders, elevators, or other shortcuts- once activated- remain available even after these events.
    • Certain enemies in the dungeon have been "shadowburned"- burned skin, black pools of shadow for eyes.  For whatever reason, when time is reset, these foul creatures return.  Though no one knows what foul energies control the life force of these creatures- they're certainly not undead- perhaps answers lie deeper within the palace complex itself...
    • 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons asserts that a single "adventuring day" can contain as many as 6-8 encounters; a number I've never seen reached in my four years of playing.  The Sunfall Cycle emulates Soulsborne rules in order to encourage players to push themselves further; players low on spells and hit points, knowing their progress through the dungeon will be reset, might choose to press on and fight with ingenuity rather than saying "let's camp for the night."
    • In the style of Dark Souls, unlocking a powerful shortcut can be almost as rewarding as locating the next Sunfire Brazier.
  • You may only take a long rest at a Sunfire Brazier.  This takes no time; simply touching the warmth of the Sunfire Brazier is sufficient to restore yourselves.
    • But triggering this ritual also resets time, and returns all shadowburned creatures to their single-minded existence... 
  • You may take a short rest anywhere; a short rest costs 10 minutes.
    • The lengths of light and rests have been adjusted to correspond to a clock- detailed below- with 10 segments, where each segment is 10 minutes long.  This allows for clear and concise time keeping, as well as putting a pressure on players to achieve goals within a comprehensible time frame.  The pressure of the clock motivates players to efficiency!
  • If any characters die in combat, a survivor can revive all fallen players with 10 minutes of medical attention.
    • This one action revives all fallen players, restoring them to 1hp.
      • If these characters want to take a short rest to recover from their plight... that's another 10 minutes off the clock!  Losing a character in a fight isn't the end, but definitely throws a wrench in the party's plans.
    • Characters revived in this way take 1 level of Exhaustion.
      • Characters who die are not removed from play, but there IS a long-term penalty to the group's total efficiency if characters die in combat!  Exhaustion slows down the affected character, reducing their contributions.  Death isn't the end, but it's still something to be avoided.
  • A single Long Rest removes all levels of Exhaustion, and all spent Hit Dice.
    • Given that a long rest no longer takes any time, but is more like a magical ritual, there's no benefit to having Exhaustion removed 1 step at a time, or to returning half of the PCs' hit dice.  Taking a long rest is intended to be the "okay you all start fresh, but so does the dungeon"- let's skip over everything else and get right back into it.
  • If the party wipes, you all awaken in the Gardens of the Moon, fully restored.
    • I think we'll find out a little more about what's happening here... in time....

The Clock

Due to strange forces and arcane magics unseen, the dungeon is slowly collapsing in time- when the dungeon finally collapses, you respawn at your last Sunfire Brazier, and the clock is refilled.

  • Every time you enter the dungeon, you have 10 segments on the clock before the dungeon collapses.
    • Each Segment is 10 minutes long!
      • This gives the dungeon a clear structure; there are 10 "major events" that can happen before everything resets.  Every time something big happens, I can just check off one segment from the clock.
  • The following actions tick down 1 segment off the clock:
    • Fighting a fight.  Between the combat itself and catching your breath after, a fight advances the clock.
    • Taking a short rest.  You must dedicate your collective efforts to recovery during this period.
    • Common skill-based actions that invoke a risk of discovery or failure: Picking a lock, Disarming a trap, Hacking down a door, Climbing a challenging ascent, etc.
    • Any improvised action that would take a decent chunk of time and effort- for example, carrying a crate of heavy stone statue pieces from a few rooms away and down a narrow flight of spiral stairs.
    • Having an extended conversation with an NPC, when the GM deems it appropriate.  Talking amongst yourselves will never advance the clock.
      • These events ticking down segments of the clock makes time tracking easier, and also imposes clear penalties for the classic "I try bashing down the door AGAIN, until I succeed!"  Every failure is a strike against the clock.
      • The pressure of the clock encourages players to work together, to be clever, to focus on their objectives for this foray into the dungeon, and rewards lucky skill check rolls while imposing a reasonable consequence for failed skill checks- something that traditionally doesn't exist in Dungeons & Dragons.
      • Having a clock with 10 segments of 10 minutes each also asks for a reevaluation of the duration of light sources;
        • Candles burn for 30 minutes and then are gone.
        • Torches have a 10 minute "use interval"- the first is free, test at the end of the second to see if you're "low", once you're low you're out.  Torches last at least 30 minutes, but on average, 50-60.  You'll probably need two to light your full delve.
        • Lamps have a 20 minute "use interval"- lamps last at least 60 minutes, but on average 100-120; so you're likely to get through a full delve with a single flask of oil.

That's it?

Yep!  That's it.  What are your thoughts?  Questions?  Comments?  Concerns?  Fire away in the comments section below!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Sunfall Cycle Playtesting Rules: Equipment and Encumbrance

Hello friends!  Recently I ran a twitter poll asking if folks would want to buy playtesting rules for The Sunfall Cycle before they're final- about 35% of folks are interested, but I got the suggestion to instead just publish them on my blog, and then sell them when they ARE final!

So... without further ado... Here we are:

(There are some easy examples at the bottom!)

Slot-Based Equipment and Encumbrance for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

5e’s standard rules for Encumbrance are based on calculating your maximum carrying weight, and then adding up the weights of all the items you have equipped or are carrying- which could be dozens of individual items.

That’s a lot of math.  I wanted a 5e compatible system that:
  • Doesn’t ask me to do math;
  • Reduces the number of items I have to think about down to ~5-10, MAX;
  • Simplifies Ammo and Resource tracking;
  • Adds meaning to the choices I made when I decided what to bring with me.

I give you… [NAME REDACTED].


Encumbrance At a Glance

Item Size

Items have a size attribute that determines how they fit into slots.  The general rule is:
  • Anything the size of your forearm or larger is Large, and occupies one slot.
  • Anything smaller than your forearm is Small, and fits three-to-a-slot.
  • Anything smaller than your fist is Trivial, and doesn’t count against slots.

