Friday, May 17, 2019

Little Piggies Go to Market

I'm assembling a dungeon for my 5e game based on Darkest Dungeon's Warrens locale with inspiration from the Isle of Doctor Moreau.

Mostly for my own use, I'm collecting my monsters (art & stats) here:

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Battle for Morden's Vale

Campaign Update: 

The party finished clearing the Moat House and dispatched Lareth the Beautiful and his bloodthirsty chaos cult.

David A. Trampier

Almost as an afterthought, on their way out of the dungeon, they tried to kill the giant crayfish in the basement pool. To their horror, it proved to be extraordinarily heavily-armored and strong. Foolishly, rather than fleeing, they stood their ground and tried to kill it even after the Rogue barely succeeded in escaping a death blow. Their hubris cost them dearly when the crayfish seized the Ranger and drug her into the depths of the pool: the first character death of the campaign.

The next session opened with the Ranger's funeral in the town of Morden's Vale, on the edge of the Grimwald forest.

Morden's Vale is a small, primitive village built under the canopy of an enormous black willow tree. The branches of the tree shelter the wigwams of the villagers and they in turn worship the tree and forbid all fire within the village.

The ceremony was interrupted by the arrival of a Barbarian, hotly pursued by a horde of chaos-enthralled reavers.

The party had just a few minutes to organize the townsfolk and prepare for an attack.

  • For the first time in this campaign, I broke out a battle mat. I set a timer and let the players position themselves and the villagers before the horde arrived.
The reavers rushed into the town, armed with Molotov's torches and axes. They began setting houses alight and slaughtering the villagers as they fled. 

The party was very effective in barricading the village entrances, and using area-of-effect spells to channel and dispatch the horde. 
  • The Druid's Moonbeam and Spike Growth spells proved particularly decisive. 
  • The wizard judiciously used Mage Hand to dump water on fires before they could spread too far.
  • 5e Barbarians can soak A LOT of damage and keep fighting.
The central tree also came to life and began smashing invaders with it's branches and entangling them in roots. 

Eventually, after inflicting heavy damage on the village (killing about a sixth of the inhabitants, razing many of the wigwams and burning a chunk of the tree) the reavers were driven off.

DM Debrief:

  • My players really liked the battle mat. This surprised me as, for the most part, they are not huge board-game fans, and aren't particularly tactical in their play. 
  • My props, including a large cardboard tree, were a big hit. 
  • I used a "character sheet" that I made for the tree, based on Steve Jackson's Ogre record sheets.
    • The branches corresponded to the weapons of an Ogre, and could be attacked and disabled separately.
    • The trunk corresponded to the Ogre's tracks and determined how many actions the tree took
  • The combat was much less dynamic than I hoped. The players were very effective in bottling the bad guys which made the battle much more of a quagmire and less of a running fight than I had envisioned. This, despite giving the bad guys lots of run+hit abilities. 
    • I was hoping that the bad guys would be able to run amok more in the town, forcing the players to choose between saving villagers, putting out fires etc. and fighting efficiently. 
  • 5e combat is too slow. Part of this is players who still have no idea what their abilities are, or how to use them, but part of it is the system just moves slowly. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Moat House Ambush

I have been running a "weekly" game (effectively 2-3 times per month) with a group of six players, none of whom have played D&D before.

For the last couple sessions, they have been exploring the classic Gygax Moat House. I added this dungeon on to my map, mostly because it has a reputation for being one of the first adventures that people experienced when they picked up D&D back in the day. I took satisfaction in connecting my new players to that tradition but I didn't expect them to feel particular connection to D&D history.

Totally wrong. It surprised me, but my players LOVE knowing that they are adventuring in an original Gary dungeon (I had to explain who Gary Gygax was) written before any of them was born. When an encounter is hard, or they fall for a trap, they blame him, "Damn it, Gary!" It's super great.

The response has been really cool.

