Running the Sunless Citadel

The_Sunless_CitadelMy group has now wrapped up the Sunless Citadel. I may run it again for a future group; actually, that would be fantastic as this is really a lovely adventure. Here are some notes for my use. Maybe you can find some use for some of them as inspiration for your own campaign! I also played in another group’s version for a session, mostly just for the tomb section.

This adventure took some time to play through. I think we spent a total of about 20 hours from start to finish (six sessions of 3-4 hours each). Groups that spend less time in roleplay or in larger chunks might be able to cut this back a bit, but in reality the dungeon has so much material that it takes a while to explore. That’s a plus in my view!

As you might expect, this post contains spoilers after the jump. If you’re playing through this, don’t read past this paragraph!

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Catacombs of the Shield Queen

s-l300.jpgThe Shield Queen ruled benevolently over her realm for years, served by her faithful shield maidens. During that time, the land experienced peace & prosperity. Justice extended from the highest courtier to the lowliest servant. But the official records show that an attempted palace coup by a vassal knight led to her death. The squabbling over her legacy brought an end to the golden age.

Catacombs of the Shield Queen is a dungeon I’ve used a bit in home play, so I thought I’d throw it out there for anyone else to hack on and use for their own campaigns. The map comes from Dyson based on the Dungeon Architect Cards. I used monsters from the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book, all of which can be found on That means it should work with just about any older version of D&D, and probably with 5e if you squint a little bit.

Have fun with it and let me know what you think!

Goblin Gully at TheLab

So I ran a game at a makerspace in Plano, Texas, not too far from my home. Despite my nervousness, it went pretty well. A few people had already played lots of D&D – one showed up with his original stuff including goldenrod character sheets! – which made me even more nervous.

When we finally got started, about half the group had at least some D&D experience (ranging from 1e to 5e) and the other half had never played at all before. We went through character generation, which actually took longer than I expected, but I super-simplified equipment choices. Pick an armor set, pick a weapon or two, let’s go. (Yes, I knew this would eliminate much of the resource management but I could see the newer players were already overwhelmed and some of the experienced players were confused that this wasn’t exactly what they already knew.)

goblin-gully.pngI used Dyson’s Goblin Gully to get things started. As I expected, even a small dungeon like this took plenty of time. We played for about 2.5 to 3 hours, and having 6 players made things take a while as they got stuck trying to make a decision at a few points. Highlights included:

  • A fighter having a crisis of conscience as soon as a goblin begged for his life. “Why are we even invading their home and taking their stuff?” “THAT’S WHAT WE DO!”
  • Burning goblin corpses and kicking them down stairs to check for traps.
  • The magic-user blowing into the vocal cords of a decapitated goblin head as sort of a “goblin call”.
  • The thief dousing himself in goblin feces to cover his scent.
  • Engineering a revolution among the goblin inhabitants so that the new boss would be agreeable to their plan.
  • Half the group insisting on trying to find a way to defeat the flesh mass (black pudding) before giving up. Sadly, they did in fact give up before they took any real casualties.

I loved when some of the players talked about how much more they liked playing without miniatures and stacks of rule books. (One player kept calling for “arcane checks” and “morale checks” and “called shots”. He did not seem to understand the freewheeling nature of this type of play.) The only things we had were my S&W Core rulebook and the monster book, plus my Chromebook. They’ve already started talking about when to play again!

Do the simplest thing that could possibly work

XKCD "Board Game" comic

my backup plan

So this weekend I’m going to run some D&D at a local makerspace ( has an open house Saturday evening for anybody in the Dallas-Plano area). I’m probably going to use “Searchers of the Unknown” by +Nicolas Dessaux or some variant thereof, because you can’t get much simpler and call it D&D. Microlite20 would work just about as well and for the same reasons.  Several of the folks who have expressed interest in playing also noted they’ve never done this before, and the open house will  almost certainly provide a fairly raucous environment.

