Saturday, May 30, 2020

Running the First Session with Only One Dungeon

Yesterday, I waxed poetic about how I run the first session of a sandbox campaign. In it I posited several site-based adventures in order to facilitate player choice; however, this is not always possible. Sometimes I have only had the opportunity to work on one dungeon, or there is a serious desire to run a particular module. Player choice and the use of rumors seems to be severely limited, but it doesn’t have to be.

If I really only have one adventure that I can/want to use, I will approach player choice from the “why are we going” rather than the “where are we going” perspective. To give this meat, I will map out at least five factions that have interest in what goes on at the adventure site. I plug these factions into the Wu XIng diagram:

Each faction is given a goal and a reason why they like to work with the faction they like and why they are working against the faction that is their enemy. This quick and dirty system easily sets up a complex web of relationships that enrich the campaign.

Once this diagram is set up and understood, I make rumors to connect the players to each of the factions. Since each faction has a specific goal when it comes to the site based adventure and those goals are at odds with other factions, it gives real weight to player choice when it comes to why they are going on the adventure.

So, as an example, let’s pretend that I have to run the first session of a campaign in short order and I won’t have time to create anything elaborate in terms of adventure sites. Let’s also pretend that the one adventure I do have prepared is the one I produced in the post How I Homebrew a Dungeon.

Since I am in a pinch, I will fall back on familiar territory when it comes to my starting village: I’ll pull out my copy of T1:The Village of Hommlet and extrapolate from there. First, I will leaf through and find five significant NPCs that represent larger powers or ideas:

  1. Elmo the 4th level ranger is an agent of the Viscount of Verbobonc
  2. The Canon Terjon the 6th level cleric is the priest of the Church of St. Cuthbert
  3. Jaroo Ashstaff the 7th level druid is an agent of the Druids of Gnarley Wood and a follower of the Old Ways
  4. Burne the 8th level magic-user and Rufus the 6th level fighter the semi-retired adventurers
  5. Rannos Davi the 10th level thief and his partner Grmag the 7th level assassin are agents of the Temple of Elemental Evil

Now to translate these concepts into my campaign:

  • Elmo represents the political aspect of a Christian/pseudo-Christian power that is vying for influence in the area.
  • Terjon represents the religious aspect of the same Christian/pseudo-Christian power that is vying for influence in the area.
  • Jaroo represents the religious and possibly political aspect of the native population of the area the Christian/pseudo- Christian power is trying to influence
  • Burne and Rufus represent the local interests of the village
  • Rannos and Grmag represent a secret society that is interested in re-awakening an ancient power

For purposes of keeping things simple I’ll label the five with the following monikers:
The Kingdom
The Church
The Old Way
The Village
The Cult
Now to plug these into a Wu Xing Diagram to see the relationships these factions have with each other:

  • The Kingdom likes to work with The Old Way in order to secure political stability, but are opposed to the Cult because it is a destabilizing force.
  • The Church likes to work with the Kingdom because they share the same religious values, but opposes the Old Way because their values and religious views clash.
  • The Old Way likes to work with the Cult because the enemy of my enemy is a friend, but opposes the stability of the Village because it represents the encroaching power and influence of both the Kingdom and the Church.
  • The Cult likes to work with the Village because the desire for safety is easily manipulated to their cause and they oppose the Church because it is the direct antithesis of the Cult.
  • The Village likes to work with the Church because of how it cares for the sick and needy (especially in a crisis), but opposes the Kingdom because it challenges the autonomy the Village has earned through years of hard work and sacrifice.

See what I mean about interesting relationships?

