Thursday, November 3, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Horror of Strahd's Power

This past weekend one of our regular groups gathered for our Curse of Strahd campaign. The characters are all level five now and had just finished up with the Wizard of Wines scenario. They had been planning their next moves, which included delivering wine to Krezck and taking on Yester Hill. I will not go into much detail on those places as not to spoil things for those still playing. We gathered for our game session sort of at the last minute, so I was not as prepared as I would like to be.

I decided to spend the night showing how powerful Strahd was to the group. By level five the legendary vampire should now be taking interest in the adventurers. They have interfered with his plans for Ireena, and perhaps even defeated some of his minions by now. Strahd, being ancient does not feel threatened yet, but perhaps is experiencing exhilaration for the first time in ages. He likes these new playthings and will test them to see if they are worthy opponents or maybe even servants.

Because of life and summer conventions this campaign was on hiatus for a bit. So rather then get wrapped up in the story to much this was a good opportunity to shake off the rust. The adventurers found themselves back on the Old Svalich Road when a light rain began to fall. In the distance through the fog they found an old cemetery and church they could use for shelter. The cemetery was completely churned with tombstones and coffins protruding in twisted ways. This description caused some immediate jokes around the table like, “what could go wrong” etcetera. That said, their investigation of the immediate area proved to be rather benign save some howling wolves in the distance.

This is when I decided to have Strahd’s black carriage make its first appearance. The tenebrous transport, pulled by snorting horses pulled right up next to the cemetery. The door swung open and out stepped Strahd to the immediate pale faces of the players (and probably their characters). The vampire lord walked over to the two female characters (one with red hair like Ireena) and immediately tried to charm them. Amazingly the players rolled an 18 and a natural 20 for their Wisdom saves. Even when this failed the sweat on their brows continued to flow. Strahd explained to the group that “Ireena was his and they should remember that.”

Strahd then turned his attention to the group’s cleric, who rolled a 4 and failed his save, thus becoming charmed. Strahd allegedly handed him an object and explained he wanted him to drop it in the cemetery when he left. This was nothing more than the first show of power since Strahd gave nothing to the cleric. Strahd then departed, and the group decided to attack the cleric for fear of what may be in his hand. As he walked toward the cemetery with his placebo item he nearly died from the assault. The characters felt terrible afterward for succumbing to this fear.

When the dust settled Strahd’s laughter could be heard throughout the area as the cemetery began to rumble. Before their very eyes, the PCs watched as the earth congealed with casket and tombstone forming into monstrous creatures which attacked them. These Gravestone Elementals turned out to be quite a challenge for the group. I mixed an Earth Elemental with a Shambling Mound in terms of statistics as follows:

Gravestone Elemental
Large elemental, neutral
Armor Class 17
Hit Points 126 (12d10 + 60)
Speed 30 ft., burrow 30 ft.
STR 20 (+5)
DEX 8 (-1)
CON 20 (+5)
INT 5 (-3)
WIS 10 (+0)
CHA 5 (-3)
Damage Vulnerabilities thunder
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities poison, lightning
Condition Immunities exhaustion, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, unconscious
Senses darkvision 60 ft., tremorsense 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Languages Terran
Challenge 6 (2,300 XP)
Special Traits
  • Earth Glide: The elemental can burrow through nonmagical, unworked earth and stone. While doing so, the elemental doesn't disturb the material it moves through. 
  • Siege Monster: The elemental deals double damage to objects and structures.
  • Lightning Absorption: Whenever the gravestone elemental is subjected to lightning damage, it takes no damage and regains hit points equal to the lightning damage dealt.
  • Multiattack: The gravestone elemental makes two slam attacks. If both attacks hit a Medium or smaller target, the target is grappled (escape DC 14), and the gravestone elemental uses its Engulf on it.
  • Slam: Melee Weapon Attack: +8 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 14 (2d8 + 5) bludgeoning damage.
  • Engulf: The gravestone elemental engulfs a Medium or smaller creature grappled by it. The engulfed target is blinded, restrained, and unable to breathe, and it must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw at the start of each of the elemental's turns or take 13 (2d8 + 4) bludgeoning damage. If the elemental moves, the engulfed target moves with it. The elemental can have only one creature engulfed at a time.
These statistics are just what I whipped up quickly for my game session so feel free to adjust them for your own campaign. I considered also allowing them to pull tombstones from their bodies and use them as missile attacks. This never came up since the battle immediately turned to a vicious melee. A few well-placed Thunderwaves turned out to be a big help by the group’s wizard.