There’s one main exception, which is that “a set of weapons” (Longsword and Shield, two Shortswords, a Bow and its Arrows, etc) always fits into one slot.

Carrying Slots

You have about 4-7 “carrying slots” total, depending on your Strength.  You can equip whatever fictionally makes sense, but when you’re carrying an item, it has to go in a slot.  They are:

  1. Equipment Slot 1
  2. Equipment Slot 2
  3. Equipment Slot 3
  4. Belt Slot
    • May only carry Small or Trivial items, like Healing Potions
    • Can be accessed immediately in combat
  5. Back Slot
    • May carry a Backpack, which has STR+1 slots, with a minimum of at least 2, and a maximum of 6.
    • If you carry more than STR+1 (min 2) slots filled, you have disadvantage on your rolls.
    • Requires an action to access a stowed item in combat
  6. (Optional) Class Slot
    • Carries class-required items for free; like a Bard’s instrument, or a Wizard’s spellbook.
    • Can be accessed immediately in combat

Thrown weapons, Ammo, Light Sources

If you’re carrying one slot’s worth of Ammo (eg, a bow and its arrows), Thrown weapons (eg, Handaxes), or Light Sources, then after every encounter (for ammo), use (for thrown weapons), or 10 minutes (for light sources) you make a test.  Roll 1d6: on a 1-2, you’re running low and have only one use left.  If you’re carrying two slots’ worth of Ammo, Thrown weapons, or Light Sources, you’ll never run out under normal use.  When you buy ammunition, thrown weapons, or light sources as listed in the Player’s Handbook, rather than buying a set number, you’re buying “one slot’s worth.”

Equipment Kits

Equipment kits are bundles of items.  You can use a normal equipment kit a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus.  When you mark off one use of an equipment kit, you produce an item from the kit’s item list; you had it with you all along.  Treat this new item as is fictionally appropriate; rations may be consumed, a rope might or might not get stuck depending on a skill check, etc.  If you want to bring the item with you, put it in a slot!

Carrying Slots

If you’re fan of video games, you might be familiar with the idea of inserting items into slots on a “paper doll” of your character, to equip them.  THESE slots, however, aren’t “equipped slots”- they’re “carrying slots.”  These slots limit what you can carry- not what you can wear or equip.  Fill ‘em all, and then you’re done!  That’s it!  If you carry any more, you’re at disadvantage on everything until you unburden yourself.

You can equip whatever fits in the fiction; if you’re holding your sword, you have it equipped.  If you have two rings, a necklace, and a magical cloak on, they’re equipped.  If you have fourteen bracelets on your left arm and your DM doesn’t bat an eye?  They’re equipped, and you don’t need to account for them in your carrying slots.

But… if you’re already carrying: a Longsword, a Bow and its Arrows, a belt full of Healing Potions, a Holy Symbol, and a Backpack containing a Climbing Kit, a Medical Kit, and Torches- AND you want to carry that golden idol you found?  Better shuffle some things around, or hope you’re fairly strong!

The Slots, In Detail

You have the following character slots, and- depending on your class- might have access to a special Class Slot.

Generally, any slot can be filled with anything, with one exception- a Backpack can only be worn in the Back Slot.  Below you’ll see a list of each of the slots, and a suggestion for how to fill them- but you can feel free to be creative!

Equipment Slot 1
  • Quick build: Put your first weapon set here, such as your Javelins, or your Bow and Arrows!

 Equipment Slot 2
  • Quick build: Put a second weapon set here, such as your Longsword and Shield, or two Shortswords!

Equipment Slot 3
  • Quick build: Put a second weapon set here, such as your Longsword and Shield, or two Shortswords!

Belt Slot (Quick Slot)
  • Quick build: Put three small items you want instant in-combat access to here!
    • Three vials of poison; Three scrolls; A healing potion, a portable hole, and a component pouch, etc.
  • Items in your belt are freely accessible during combat, and don’t take an action to retrieve.

Back Slot (Backpack Slot)
  • Quick build: Put a backpack here!
  • If you put something here that’s not a backpack, it’s freely accessible during combat.

Bag Slots (Inside Backpack): 1+STR, Min 2
  • Items inside your Backpack are Stowed, and must be retrieved before they can be used. 
    • In combat, it costs an Action to retrieve an item from your Backpack, or to Stow it back.
    • Make smart use of your Belt Slot for in-combat items like potions and scrolls!
  • A Backpack gives you a number of additional slots equal to 1 + your Strength modifier, but a minimum of 2 slots.
    • Rune Diggler has a Strength of 7, with a mod of -2.  His backpack gives him 2 additional slots (because a backpack gives a minimum of 2 slots).
    • Brother Brad Incognito has a strength of 16, with a mod of +3.  His backpack gives him 4 additional slots (because his Strength modifier is 3… plus 1 for the backpack).
  • If you go over this number, you are Encumbered, and have Disadvantage on everything you do; a Backpack provides a maximum of 6 slots total.

Class Slot (Optional, depending on Class)
  • A “free slot” which can contain one class-required item while it’s not in use, such as:
    • Bard: one musical instrument
    • Cleric or Paladin: one holy symbol
    • Druid: one druidic focus
    • Sorcerer, Warlock, or Wizard: one arcane focus, component pouch, or a wizard’s spellbook
  • DM’s, be a little forgiving with this one.  Any one thing that a character MUST HAVE to do their class thing?  That class can put that thing here, by virtue of their class training.
  • Items in your class slot are freely accessible, and do not take an action to retrieve.  You have learned to keep these items close at hand!

What fits into a slot?

Remember!  Generally speaking, if it’s forearm-or-bigger, it’s Large: one slot.  Smaller, it’s Small: three-to-a-slot!  Smaller than your fist, it’s Trivial: free.
  • A longsword?  10’ pole?  Takes one slot.
  • Healing potions?  Magical Scrolls?  A book?  Three to a slot.
  • Rings?  Bracelets?  Gems?  Gold coins?  Free.

