Monday, February 6, 2017

Stranger Things: Giant Spider

So, last night the Stranger Things season 2 trailer aired during the Super Bowl and left all sorts of questions. As a D&D player all I have been focusing on is the massive spider creature. I quickly took to Twitter and G+ to see what fan theories everyone had before developing my own this morning. I started to think about the Demogorgon and Thessalhydra from season one. Both creatures arguably have Greek origin and carefully avoided the intellectual property minefields of Dungeons & Dragons.

The creature depicted in the trailer sketch, and inside the Upside Down looks very arachnid to me. I can count eight legs, yet there appears to be a head looking down with a large tuft of hair. This immediately makes any D&D player think of Lolth, the evil spider goddess. Or could it be a variation of Arachne, the Greek goddess turned into a spider? If the Duffer Brothers wanted to use a Lolth like entity for the D&D games played by the kids, Arachne certainly does that nicely.

Obviously, the lore of the Greek Arachne does not totally fit the show, but I don’t think that necessarily matters. If you recall it almost seemed as if there was web like material within the Upside Down in season one. And what about the egg sac that Chief Jim Hopper stops to look at? In the very least it would seem that the appearance of this spider like creature is no coincidence.

What do you think the giant spider creature is? I always find it fun to take what clues we have and theorize together. I cannot believe we must wait until Halloween to find out!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Side Trek: The Winter Garden

While staring out at the falling snow a week ago, this idea started to brew. I have always been fascinated with faeries, which can be used to great effect as a campaign boogeyman. Especially when you consider the colder months are often associated with death. What if in desperation the PCs were forced to seek refuge at the crossroads of the fey? Or maybe one of the characters has experience with these winter gardens and seeks one out. There are many adventure seed doors which can be opened with this side trek. So enjoy…and dress warmly adventurer, otherwise you may need to find a winter garden!

Winter Garden

Old rangers tell stories of their existence, and secluded druid circles whisper about them. A winter garden is a location where the boundaries of the prime material plane thin. They are a crossroad into the world of the fey that may bring solace or doom. Winter gardens usually occur do to some magical phenomenon or the vile intent of their creator. They are typically an oasis compared to the harsh conditions around them. These small pockets of the fey world normally do not last longer than half a day.

A winter garden is normally idyllic in appearance and may even have certain ethereal qualities to it. Depending on the type of faeries that care for the garden, this may all be an elaborate illusion. As most learned sages would explain, this is the inherent danger of seeking refuge in a winter garden. However, travelers suffering from hyperthermia, or trying to escape some predator are often willing to take that risk.

Rangers and mountaineers often use frozen bodies as landmarks when navigating. That said, new bodies found which appear shriveled and withered are avoided. These unfortunate souls are believed to have fallen victim to a dark winter garden. This visual omen has caused entire villages to pack up and move a great distance away. For these reasons, if planning an expedition to the cold north it’s often wise to hire a skilled guide.

Types of Winter Gardens (1d4)

1. This winter garden is comfortable and enchantingly beautiful. Not only is it picturesque, but also functions as a Ring of Warmth for up to eight medium sized creatures. Those inside can see out of the pocket as if peering through a frosted window. No creatures of evil alignment may enter this winter garden as it’s maintained by good faeries. But the fey are fickle, and use of their garden does come at a price. If not offered some sort of magical restitution, the faeries will attempt to use a Geas spell to gain one.

2. This winter garden is more of lair and contains a large ice cave. Those passing through into this fey pocket will notice tufts of white hair, crumbled bones, and ursine odor will assault their senses. A very used fire pit also completes the area, which includes stacks of chopped wood. A low rumble can be heard from within the ice cave and the temperature here is just hospitable. The inhabitant of the cave is a terrifying fey which appears as a massive polar bear. Good role-playing or high Charisma based rolls should be made to share this garden. Otherwise the PCs will be asked to leave…once!

3. This winter garden is a crumbled ruin, its remnants covered in slick ice. Dead trees with twisted limbs reach for the sky in poses of sadness. Everywhere the snowy ground is punched with hundreds of small footprints and the red stains of blood. The area is oddly steamy, so much that the temperature immediately warms anyone passing into the garden. This is how the Redcaps who maintain this garden like their victims, thawed and easily drained of blood. Anyone fleeing the garden will be pursued for up to a mile by the Redcaps if they are lucky enough to escape.

Note: If playing 5E D&D, statistics for Redcaps are available in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. If you prefer a more system agnostic or OSR approach, Redcaps are detailed in Tales from the Game Tavern issue #3.