I enjoyed running these encounters to show the group the level of Strahd’s power. The vampire himself never lifted a finger, yet caused so much mayhem. We all want to believe we have agency over our own choices and destiny, yet Strahd almost forced the group to dispatch one of their own. Then with another display of power or perhaps force of will, Strahd commanded these elementals to destroy the group.

I think introducing Strahd into the campaign is perhaps the most difficult thing for any Dungeon Master. Most of these early encounters probably end up being a combat, which I would argue is incredibly boring. A big part of gothic horror is suspense and nerve wracking build-up. Having Strahd working in the background using his servants and various mind compulsion is terrifying. It creates an atmosphere of dread and keeps the players on their toes. Furthermore, it puts the players on notice that this is a villain who is much more than statistics on a page!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Playing D&D With Kids

This past weekend I ran a game session for five children. For background it was my son’s tenth birthday and he wanted to invite some friends over from school. The best part was none of these kids had ever played D&D, or any role-playing game for that matter. This was an interesting challenge since the last time I DM’ed a room full of ten year olds was 1983, when I was ten! Admittedly I did not really have much time to prepare since I have been working around the clock. That said, the game lasted around 2.5 hours and the kids had a blast.

A few months ago when Bryce initially asked me to do this I started planning the day. Since I knew the children being invited had never played, I wanted them to leave with the game. I combined the 5E Basic PDFs into a book and had them printed on Lulu. For the cover I used the mock-up by TheBlueKnight found here on EnWorld, and added my son’s name and birthday party date in Photoshop. As pictured below the books turned out fantastic and the children all left with a unique party favor. In addition they all received their very own first set of polyhedral dice.

My initial idea was to run a spooky Halloween themed adventure complete with fun props. But time just was not on my side and I was left scrambling the morning of the party. That is when I found On a Children's Quest, A Starter 5e Adventure. What initially attracted me to the adventure was the illustrated map, which seemed perfect for a bunch of novices. I did not use the adventure completely as presented, but rather as a template to take the kids wherever their imagination wanted. Having actually used this adventure in live play, I will say there is lots of potential here in terms of format with kids.

People (especially kids) are very imaginative and visual so having the illustrated map was a win. Each of them was provided with their own copy they could mark-up or add notes with. At the table I used a combination of miniatures, Chessex play mat, Dwarven Forge, and miscellaneous terrain pieces to create the environment. The kids absolutely loved looking at everything and being involved with these tactile elements. Just holding and rolling their new dice alone was fun, especially when someone rolled a coveted 20!

The pre-generated characters I used were complete but we almost never referenced the sheets during play. Instead I explained the basic concepts and the kids began picking it up quick. For instance, at one point a strength check was needed to move something. This prompted everyone to look at their character sheets and the kids had fun comparing their attribute scores. I’m a big fan of the KISS acronym ("Keep it simple, stupid") and it paid off big when introducing these kids to the game. My reasoning for giving them completed characters was so they have a template for later.

Overall I must say this was equally a fun experience for me as a Dungeon Master. Not only was I sharing this wonderful hobby with new players, but hopefully making some lifelong ones. Although it’s early in the process to see if they caught the D&D bug, there is already talk of starting a club amongst they kids at school. My son has volunteered to be the Dungeon Master which really makes me smile. If anything seeing these children unplugged for a few hours and enjoying a table-top game was worth the price of admission.

Faces blurred for privacy.

During our session they expanded their vocabulary (portcullis…what is that!), did lots of math, and most importantly worked as a team to come up with plans to negotiate the various challenges of the adventure. If you are reading this and considering introducing your children to role-playing games I highly recommend it. Not only does it have the aforementioned benefits, but it also lets them exhibit qualities like leadership and critical thinking. Furthermore they are presented with constant hypothetical situations they must work through as a group.

My final advice when running a game for kids is keeping it short and simple. The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure and this could not ring truer with kids. My group started to get restless around the one hour mark so we took liberal breaks. Some kids have longer attention spans then others so be aware that a D&D session is not an endurance contest. Also be sure to put the spotlight on every child as some have stronger personalities then others. Just like an adult session, it's quite possible for one player to run the table if the DM does not stay on their toes.

