Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What's in a session? (after Twin Peaks: The Return)

Well, after you've been at a game long enough, almost anything.

Some notable good sessions in recent history:

  • Players have a job interview and get a job
  • Players talk to every ally of villain, in hopes of finding chinks in his social / institutional armor
  • Players arrange a spicy chicken festival in town, as means to publicly accuse evil duke, this leads to his immediate public crucifixion
  • Players find and recruit chef of local black market auction house, who is actually an undercover crimeboss, to be their personal chef
  • Players follow a trail of bureaucratic paper in order to submit a time off request / leave of absence
  • Players escape across a lake of slime in the pouring rain, pursued by a mob of diseased psychos

Regularly, something that seems unimportant or previously small will become magnified in detail, and will become the subject or an entire half session or session or even multiple sessions. Because of this, small but concrete details should be established and fully explored on their own terms, so that the game can open naturally.

I've been thinking of Twin Peaks: The Return a lot. It's a TV show where pretty much anything can happen and the action goes into so many time periods, emotions, and dimensions, that there's never (at least on the first watch) a sense that anything resembling a plot is happening, except that it's interesting. There's the famous episode that takes place inside a nuclear blast, and then there's the strange late season boss fight, and there's touching moments with beloved characters, and there's new villains with magic powers, and there's a dream sequence. Frequently, the TV show takes long diversions from what seems to be the plot, where characters who seemed to be unimportant suddenly take over and don't let go.

This lets the show set up the loveliest and sweetest possible moments, as well as moments of excruciating horror and sadness. Characters who seemed to be lost find unexpected courage, and characters who seemed to be heroes become lost, and all throughout this are dozens of other, small, quiet moments that give the show an indescribable liveliness and strength. There's a famous, long scene that simply shows a bar-worker sweeping a floor. It's pretty remarkable.

Recently, the players have been encountering the seven wives of General Malagon of the Cruelest Eye. One of them is half demon, and she is jealous and possessive. The other six are only part demon, and they are sweet and submissive, and fear the General, and their names are MONEY, LIFE, EXCELLENT, DAUGHTER, MEGAN, and VALERIE. They sleep together in a large heart-shaped bed, and were given care of the General's hostage, a four-year-old named Bashro, who they doted upon and fed sweets. Bashro's father is the formidable warrior VLAWYN THE KET, who has been teaching him the way of the sword, and is hard on him.

When the Bashro was rescued, it seemed important to create a big scene: the wives have fallen for Bashro, and are heartbroken he is leaving, and for his own part, Bashro's stoicism has broken--he calls for the wives when he is taken from them, he has never known a mother, and now he has six, he has never been doted upon or given sweets, or felt love, and he is young, so he has temporarily forgotten his father. 

The players, not trusting the wives, did not allow the boy one last goodbye with them. He was crushed, and so were the wives. I don't know how it's going to shake out.

So this is what I got out of Twin Peaks: The Return. You don't know what's going to happen, but the show is happy to linger on the smallest of moments. Sometimes they add up to something you might call plot, but mostly they exist on their own terms. I think this is an important skill in running a good game. You don't have to rush things, you can let the world exist on its terms, and you should feel free to let the characters and scenarios act out.

I personally like to let these seemingly unimportant interactions take precedence over what seems to be the major action of the game. There is a major quest at play, and it is an important quest geopolitically as well as personally for many of the NPCs and an important quest spiritually in terms of the spiritual health of the kingdom, which has been ruined by the malice of the object the players (and everyone else) are pursuing. But at the same time these are all these small characters the players have met on their quest, and I don't know how they're going to become important, or even if they will. But in the meantime it seems necessary to give these characters plenty of space (and time during a session) to act out.

At the start of their journey, the players were introduced to Claptrous Orng, a priest of Verngi, "The Hungry Man." I always knew that Claptrous was a devotee of the Grinning Pharaoh, and was lying to the players in order to get them to lead him to the Grinning Pharaoh. What I did not know was how close the players would get to him, and how charmed they would be by his affability, his friendliness, his confidence and ease, and his willingness to help. These moments became core to Claptrous' character, and a unique pleasure in running the game. Claptrous was a good guy who was also an obsessed sociopath.  When the priest kidnapped half of camp and got them all captured by the bad guys, these character moments became a driving force of the game -- why would Claptrous betray them? isn't he a good guy? It turned out he was utterly hollow in his obsession and devotion to his dead master. What does that mean for his friendship with the players? This is a mystery that probably won't be solved, and isn't meant to be.

