Posts Tagged ‘ adventure design ’

More Beary-ations (on a Theme)

I used to have several issues of Dungeon from the late 80s to early 90s. I don’t have all of them now, but I do still have the issue the cover of which you see to the right. In it, one finds a fun little adventure by Jon Bailey titled “The Moor-Tombs Map”. It’s written for AD&D, specifically for 4-6 characters of 2nd to 4th level. Let’s take the middle road through those two ranges and assume 5 characters, all of which are 3rd level.

Now let’s shift gears as I think out loud (so to speak). In 5E D&D, the DM creates a combat encounter by first determining the adventuring party’s “XP Threshold” (DMG 82). Our party of five 3rd-level characters would look like this:

Easy 375 XP, Medium 750 XP, Hard 1,125 XP, Deadly 2,000 XP

Back to “The Moor-Tombs Map”. Not to give too much about it away, but the first combat encounter encountered on the road away from Moorwall is with a wolfwere and six wolves. A quick-and-dirty estimate of the wolfwere’s CR in 5E? It’s AC 3 (or 17 in 5E), has 5 Hit Dice, can attack twice per round for 2-12 plus weapon, has a magical song that causes slow, cannot be harmed by weapons unless they are magic or cold iron, and has magic resistance. A 5-HD monster had a THAC0 of 15, which is roughly equivalent to a +5 attack bonus.

For 5E, that’s a great AC, but pretty low hit points. It’s got good damage, however. Assume a d8 for weapon damage, and that’s 7 plus 4, or 11 on average. AD&D didn’t have save DCs, so fixing the save DC for its slow is a matter of taste. As an estimate, if I were building a 5E wolfwere using these stats, I’d aim for CR 3 (700 XP). Six wolves come in at 300 XP total. An encounter with seven monsters has an encounter multiplier of 2.5. The XP threshold total for the wolfwere and its wolves comes in at 2,500 XP. That’s a potentially deadly encounter for our adventurers.

Later on, the adventurers encounter 10 giant vultures (threshold 4,500 XP), 6 lizard men (threshold 1,200 XP), as well as a few other encounters, and this is all before reaching the actual moor-tomb.

Obviously, the differences between AD&D and 5E D&D make running an AD&D adventure as-is tricky. It’d be a real bummer if less than half way to the actual adventure one or more of the adventurers died in combat against what is pretty much a random encounter. 1E and 5E are not the same game. They have different assumptions, different maths, et cetera.

Let’s consider in more detail those half-dozen lizard men. As DM, I don’t really want to subject my players’ characters to a hard encounter that is at best tangetial to the main story. I could just remove the encounter, but that takes away from some of the “local color” of the adventure. The players could evade the lizard men or convince them to not attack, but if things go sideways the resulting fight could go badly for the adventurers. I could reduce the number of lizard men, of course. Halving the number drops the threshold XP to 600, making it a much more manageable threat, but I also like fights that involve larger numbers of enemies. That was a feature of AD&D that I miss.

What to do?

Well, instead of using bears (see previous post), I could use kobolds. I take the standard kobold, change its size to Medium, its Hit Points to 7 (2d8-2), and add a swim speed as per lizardfolk. Voila! My newer, weaker lizard men are now a threshold 300 XP encounter. That ought to be a cake walk for the adventurers. It also establishes in my game world that there are levels of lizard men. Sure, today you bumped into a group of lowly hunter-gatherers, but tomorrow you might run afoul of young warriors (goblins as lizard men) supervised by a more experienced fighter (a standard lizardfolk).

Just using bears is an idea with wide-ranging utility that can help a DM come up with new monsters or variations of old monsters almost on-the-fly.