So what could these five factions want from the dungeon? The dungeon offers three basic motivators:
  1. The Kobolds
  2. The Medusa
  3. Treasure
Plugging these into the five factions could look like this:

  • The Kingdom wants to investigate any rumors of ancient political powers in order to destroy them (Medusa)
  • The Church has been taking in a number of refugees from various raids by the kobolds. They need supplies to help them and seek an end to the trouble (Kobolds/Treasure)
  • The Old Way knows the story of the Medusa because it is part of their mythology. They want to find her but are reluctant to free her. Thus, they would want to find the keys to the prison, just in case (Medusa/Treasure)
  • The Cult wants to investigate the rumors of ancient political powers to see if they can awaken them (Medusa)
  • The Village wants the kobolds taken care of because they have been raiding in the area (Kobolds)

All of these goals point in exactly the same direction (the dungeon), but have varying reasons why the players would choose to go adventuring there. I would introduce each of the five factions through the NPCs found in T1:Village of Hommlet and reveal everyone's goal in terms of the dungeon. It would then be up to the players to determine the “why.” Which faction(s) will they support?

Of course, this choice is consequential due to the fact that various factions will now see the PCs as allies or enemies. Due to the larger goals of each faction, this will feed into further adventures.

As a final thought, this whole exercise in creating factions is certainly not limited to sessions that only have one adventure site. I tend to use them in most, if not all, of my campaigns; however, when it comes to empowering players when I only have one adventure site on offer, the Wu Xing diagram is one of my favorite tools.

Friday, May 29, 2020

How I Run the First Session of a Sandbox

Continuing with the theme of my last couple of posts, here is my process on running the first session of a sandbox campaign:

Character Creation

I am not a stickler for a particular method of rolling up characters, as long as everybody at the table agrees on what that method is. Personally, I like seeing where the dice rolls take me, but I appreciate the fact that my particular proclivities are far from universal.

Once everybody agrees and people start rolling dice, I begin to illicit information about each character at the table, with two critical goals:

1. Figure out how the various characters know each other prior to game play. I hate wasting time on role-playing this. It always makes more sense to hash out these details at character creation because some characters are just never realistically going to meet at a tavern to go adventuring together. Plus, the given stories about these relationships can have a much deeper effect on the campaign than the whole tavern scenario. Finally, it allows the campaign to hit the ground running. Instead of wasting time trying to justify adventuring together, the players just go on an adventure together.

This can be done in a number of ways. The simplest is just ask the players how their characters know each other and suggest some possibilities if they seem stumped. In my most recent campaign, I created a random table which players can roll on to see how their character knows one other character in the party. Everybody has to choose someone different so that all these relationships intertwine.

2. Figure out what relationships the characters have to various NPCs in the campaign world. For example, clerics can be at the beck and call of a bishop and magic-users can belong to the Mage Guild. This accomplishes a couple of things for me: it grounds each character within the world and it provides a source of information to the players about the world itself with the benefit of possible patronage. The cleric from above could have a specific task that they need to accomplish for the bishop and the magic-user could be delivering a scroll to the local representative of the Guild.

The First Adventure

Once these two things have been established for each character, I provide rumors and possible missions to each player through the various relationships that their characters have. I then allow the players to decide what rumors they want to investigate or what missions they want to undertake.

Note: it is very important that these rumors all tie in to adventure locations I am prepared to run. Usually, it is pretty easy to weight the choices in favor of the adventure location I am most interested in, but I never dissuade players who deviate from that particular plan. If I am not prepared to follow up on a rumor or mission, I don’t offer that choice.

What all of this does is place agency squarely in the hands of the players. If the whole character creation process has gone according to plan, every player has a character that has a background tying them to both the other characters at the table and to people and organizations that exist in the campaign world. Then these relationships inform the choices the players make as to which adventure they want to go on in their first session together.

In the end, all of these things invest the player in the campaign world. They have goals, not just for themselves, but for the various people and organization around them. The game becomes more than just the characters, it becomes a world that they have the power to shape through their own choices and actions.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

How I Homebrew a Dungeon

Justin Alexander has an interesting post about the decline of D&D Adventure Modules. His is a fascinating observation, and one that I am afraid I have to generally agree with. Although, as an aside, I must admit that in my experience as a Referee there are not many “good” adventures in the overall D&D library. I long for the shared experience of running particular adventures, but it is very rare that I find using a module at the table a good experience.

