Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ravenloft Trinkets

With the Curse of Strahd being released this March I thought it may be fun to make some Gothic horror type trinkets. As with Trinket Trove #1, these are not mere baubles and have more magical property. Therefore they could be used by any DM as treasure. I love thematic magic items and believe they really add flavor to any campaign play. This is especially true when some seemingly mundane item is found early on, than becomes helpful many levels later. Last year I also made a list of items I called Curious Goods that would work in a Ravenloft setting. Be sure to check them out! But for now here is a list of items that are ghoulishly different for those wide-eyed and hopeful Ravenloft characters.

Trinket Trove Table #2 (1d20) 

01.    A black parasol of delicate design which appears to be mostly decorative. However it makes the wielder invisible to those inflicted with lycanthropy when used under a full moon. This power does not mask sound or scent.

02.    Dried out husk of a squirrel attached to a wooden rod with rusty nails. Once per day this necromantic fetish may animate any small dead creature of animal intelligence or less. The zombie animal will follow simple commands for one hour before crumbling to dust.

03.    A set of old marbles that if played with causes the ghost of a small child to appear. The ghost will ask to play a game, 1d6 and on 1-3 the PC wins (or play marbles for real for added game session coolness). If the PC wins, the ghost will perform reconnaissance of any location within a mile and answer one question. May be used once per week.

04.    Black lace veil which feels oddly cold to touch. If worn the user immediately senses this was placed on a corpse during a funeral. The owner of the veil will be subject to recurring nightmares but gain a +1 bonus to saves versus fear.

05.    Disgusting occult book bound in stitched human ears. Once per day invoke the book to listen for any undead creatures that may be nearby. Undead within 100’ causes the book to flap its pages together loudly for three rounds.

06.    Miniature wooden coffin which fits in the palm of the hand. Opens into an extradimensial space under a random graveyard large enough for two medium sized creatures. Those inside are beyond the reach of divination spells. Lasts one hour and may be used once per week.

07.    A bottle of red wine which appears thick and viscous. Anyone drinking even the smallest sample will be cursed with hematophagy. This means they now only gain nourishment from fresh blood. Minor vampires will act indifferent to them if encountered.

08.    A child’s doll which feels warm to touch and appears to be crafted from a patchwork of sinewy muscle. The doll is actually a minor flesh golem that is prodigiously strong and able to carry things. It cannot be used for combat and was designed for the sole purpose of being a pack mule.

09.    An antique looking hair pin which is abnormally long. Upon closer examination a spider web motif is embossed upon the length of it. May be used as a weapon which does 1 point of damage and delivers a dose of poison which acts as a Sleep spell. May be used once per week.

10.    A sleek corset which includes a patterned brocade of skulls. When worn it creates an exaggerated and curvaceous figure which grants advantage on charisma based checks. This feminine allure however comes at a price, as the corset halves constitution scores when worn.

11. A cameo pin which includes a woman’s skeletal visage in relief. This objet d'art is actually a talisman which grants resistance to damage caused by the undead. The ablative properties of the talisman work once and then must be recharged by soaking in holy water for a full day.

12.    A large iron key which appears to have come from a jailer’s ring. Once per day, when placed near a locked door it becomes ghostly in appearance and alters to fit. The key then works as a Knock spell but takes a potential toll on its owner. Succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute.

13.    A beautiful set of gold filigree Tarokka cards inside a velum lined box. This deck once belonged to a Vistani gypsy who fell afoul of darkness. Using the deck will summon their ghost which is combative (1-50%) or helpful (51-00%). If combative it will attack for one round and vanish. If helpful it will answer one question as an Augury spell and vanish. Ghost appears once per week.

14.    Trapped inside a small glass bottle is an undead faerie.  The creature snarls and scratches at the glass as its bat-like wings flap. If released for any reason it will fly away immediately. Otherwise the owner of the bottle may call upon the faerie to cast Light or Darkness as spell, once per day.

15.    An ornate wooden box containing two weathered dueling pistols. These single shot, flintlock weapons will animate and attack anything the owner commands. Fired by the ghosts of two men who died dueling, the haunted pistols critical on a 17-20, and may be used once a week.