I remain unsure about what dungeon to use, though. Here again, I’m partial to the simplest possible approach: here is a dungeon, go get the treasure and try not to die. Normally I’d go with “Goblin Gully” by +Dyson Logos for this, but my kids are likely to play and they’ve been through that one before (albeit not all the way to the end). So I think I will quickly stock an existing map or try to pick something simple from the One-Page Dungeon contest entrants in the past. Of course, any suggestions on this would be welcome, because I have a lot of level 1 modules in my archives and such but need to do this in a way that satisfies two conditions: (a) family friendly-ish (i.e. no Death Frost Doom even if I love it), and (b) approaching the platonic ideal of “old school D&D”. If it goes well enough, it could end up being an open-table setup where every few weeks I show up with another dungeon level or two, but one step at a time.

D&D with kids: Goblin Gully

Last night, I played D&D for the first time in months – probably the first time in 2015 – and I did so with my kids. TL;DR: structured make-believe with my kids is the best pastime.

Setup and character creation

They’d asked me to play, and I hadn’t been happy with 5e for various reasons. Mostly, I just find it still too rules-heavy for me. Related to that, character creation takes too long and requires too much understanding. So I went with old-school D&D, in the form of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (because I like its straightforward implementation of the B/X ruleset). I don’t really plan to use much of the LotFP-branded adventures with them purely due to age considerations, although there are some things I can lift from a few of them.

My 8-year-old son, who’s never played before, rolled up a fighter named “Oduyx” (pronounced differently every time he said it). We went with 3d6, arrange to taste, and he chose to go with a sword & shield. Equipment selection took longer than I’d have liked, although they both chose to get dogs. (These probably have the most utility per silver piece of almost anything you can get). I told him to think about what his character looks like and maybe a little bit of background while I helped his sister with her character.

My 11yo is becoming less of a tomboy. This is her notebook, character sheet, and dice bag.

My 11yo is becoming less of a tomboy. This is her notebook, character sheet, and dice bag.

As previously noted on this site, my 11-year-old daughter has played before in the guise of 5e as well as Microlite20. She immediately wanted to play a shapeshifter of some sort (e.g. a lycanthrope), so I explained that I would be happy to run an adventure in which her character acquires that characteristic in some fashion. After she thought it over for a few seconds, she decided to play an elf so that she’d have immediate fighting capabilities but the ability to learn magic. She named him “Lloyd” as her first male RPG character. (I think of elves as not really fitting a gender binary, anyway, and she liked that but kept the “he/him/his” pronouns.)

The two kids went off and consulted on their backstory just enough to figure out why they were working together. I made sure they understood that this game involves a lot of teamwork. Their characters will need to cooperate and support each other, because I will obviously be using this as a little bit of a parenting exercise. (Almost everything we do together has to be that, just by necessity.) The two of them didn’t really overthink it, but instead envisioned sort of a non-romantic “meet cute” at the inn where Lloyd worked and they just decided to become friends in the way that kids do. This made my life way easier, if for no other reason than that they understood that the real idea is to get to the adventure quickly.

Play session

I decided to use Goblin Gully from +Dyson Logos for their initial foray, although I used the version from Dyson’s Delves II because it had monster stats already included. This includes some obvious tropes – goblins, kids doing dumb things, the sheer evil of elves, hidden treasures – in a small package for brief attention spans. Since I’ve been supporting the Patreon there for a long time and own a couple of the related products, this felt right.

As they approached the old tree over the cave, a couple of goblins let loose with arrows at them. After siccing the dogs on the goblins (to keep them up in the tree), Oduyx tried to protect Lloyd with his shield while the elf let loose with rocks from his sling. Two natural 20s took care of the monsters and it was time for the real threat: arguing about which character would get to go first into the cave…

Already thinking like adventurers, they tossed pebbles down stairways to get an idea of how far down they went. It also eliminated any chance of surprise but I didn’t feel the need to tell them that. I added some flavor text in the first antechamber (“there are faded rectangles spaced evenly on the walls, such as you’d see if there had been paintings or other decorations for a long time that were later removed”). The ambush in the great hall was fun and they were suitably freaked out by the arrows spewing from the mouth of the monster face carving in the far wall. After eliminating all the goblins but one, they took it prisoner and then argued about which order they’d use to cross the suspension bridge. This led to a lot of fun roleplay with the goblin prisoner, whose suspicious manner clearly indicated he was just cooperating out of fear and would betray them at the first opportunity.