Since I have been thinking about how to prep a sandbox campaign with my middle child in mind, I thought it might be fun and useful to share some of my own techniques and thought processes when creating a 1st level dungeon adventure.

As another aside, I tend to use Swords & Wizardry to design adventures because its Monster Stat Blocks and treasure generation system are both nicely stripped down and simple. This saves on a lot of prep time. Also, at the table, I prefer converting from simplicity to complexity rather than the other way around.  

I tend to start with a map. I am a highly (if not extremely) visual person. Thus, “seeing” the adventure helps me visualize what I want the adventure to be about. So, I went to the archives of maps that Dyson Logos provides and chose a “good” map.

By “good” I mean something that immediately introduces choice to players and offers several different routes to various locations via “loops.” I also like maps that have evocative features. In this particular case I like the underground “lake” as well as the natural dais in one of the large caverns.

Once chosen, I labeled each encounter area with a number:


Strictly following the percentages of Moldvay’s “Stock the Dungeon Table” on B52 of his Basic D&D we get the following:
4 Monsters without Treasure
4 Monsters with Treasure
3 Traps
1 Trap with Treasure (technically 1.33)
4 Specials
7 Empty Rooms
1 Empty Room with Treasure (technically 1.33)
In order to get an idea of what Monsters to use, I pulled out The Tome of Adventure Design and rolled up an interesting name for the dungeon: The Dais of Imprisonment. Seems apropos, given my initial attraction to the natural dais in Room 19. It also suggests that there be some kind of monster dangerous enough to need a special prison. I also rolled up why the dungeon was abandoned: a disease wiped out the inhabitants 1000 years ago.

In his edition of Basic D&D, Holmes also has a useful table for stocking dungeons. He suggests that monsters up to “Three Levels Below Ground” can be found wandering on the First Level of a dungeon. Strictly applying the math of Holmes results in the following:
5 Level 1 Monsters
2 Level 2 Monsters
1 Level 3 Monster
My first thought when it came to a “Level 3” monster to occupy “The Dais of Imprisonment” was a mummy, due to the disease factor implied by my random roll in The Tome of Adventure Design; however, the idea really didn’t inspire me much. Then I took a look at what monsters Moldvay has on his Wandering Monster Tables. That is where I saw a Medusa(!) on his Level 3 Wandering Monster list. Now that sounds interesting!

So, Room 19 has a magically sealed coffin suspended by chains atop the natural dais. Trapped inside is a Medusa, once a beloved ruler of her people and then cursed by her own lust for power. (Something to keep in the back of my head, but not something important until the players ask: can the curse be broken and how?)

For my Level 2 Monsters, I wanted to evoke the idea of diseased undead that were once the guardians of the prison. So, I chose Leper Zombies (found in Monstrosities). These two will be in isolated areas of the dungeon: Room 4 (which can only be opened by figuring out how to use the mechanism in Room 3) and Room 23.

This leaves the northern section of the map to populate with a tribe of kobolds and their pet boars who avoid the southern part of the map because they instinctively know better. They will occupy Rooms 10-14 with the chief and guards in Room 11.

Behind a Secret Door (which has not been found by the Kobolds), Room 15 is a nice place for a Treasure guarded by a trap.

Room 5 suggests a natural Trap of a collapsing ceiling.

Given their access to the Dais of Imprisonment, Rooms 17 and 18 are also good candidates for traps.

Technically, I have already placed a “special” in Room 3 so that leaves three:

Room 8 is very suggestive, given the coffins of the former guardians of the place. It could very well be a place of visions which suggest the dungeon’s past.

Given the long standing trope of magic pools, Rooms 22 and 24 are also good candidates.

Given its simplicity, I am very much attracted to hiding some treasure in Room 2.

As an aside, Room 16 is a set of collapsed stairs which gives me room to expand this dungeon if I want to.

That’s all my monsters, traps, specials and empty rooms.