“Inhabiting out of the way places, the hated and feared wolfwere is the bane of humans and demihumans alike, for it is able to take the form of a human male or female of considerable charisma. In either its true shape or that of a man, the wolfwere slyly hunts, slays, and devours its favored prey — men, halflings, elves, etc. … It must be noted that a great enmity exists between wolfwere and werewolves.” (Monster Manual II, p. 127)

Medium fey (shapechanger), chaotic evil

Armor Class 17 (natural armor)
Hit Points 27 (5d8+5)
Speed 40 ft.
Ability Scores STR 16 (+3), DEX 18 (+4), CON 13 (+1), INT 14 (+2), WIS 14 (+2), CHA 17 (+3)

Skills Deception +5, Perception +4
Tools musical instrument
Damage Immunities bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks not made with iron weapons
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 14
Languages Common,Sylvan, Worg
Challenge 3 (700 XP)

Keen Hearing and Smell. The wolfwere has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing or smell.

Magic Resistance. The wolfwere has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Shapechanger. The wolfwere can use its action to polymorph into a human or back into its true form of a human-wolf hybrid. Its statistics are the same for either form. Any equipment it is wearing or carrying isn’t transformed. It reverts to its true form if it dies.

Wolvesbane Sensitivity. If the wolfwere starts its turn within 15 feet of wolvesbane, it is poisoned and thus has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.


Multiattack. The wolfwere makes two attacks in its hybrid form: one with its bite, the other with a weapon. In human form, the wolfwere makes one attack with its weapon.

Bite. Melee Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d6+4) piercing damage.

Sword. Melee Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d6+4) piercing damage.

Call of the Wild (1/Day). When outdoors, the wolfwere magically calls 2d6 wolves or 1d6 worgs. The called creatures arrive in 1d4 rounds, acting as allies of the wolfwere and obeying its spoken commands. The beasts remain for 1 hour, until the wolfwere dies, or until the wolfwere dismisses them as a bonus action.

Lullaby (1/Day). The wolfwere has a magical song that causes listeners to fall into slumber. A total of 22 (5d8) hit points of humanoid creatures within 90 feet of the wolfwere are affected. Creatures are affected in ascending order of their current hit points (ignoring unconscious creatures), and a Wisdom saving throw against DC 13 negates this power’s effect. Starting with the creature that has the lowest current hit points, each creature affected by this power falls unconscious for 1d4+4 minutes. A sleeping creature remains unconscious until the sleeper takes damage, or until someone uses an action to shake or slap the sleeper awake. Subtract each creature’s hit points from the total before moving on to the creature with the next lowest hit points. A creature’s hit points must be equal to or less than the remaining total for that creature to be affected. Undead and creatures immune to being charmed aren’t affected by this power.

January 14th, 2018  in RPG No Comments »


GMs love new monsters. Gaming blogger-folk love posting new monsters, writing about monsters, et cetera. I’ve posted quite a few new monsters over the years.

But there’s a secret about monsters, namely that I really don’t need very many new ones. Other people have already worked out the stats for all of the monsters I could ever need, and many of the new ones are really just variations on old ones, reskinned with new descriptive bits. In truth, when I think I need a new monster, I could just use bears.

Consider the 5E D&D brown bear:

Now let’s just use bears three different ways. In each case, I made minor tweaks to the brown bear’s stats.

The enormous humanoid shuffles into view. Twisted knots of fibrous tissue cover its muscular body. Its gait rolls, totters, due to legs of unequal length. Its powerful arms end in four-fingered hands that almost reach the ground. One meaty fist clutches the end of a greatclub. Its block-like head juts forward atop a thick neck. Ridges of bone grow from its brow.

Large giant, chaotic evil

Armor Class 11 (natural armor)
Hit Points 34 (4d10+12)
Speed 40 ft., climb 30 ft.
Ability Scores STR 19 (+4), DEX 10 (+0), CON 16 (+3), INT 4 (-3), WIS 13 (+1), CHA 7 (-2)

Skills Perception +3
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 13
Languages Giant
Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Keen Smell. The arth has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell.


Multiattack. The arth makes two attacks: one with its headbutt and one with its greatclub.

Headbutt. Melee: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d8+4) bludgeoning damage.

Greatclub. Melee: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d6+4) bludgeoning damage.

The crack of a twig was the only warning of the monster’s sudden attack. Roughly humanoid, seemingly comprised of intertwined branches and vines, the monster rushes forward, flailing with a thorn-covered vine and a heavy branch.