We finished our session with a sundae bar and talked about the game. I asked the kids what they liked the most and least about the experience. Universally they enjoyed exploring and finding treasure, and did not like that the adventure was over. Finally I asked them all if they would like to play again to which I received a resounding YES!

The kid's reenactment of a failed Death Save.

So to all the veteran players and DMs out there take some time to share the hobby with the next generation. They will be as wide-eyed and interested as you were when first discovering role-playing games….they just don’t know it yet!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons Has Always Been Cool

This morning I read this article and immediately wanted to follow-up. Dungeons and Dragons has always been cool. Sure there was a time when it was not socially accepted by the mainstream. But that was also during an age when information was shared by only the press and various networks. Today social media has opened the eyes of many people regarding a plethora of subjects. Role-playing games have certainly gained traction because of this phenomenon.

The difference between the gross misinformation of the 70s and 80s, and watching people having fun playing D&D on YouTube is like night and day. Now even the remotely curious can investigate any tabletop game before purchasing it. Since 1974 players have been sitting around a table with friends playing Dungeons & Dragons. I would argue that other forms of entertainment will never be as compelling. Why? Because whether playing a video game, watching a movie, or reading a book, you are using someone else’s imagination.

Figment is exhausted after batting around a D20.
When playing a game such as Dungeons & Dragons you are using your own imagination. In terms of a collaborative story-telling game, it’s just timeless. It does not matter what edition you play, or the genre, role-playing games are a wonderful hobby. If anything I think we are experiencing a renaissance of sorts right now with table-top games.

While social media is wonderful, we are really NOT connected by it. Nothing replaces gathering a few friends and socializing in real time. A role-playing game is often a great catalyst to make this happen. Even if your table-top is virtual, the end result is better than refreshing Twitter or Facebook relentlessly while bored out of your gourd.

So yes Dungeons & Dragons has ALWAYS been cool. For over thirty years dedicated and enthusiastic players have helped to make the pastime infectious. I’m glad some people are finally catching up! And more importantly that a new generation of players is growing into the hobby during this wonderful and open-minded time. So dig out those dice and take a romp through the dungeon this weekend. Who knows what adventures await!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Monster: Pumpkin (Spice) Pudding

As usual this time of year the pumpkin spice apocalypse has started early. Everywhere you look products that should not even have the flavor are jumping on the pumpkin cart. In response to this craze I decided to create a monster for use in during your Fall game sessions. In the very least this should cause a few chuckles around the table. Well at least until they realize this nasty ooze is more than tongue in cheek.

These custard horrors are formed from the innards of a rotted pumpkin. The latter cannot be any ordinary jack-o’-lantern however. Instead it must be from a pumpkin patch which has been enchanted with foul magic. The origin of the magic is often debated by scholars, but almost always involves malicious fey. Pumpkin delights are popular in the realm when the leaves begin to change color and fall. The fey decided to emulate these treats and punish the humans encroaching on their sacred forests.

A pumpkin pudding appears and smells much like its namesake. Unlike other oozes, a pumpkin pudding is intelligent and very patient. The creature wishes to be consumed so it may create more Pumpkin Zombies for the control of its fey masters. If discovered, the pumpkin pudding will fight to the death if escape is not an option. If the opportunity presents itself, the pudding will attempt to slither into the mouth of any unconscious or disabled foe. There are even tales of these puddings creeping into the mouth, nose, or ears of sleeping victims.

Pumpkin (Spice) Pudding
Small ooze, unaligned
Armor Class 8
Hit Points 22 (3d8 + 9)
Speed 10 ft., climb 10 ft.
STR 12 (+1) DEX 6 (-2) CON 16 (+3) INT 10 (+0) WIS 10 (+0) CHA 2 (-4)   
Skills Stealth +2
Damage Resistances acid, cold, fire, bludgeoning, piercing, slashing.
Condition Immunities blinded, charmed, deafened, exhaustion, frightened, prone
Senses blindsight 60 ft. (blind beyond this radius), passive Perception 8
Languages —
Challenge 2 (450 XP)

Amorphous: The ooze can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing.
False Appearance: While the ooze remains motionless, it is indistinguishable from a delicious treat.
Pulpy Innards: If consumed, 9 (2d6 + 2) necrotic damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0. A humanoid slain by this attack rises 24 hours later as a Pumpkin Zombie under the control of dark fey. The caveat being the humanoid is restored to life or its body is destroyed.

