Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 12

91. Dark Ice Caves - The ice these caves are found in is a dark, purplish hue.  It melts to water of the same color.  This water freezes in darkness regardless of temperature.  Treasured by desert castellans.
92. The Great Stillwater - This lake in the center of a northern bog is deathly still.  In fact no ripples move on the water when it is disturbed.  If some of this is poured in another body, that water will still for an hour.
93. Ghost Road - Parties traveling on this ancient road see no one behind them and a party far in front of them that looks identical to theirs.  All parties see this.  Two parties traveling at the same time will not see each other until close enough to be mingling horses.
94. The Old Teeth - A line of obsidian plugs jutting from a rocky landscape.  Fires set next to them produce no smoke, as if the plugs breathe it all in.
95. The Round Pools - A flat, stone plain dotted with small, circular pools.  The fresh water never dries up and bathing in one will speed healing of small wounds.  Bathing in several in the proper intervals will heal completely and even restore limbs.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 11

86. Grey Hills - These low rolling hills are a sickly grey and made almost entirely of clay.  They are treacherous in wet weather but folks say bricks made from the clay cannot be broken by siege engines.
87. Keep Tree - From a distance it looks like a stand but it's actually one huge, ring-like tree.  With one entrance and a clearing inside some thirty feet across, many tribes, patrols, and pilgrims have sought shelter here over the years.  Oaths made inside bind like a geas.
88. The Honeycomb - Red sandstone with tight, twisting passages and holes of different sizes worn by wind and ancient water ways.  The best shelter for miles in the badlands, it's said you can hear the conversations of all those that have camped there before in the wind moaning through the crannies. 
89. God's Bowl - In the floor of a rocky mountain valley a massive vein of white quartz holds a pool of water.  This water will never freeze even if taken from the pool.
90. Wight Woods - Evergreen trees that do not move in the wind but move as if by wind if the dead are moving near them.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sandbox Wonders 10

81. Sand Falls - A plateau in a desert with dunes on and around it.  Every third day sand falls from above.  The sand is so pure and fine it's said a person with cursed weapons or armor can remove them while standing under the fall.
82. The Roots - Acres of twisted roots with no soil.  Very difficult to travel through.  These roots consume soil around them and cuttings are feared by farmers and desired by sappers.
83. Dark Water - Somewhere in the ocean a patch of dark water exists.  It is oily and stinks like-rotting fruit.  Bathe in it and animals will ignore you for a day.
84. God's Breath - These rocky flats are blasted by a continuous downward wind.  So loud that speech is impossible.  It is said someone cannot be scryed for as long as God breathes on them.
85. The Shells - Deep in a desert a vast area of pinkish dunes.  These are actually made up of millions of tiny shells.  Placing the shells in water causes them to revivify as tiny molluscs and crustaceans that are voracious and consume any meat nearby.

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.