Here are some specific exceptions and clarifications on the general rule.  Each of the following can fit into one slot:
  • One usable weapon set.  Any of the following options takes up one slot:
    • A single one-handed or Versatile melee weapon and a Shield
    • A Two-Handed melee weapon
    • Any two melee weapons, if both have the Light tag (ie, two Shortswords!)
    • A single Ranged weapon and a bundle of its ammunition
      • See below, under Thrown Weapons, Ammo, Light
    • A handful of Thrown weapons
      • See below, under Thrown Weapons, Ammo, Light
  • A full set of clothes, or a full suit of armor
    • If it’s carried, rather than equipped!  Remember, these are Carrying Slots.
  • An Equipment Kit
    • See below, under Equipment Kits
  • A Quiver of Ammo or a handful of Thrown weapons
    • See below, under Thrown Weapons, Ammo, Light
  • A Bundle of Torches, or a Flask of Oil
    • See below, under Thrown Weapons, Ammo, Light
  • A sizable Treasure
    • A priceless Vase
    • A jade statue
    • A masterwork painting, etc

And of course, some things don’t take up slots at all.  They’re free!
  • Coins and Gems
    • Nobody wants to count coins and gems.  These go into your Wallet, into a magical mystery place that can hold an infinite amount of Coins and Gems.
    • Finding a gold statue with engravings of supplicating dwarves and angry elephants?  Awesome.  Finding 5 sapphires?  Awesomer.
  • Small Jewelry
    • Rings, Necklaces, Bracelets, etc
  • Small flavor items from Backgrounds, such as:
    • A prayer book or prayer wheel
    • A lock of hair from an admirer
    • A letter of introduction from your guild
    • A scroll of pedigree
    • A trophy from an animal you killed
    • Etc.

Equipment and Resources

Thrown weapons, Ammo, Light Sources

Thrown Weapons, Ammo, and Light Sources have Use Intervals as follows:
  • Thrown Weapons Use Interval: Per Use
  • Ammo Use Interval: Per Encounter
  • Torch Use Interval: Per 10 Minutes
  • Lantern Use Interval: Per 20 Minutes

Two Slots

If you have filled two carrying slots with the same Thrown Weapon, Ammo, or Light Source, then you effectively have an infinite amount of this resource for normal use.  If you use these items in a special, unusual, creative, or highly consuming way, you roll a 1d6; on a 1 or 2, you emptied one of your slots, and must start tracking your use as indicated below.

Example: Torches
Rune Diggler brought two slots worth of Torches, and will never run out of torches to light his way.  He wants to burn down a big oak door, so he lights a handful of them and sticks them at the base.  The door catches a merry blaze, and Rune rolls 1d6 to see if he needs to empty one of his slots; he gets lucky, rolling a 6!  He’s got plenty of torches left.

One Slot

If you’ve only brought one slot of Ammo, Thrown Weapons, or a Light Source, then the following rules apply:
  • Your first “use interval” of this resource is free.  Don’t test.
  • At the end of your second and subsequent Use Intervals, roll 1d6.  On a 1-2, you’re Low: you have enough of this resource for one more Use Interval.
  • When you spend that final Use Interval, you run out.

Thrown weapons are special; if you’ve run out, you can use an action to pick one up.  At the end of the encounter, you recover all of your thrown weapons, and start fresh in the following encounter.

With this, you never track individual items; you always have at minimum 3 use intervals with you, on average you’ll get 5 use intervals, and if you’re lucky, much more.

Example: Ammo
Dess Lackle Morny Ny brought a Shortbow and its Arrows- effectively, she has one slot of ammo.  She fights some orcs, shooting them all.  This is her first Use Interval for her arrows, so she does not test.  She then later shoots some goblins across a bridge; at the end of this encounter, she rolls a 1d6 to see if she’s running low.  She rolls a 5; she’s fine.  At the end of her third encounter, slaying some cursed wolves, she tests again, rolling a 2; she knows she has enough arrows left for only one more fight.  If she’d brought a second slot of Arrows, she wouldn’t have to track it at all.

Example: Thrown Weapons
Rat likes throwing daggers.  She’s fighting with her friend against some Orcs.  She throws one dagger, which is her first Use Interval, so she doesn’t test.  After throwing her second dagger, she tests to see if she’s running low: bad luck, she rolled a 1.  She has one dagger left.  She throws it, and on the next turn she ducks down behind a barrel to pick up one of the daggers she threw earlier.

At the end of the fight, she grabs all of her thrown daggers and stuffs them back in her bandolier, ready to tackle the goblins.  Of course, if she brought a second slot of daggers, she wouldn’t need to worry about it.

Example: Torches
Rune Diggler brought one slot’s worth of Torches.  He lights one, and begins tracking.  He gets 10 minutes of light for free.  At the end of the second 10 minutes, he tests to see if his torch is running low, rolling a 3.  He’s fine for now.  He keeps going, getting lucky- at the end of 50 minutes, he tests, rolling a 2.  He knows he’ll be out of light at the end of the next 10 minute segment; but then, 60 minutes of light from a torch is pretty good.  If he wanted, he could bring a second slot of Torches and not worry about it at all.

Food and Drink

Food, drink, and other pleasantries can be produced from certain Equipment Kits, below.

Generally speaking, adventurers are highly capable; they can forage, scrounge, or hunt for what they need, and we don’t track their food or water intake.  However, at certain moments, a little luxury can make all the difference.

When you take a short or long rest, you may consume rations, drink water, wine or ale, or share a relaxing pipe together.  These items are spent and marked off, and confer the following benefits:

  • Rations: If you share rations over a short rest, anyone who spent hit dice to heal may reroll the amount healed and take the higher of the two rolls.
  • Drink: If you share water, wine, or ale over a short or long rest, everyone may gain temporary hit points equal to their level.
  • Pipe tobacco, fine liquor, luxuries: If you share pipe tobacco, fine liquor, or other luxuries over a short or long rest, each of you may tell a short tale from your past.  If you do, you gain inspiration.