Pseudopod: Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d6 + 1) bludgeoning damage plus 7 (2d6) necrotic damage.

DM Tips
Although it’s a very tough creature because of its resistances, combat is something the pudding prefers to avoid. Instead it will wait patiently to be consumed or for an opportunity to enter a helpless victim. As an agent of evil fey, the pudding is calculating and very careful.

For some added fun, when using this monster be sure to include some real pumpkin pudding to your game session. Although the players may be a tad reluctant to eat it after meeting these creamy nightmares!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Adventures in the Upside Down

*Warning Spoilers* After watching Stranger Things, I spent some time digging through old D&D books. Since I started playing D&D in 1983 the show really resonated with me. It was like Steven Spielberg and Stephen King sat around and created an old school D&D module. Like most viewers I became very interested in the Vale of Shadows as referenced by the kids:

“The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection, or echo, of our world. It is a place of decay and death, a plane out of phase, a [place] with monsters. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it.”

There has been some postulation that the Vale of Shadows is just the Plane of Shadows or the Shadowfell from the Forgotten Realms. But in the spirit of D&D canon, and looking back to 1983, I found something more compelling to use. In Dragon 73 (May 1983) Gary Gygax explores quasi-elemental planes. One of these places which existed between the Positive and Negative elemental planes was the Plane of Ash.

It was not until 1987 that Jeff Grubb expanded the quasi-elemental Plane of Ash in the Manual of the Planes. As I read through some of the descriptive material in my copy it was hauntingly similar to the Upside Down. Here are a few potentially relevant excerpts:

The plane of Ash exists without light, heat, or flame in the same fashion as Vacuum exists without air. Breathing is difficult as there is no breathable air, similar to the plane of Vacuum. Unlike in Vacuum, the cool, charred remains of this plane can be transformed into a breathable element.

“The atmosphere is toxic” - Chapter Eight: The Upside Down

Art by Matt Ferguson
The plane of quasi-elemental Ash is the depletion of warmth and fire. The transition from the plane of Fire to that of Ash occurs in a region of cooling temperature and the dusty remains of burned materials hanging in the atmosphere. The plane is bone chillingly cold. Finally, the ash thickens to a grey, dusty wall, beyond which is the darkness of the Negative Material plane.

Vision in the plane of Ash is reduced to 30 yards because of the dust-like particles in the air.

Obviously I am not suggesting that the Upside Down is indeed the Plane of Ash. That said I think it would be good starting point to design your own version of the Upside Down. Ash by its very definition is the residue of something destroyed and descriptive of death. Perhaps in this alternate dimension or potential future reality as we understand it is destroyed, reduced to ashes. The membranous material seen in the Upside Down reminds me of something new growing from the decay.

That strange something may indeed also be the weird alien creature, or Demogorgon as referenced by the kids.  Whatever this tenebrous reality may be, it remains a very intriguing place for adventurers to explore in a table-top session. Perhaps the creatures inside the Upside Down are powerless to affect our world until a portal is mistakenly opened? This could be a great adventure hook because of some magical mishap, or ill-advised use of psionic powers.

At first the creature begins to hunt for food in the game world, which consists of hapless animals. Then it grows more daring and takes humanoid victims to incubate with parasitoids. These larvae will eventually consume their victims and grow into offspring. The adventurers are perhaps hired by some remote village to investigate the disappearances. For fans of Stranger Things a session like this could be a fun diversion from a regular slog through the dungeon. And with Halloween around the corner it contains enough mystery and horror elements for a scary evening of D&D.

If you are looking for an example Demogorgon to use for your own Upside Down, Newbie DM released one today.
Shirt available here

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Dark Zodiac

I have always been fascinated with the zodiac and think it remains really gameable for an RPG campaign.  People have thought for generations that maybe the personalities of newborns were shaped by the Zodiac. Fast forward to 2016 and I still find it fun to poke around modern horoscopes when I see them. The Vistani and their fortune telling seem to align perfectly with the Zodiac. Below is a list I was working on for my own Curse of Strahd campaign. It could be used during character generation or alternatively when travelers cross the mist into the Demiplane of Dread.