4. Perhaps the most coveted of all, this winter garden can show imprints of the past. It usually manifests as an open clearing with a ring of low stones. Within the pocket the harsh conditions of the winter are repelled completely, and it exists as a nice Autumn day. The faeries who maintain the garden will exchange one vision of the past for one sacrifice by the PCs. The latter may include a coveted possession, a lock of hair, or a favor they will owe the fey. The vision can be from anywhere in the surrounding area (2x2 mile radius) within the last 100 years. The visions never last more than one round as the fey voraciously seek new sacrifices.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Curse of Strahd: Amber Temple Addition

Greetings adventurers! I have finally awoken from my blogging slumber. The past few months I have been involved in a professional commitment which has gobbled up most of my waking hours. That said, I did etch out some time this past weekend to run our Curse of Strahd campaign. With minimal preparation on my side, I wanted to run a more traditional exploration adventure. If you do NOT want to be spoiled, then stop reading NOW!

The last time our group gathered they had explored most of the Amber Temple, high in the Balinok Mountains. This was a challenging session between the constant Flameskulls and evil vestiges (remnants of dead, malevolent entities) that kept calling to them. The latter were hidden away in the Amber Temple by a group of wizards, who would later turn against each other, driven mad by the evil vestiges. One however remained, who was now a forgetful lich named Exethanter.

The dark vestiges within the Amber Temple are said to have granted Strahd his immortality and powers. They managed to tempt the curiosity of the players in my campaign, and several of them accepted dark gifts. My wife’s character, a fey-pact warlock became chaotic evil after accepting a 22 charisma! Now an NPC, she willingly took a black carriage ride to castle Ravenloft at the beginning of last weekend’s session. Will she return to hamper the PCs...we shall see!

I really liked the idea of Exethanter and wanted to expand upon him. In the published adventure, it clearly states: The lich has no alliance with or animosity toward Strahd, and no interest in challenging Strahd for control of Barovia. So, what we are left with is forgetful lich that just wants to guard the Amber Temple. He will also talk about the powers which are hidden away there if prompted.

This made me think immediately of a favorite old adventure of mine from 1985: Into the Forgotten Realms, by Ed Greenwood. It was published in Dragon magazine #95 and detailed an old wizardry school with a crazy lich named Azimer. To quote part of the adventure text: Azimer will at first greet the characters in a brusque manner, demanding (in a ghastly whisper) to know where the characters have been, why they haven’t been studying their spell books, and scolding them for not seeming to care about how important their work at the school is. He will then get up and become more friendly and patronizing, continuing to treat the characters as favored pupils in his magic school. And calling them by the names of magic-users long dead who lived at the school.

This seemed like a perfect mash-up to use with Exethanter, who still could open a portal to his old magic school. When role-playing Exethanter I switched between a forgetful personality to suddenly back to the headmaster of a wizardry school. This made for some hilarious role-playing opportunities during our game session. In our campaign, the legendary Sunsword was inside Exethanter’s old school of magic. It was left there by another group of adventurers who were seeking other items to defeat Strahd with. Unfortunately for the PCs, one of Exethanter’s old faculty members Khazan was still there.

For background, The Sunsword is a unique blade once possessed by Strahd's brother, Sergei von Zarovich. Strahd employed a powerful wizard named Khazan to destroy the weapon after Sergei's death. Khazan appears in other parts of the Curse of Strahd, but I decided to use him inside the school of wizardry. Utilizing my freshly minted Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I decided he would be a Bodak with some spell casting ability.

Into the Forgotten Realms was perfect source material since the setting is an ancient school of magic. It was originally a tournament module for the AD&D game which was used at the GEN CON XVII Game Convention in August 1984. The players had a good time exploring the school and the few combats we had were memorable. I replaced the Grell in the adventure with a ghostly Beholder, and tossed in a few Flameskulls for good measure.

The original adventure, much like the Amber Temple is a trove of magic items. That said, any DMs considering its use may want to modify things a bit. During our session, the PCs recovered the Sunsword and a strange hand (cover of the adventure), which may be the earthly remnant of some deity. Or perhaps it was just the next afternoon snack for Khazan?

In closing remember that when you run any of the published campaign books don’t be afraid to change or add things. Ultimately the story belongs to your group, and whatever direction will lead to a fun time at the table is most important. As with all things the books are just guidelines, so expand and create as much as you wish!

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!