Large plant, unaligned

Armor Class 11
Hit Points 34 (4d10+12)
Speed 40 ft., climb 30 ft.
Ability Scores STR 19 (+4), DEX 12 (+1), CON 16 (+3), INT 2 (-4), WIS 10 (+0), CHA 7 (-2)

Skills Stealth +3
Senses passive Perception 10
Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Woody Stealth. The baavgai has advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks in forests.


Multiattack. The baavgai makes two attacks: one with its thorn-covered tendril and one its club-like limb.

Tendril. Melee: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d8+4) slashing damage.

Club. Melee: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d6+4) bludgeoning damage.

Like a creature born from a nightmare, part monitor lizard, part mountain lion, its single green eye flashing in the torchlight, the monstrosity drops from the treetop. It lashes out with its serpentine tail that ends with a spiky knob of bone.

Large monstrosity, unaligned

Armor Class 11 (natural armor)
Hit Points 34 (4d10+12)
Speed 40 ft., climb 30 ft.
Ability Scores STR 19 (+4), DEX 10 (+0), CON 16 (+3), INT 2 (-4), WIS 13 (+1), CHA 7 (-2)

Skills Perception +3
Senses passive Perception 13
Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Keen Smell. The iomair has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell.


Multiattack. The iomair makes two attacks with its tail.

Tail. Melee: +5 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d6+4) bludgeoning damage plus 2 (1d4) slashing damage.

January 13th, 2018  in RPG No Comments »

Sacred Places

In those days, the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. (Genesis 18:1-2)

When the divine appears to a person, that person experiences a theophany. Ancient literature, such as the Illiad, and ancient religious texts, such as the Book of Genesis, describe such experiences, which take a variety of forms but always lead to an important change, event, or revelation. Thus, as the story of Abraham quoted in part above continues, Abraham is told that his wife Sarah will give birth to a son.

The site of the theophany itself may take on new signifance as it marks a place where the sacred and the profane touched, transforming the latter into a place set now apart from the normal. For example, near modern-day Hebron, the Oak of Mamre, reportedly 50 centuries old, stands at the site said to be where Abraham welcomed three visitors from Heaven.

Such sites attract pilgrims, many of whom journey with specific intentions, such as hope for healing for themselves or a loved one. Often, these sites become the focus of a group of believers, and then a larger community that may include residents whose motives are primarily related to just making a living. Not everyone can live a life solely devoted to prayer or contemplation. Someone has to do the laundry and grow the food, and the larger the community around or near a sacred site, the more varied the motives of people in the community become. The city of Jerusalem is perhaps the most famous example of a community with a complex, rich history that attracts pilgrims year-round.

The inclusion of sacred pilgrimage sites is a good way to inject some verisimilitude into a campaign. Even in our postmodern age, where what appears to be a distressingly large number of people think that divine favor or good fortune can be curried by liking and/or sharing pictures on Facebook, the attraction exerted by sacred places ought not be too difficult to understand. Wars are still fought over holy places, and people still shed blood in the streets in defense of ideals that, while not necessarily religious, are clung to with religious fervor.

The potential for conflict, and the resulting adventure, grows when a site’s significance acquires various interpretations that conflict with each other, as when the persecution of Christians and destruction of Christian holy places in Jerusalem by the caliph of Egypt helped motivate Christendom into the First Crusade. Translate the events of the First Crusade into a swords-and-sorcery campaign and a GM at least has a dynamic backdrop against which his players’ characters adventure.

To this backdrop, add sacred places that ought to be important to the party’s religiously motivated members. What does the party’s cleric of Olidammara do when the local ruling hierarchy of Wastri decides to suppress all music that does not sing the praises of the Hopping Prophet? What happens when the faithful of Merikka take action against the planting rites of Sheela Peryroyl right under the nose of an adventuring cleric of Yondalla?

And, of course, don’t neglect putting some thought into specific game effects or events attached to the site of a theophany.