In total I have the following monsters (and S&W XP values):
42 kobolds (210 xp)
3 goblins (kobold chief and guards) (30 xp)
2 wild boars (240 xp)
2 leper zombies (120 xp)
1 medusa (800 xp)
(Total xp = 1400)
According to S&W, base treasure value is 1d3+1 times the total xp value. I am going to assume a roll of '3' for a pair of reasons. First, I want to give PCs an opportunity to level up. Second, I have a couple of "1.33" treasures according to the strict math of Moldvay's Stocking Table.

This gives me 5600gp of treasure value to play with.

500gp will be traded out for Minor Gems which result in 1100 gp in gems and jewelry.

Thus, there is a grand total of 6200 gp in treasure. Given that there are 6 Rooms with treasure, that means each room has approximately 1000gp with an extra 200gp to fill in wherever I think is cool in the moment. Note: This value can take the form of anything. For example, the treasure found with the Leper Zombie in Room 4 could take the form of 1000gp worth of burial urns and the the Kobolds could be enamored by the fact that they have a "massive" treasure of 100,000cp.

In total, there are 7800 potential xp for PCs to earn in this dungeon, or 1950 xp per PC in a party of 4 characters. With some XP bonuses, that gets us to approximately 2000 xp and a level up for Clerics, Thieves, and Fighters. Should Wandering Monsters be added to the mix, this dungeon is within spitting distance of giving everyone a good shot at leveling up.

Speaking of which:
Wandering Monster Table
1. 2d6 Kobolds
2. Wild Boar
3. 1d6 Skeletons
4. 1d6 Zombies
5. 1d6 Fire Beetles
6. 2d6 Giant Rats
Some notes:

There are two keys necessary to open the sealed coffin of the Medusa. The two Leper Zombies have one each.

Items dipped into the waters of Room 24 produce the effects of the spell Gaze Reflection for 1 day. If a magical shield should be dipped into those waters, the effect of the spell is permanent.

I know my rolls did not produce a magic item, but to give players a chance at taking advantage of the waters in Room 24 I will place a +1 shield in the hands of the Leper Zombie in Room 4.

Despite all these opportunities to get an amazing weapon against the medusa, my dark sense of humor is tempting me to make the Medusa blind after being imprisoned for 1000 years in the dark. While robbing players of an easy kill (given that they have a mirror or the Gaze Reflection effect), it also means that the medusa is going to be at -4 on all her to-hit rolls.

The Skeletons and Zombies on the wandering monster table indicate that any dead who are left inside this dungeon are affected by the events of 1000 years ago and rise as undead.

Kobolds encountered outside of their lair are those that got too curious for their own good.

The Fire Beetles and Giant Rats are standard dungeon vermin.

I might make some simple notes about what various things are on the map (like maybe some crumbling mosaics on the columns in Room 1)

The rest, I'd improvise at the table using visual cues from the map and the basic background information I've determined so far.


Given my own experience at the table, this sparse little document will result in a much more dynamic and fun experience than virtually any published module out there. Rather than having to wade through walls of text, I just have to describe what my imagination comes up with in the moment. An emergent story will be enhanced by player choice, action, and questions. In the end, I will have a mythology based purely on play that will go on to inform whatever campaign this exists in and possibly many others as well (depending on how cool that story becomes).

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Resources for Making a Sandbox from Scratch

So, with school officially ending and with no summer programs in sight, I decided to challenge my middle child with the task of creating a sandbox campaign. Although well-versed in the video gaming scene, he has only played in a few D&D campaigns, all run by yours truly. As a consequence, he really had no idea where to start. This got me to deal with the practical reality of how to make a sandbox campaign from scratch: what resources did I actually recommend and what actually worked?

1. An Atlas

Rather than trying to explain the realities of geography, weather, etc in order to make a plausible world, I just turned an atlas upside down and said, pick a page that looks cool. Not only did this make the mapmaking step of the process easy, it follows in the footsteps of giants:

The basic campaign area reproduced on a large mapsheet outside this book, was originally drawn from some old Dutch maps. — Dave Arneson, "The First Fantasy Campaign" (1977).