A few notes on running the Moat House:

  • I gave my players a printout of the above picture. They used the detail in the drawing to drive their strategy (i.e. sneaking along the small bit of ground along the wall and scrambling in through the broken tower). It definitely helped my novice players strategize and engage with the world.
  • I am using Daniel's excellent annotated maps to run the adventure. So helpful, I plan to replicate them for other adventures. 
  • A few of my players have stared listening to actual play podcasts (Adventure Zone, Critical Role) and when things come up that they know about from their shows (i.e. Klarg the Bugbear) they get super excited.
  • I am texting out Gifs, to show players what monsters look like. Fun for me, and they enjoy the strange crap I find. Also the pics maybe make them scarier? 
Gnolls. So gross.
Favorite Encounters: 
  • When the ground floor bandits fled, Cordelia the druid turned into a spider and crawled under the locked door they had retreated through. While itsy-bitsy, she discovered the secret staircase down into the basement.
  • Bugbears! I don't use any Tolkien-y monsters/races in my campaign but I left the bugbears in this module. They came up on a wandering monster check and successfully sneak-attacked the party rogue, dropping him instantly, leading to a tense fight. Super fun. 
    • Reading the bugbear lore, and noticing that they are sneaky made them interesting to me. Big angry brute hulks = boring. Big, silent hulks creeping up in the dark... scary. 

Also a bugbear?

Next session is Tuesday!

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Tomb of the Stygian Duke

The Stygians

Far and wide, the Stygians are known as slavers and torturers.

They erect their monumental necropolises with forced labor and when they are finished they slaughter the workforce as sacrifices to their ancestors.

Resolute to never be forgotten, they brand themselves into the memory of mankind with cruelty.

The rest of humanity loathes them. Many wars have been fought, and some won, to topple their tyranny and demolish their fortress-memorials. There have been ages when generations lived while the Stygian's were hidden, persecuted and hunted; regard as bogeymen and myths.

They always return. Often leading armies of undead or legions of golems.

What few know, is that the Stygians have carved for themselves an afterlife. Unwilling to serve the gods, their mages have bent into being a place in the void where they can rule.

Leveraging principles of magic that only they understand, they use rituals and symbols to project a place, cemented by memory, reverence and terror. When they leave this life, they travel there with throngs of captives in their train.

They steal not only the lives of their victims but their afterlives.

The Stygians have not been known in these parts for many generations. There are old tales of the days when they reaved this land and tilled its people into the soil but they are not told as often as they once were and those dark times have faded into the obscuring mists of the past.

Outside the village, in a stone cleft, a misplaced stairway leads down into darkness

The Tomb 

This is a map of King Tut's tomb

The decor throughout is replete with gaudy snake motifs.

Stairway: Steep steps descend into darkness. Anyone over-encumbered risks overbalancing and falling. This is particularly dangerous for those carrying their own light and unable to use both hands for balance.

Corridor: Vivid frescoes depict a sorcerer holding aloft a serpent-staff. He leads sickle-wielding soldiers to victory, carving through enemies until their bodies cover the ground several layers deep.

The artwork might distract from the dangerous quicksand that forms the floor. Anyone trying to walk across it will sink in up to their neck. There are blades concealed under the surface that will lacerate anyone struggling to free themselves.

Antechamber: In the west wall their is a narrow door into the Annex. Also, along the west wall, large tables hold hundreds of miniature, painted metal soldiers arrayed for battle. They are exquisitely detailed. Each has a sickle and a spear. On shelves above the tables are model siege engines. Although visitors to the tomb won't know it, disturbing these figures will cause chaos and mass destruction to the Stygian Duke's army in the afterlife. He will return to defend his tomb (more information below in the Burial Chamber).

There is a door in the north wall into the Burial Chamber.

On the east wall, racks hold a dozen spears and sickle-swords.

Bronze age khopesh.
Annex: This room holds a small library.  All of the walls are lined in bookshelves.

  • On the west wall, hundreds of identical volumes each repeating one word: Khotan. 
  • Most of the remaining books detail the life of Khotan, his military victories, his fabulous wealth, incredible sorcery and his legendary sexual exploits.
  • A small number of books record the lives of Khotan's family, friends and lieutenants in similarly exuberant terms.

Burial Chamber: This room is dominated by an enormous sarcophagus of gleaming black metal. On the walls, more frescoes depicting Khotan vanquishing various foes. A door to the east leads into the treasury.

Twenty obsidian pillars surround the sarcophagus. Each is a statue depicting a person with their arms raised above their heads to hold up the arches of the vaulted ceiling. Each face looks at the sarcophagus with horror and hatred. Without magic, visitors will not know that these are Khotan's enemies turned to stone. They are still conscious, but paralyzed.