Sharing any of these with folk who enjoy them confers an advantage on social interactions.

Equipment Kits

When you buy an Equipment Kit, you are preparing yourself for your journey ahead, by guaranteeing you can do a certain activity.  An Equipment Kit is a bundle of items and takes up one slot.

A Normal Equipment Kit can be used a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus.

Each Equipment Kit has an associated list of items.  Each time you use an Equipment Kit, you can pull forth a single item on its list of items; you had it with you all along, and can use it now.

Arcanist’s Kit
Normal: 25gp
+2 Uses: 50gp
  • One use of the Arcanist’s kit allows you to pull out any one of these items:
  • Candles (5) (and Tinderbox)
  • Chalk
  • Hammer
  • Manacles
  • Mirror, Steel
  • Needle, Silver
  • Spikes, Iron (10)
  • Stakes, Wood (3)
  • Vial

Criminal’s Kit
Normal: 25gp
+2 Uses: 50gp
One use of the Criminal’s Kit allows you to pull out any one of these items:
  • Ball Bearings (Bag of 1,000)
  • Bell
  • Caltrops (bag of 20)
  • Crowbar
  • Fishing tackle
  • Hammer, Sledge
  • Mirror, Steel
  • Signal Whistle
  • String (10 feet)

Dungeoneer’s Kit
Normal: 25gp
+2 Uses: 50gp
One use of the Dungeoneer’s Kit allows you to pull out any one of these items:
  • Block and Tackle
  • Chain (10 feet)
  • Grappling Hook
  • Hammer
  • Pick (Miner’s) or Shovel
  • Pitons (10)
  • Pole (10-foot)
  • Rations to share
  • Rope, Hemp (50 feet)

Entertainer’s Kit
Normal: 25gp
+2 Uses: 50gp
One use of the Entertainer’s Kit allows you to pull out any one of these items:
  • Blanket
  • Cards or Dice
  • Clothes: Common, Costume, or Traveler’s
  • Flasks or Tankards (6)
  • Jug or pitcher of ale or wine
  • Rations to share
  • Pipe and tobacco to share
  • Waterskin

Explorer’s Kit
Normal: 25gp
+2 Uses: 50gp
One use of the Explorer’s Kit allows you to pull out any one of these items:
  • Bedroll
  • Hammer
  • Hunting Trap
  • Rations to share
  • Rope, Hemp (50 Feet)
  • Spikes, Iron (10)
  • Tent, Two-Person
  • Waterskin

Scribe’s Kit
Normal: 25gp
+2 Uses: 50gp
One use of the Scribe’s Kit allows you to pull out any one of these items:
  • Abacus
  • Candles (5) (and Tinderbox)
  • Case, Map or Scroll
  • Ink (1 ounce bottle) and Ink Pen
  • Paper (5 sheets)
  • Perfume (vial)
  • Sealing Wax (and Tinderbox)
  • Signet Ring

Some Examples In Action:


Armaros, a human fighter, has a strength of 18 (+4).  His equipment list looks like this:

He has:
  • Armor: wearing his Chain Mail armor- this doesn't count against his carrying slots, because he has it equipped and is wearing it!
  • Equipment Slot 1: A longsword and shield
  • Equipment Slot 2: a Light Crossbow and its Bolts
    • Note that Armaros doesn't have a second set of Bolts!  Each encounter, he will have to test to see if he's running low... or just buy a quiver of bolts.
  • Equipment Slot 3: Empty
  • Belt Slots: All empty, are flagged with a reminder that they can only fit **Small** items
  • Back Slot: He has a Bag, which has a capacity of 5 slots (Strength bonus of +4, plus 1), and a maximum of 6: 5/6
  • Bag Slot 1: A Go set
  • Bag Slot 2: Common Clothes
  • Bag Slot 3: A Dungeoneer's Kit with two uses
  • Bag Slot 4: Empty
  • Bag Slot 5: Empty
  • Bag Slot 6: Empty, but if he fills it, he'll be Encumbered, and have disadvantage on all rolls
  • Trivial Items:
    • An Insignia of Rank, and an Ear from an Enemy.
Armaros, being a Fighter, doesn't have a need for a Class slot, so he doesn't have one.
Armaros, being very strong, has lots of extra room for carrying more gear if he wants.

Let's see a different example:


Enkara, a wood elf druid, has a strength of 8 (-1).  Her equipment list looks like this:

Just to go over the key differences:
  • Enkara has a Class slot, because she has a Druidic Focus!
  • Enkara uses a Shortbow and Arrows, and doesn't want to ever run out of Arrows, so she's filled her Equipment Slot 3 with A Quiver of Arrows
  • Enkara has a strength of 8, so her Bag only offers her 2 slots (Strength Mod + 1 = 0, but a minimum of 2 slots- so she gets 2)
  • Notice that, in contrast to Armaros, Enkara is full up; she can't carry anything else major without either dropping something, or becoming encumbered.

What are your thoughts?  Please feel free to try this out at your tables, and tell me how it goes!


  • How would a bag of holding work in this system??
    • This is the most common question I get!  The answer is, like this:
    • A Bag of Holding costs 1 slot.  It contains 10 slots!  However, it costs 1dX actions to pull out the item you want, (where X is the number of items in the bag).
      • Basically, it lets you carry WAY more than you would normally be able to, but it's not convenient to access!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

30 Minutes: Monsters

(Okay, I actually spent 60 minutes writing...)

CW: death, drowning, body horror.

I'm updating the seed to 2d6, aka 11 possibilities!  Better bell curve.