This isn't to say I don't have grander designs for the shape of the game. I've definitely mapped out big set fights, characters, and locations I want the players to meet and experience. I always hoped against hope that they would release the Golden Dragon, otherwise I wouldn't have put him in there. I always knew the Claptrous Orng would find a way to betray the players. But there is always room for the characters and the game to derail itself, and I think it's in that possibility that the game gains real power and real impact and real importance, and creates real mystery.

Monday, December 16, 2019


I've got love/hate relationship with d&d boss fights. Exciting, chance to challenge players' tactics and introduce some batshit enemies. However, they are constrained in area, stressful to run, stressful for players, and occasionally disappointing. Challenge in high level dungeons and dragons, I find, is generally around players mitigating and managing a complex environment. But sometimes a difficult and thrilling stand-up fight is necessary -- brute force being a tactic the opponent brings to bear. And I love boss fights.

Here are some boss fights they've beat so far:

LORD OF CHANGE, a random encounter boss fight in Thrice Cursed Prison of Dendric Vast. Giant vulture man with mutating staff. High hit points, high damage, always accompanied by cultists. Randomly causes changes in environment, swaps players, stuff like that. Big weakness: Not very smart, underestimates opponents. I don't even remember how they beat him but it took a couple tries, and then they had his soul trapped in their soul-trapping mace for a long time. His name was President Ose, and he wasn't very helpful after death.

ANTIPALADINS OF URIZEN: three powerful antipaladins with overlapping, mutually reinforcing auras. High AC, high damage, but the auras don't affect the caster. Players beat this one by tricking the antipaladins and killing them one by one.

CARNIFEX PALLID GROSS: final boss of Thrice Cursed Prison of Dendric Vast. A disgusting old man in a floating cage in middle of giant 50' cubic room, guarded by t-rex head, a reanimated saint of Urizen, called Saint Lorgo. Pallid Gross' high level cleric powers are blocked by his enchanted cage, but every round his demon lord grants him new mutations (acid spit, long barbed tongue, chest mouth), and eventually busts out of his cage with super strength. Meanwhile Saint Lorgo can create multicolored replicas of himself to fly around and eat opponents' emotions. Furthermore, during battle, all surfaces of cube are fair game to walk on due to altered gravity, but each surface has a different hazard. Players beat this one with tried and true tactic, camp in doorway and shoot arrows and spells.

AGELESS PRIEST OF THE TEMPLE OF A NAMELESS GOD: In belltower of temple of the nameless god, an ageless priest keeps a funeral pyre lit. Big, extremely strong melee guy, every round his dead god does weird effect, like turn him invisible. This did not communicate well. My players are like, "why did the moon go into eclipse every round?" Because I thought it would be awesome. Afterwards, also asked, "what would have happened if we had put out the fire? I told them: the priest would have gone insane and jumped off the tower, auto-win.

OROSTRANTHIAN WAR MECHA: first boss of Shattered Labyrinths of Illith Varn. Room one, enemiy one. Strengths: extremely high AC, high hitpoints, high melee damage, legendary actions and my special favorite, seeking laser gun which remembers targets and can shoot them from around corners up to 300 feet away, targeting everyone in a line (this meant to beat tactic of "camp in doorway and shoot arrows"). Other strengths: Every 100 hit-points of damage, vents an incendiary cloud to deal 10d8 damage.  Weakness: Critical hits on this guy pull up a chunk of his armor revealing crude flesh, attacking flesh does critical hits. And no way to self-dispel effects that originate from outside of 5e. They beat this guy by using KEENING VAMPIRE LUNGE, an artifact from our old game, to give him a -21 to attack for two rounds. Nonetheless, it took them a solid three tries. I could only justify this boss by making him fully optional, but inconvenient to keep alive. Their total joy on finally beating him made it totally worth it, plus he had a lot of really good loot.

GENERAL VEXX: First of Illith Varn's four generals. An archer with lots of attacks, and each round a powerful AOE to throw at the players. Strengths: faster than the players, with longer range. I wanted this guy to be a complex running fight. Weakness: grapple. They caught him and held him with grapple pretty quick. I still think 5e's grapple and skills proficiency mechanic is bad for exactly this reason: small to large size bosses lose a ton of mobility unless you give them a conscious anti-grapple mechanic, or a grapple score incommensurate to what you would expect. Legitimate technique, disappointing outcome. Won't be making that mistake twice.