Once they crossed the bridge, they had a choice to make: descend the spiral staircase or climb the rope dangling from the shaft in the ceiling. Lloyd took the bait and climbed the rope while Oduyx waited with the dogs. I loved the look on my daughter’s face when I told her that “he reaches the top, grasps the edge, starts to pull himself up – and sees five goblins grinning back at him, waiting”. They cut the rope before he could get back down and the resulting fall brought the already-injured elf to exactly 0 HP (unconscious but alive).

Their goblin prisoner took this distraction as an opportunity to break for the staircase, yelling for help. Oduyx chased after him, only to run into several goblins in their stinky little hole (“it smells of wet dog and onions everywhere”). Thinking quickly, he realized that the kerosene lamp in his hands could be an improvised weapon and smashed it at their feet before running back upstairs. Almost all the goblins failed their saving throws, so he got away.

With his comrade unconscious and not waking up (I let my daughter try some saving throws but the dice were not cooperating), Oduyx had to decide whether to grab Lloyd’s stuff and run or try to drag him away quickly before the goblins above could descend upon them. That led to some heated OOC discussions between the kids, but finally my son decided to do the honorable thing and try to get his sister’s character out of there. They made a fighting retreat across the bridge, then cut the supports so that the goblins would be trapped on their side of the gully and finally could make it back to town.

Aftermath and lessons learned

The characters didn’t get much XP in this session since they literally recovered no treasure. I awarded them 200 XP, though, for defeating quite a few goblins and confirming the presence of the raiders for the local law enforcement. They immediately went to work fleshing out backstory a little more and begged to play again, so in general it was a success.

As the GM, I learned (or relearned) a few things:

  • Optional prepackaged equipment is really important, especially with newer players.
  • Making funny voices is the best part of this job.
  • Kids really like “artifacts” of some sort, whether homemade LEGO swords to wave around during roleplay or towels tied around their neck for cloaks.
  • I didn’t understand the rules around hit points and unconsciousness / death well enough. But it turned out that I followed them anyway just by winging it according to what I’ve done in other games.

The kids provided some good feedback too:

  • Some combat is fun, but exploration and puzzles are better. More of that next time.
  • They’d like to play in a city-type environment, or at least start out with one.
  • It was cool not knowing exactly where the treasure was.

My work is cut out for me, as I hope to play with them late this week or maybe this weekend. That will take some prep, but I can’t wait!

Play Report: Relic Hunters Guild Session 3

The Relic Hunters returned to Dyson’s Delve Sunday afternoon. As usual, they made a quick pass around the first level to ensure they wouldn’t have any nasty surprises running them. (That’s mostly due to one very vocal player.) When they returned to the second level, they had the idea of finding the goblin they’d taken prisoner on a previous run and making friends with him or recruiting him. So every time they found goblins, the duelist shouted the name he’d given them to see if he’d throw down his scimitar to run and hug them or something. That’s going to provide a really fun hook later.

Tactical goblins

Goya - CaprichosI’ve started playing the goblins a bit more thoughtfully. They watch for the adventurers to make mistakes. For example, the duelist carries a kerosene lantern, but because he has to fight with one hand free, he sets it down on the floor when a fight starts. So of course a hobgoblin reached out to kick it over, spilling the burning fuel everywhere. (I have suggested they hire torch bearers for the next session.) Later, when almost all of the goblins in an encounter fell to the bard’s sleep spell, the remaining hobgoblin focused on waking up its comrades rather than try to take on the adventurers by itself.

They also use their Nimble Escape feature more frequently, forcing the adventurers to consider how to block them. A monk went around a corner during a fight to get some range and ran into another goblin. They scuffled for a moment, then the goblin fled to another room. That put the inhabitants of that room on alert. Once the adventurers reached that room, they realized they didn’t have a thief to pick the lock. The dwarven bard used his racial knock spell (back up 15 feet, then charge and headbutt the door). At that point, he realized he had a problem, surrounded by two hobgoblins and three goblins. I almost got a TPK out of it, not due to any maliciousness on my part but just because the adventurers didn’t proceed with caution. However, in the end they all survived. Level 3 awaits, and level 4 has even more fun.