2: Essay: "Concerning ________" (roll again; on this result, Concerning Players) 
3: Dungeons
4: Tricks
5: Treasure
6: Npcs
7: Gods
8: Adventure Hooks
9: Monsters
10: Traps
11: Dungeon Rooms
12: Diseases or Poisons

The Dice Roll:

2d6 result: 9: Monsters

Incrementing the Chart

For next time:

2: Diseases or Poisons
3: Essay: "Concerning ________" (roll again; on this result, Concerning Players) 
4: Dungeons
5: Tricks
6: Treasure
7: Npcs
8: Gods
9: Adventure Hooks
10: Monsters
11: Traps
12: Dungeon Rooms


The average monster stat block fails to inspire me pretty significantly.  The average monster description isn't much better.  I've been trying to think about what it is about some monsters that light my fire, while many don't!  I think perhaps the thing about monsters is they're only as scary as their fictional positioning- and most modern Monster Manuals don't deliver on the promise of the Monster, from a fictional positioning perspective.  Slender Man isn't scary because he has 15' reach and if he hits he strangles for 2d6 damage each round.  Slender Man is scary because of where he lives, and how he expresses threat, and the targets he chooses- because of his fictional positioning.

Especially when so many monsters are just... intelligent races that attack the "Good" races?  Why am I killing these goblins and orcs again?  Shouldn't we send some emissaries to negotiate with them?  Establish trade?  Help relieve their environmental pressures so they stop attacking us?

Is a goblin just a "short green humanoid with sharp teeth, sharp nose, sharp ears, and sharp eyes?  They favor sharp daggers and love to pretend they're surrendering, before redoubling the attack?"  

"They shout Bree-Yark?"


Or is a goblin the manifestation of greed- the greed humans feel for the things other humans own?  Living things, mostly.  First they come for small working animals- cats, dogs.  Vanished in the night, stolen from the edges of civilized land.  Sometimes they show up later, slain- a warning.  The first sign of goblin infestation is often, in fact, rats- an overabundance of rats, where cats and small dogs would once have kept them at bay.  But goblins don't stop there.  An untreated goblin infestation grows- one goblin is a threat, five an atrocity.  

After pets, livestock are stolen away at night- prized cows, sheep, goats disappeared or slain, their meat spoiled.  After livestock... children... and then adults.  You might catch glimpses of them in the woods- their pale white almost translucent skin flashing as they duck into the brush.  At night, the glow of their eyes can make you think that lost pet is just lurking out of sight, maybe a bit feral now.  You might approach, hand held out, a treat extended to coax Whiskers back to you... this is a mistake.

Goblins never attack unless they are sure of the kill, and they are excellent at staying hidden.  Their needle sharp fangs drive straight for the throat, their claws razor sharp to rend skin.  They don't eat or drink from what they kill- nobody knows how they subsist.  The infest the dark crevices of the earth, yes, but where possible, they prefer the abandoned remnants of humanity.  They act out mock plays of life in there, small rituals, cooking eating, spats and feuds, ritual without substance, almost like clockwork.  If they are ever seen engaging in this, they fly into a frenzy- they will accept no evidence of their secret pantomimes.

"Okay" you might say.  "So a cat goes missing, the town gets their torches, and flushes the goblin out of the woods and slay it.  No big threat."


Only, Goblins have an instinct for choosing their targets.  The farmer who had a bad year, the one everyone looks down on?  The man trying to raise his two boys, who everyone whispers about?  The hedge witch whose services everyone needs, and resents needing?  When these people run through town, tears on their face, pleading and panicked... who listens?

The pain of the Goblin is that they target those who are the most genuinely attached to what they hold dear- and also the least likely to elicit sympathy from their peers.  In this way the Goblins grow, drip fed, until it is too late...

There are rumors of occasional towns who have had Goblin infestations vanish- usually after some wide-spread common outcry, mock trial, and sentencing of someone very well established and connected.  Usually the person who, for some reason or other, is benefiting the most as a byproduct of the attacks and uncertainty.  The Coveter In Chief.

But we all know how likely that is.


Monsters, then, aren't just "apex predators" or "bad people-things"- monsters are inextricably tied to our humanity.

The Tentacleel

There is a stream in the woods where once lovers lay.  They would meet there, and whisper sweet songs into each others ears.  A popular spot, spoken of behind hands, in shadow.  Where the sun shines bright on the banks, and a strong tree grows out over the swift and deep currents- perhaps a rope hangs from its bough.

We all know the place.

Swift, cold water hides many dangers, but is it not the folly of youth to believe their invincibility?

"You should have been more careful"

"I warned you that boy was nothing but heartbreak"

"I told you not to go to the stream"

The tentacleel wants nothing so much as warmth and companionship.  It is drawn to the places where such things are on display, and it waits.  It waits, until that joyous moment when a companion deigns to join it, deep in the dark waters, so warm and soft.  The tentacleel holds on tight, as long as it can- days, certainly- sometimes weeks.  Until there's nothing left to hold, until everything has sifted out, washing downstream.  

But that's okay.  Mourners so often pay it visits, that it's just a matter of time, really.

Death Adder

It is a fact of life that life is finite- and this the Death Adder understands above all.

A hunter may occasionally come across the carcass of some wild beast, slain or fallen as a result of its natural circumstances.  At first glance, everything may seem normal- but a sharp eye will spot a pool of shadow under the creature's mouth.  A thick, scaled skin, shed- winding back into the corpse.  The Death Adder's leavings, coated in a contact venom that causes a hot, searing pain, and leaves behind a wicked burn, small at first, which grows with the years.

The Death Adder is no threat, unless accosted.  Its bite is an aging venom- the skin dries, the hair greys, the eyes wrinkle.  But it bites only under duress.  Humanity hates the Death Adder, because humanity hates death.

The Death Adder finds comfort in the presence of those who are near to death.  It will often be found coiled underneath a newborn's crib, an invalid's bed.  Around the bell of a church's tower; in the dark corner of an infirmary basement.  Wallowing in the mud of an impending battlefield.