The attribute changes are just suggestions based on the feel I was trying to accomplish. Obviously change them as you see fit for your own campaign. The dark powers are strange and affect everyone in ways that are not always the sum total of game mechanics. In the very least the Dark Zodiac opens all sorts of role-playing doors for your group while on vacation in Barovia.

No mater your choice, the Dark Zodiac is a fun way to introduce changes in a character’s personality. The more time they spend in Strahd’s domain the darkness seeps into them. Some of their worst qualities are heightened, while perhaps more redeeming ones are suppressed. Perhaps the characters can explore these changes around a campfire with a Vistani fortune teller? Maybe there is a way to reverse the changes that only the Vistani know about!

Dark Zodiac (1d12)

1. The Despot: March 21 - April 19 (Aries): You begin acting impulsively and demand things more often. You are prone to losing your temper when things don’t go your way. -1 to Wisdom and +1 to Strength

2. The Sinful: April 20- May 20 (Taurus): Your vanity knows no bounds. In addition you have become very materialistic. Self-indulgence is your new guilty pleasure. -1 to Wisdom +1 to Charisma

3. The Doppelganger: May 21 - June 20 (Gemini): You are prone to extreme shifts of being cheerful and then melancholy. You also love to hear yourself talk. -1 to Charisma +1 to Wisdom

4. The Spider: June 21 - July 22 (Cancer): You are very cautious and will not be easily pried away from your perceived safety zone. You have little trust of others. -1 Charisma +1 Intelligence

5. The Radiant: July 23 - August 22 (Leo): You are extremely charming but often to your detriment. You prefer to be the center of attention, regardless of the cost. -1 Wisdom +1 Charisma

6. The Mist: August 23 - September 22 (Virgo): You have become very pessimistic about everything. So much that you question the trust of everyone around you. -1 Wisdom +1 Intelligence

7. The Gargoyle: September 23 - October 22 (Libra): You have become very unsure of things and must weigh every option before making a decision. -1 Dexterity +1 Wisdom

8. The Zealot: October 23 - November 21 (Scorpio): Your mood has become fiery to say the least. What used to be passion is now anger over most things. -1 Wisdom +1 Constitution.

9. The Arcane: November 22 - December 21 (Sagittarius): You have become an insufferable know-it all with little social filter. Blunt would be putting it mildly. -1 Wisdom +1 Intelligence

10. The Monarch: December 22 - January 19 (Capricorn): You have developed a taste for controlling those around you. Everyone else is there for your benefit after all. -1 Constitution +1 Charisma

11. The Crow: January 20 - February 18 (Aquarius): Those around you are suspect and you now feel it’s your duty to judge them all. You often seem cold and aloof to others. -1 Charisma +1 Constitution

12. The Vagabond: February 19 - March 20 (Pisces): You have become gullible in wishing to leave this dark land. Your lack of direction at times is an albatross. -1 Wisdom +1 Dexterity

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Quest: Hugh's Weird Dice

Hugh the Valiant...
  • He once won a fist fight, only using his moustache.
  • His bell bottoms never wrinkle.
  • When critically hit, his blood smells like cologne.
  • He once rolled a fumble, just to see how it feels.
  • His friends call him by his name, his enemies don't call him anything because they are all dead.
He is the most Interesting Barbarian in the World.

Hugh is one of the iconic characters of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. A few years ago an official tube of weird dice belonging to themed after Hugh were released. The dice are colored the same white and red as Hugh's legendary bell bottoms.They contained D3, D4, D5, D6, D7, D8, D10, D%10, D12, D14, D16, D20, D24, and D30.

Unfortunately, they have been sold out at the Goodman Games website for quite some time. I have been told on several occasions there is no intention for now to make them again.

For the better part of the last year I have been trying to find a set to no avail. If you know anyone with a tube for sale (or trade) and could point me in the right direction it would be greatly appreciated. Please email me at realmofultanya@gmail[dot]com

Thank you in advance for helping complete this quest!

UPDATE: My quest is complete. Special thanks to Matt Hildebrand​​ for trading with me!