Roll20 problems

Last week, I upgraded my Roll20 account from Subscriber to Mentor. On Friday night I implemented power cards and macros, generally getting familiar with new aspects of the system. Unfortunately, on Sunday, most of that didn’t work.

For future reference (largely for myself): I fixed the turn counter problem by deleting all existing turns. And it turns out that they had some sort of system problem which logged an error in a console outside of the game (“Sandbox closed due to error.”) By hitting “save” on my API script, it seems to work again.

That process should probably generate an in-game error to let the user know something is wrong. A slightly more verbose error message would help, too.

Losing ruleset weight: evaluating older RPG games

D&D 5e has started to frustrate me. I feel like I spend way too much time looking stuff up when running a game. Some of that comes from poor information organization in the core books. This leads to too much time looking up spells and so forth. Another large chunk results directly from the amount of rules: conditions, cover, grappling, etc. Wizards of the Coast has made the business decision not to provide us with electronic materials. As a result, we have to depend on books, player-generated material that lawyers don’t take down, or our own preparation efforts. The amount of time taken by data entry in various applications and private documents doesn’t help.

As the DM, I can decide to change the rules, of course. But I want to take care when doing so. DM fiat shouldn’t frustrate players more than absolutely necessary. That doesn’t even include the optional rules I’ve chosen to exclude, like multiclassing and feats. Some of the things that take more time than I’d like actually include some of the most fun bits, like the different monster abilities and features.

Switching to another simpler game could certainly work. I don’t care one way or the other about labels like “OSR” (including whatever the abbreviation actually means to someone). But I do like the balance between crunch and freeform play in older games and “retroclones“, which I lump together here for this purpose.

Game analyses

A sorcerer comes to a peasant wedding. I’ve been re-reading various versions of a number of games. As much as I like Microlite20 and Microlite74, they just don’t seem to have much traction in terms of finding groups. For players, this choice might look like a distinction without a difference. None of the systems differ in large ways. Find a group you like on Roll20 and use what they use, since the DM will probably have tons of house rules anyway. But as a DM myself, I need to choose a place to begin. All three of these systems have tremendous community support. In addition, they are cross-compatible with each other and lots of other older games or clones (which is largely the point).

Dungeons & Dragons

OGL-based games constantly refer to “the Original Fantasy Roleplaying Game”, or  they use some other euphemism for actual Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards of the Coast has made available legitimate (non-infringing) electronic copies of older editions. This includes 3.5e and 4e, editions I prefer not to play, but also B/X and AD&D. A little time and effort can find actual books for sale on Amazon, eBay, and other places like that. Used bookstores and local gaming stores also carry them at times. The organization and lack of clarity in some of these editions has left me a bit cold, though I have some of this material for reference as needed.

In the meantime, my campaign in 5e will continue. I still plan to finish running Dyson’s Delve with the Relic Hunters Guild if the players keep going. I also play in a meatspace 5e game and find the new Dungeon Master’s Guide useful for everything, not to mention that gorgeous Monster Manual.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game

Basic Fantasy has something of an “Acme Industries” vibe to it. It focuses on doing what it does very well, including mechanics as well as production value, without embellishment to the point of distraction. BF uses ascending armor class, which I like, but it also has the older-style saving throws (“Dragon Breath”? “Wands”?). These never made much sense to me. It also uses the modern separation of race and class. I’ve never used the older approach of race-as-class and would like to experiment a bit, but I don’t know how players typically feel about that.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth 28, etching, aquatint, soft-ground etching, mm.180x330, Engraved and designed by Toni Pecoraro 2007.Labyrinth Lord supports race-as-class directly in the core book. It seems closest to the older edition it seeks to emulate, including descending AC and all the old saving throws. This system has a bit more heft to it, though in this case that means “completeness” rather than rules-heaviness. I’ve joined a campaign using LL rules on Roll20 that will start in the new year, but this time I’ll get to participate as a player rather than DM. We will play in a really unusual campaign setting: the Anomalous Subsurface Environment. I have high hopes for that!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a beautiful approach in terms of its simplicity (e.g. the silver standard) and just enough “weirdness” to make it stand out. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading an adventure as much as I did Death Frost Doom. It uses race-as-class & ascending armor class and has extensive domain management rules. The old-style saving throws are a turn-off, as is the fact that, for reasons I do not understand at all, James Raggi has blocked me personally on Google+. I’ve never had any interaction with him that I recall, so it strikes me as somewhat odd.