16.    A leather satchel of 2d6 ancient grave rose seeds. If planted in soil they immediately sprout ash colored perennials. These have the unique ability of attracting undead with a 50’ radius. They must make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw or spend one round attacking the grave rose.

17.    A miniature Ouija Board which is very detailed and perhaps was full size at one time. Tormented spirits will seek the owner out anywhere a traumatic death took place. Not realizing they are dead, the spirits are confused and ask for help. The Ouija Board also has the ability to cast Speak with Dead once per week.

18.   The shrunken head of a zombie which still occasionally snaps its teeth together and moans. While in possession of this morbid fetish the owner gains Undead Fortitude. If damage reduces the PC to 0 hit points, make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 + the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the PC drops to 1 hit point instead. This benefit may be attempted once per week.

19.   A human skull which has been magically altered into a mortar and pestle. If used in conjunction with a Healer’s Kit to crush ingredients they will become enchanted. The resulting paste will heal 2d4 + 2 hit points and requires an action to administer. There is a cumulative 10% chance per use that the skull will crumble to dust forever.

20.    A small hourglass necklace which has been crafted from pure silver. These rare trinkets were developed as wards against lycanthropy. If bitten by a lycanthrope the hourglass will crack spilling out its time altering sands. Gain advantage on all saving throws versus lycanthropy for one hour.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ravenloft: Dungeon Master Tips

So the Curse of Strahd has been announced and I have already pre-ordered my copy!  I personally love the setting so much I run an annual Halloween adventure with the original I6 Module. The Curse of Strahd appears to be a partial reboot with some new material as well. When reading the description of the product one line in particular jumped out at me: Heroes from the Forgotten Realms and other D&D worlds can easily be drawn into Strahd’s cursed land.

While this is indeed true, unlike traditional high fantasy worlds, running Ravenloft is a much different experience. Ravenloft is a world of gothic horror which when compared to a place like the Forgotten Realms is apples and oranges. Magic is not nearly as prevalent and traditional monsters are something maybe used to scare children as bedtime stories.

Ravenloft certainly is not a heroic world and very often the good guys do not win. I personally do not like using existing characters from a high fantasy world for Ravenloft. When you are surrounded by magic and fantastical beasts on a regular basis a salvo of undead is hardly scary. Part of what makes gothic horror work so well is the complete unknown. That ever present darkness, real or imagined, clouds the senses and leaves us not knowing what to expect next.

The setting needs to be mysterious even to those who were born there. This is what will help create that atmospheric element of fear and dread for your players. My advice is to use characters that are from the Demiplane of Dread for the best effect. Additionally when the players create new characters they will instantly be thinking about the setting. Or the DM should take the time to create characters if playing a one shot adventure and pass them out in advance. This will help tremendously with immersion on game day. Frank the Paladin from the Sword Coast, wielding his Holy Avenger, just does not work right.

Suspense is key. This is where doing your preparation as a DM pays off big time. Creaking sounds. Strange shadows. Disturbing dreams. The sudden disappearance of an NPC. Or perhaps someone just inexplicably shows up dead.  All of these types of events are easily jotted down on a 3x5 card and help to create the atmosphere of dread that is Ravenloft. When you take something mundane and twist it the comfort zone of the players is taken away. For example using the encounter below and then making nothing ever come from it is terrifying:

“You notice the small doll that was seated on the rocking chair is gone. Behind you the patter of tiny feet on the wooden floor can be heard. Suddenly, the feebly burning candle you hold has its flame snuffed by a cold breeze.”

There is also many things you can do on game day to add a unique feeling to any Ravenloft sessions. For example the lights in the Game Tavern are all on dimmers. Using them when Strahd or some other nasty presence is impending could be a good tip off for the players. I have also in the past played certain elements of a session by candlelight but would recommend doing this sparingly. Especially if playing late at night and people are tired, caveat being you make intravenous caffeine available. I think candlelight would work best with a Tarokka card reading to create that cool fortune teller vibe for the players.