Those who have seen it insist that the doomed can be saved if the Adder is removed... but this is rarely achieved.  It is a stubborn beast.  Many make the attempt- fire, sword, axe, pitchfork... the sick bed is moved, the invalid encouraged to take air.  The Death Adder desires nothing so much as to remain in its chosen locale... waiting.

After the beloved passes beyond the veil, the only sign that remains of the beast is often a long, gossamer skin, dried and crinkly.

Of course, humanity hates the Death Adder for a second reason as well.

Nobody enjoys watching a newborn serpent shedding, sliding out of the mouth of a recently deceased loved one.

Monday, August 27, 2018

20 Minutes: Tricks

Today's 2d4 Seed:

2: Treasure
3: Npcs
4: Gods
5: Adventure Hooks
6: Monsters
7: Traps
8: Tricks

Roll result: 8: Tricks


Tricks are odd encounters in dungeons.  Some rooms contain treasures, and that's good.  Some rooms contain traps or monsters, and that's bad.  But some rooms contain tricks... and who knows what's going on with them?

Tricks are the things that make the players stop and proceed with caution.  The 30 seconds of prep you spend writing a line that starts "A creepy doll sits on a chair..." that turns into two hours of gameplay.  So let's see what we can come up with in 20 minutes?

  1. Blood stained letters scrawled on the far wall: "WAS I NOT WORTHY?"  In the center of the room, channels gouged into the rock of the floor, in the circle-and-runes shape of some arcane ritual, connecting four small basins at the cardinal directions- currently dry.  A faint magic aura can be detected.
    • If the four basins are filled with blood, the channels also fill.  When the blood flows to the center and fills the channels, a Sleep spell discharges on everyone in the area.  Anyone who sleeps in this room (at any time, spell or no) has dreams of intense disapproval from whichever god they worship.
  2. A door with a gaping demon-maw forged in bronze in the center of it, where a doorknob should be.  Deep in the mouth, about a forearm-length back, you can juuuust make out the latch for the door.  A faint magic aura can be detected.  The handle must be grabbed and manipulated in order to open the door.  There's a clasp on the back that a finger has to pull.  Each time the player says "okay, I press the clasp," describe how another clasp pops out- requiring another finger to pull it.  
    • Secretly roll 1d4+4: that is how many clasps pop out.  Every time beyond number 5, the player who is manipulating the door grows one additional finger to press the next clasp that has popped out.
    • These new additional fingers live for 24 hours.  Having extra fingers gives advantage on sleight of hand, picking locks, disarming traps, or other tasks requiring manual dexterity.  One finger falls off at the end of each subsequent 24 hour period, and then begins inching in the direction of the closest undiscovered treasure.  No two fingers will head for the same treasure stockpile- they split up.
    • When a finger reaches its selected treasure stockpile it pupates; if left alone overnight, it morphs into giant mucosoid fingers defending the goods (fight as a Carrion Crawler).
  3. An ornamental cigar humidor of mahogany and oak- well polished.  Has- would you believe it??- just enough cigars for the current adventuring party.
    • Once a cigar is lit- any one of these cigars, no matter where the players are- a spectral ghost appears, forming out of the smoke!  They are a jovial creature, delighted to see the players, and ravenous for news of the world- after all, it has been so long since they've had any.  They light up their own cigar, invite everyone else to join in (insist, really- they refuse to proceed with niceties until everyone is well situated and participating)- and then beg for details and news- of course, they promise to tell the players all manner of interesting and quest-relevant details once they're satisfied.  Once details and news are exhausted, they beg for performances and showmanship.  Once performances and showmanship are exhausted, they are ready to tell the players anything they might want to know.
    • ... It's a shame all the cigars burn out JUST before the jovial spirit is able to say the most important words the players want so desperately to know.

That does it for our 20 minute (okay, 16- I had to seed the random table first) sprint of brainstorming!  I'll see if I can't come back often and make a new roll for a sprint brainstorm.  Cheers!

Seeding the Table

For next time!

2: Tricks
3: Treasure
4: Npcs
5: Gods
6: Adventure Hooks
7: Monsters
8: Traps

Sunday, August 26, 2018

6 Dungeon Rooms

  1. A rotten library, filled with shelves.  There's a handful of books that remain worthwhile hidden in the stacks- spend 10 minutes and roll a DC20/15 Perception test to search.  If you roll 20 or above, you find the book you need.  If you roll 15-19, the book is there... but it's in the hands of a damn flying monkey, who pokes its head out and chatters at you loudly.  Careful with your attacks, don't want to damage the text...
  2. In each corner of the room, an iron statue of a woman with a veiled face, ropes coiled at the feet of each statue.  On the far wall, a door that says "please go away."  If you leave, nothing happens.  If you approach within 5' of the door, the iron maidens spring open, and the ropes come to life, lashing out to drag party members slowly towards the waiting spiked containers.
  3. A giant frog sits in the center of a room, on wooden floorboards.  He slaps his hands wetly against the ground when he sees you.  Around him are a scattering of objects- a broken chair, an old shirt, etc- but also a brass lantern; a fine silk rope, coiled expertly; a swirling vial of silvered liquid; a finely honed longsword.  If you talk to him, he says only: "BRAAAP.  BRING ME...." (roll 1d6)
    1. HEAVY
    2. LONG
    3. WET
    4. GREEN
    5. ALIVE
    6. (roll twice and combine, ignoring further 6's)
  4. Along the back wall are six valuable urns sitting on a mantlepiece.  In front of them, a heavy stone statue with burning red eyes and a baleful glare!  It's unbelievably slow and heavy- it can only move 5' per round.  However, every time it stomps forwards 5', one of those priceless urns slides forwards right off the shelf, crashing to the ground....  He hits like a truck, too.
  5. In the center of the chamber, a chasm, spanned by a long rope bridge.  About 30' before the bridge, a large, green slime- placid, unconcerned.  It doesn't really care about you.  Hanging above the close side of the bridge, an odd packet of cloth about the size of a waste basket, tied around with rope.  The air smells sickly sweet and sulfurous.
    • Stepping onto the bridge, the three kobold archers far on the other side pop out and fire on the bundle of cloth, breaking it open- rotten meats and fruits and mushrooms spill out onto the bridge.
    • The large green slime- if left intact- slowly oozes over onto the rope bridge to get at the bounty.... its acids working away at the ropes.
  6. A crystal cavern, redolent with crystals of all sizes that tinkle with slight chimes as you pass.  12 large crystals stand tall around the room, each reverberating with a different note on the scale.  Whatever song the players play first by striking the crystals, an Angel of Law and Music appears.
    • If it was a good song, the angel is pleased, and whispers one of the words of Musical Order into a proffered weapon, which becomes a +1 Weapon of Law (+1 when wielded by a lawful creature, or when attacking a chaotic creature).  Once per day, a Bard can strike this weapon against a hard surface as a part of their use of Bardic Inspiration, in order to increase the size of their Bardic Inspiration die by one step.
    • If it was a bad song, turn up Beethoven's 9th symphony (first movement) and play it loud.  The angel attacks the player of the song that summoned it, for as long as the first movement is playing.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Survey Results: Watching D&D