2. Kilgore’s Sub-Hex Quad and Master Sheet for Hex Quads Maps

Having chosen the upside-down Aegean Sea as a starting point, I had him transfer the map as best he could to Kilgor’s Master Sheet for Hex Quads. Having done that, I asked him where Civilization was and where the Wilderness was. Once that was determined, I had him pick one Quad in the Wilderness to focus on for the campaign. This was then transferred to one of Kilgor’s Sub Hex Quad sheets.

3. The Wilderness Encounter Tables in Swords & Wizardry

These are simple, organized by terrain type and produce some pretty bog-standard results that won’t challenge a new Referee too much. I had him roll a d10 for every hex on his map. Every ‘1’ resulted in a creature from the encounter table living there. Frost Giants, Lycanthropes and Berserkers dominated the landscape. Oh, and a Purple Worm right next to some old ruins.

4. My own Interpretation of Holmes on Cultures

Based on the monsters that lived in the Wilderness, he decided that the Ancient Culture were the Giants that “dug too deep” and were destroyed by Purple Worms, the Old Culture was a human culture roughly based on Russia that succumbed to madness and Lycanthropy. Then he decided that there were two competing Present Cultures. One is based roughly on the Incan Empire (with virtually no magical tradition) and the other roughly on the Republic of Texas (which is heavily magical). My eldest was thrilled at the idea of playing a magic-wielding cowboy (which eventually morphed into a society where the rite of passage to adulthood involves getting a tattoo that allows the recipient the ability to cast one first level spell a day).

5. Dave’s Mapper

This quickly produced a tent-pole megadungeon sideview and first level that “looked cool” and was thus inspiring. What more can you ask from a map?

6. The Tome of Adventure Design

I have said it before, and I will say it again: this may be the best RPG product I have ever purchased. It is chuck full of inspiration and ideas. I first had him roll up names for each of the level of the megadungeon. Then, it was used to create the various “Traps” and “Specials” that resulted from using the next resource.

7. Moldvay’s Basic D&D “Stock the Dungeon Table”

Found on page B52, this has been my go-to stocking tool for decades. While it doesn’t produce perfect results, it gets you in the ballpark as long as you understand that the results are there to inspire and not be set in stone. As long as you understand why things exist in your dungeon and it makes sense to you, it will make sense to the players.

8. Monstrosities and Swords & Wizardry

Despite voicing a desire to play 1e AD&D, I decided on Monstrosities and Swords & Wizardry for a resource on monsters to stock a dungeon because of the guidelines S&W gives for the Challenge Level of dungeon encounters. I have been quite satisfied with how well this works in game play. As a consequence, it provides a great starting point on understanding how difficult a particular dungeon area/encounter is going to be. Monstrosities also provides an example encounter for every monster in the book. So, it is also instructive about what those encounter and dungeon areas can look like.

Finally, generating treasure using S&W is dead simple and flexible. Whatever gets rolled indicates total value, not a specific coin count. So, a treasure could very well be in barrels of whisky, rolls of silk, or whatever tickles your fancy.

9. The Question “Why?”

Why do think the goblins are there? Why are they on the same level as those spiders? Why are they risking their lives to be there?

Again, if your dungeon makes sense to you, that confidence and knowledge will be communicated to the players and it will make for a better game.

10. Dyson’s Maps

Once the first level of the megadungeon was squared away, I had him choose three maps from Dyson’s collection to represent various lairs in the vicinity of the starting village. I had him repeat the various steps he used to do the first level of the megadungeon.

In the end, I had to cut him short when he told me he had an idea for his various dungeons. “Just write it down” became a mantra. It goes to show, however, how useful all of these resources are: they inspired a newbie to create a world where things make sense to him and enough choices for his players that he won’t be having to improvise that much any time time soon.

In other words, he’s confident he can do this.