Swords & Wizardry

Swords & Wizardry seems the most hackable. It supports both ascending and descending armor class. Since I prefer ascending, this helps a lot. A single number for saving throws might go too far in the other direction from the original game. In fact, D&D 5e probably does this in the way that makes the most sense to me, tying saving throws to ability scores. SW does modify certain types of saves based on character class, though, which helps. And it has both “race-as-class” and the more modern approach available depending on which edition you use.

What’s next?

For now I will start from S&W, though I have much love for all the systems above in their own ways. This will immediately require a few small tweaks, such as bringing in Advantage/Disadvantage. I also have taken some cues from Microlite74 OSS and some rules variants in 5e regarding skills. Characters who specify a particular skill or background at creation time will get advantage on relevant attempts. I will also use some of the material in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, like the extensive support for strongholds and hirelings.

In reality, no two RPG campaigns truly use the same system once you include house rules and such. Systems like these, all based on more or less the same game, just provide a framework from which we can begin.

Time to do work.

Play Report: Relic Hunters Guild Session 2

NB: a continuation of Dyson’s Delves Level 1. I travelled on business this week, delaying the write-up.

This little one-shot has started to turn into a fun dungeon crawl campaign. I grabbed the Hurren map from Dyson and started to use it as a backdrop. Also, I used the new Dungeon Master’s Guide to create the Guild’s adventurer handler / liaison. Welgrace, a female halfling, has a distinctive bulbous nose with oozing warts. She relishes the thought of discovery but speaks in an arrogant whisper to the adventurers. This time, she informed them that they’d missed the Crypt of Saint Ulther, so they ventured back into the dungeon.

The party backtracked to the rooms they’d cleared to make sure they didn’t have any new friends. In fact they did, as a pack of Giant Fire Beetles skittered around a guard-room. Because my group has started crafting fire bombs in their down time, I gave the fire beetles resistance to fire damage. After this, they headed down to the second level, bypassing the locked doors with skulls painted on them. After destroying a goblin guard post, they interrogated the survivor to find out the crypt’s location.

Estàtues jacents del sepulcre dels marquesos de Zenete, capella dels reis del convent de Sant Doménec, València

Of course, the crypt lay in the section they’d bypassed. So they headed back upstairs and found the sarcophagus of Saint Ulther right away. Since one of the more vocal players has a character with a nautical background, this turned into a lot of fun. I spun the tale of the human priest of the aquatic elf god Deep Sashelas who jumped into the water during a storm and personally towed a boat into port. They found their first magic items here, a gem of brightness and gloves of swimming and climbing. The warlock immediately recognized the gem, although no one knew right away what those gloves would do. They ran into some undead skeleton warriors next. Fire bombs ended up almost causing more trouble than they were worth. The melee types didn’t want to run through the fire to attack the monsters, leaving them vulnerable to the undead archers. After several rounds, they wore them down, though.

In the next room, though, they found another sarcophagus. This time I had rolled up a new monster for them: the armored zombie (PDF), the remains of Sir Dyson who rose from its grave to defend its resting place against the defilers. The fight dragged on for quite some time due to the zombie’s undead fortitude trait:

If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must 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 zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.

I had it emit a piercing shriek every time it avoided death and restored itself to 1 hit point.

At one point, a paladin had grappled it around the throat and covered its mouth with his other hand. He bashed it into the wall while everyone else continued to hit it, and after quite a few attempts, it failed its saving throw and fell still. I couldn’t believe how long this took, largely because they didn’t know why it Just. Wouldn’t Die.. Drag it out of the sarcophagus? Choke it with the gloves from Saint Ulther? Et cetera.