One week ago today, I released a survey called "Watching D&D: An Audience Questionnaire."  I'd solicited questions from my close friends in TTRPG streaming, as well as publicly, and gotten some really good guidance from y'all on what sorts of questions you'd like to see answered!

After 2,695 responses, I think we've got what we came for!  Let's take a look.

As promised, the survey results are completely public!  As mentioned in the survey and its tweet, this survey collected no personally identifying information of any kind, not even demographic information.  You can't look through this information and figure out who said what.

I hope you find it interesting!

About the Survey

First things first, some survey methodology critical thinking:
  • This survey was distributed primarily via Twitter.  It also got a little traction over on reddit, but not as much.
    • There are wide swaths of fandom who were probably missed by this survey.
  • The respondents were self-selecting; only people who wanted to respond responded.  It wasn't a random sample or anything like that.
    • I expect this survey represents the opinions of core viewers and highly engaged TTRPG watchers.
  • This is inherently a survey about what people report that they think and feel- which, unfortunately, is not always exactly the same as what they actually do think and feel.  
    • People can say things like, for example, that they don't care if your breaks run long- but viewership numbers can tell a pretty clear contrary story for your stream.

All that said.... let's take a look at the survey!  You'll have your own impressions to take away from it, but here are some things that stood out to me.

Results I Expected!

Yup.  No surprise here.  If you're looking to run a TTRPG show, invest in a good audio setup for all of your members, and try to work out sound problems before your first show.  Audio quality was far and away the most important technical element for respondents.  A Blue Yeti microphone with an arm and a pop filter will probably set you back $150 in total, and is a very fine introductory audio quality solution.

No surprise here- your cast matters hugely to your show.  This one can feel a bit frustrating if you're starting out, but don't worry.  While I think there is an element of fame here ("I like watching my favorite streamer"), I think there's also a strong element of... plain ol' good entertainership.  Skills like smooth improvisation, clear enunciation, eliminating filler words from your speech, developing good supportive friendly table banter, finding the right balance between clearly descriptive and quickly descriptive- these are all things you can practice that will probably pay strong dividends for you at the table.

Secondary to your cast are their characters- which I think of as an extension of your cast.  If your cast are playing characters they're having fun with, then the characters are fun, and the cast is fun.

Coming in third place, and actually as a little bit of a surprise- the world and setting really does motivate audience members pretty strongly!

The importance of your cast, and their having fun in character, was repeated a few times over the course of survey results!  People come to your show for your cast; they stay if they're having fun; they like seeing their fun characters interact.  It echoes again and again!  To me, the answer here is- build an environment where everyone at your table is as comfortable as they can be, encourage them to play the game in the way they like best, that supports the other players playing the ways they like best.

A "session 0" is probably a great way to get everyone on board with that jolly cooperation!


Results that Surprised Me!

People prefer to watch the show, but specifically, people prefer to watch the show on Youtube / VOD- and they prefer to WATCH the show, rather than just listening to it in the background.

Relatively few people find chat a frustrating or neutral part of the experience (8.1% who don't participate at all, 4.2% who participate little, and 0.8% who actively participate)- but 47.2% of respondents either hide chat (28.9%) or watch on a chat-free platform (18.3%).

As a twitch streamer primarily, this was a bit surprising to me!

Wait, what??  People prefer to watch the show visually over listen... but say that it's not important to have visible dice roll results?  For how often we got complaints about lack of visible dice rolls in chat, this one surprised me.  I suspect this might have fallen prey to the self-reporting bias, but it's an interesting result.

TEN PEOPLE.  TEN.  1-0.  Ten people out of 2695- 0.4% of respondents- said that they prefer show content to be Pre-created adventures they could go buy from the publisher.

I don't know how stream numbers have worked out, but unless you're Wizards of the Coast, you might not see as much engagement with your Curse of Strahd stream as you'd hoped.

This one surprised me a lot.  Yeah, there's a slight preference towards the "free form role playing" side of things, but I actually expected respondents to be WAY more in favor of free form RP!  Instead, the majority of respondents prefer a balanced experience, with a bit of a preference on the RP side of the fence.  Neat!

And what about the stuff that I had no preconceptions about, but nevertheless found interesting?

Other Interesting Notes!

Our first entry in the "interesting notes" section, folks generally like to see homebrew classes, rules, systems, character options etc in your show!  If you've got a cool idea... go for it!  I'd always thought it was a bit of a risk on my part to include in my shows, but I'm glad to see folks are curious.

People are generally very happy about guest stars!  Bring 'em on!