Six Things That Might Happen at a Sacred Site
1: A cleric of suitable alignment or faith receives an extra first level spell for the day.
2: A character of suitable alignment or faith is cured of an illness or freed from a curse.
3: Someone sleeping at the site receives a prophetic dream.
4: A pilgrim who possesses useful information or skills may help the party.
5: A divine messenger, probably in disguise, requests the party’s help.
6: A gang with reason to dislike what the site represents shows up to cause trouble.

July 18th, 2016  in RPG No Comments »

More Story Cubes

A bit more than a year ago, I blogged about Rory’s Story Cubes (see here for details). Back then, I had two of the three sets of Story Cubes. Over this last holiday, I got the third set at 8th Dimension Comics & Games.

Each set of Story Cubes includes nine six-sided dice with each die having six different pictures. In set one, the orange box, each picture is a noun, such as a flower, a lightning bolt, or a pyramid. Set two includes actions. Each picture shows one or more people doing something, such as climbing a tree, laughing, or digging a hole. My new set, in a lovely lime green box, includes more nouns, all built around the theme of “Voyages”. For example, some of the pictures include six beans (magical?), a sun peaking over a horizon, or a puzzle piece. With the Story Cubes in hand, I’ve got a powerful tool to generate adventure hooks.

“How so?” you ask.

Well, perhaps by using this format as a guide: noun-verb direct-object, corresponding to orange box-blue box-lime box, respectively.

For example, let’s say I rolled the dice, and I get these pictures: abacus, person with hurt thumb, rain cloud. Here’re two possibilities:

“A magical abacus built by a wizard after a personal tragedy controls the weather.”

“Advanced mathematical formulae discovered by researchers working for the Resistance hold the key to undoing world-wide ecological damage.”

Either one of those sentences could serve as adventure hooks. When you consider that three boxes together can be used to create about a bajillion different simple sentences, you have an enormous resource available to you. If you don’t have Rory’s Story Cubes, check them out. There worth a few bucks a set.

January 25th, 2014  in RPG No Comments »

Heather Donohue Versus Helen Hayes

One of the elements of an effective horror story is a sympathetic protagonist. The person beleaguered by the Forces of Evil needs to be a sort of person that the audience wants to prevail. For example of what I’m not talking about, consider the foul-mouthed crybabies in The Blair Witch Project. Even before the terror started, I was anticipating the student filmmakers’ demises. If you write a horror story, and the audience (in this case me) ends up rooting for the Forces of Evil, I feel as if you’ve perhaps missed something important.*

In contrast (and, yes, it’s not really a horror film), consider 1970’s Airport. Most of the film’s running time is spent not on the disaster but rather focuses on the hopes, dream, conflicts, and disappointments of the ensemble cast. By the time the bomber (Van Heflin in his final film role) jumps into action, the audience has been given plenty of reasons to not want the villain to succeed. The characters threatened are sympathetic, even while they are not without their flaws.

When designing a scenario for a horror RPG session, there’s plenty of good advice out there. (See, for example, “Horror in Roleplaying” by Ernest Mueller.) Some of this advice talks about how to use the players’ investment in their characters as a spur to create dread. In other words, the PCs are sympathetic characters that the audience (meaning the players) wants to succeed. As the scenario’s designer and GM, I also need to keep in mind the need for sympathetic NPCs. The horror story I’m designing and asking my players to participate in needs to have an ensemble cast featuring more than just the Forces of Evil and miscellaneous stock characters.

Many Call of Cthulhu scenarios handle this task admirably by providing the GM with an assortment of NPCs, some good, some useful, and others evil. Time is then given in the scenario for the players’ characters to encounter and interact with these NPCs, thus modeling the movie format of Airport: introduce the main actors so that the audience’s opinions and expectations for their roles can be established.

Should the Forces of Evil kill The Blair Witch Project‘s Heather Donohue? Yes, please. Should the Forces of Evil kill Airport‘s Helen Hayes? Never! What’s the difference between the two ladies? Helen Hayes portrays a sympathetic character that the audience wants to live.

*Of course, this might just say a whole lot more about me and my tolerance for foul-mouthed crybabies.

March 19th, 2013  in RPG No Comments »