Music and sound effects are also very powerful tools any DM always has available for their game sessions.  Gloom and horror can be amplified by the sound of rain, the wind blowing, people crying or the baying of wolves in the distance. In terms of music sound tracks like Dracula Untold or Bram Stoker’s Dracula are just dying (pun intended) to be part of your Ravenloft sessions. All of these options can easily be played using an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker and a smartphone. Again use them sparingly or like most things they will fade into the background of the session and lose their effect.

Often a unified vision of what the players are experiencing is another good tool to use. Something old school modules did well was providing a booklet of handouts. Players love to handle props no matter how insignificant. Take the time to pick out and print some pictures to use during your Ravenloft session. A simple Google Image search should provide plenty of setting art that could be utilized to ensure everyone is on the same page. People are very visual by nature. Take advantage of that sensory power one in a while.

Finally take some time to research what is already available in terms of inspiration. Ravenloft has plenty of previously created material from books and supplements to various blog entries. Here Sly flourish offers some great advice on running the original Ravenloft module. Here I talk about additional motivations of Strahd and here is my session report from our Halloween gathering last October. Also the first issue of my zine, Tales from the Game Tavern, is filled with horror type material.

Still need more inspiration? My advice is read a few ghost stories or classic horror to really get a feeling for the genre.  If you were to make an Appendix V (for vampire) what would you add to the list? Below are a few examples to get it started:

Bram Stoker: Dracula
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
John Polidori: The Vampyre, A Tale
Edgar Allan Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher
Peter Straub: Ghost Story
Stephen King: Salem’s Lot

Good luck… Strahd is waiting for you … What are you afraid of?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Dungeoncaching: "Take something, leave something."

Last year I started Geocaching with my family to get the kids out and exploring nature. For the uninitiated this is an activity very similar to Letterboxing where you basically go on a scavenger hunt. The difference is you use GPS to find the general area of the cache. This also allows you to record your finds via an app and comment on the difficulty of finding the cache. A typical cache contains a small log book and pen (always bring your own) and often a little cluster of interesting items.

One of the unwritten codes of geocaching is "take something, leave something." As people find the cache, they exchange treasures so there is always something for the next person to find. This summer my family and I plan to hide a few caches of our own which will contain polyhedral dice. Hopefully those interested in the curious 20 sided dice will investigate the types of games they are used for!

This all gave rise to the idea that adventurers exploring vast mega-dungeons would do something similar. Often RPG sessions are limited to smaller environments which may never be visited again by the player characters. Or maybe there are several sessions in one location but the action is usually moving forward in some fashion. This is often because of scheduling issues, time constraints and just the complexities of life in general.

However it is quite possible to have a campaign revolve around a mega-dungeon theme for quite some time. In these situations the ecology of the location constantly evolves. Monster lairs change hands, different factions gain control of certain areas, adventurers plunder certain hoards, or magical and natural effects alter the setting. These sorts of occurrences are what make a large mega-dungeon theme come alive in the sense that it’s not a static environment.

Therefore it would be quite believable that previous adventurers left behind both for themselves and others small caches of supplies. They would usually exist in a place that is hidden or which was once a safe haven. Maybe there is a well-known type of graffiti used by adventurers or guilds to mark these caches? Or perhaps the local town used for supply has a posting board and crude map with alleged cache locations? The same unwritten code of "take something; leave something” would be used in dungeon-caching.

Now this idea need not be limited only to large subterranean areas of exploration. There could be dungeon caches in the wilderness inside some old hollowed out tree, under the floor boards of a tavern, or even in the rafters of an abandoned home. A dungeon cache is also a great tool to use when running multiple groups through the same campaign world. Maybe group A left something for group B to find when it’s their turn at the table? Finally a Dungeon cache is perhaps one of the easiest adventure hooks you could ever use since it could be clues to anything. Below I have created a table which includes examples of dungeon caches adventurers may find.

Dungeon Cache Table (1d6)

1. Hidden under a large stone is a small wooden box covered in phosphorescent mold. When opened the player characters find three vials filled with a glowing liquid. These each count as a Light spell if carefully poured onto an object. One has been leaking for quite some time hence the illuminated mold.