The frescoes in this chamber depict the defeat of each of these enemies.

Set into the floor are black marble flagstones, with the engraved names of 12 of Khotan's bodyguards. These might be recognizable from the accounts in the Annex library. These are not cemented down, and with some effort, they can be raised to reveal a lacquered black skeleton standing in a niche below.

Inside the sarcophagus is a gleaming metal machine-body. Khotan can return from his afterlife and possess this form to defend his tomb. When he does, the coffin opens.

You might recognize this guy. A necron would also be a good reference image.


  • Khotan will return in 10-60 minutes (He may be wrapping up an appointment on the Otherside)
  • Twelve of his bodyguards will also return and animate their skeletons in the floor niches.
  • Khotan's first priority will be to free his lieutenants. 
  • If there are tomb-robbers in the burial chamber he will pick up the headstones and hurl them at the invaders.


In this room the frescoes depict Khotan reveling in luxury and enjoying the adulation and worship of his subjects.

  • Laid out on plinths are many items of impressive jewelry. Lots of snake motifs. Lots of cameos depicting Khotan. Much of this is out-of-style and unlikely to fetch high prices.
  • A number of ornate scroll tubes contain spell formulas.
  • Some of the gems have spells stored inside.
  • An amber bust of Khotan, hung on a chain serves as a protection amulet and prevents Khotan's servants from attacking the wearer.
  • Treasure chests contain coins stamped with Khotan's likeness. 

Niches set into the walls contain glazed urns. These hold the ashes of Khotan's less important enemies (and a few of his favorite artists and lovers). There spirits are also trapped inside. Using information from the Annex library, it is possible to determine who is in each urn.

If any of the urns is broken the angry spirit will be released and will attack in a swirl of ash (like this spell effect). The urns are heavy and brittle, but conceivably the urns could be moved and the spirits released elsewhere.

Removing any of this room's contents will call Khotan (if he has not already been alerted).

Cutaway view of King Tut's tomb

The Duke

If the tomb is disturbed and Khotan is not defeated, he will begin gathering forces and install himself as a local warlord until he is satisfied that his tomb has been re-secured.

He will hunt tomb-robbers to the best of his (significant) abilities and if he isn't quickly successful, will hire assassins to hunt in his stead. 

He is a smart tactician but a brutal autocrat. Life under his rule will be extremely unpleasant and likely short. The surrounding towns and villages will be systematically plundered and depopulated.

Depending on his current standing on the Otherside, Khotan may be able to call on other Stygian allies. His is not the only such tomb in the area. If his superiors get involved, it will wake a war like none now living have known.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Back at it!

It feels good to be running a game again!

I have finally found a critical mass of players in NYC to get rolling.

We've run two sessions of 5E with 5-7 players each. Only one of the players had ever played D&D before (and that was many years ago as a kid). Most of the group works with my wife in the NY arts world.

I drew the map as we went and glued in the doorways, arches and key terrain features (simple cardboard mock-ups) as we went to give it a 3D feel. It worked really well.  I think it really helped the new players to envision what was happening and where everything was. Plus, all the artists in the group got a kick out of my crappy hot-glue construction skills.

I ran a small dungeon, of my own devising that featured some classic traps and skeleton archers protecting a necromancer and his lab.

  • Light sources were a constant source of drama, which made me happy. 
    • I banned dark vision and the Light cantrip.
  • I incorporated a shrine that would grant prophecies if treated with respect, but the party's rogue was more interested in robbing it and narrowly escaped a curse.
  • The party parlayed with the necromancer, Felix Motley, and learned that he was being attacked by ratmen, further down in the dungeon. Felix offered them treasure to descend into the lower level and destroy the rat menace. 
So far it's been a lot of fun and my players are engaged and excited. I had intended to play every other week but by popular demand we played two Tuesdays in a row, with the next one coming up in a few days.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ivory Peaks

Outside the city, there is a small U-shaped mountain range comprising the mostly buried jawbone, and teeth of a long dead titanic creature. The ivory of these teeth is a popular building material for those wealthy enough to afford it. This ivory is also used for colossal statuary, which is currently much in vogue.
The mountain quarries compete fiercely to deliver the largest blocks, which often measure many meters to a side. Exceptionally massive blocks fetch astounding prices and the caravans which transport them to the city are frequently raided by profiteers and rivals.