Rolling up a new monster that the players have never seen created a fun dynamic that everyone enjoyed. Nobody could metagame and figure out its weakness. In reality, I just took the regular zombie, then gave it armor, a weapon, and more HP. I’ll add custom monsters more often for certain!

Play Report: Dyson’s Delves level 1

My Lost Mine of Phandelver group has been sporadic lately due to real life causing scheduling difficulty. So I ran a dungeon crawl in Roll20 on Sunday using the first level of Dyson’s Delve. After I picked it up in a recent Bundle of Holding, I knew I wanted to find a way to use more of the work from that site.

Real life scheduling caused problems again, and I almost had to cancel since only two players showed up. But one of them used his Phone-a-Friend special ability and saved the day. In old-school fashion, I didn’t spend much time on backstory. Instead, the characters belong to the Relic Hunters Guild and ventured out in search of treasure. This party consisted of a human noble fencer named “Alexander”, a paladin half-elf named “Halder”, and the warlock half-elf “Kraz”. The conflicting alignments & belief systems led to some fun interaction between the characters.

That approache worked well. RHG will evolve into a type of open table campaign. It won’t run every week, especially before LMoP completes. But when it does, we will look to fill open slots with new players. And the campaign has no penalty for not signing up for a given session other than the obvious opportunity cost. Repeatedly signing up and cancelling at the last minute might cause some issues, of course.

19th-century goblin illustrationIn this session, the party only ran into goblins, hobgoblins, and a giant badger (which I used in place of the giant ferret as originally written). Halder and hobgoblin had engaged in an epic sword-and-board duel. After four or five rounds, neither had landed a blow with any success. But goblins swarmed the fencer and finally stilled his rapier. The surviving goblin turned to attack the paladin. This distracted Halder enough for the hobgoblin to drop him, too. But Kraz strode forth into the room, charmed the remaining monsters, stabbed the goblin in the back, and felled the hobgoblin with poison spray. They searched the room with care and found the key to unlock the treasure.

During their rest, though, a hobgoblin patrol found them. They threw a flask of oil at the ground in front of them, then set a salvaged bow on fire and threw it into the puddle. This frightened off the hobgoblins and gave them time to complete their regrouping. Later, when a goblin patrol found them, they again improvised a molotov cocktail from scraps of clothing on dead goblins and an oil flask. They used that tactic one more time in their final fight, so I think the hobgoblins will have to consider how best to counteract it for next time.

Hobgoblin squads prepare to repel adventurers throwing flasks of oil

Hobgoblin squads prepare to repel adventurers throwing flasks of oil

By the end, they’d recovered a total of 36 electrum pieces, 5000 silver pieces, and a badger pelt for the noble to fashion into a cloak.

I loved how much roleplaying we did in a simple dungeon crawl. Most of the time, they played characters rather than character sheets. This earned them several Inspiration awards during the three hours of play (including an hour of character creation). When they came up with particularly creative solutions and got the dice to fall their way, everything really clicked. Certainly it provided more entertainment than the railroad adventure of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. In truth, I think I liked it even more than Lost Mine of Phandelver – which says a lot considering how much I love the Starter Set adventure. That stems at least as much from roleplaying cinematic moments as it does the adventure writing itself. The rules as written tend to encourage cautious tactical play that doesn’t get the blood flowing. Instead, how about mocking goblin mothers and stabbing burning creatures that bear an odd resemblance to Rodents Of Unusual Size?


Old-school action in a new-school edition

RonweWe can’t really call D&D Fifth Edition “old-school” since, you know, it just came out. But it appeals to some of those sensibilities in a way the previous edition did not. With that in mind, I’d like to run some adventures from Dyson’s Dodecahedron in 5e. I have a LFG ad on Roll20 for Tuesday evening. If the experiment goes well, I will run some more later, perhaps as sort of an open table.

In addition, hopefully those of us who enjoy this style and gel together can use this as a stepping-stone to a real campaign. One-shot adventures seem like a good way to find players – and for players to try out a GM before decided whether they like the GM’s style.