2. A secret door gives away to reveal the scene of a battle long ago. The skeletons of several humanoids are piled in a corner and an old fire pit exists in the center of this small room. Against the far wall leans two bed rolls, several folded blankets and a worn leather pack. Inside the pack the player characters will find three Potions of Healing and several bottles of wine.

3. A hidden tunnel leads to small natural chamber of stone and moss. Inside rests a perfectly clean iron chest waiting to be opened. Unfortunately for the player characters this is actually a Mimic that has been using this cache as a feeding trap. Nearby and completely covered in moss is the actual dungeon cache chest. Inside will be several loaves of calcified bread that when broken magically turn fresh again, complete with butter and wonderful aroma. One piece of this magic bread counts as enough sustenance for an entire day.

4. This cache appears to have been constructed by dwarves and uses an elaborate set of weights and pulleys to reveal. Inside is a veritable supply store containing rope, hooks, and lengths of chain, nails, pitons, shovels and small hand tools. Additionally there are several swords, axes and warhammers available. In dwarven written above the cache is the warning, “Take what ye need, but heed, Moradin sees, so please, leave behind, something to find” If the player characters only take items and leave nothing of value they will be cursed by Moradin for 24 hours with -2 to hit on all attack rolls.

5. This dungeon cache is a tiny cloth bag which is hidden inside a niche in a stone wall. The initials R.V. are embroidered on the bag in faded gold thread. Inside the player characters will find several Goodberries of surprising power. Anyone investigating will notice the niche is filled with a strange crystal which seems to be empowering the goodberries.  Each berry will heal 10 points of damage when consumed. The caveat being if they are more than 15’ away from the crystal niche they turn to dust. Any attempts to remove the crystal niche will destroy it. Consuming the last goodberry also ends the cycle permanently unless a newly summoned goodberry is placed inside the niche. The niche takes one full week to empower any new berries.

6. Hidden beyond several secret doors and false caches is an area that is very well stocked for serious exploration. Amateur adventurers or wandering monsters would almost never find this location. The actual chamber is 30x30 and contains an ever-burning hearth which only gives off heat and no smoke. Additionally there are several bunk beds, foot chests with blankets, and a stasis bubble containing a large quantity of food stuffs. There is also a bottle rack which contains a dozen of every common magic potion type and perhaps a few rare ones. A log book and sign-in sheet lay upon a table with ink and quill. If not signed properly and stock accounted for the room will teleport the player characters 2d10 miles away from the dungeon to some random wilderness area.

So do you Geocache or Letterbox? And if so what were some of the more interesting places you actually located one? And if you enjoyed the Dungeoncaching idea please reply to this post with your ideas for additional caches other Dungeon Masters can add to their own campaigns.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015: Most Popular Posts

I always like to look back through the metrics on my blog to see what people are clicking on. This is especially true since I generally blog whenever I have a light bulb moment. That leads to a variety of topics spanning the universe of table-top gaming. My goal is to try and be as substantive as possible and never post just for the sake of doing so. had an enormous amount of traffic last year and that definitely inspires me to keep creating content for it.

Interestingly there are a handful of posts from 2014 which see daily traffic still. But my focus today is to look back at what posts made in 2015 were the most popular. The following are listed because they all exceeded one thousand clicks, with some in the tens of thousands:

So what does this tell me about my readers? Well for one it seems there is a strong desire to mix nostalgic old school with new school. Additionally people love gonzo material and crave reviews of new RPG products to help guide their purchasing decisions. Also new gamers or those curious about RPGs want to read about others experiences before taking the plunge. Gamers also want to know more about the history of RPGs and appreciate posts about their creators. Apparently zombies are still going strong and have not yet eaten reader brains. Finally, the Game Tavern and the zine with its namesake are something people want more of.

Now granted, this is all my anecdotal read of what anonymous clicks on the internet mean. That being said, my little mining of this data will help to formulate posts for 2016. So Happy New year and I look forward to sharing more big ideas and gaming outside the box with you!