Again, not on the surprising or not-surprising categories, since I didn't have any expectations here, but the number 1 reported reasons for viewers to stop viewing your show is player bickering or infighting.  I saw a great tweet recently that said "consider not doing what your character would do if it would take away from the fun of the other players."  This is a mantra I will forever ask my players to keep close to their heart.

Also of note, the second biggest reason viewers declined to return is that the "content became distasteful!"  Obviously, that word will mean different things to different people- but given that it's the second highest reason for drop-out (from this list), it's worth heavily considering what lines your show should avoid crossing, to avoid alienating your audience.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Of Roles and Rolls

There is a certain kind of roll in Dungeons & Dragons that I personally dislike- a roll which eliminates both rich, in-character play, and also eliminates the skill, creativity, or cleverness of the player herself.

This tends to happen more heavily with a subset of skills:

  • Deception
  • Investigation
  • Persuasion
  • Search

The simplest way to talk about it is to showcase examples of play from the two perspectives:

Rolls vs Roles

Deception Roll
DM: The medusa stares at you furiously, holding back her stone gaze for the briefest moment.  "Why have you come here, fools?"
Player: "Oh great medusa, we are here to worship you and serve as your bodyguards!" I roll my Deception skill.... 18!
DM: That's a success!  "Fascinating... no sooner do I have a need than you appear.  What skills do you have that can be of service for me?"


Deception Role
DM: The medusa stares at you furiously, holding back her stone gaze for the briefest moment.  "Why have you come here, fools?"
Player 1: Okay wait.  What do we know about this medusa so far?
Player 2: She eats ash and drinks smoke?
Player 1: Awesome, but I don't know if it helps us right now...
Player 3: She's had graven images of Cadixtat, the Chaos Titan all through her halls!
Player 1: Hmm yeah, and we heard from the Knowspider that she's pretty paranoid- and all those traps sure prove it.
Player 2: Hey wait, didn't we kill some priests of Cadixtat earlier?  I stole one of their holy symbols thinking we could sell it... are you thinking what I'm thinking?
Player 1: Awesome!  We've got it.  Follow my lead.  "Ohh great medusa!  We suffered a plague of nightmares sent by the Chaos Titan, Cadixtat, exhorting us to come to your aid and protection!  We bear his mark, and show it now as a sign of our faith and service!"
DM: Her tension visibly relaxes!  Her shoulders relax and her serpents move in slow sinuous waves.  "So.  The titan himself has heard my need?  This bodes well.  Come forward..."


Search Roll
DM: The room is centered around a wooden parquetry table, with a blue-and-white china vase sitting on top of it.  On the far wall is a blackened stone fireplace, with candleholders on each side.  What do you do?
Player: Hmmm, I smell a trap.  I want to search the room.  ... I rolled a 21!
DM: Okay!  Yeah, you examine the table and sure enough, there's a tripwire under the vase, connecting to mechanisms running down the central column of the table...


Search Role
DM: The room is centered around a wooden parquetry table, with a blue-and-white china vase sitting on top of it.  On the far wall is a blackened stone fireplace, with candleholders on each side.  What do you do?
Player 1: Okay, I raise my torch good and high so I can see clearly.  How does the floor around the table look?  Anything unusual or distinctive about it?
DM: Nope!  The whole floor in here is the same uniform black stone.  No markings or scuffing.
Player 1: Okay, I'm going to walk over next to the table.  ... Do I die?
DM: Not this time!
Player 2: I want to go look around the fireplace!  I'm walking over next to it, and examining one of the candlesticks.
DM: Which one?
Player 2: The right one.  I'm just looking right now!  Seeing if I see anything!
DM: Okay!  While you do that, Player 1, what are you doing next to the table?
Player 1: Oh I'm totally messing with this vase.  Carefully!
DM: How are you doing that?
Player 1: I guess I'm... putting my fingers on the lip of the vase and gently tilting it, looking under it for any kind of, like, pressure plate or whatever.
DM: Okay!  Yeah, as you tilt the vase and peer under it, you see a tiny wire being stretched taut under it, disappearing into a hole in the table.
Player 1: I put the vase down!  I put the vase down!
Player 2: Do I notice anything about these candlesticks?
DM: Well the right one you're looking at now?  Its candles are unburned- and you notice the left one's candles are burned about half down.
Player 2: Hmmmm... what do you all think?  Should we try lighting some candles?
Player 3: But which ones?  The burnt ones, or the new ones?


As you can see, asking players to engage in the fiction- to actually find out what kind of lies or persuasions might be effective against their target, or to actually fictionally engage with the contents of a room- gives many more chances for play.

Though I'm half inclined to simply remove these skills from my game, I can see a possible middle ground- keep the skill, and let a successful roll against a fairly challenging DC represent the character's intuitive knowledge about the situation.

Search: "I rolled an 18!"  Hmm okay, yeah!  Your astute senses draw your attention to the wardrobe at the back of the room.  It'd be a great place to hide some loot.... or a deadly threat.
Persuade: "Hey hey!  A 21!"  Rad.  You can see that the nobleman is checking his water clock regularly, and you remember overhearing a whispered conversation between the servants earlier as you passed- something about "making sure it's ready in time."  He seems pretty nervous about timing, specifically...

Of course, on the DM's side, this asks more work of us!  In the case of the medusa example above, elements of the wider dungeon tied into her characterization- her paranoia, her worship of Cadixtat.  In the trapped vase example, the DM should know how the trap functions, what physical evidence it leaves behind (a nearly invisible black ash coating over the black floor?), how it can be deactivated... you as the DM must invest your world with the authenticity the players will need to discover these things by engaging!

For elements of the environment, ask yourself:

  • What tells might there be?
  • What is the most interesting?
  • What is the most valuable?
  • How sensitive is the danger here?
  • How could it be negated?  What evidence is there of that?
For elements of personalities, ask yourself:
  • What does this personality claim to want?
  • What does this personality really want?
  • What does this personality fear?
  • How could the players present effective leverage?
  • What is there about the surroundings, or other personalities, that can give insight into these answers?

What do you think?