Decades of tunneling and undermining have destabilized several of the teeth. Continued removal of material from their base will cause them to collapse and annihilate the mining villages at their base. There are several people who have issued warnings but they have been dismissed as cowardly ninnies.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Feisty Flora

The woods west of Stutterheim are well known for their treacherous, cruel inhabitants and the perilous predators that stalk in their shadows, but these are far from the only threats. Even the plants of the cursed forests are eager to shed human blood.

Stinging Creepers - Pale ropey tendrils hang down from high branches. They slowly bend towards nearby creatures, and gently feel along their surface until they touch skin. If they touch the skin of an appendage it receives a painful sting and is paralyzed for 10-60 minutes. Stings to the head prevent speech and cause the eyelids to droop, imposing disadvantage on attacks. Severing the tendrils, releases a strong smelling chemical that attracts predators. 

The disconnected vines maintain their potency for many hours and are occasionally used by herbal healers as a surgical anesthetic (the sting being much preferable to the agony of an amputation). However, the smell increases in intensity as the creepers decay and so most savvy foresters are loathe to attract danger by keeping them around.
Charnel Tree - A black, leafless tree thrusts from the ground like a hand grasping at the sky. Upon approach, corpses can be seen impaled on thick branches with sharp, jagged ends. These branches  protrude upward from the trunk like needle-fingers.

The tree is paralyzed while any creature looks at it but if anyone turns  their back while within its reach, a branch will strike out and skewer them. The branch will return to its original position, with its victim hoisted aloft in the blink of an eye. Over the next few days, rootlings  will burrow into the flesh and digest it.

A close examination of the trunk will reveal an elaborate carved character. Defacing this character will banish the tree's animating spirit. Replicating the character in the trunk of another tree will cause it to be similarly possessed within a few weeks. 

The wood of a charnel tree will not burn, even if its spirit is exorcised.

Winkle Moss - In the freezing wastes, spongy pads of lilac colored moss occasionally grow in sheltered spots in the lee of rock outcroppings or amongst the roots of gargantuan ancient trees. The moss gives off a  gentle warmth and may appear to be an ideal resting place, out of the frigid wind.

Anyone reclining on the moss will gradually become drowsy, and drift into a soothing sleep, where they will dream peacefully (these dreams while vague and difficult to remember, foretell the future). They will not wake on their own and anyone trying to rouse them will have tremendous difficulty. After a few hours of sleep the moss will slowly grow up, engulfing and eventually smothering the sleeper. Any attempt to tear or disturb the moss will cause intense, terrifying and prophetic  dreams in those under its influence.

A sedative tea can be brewed from Winkle Moss. It tastes like chamomile and dust.

Vorpal Ferns - Long stiff fronds, colored a distinctive inky-green and displaying a glossy sheen are the identifying feature of Vorpal Ferns. Voluminous banks of these ferns grow symbiotically around the roots of many large deciduous trees in the murky black forests of the west.

The leaves of these ferns are entirely rigid and their edges, wickedly sharp. They slice through flesh like razor wire and easily pierce thick hides and tough leather. Falling into a clump is like being thrown down a  spike pit. If a na├»ve forest visitor, attempts to grasp a stalk, fingers may be lost.

If severed from its roots, a fern quickly degrades and becomes soft and harmless. If harvested carefully, they can be gathered into a comfortable sleeping mat.

Recently, protective hedges of vorpal ferns have become popular as defensive landscaping around the manses of the Stutterheim nobility.

Incense Daisies - The beautiful pale-pink petals of the incense daisy are one of the few contrasting notes of color in the dim, drab undergrowth of the western woods. These flowers omit a delicate, sweet scent and are collected by forest dwellers and fragrantly burned to pacify forest spirits.

The flowers are also extremely attractive as a food to most mammalian beasts. Unfortunately, the plants contain a sap which causes animals who consume them to become uncontrollably violent. Travelers must be careful to prevent their pack animals and hounds from foraging but may find it difficult to counter the flowers' allure.

Within an hour of eating incense daisies, an animal will have a psychotic episode, attacking any nearby creature, or if no creature is close, destroying the surrounding plants. These episodes are mercifully short, usually lasting just one to six minutes.