OROSTRANTHIAN WAR GOLEMS: Seven jolly stone men, each with a different power. Strengths: Numbers, speed, unpredictability, and frankly insane powers. Weakness: sequence breaking. Players beat these guys by using their brains and finding a well-hidden secret door to completely bypass them. Mad respect.

SLAAD TRIARCHY: Final boss of the tower of slime. Strengths: no way out! Purposely did dungeon master bullshit to counteract their tendency to teleport out of sticky situations, in this case "The plane of slime is too close at hand! your teleport isn't working." When they opened obvious boss door, I said, "Are you sure you're ready to open this door?"and made tidal wave of slime come behind them, trapping them. So that was fun. Other strengths: speed, area of effect spells. Each one had a different theme, like one was meant to be an upclose fighter, one had area of effect slime spells, one had debuffs, I think. Weaknesses: medium range hit-points, medium armor. In the background they had a tortured unicorn casting buffs on them. This fight rocked, but I forgot to give them loot? An anticathartic outcome made sense for the tower of slime, I guess.

CORVENON, SON OF VALATHEX: Green half-dragon with shriveled little wings. Statistically identical to an adult 5e dragon (black? green? I forget), with a bonus moonlight power it can shoot out of its eyes as a legendary action in lieu of a wing buffet, and its breath attack causes you to deal half damage. Other strengths: high AC, high hit points, very big. Weaknesses: emotional, bad tempered, stubborn, and arrogant. Is that a weakness? I don't know. They never beat this guy, instead walling him off with wall of force and doing their heist before the spell ended.

GENERAL MALAGON: Second of Illith Varn's four generals. Strengths: high level wizard, many allies, entrenched headquarters that he refuses to leave, highly intelligent, does not underestimate players. Weaknesses: single minded obsession, which is, finding a way to enter the realm of the gods so that he can kill a god so that he can use its blood in his golden crucible in order to forge a ring of flight in order to fly all the way to a distant star, and never see another living being again. Players have not yet bested Malagon, but may not need to, as he has sent them on another quest, this time in a direction they want to go.

THE GOLDEN DRAGON: I've mentioned him. Strengths I'm willing to reveal so far: high damage fire breath. Sneaky, and willing to travel far outside his boss room. Dragon fear makes it impossible to approach while under the influence. Difficult saving throws for all of this. Weaknesses: underestimated players on first go-round. They did their anti-dragon wall of force tactic and sneaked around him.

THE DEADBOYZ: Ah, the Deadboyz, a rival adventuring party I've been threatening them with for 2-3 years. Like the players, but perverted: more evil, more violent, more willing to ingratiate themselves with the enemy, and more willing to lie, kill, steal, and manipulate to get what they want. A dark mirror. A thief, a wizard, and a fighter (?), accompanied by the Deadboyz Battalion, 30-50 horrible mutants. Finally the players caught them by surprise on level three of the dungeon and launched a surprise attack. Strengths: higher level than the players, high hitpoints, high armor class, lots of powerful magic items, gadgets, spells, and contingency plans. Thief has very high sneak attack bonus as well as the players' legitimate but bullshit "cunning action" rogue power which lets them hide and dash as a bonus action, well see how it feels now!! wizard has 9th level spells and is for some reason accompanied by a child (a monster in disguise?), cold-themed fighter (?) has some magic (?), and an aura that strips max hit-points, as well as a magic hooded lantern that shoots a laser of fire, which my players promptly stole and are trying to use it against them, to little avail. Highly cooperative and highly trained and tuned in to each other. Sometimes I play enemies a little dumb, I figure the Deadboyz are my chance to play exactly as smart as I want to, with much of the knowledge that I, dungeon master, have about the players' class powers and fighting tactics. These guys have made it to level 18 for good reason. Weakness: I only have one brain, while my players have four and they are smarter than me, and my computer really chugs when I open all the tabs I need to run these guys effectively. Players are currently fighting them and it's shaping up to be a mess. I can't wait.



The other two generals of Illith Varn have been named. They are Kaviel the Strange, and Ser Senedar the White. Ser Senedar is famed for his sword-fighting, and they encountered some of his knights on level one, but they know nothing of Kaviel, or why he is strange.

Ilken Wart the Laboratician runs the Bio-Recombination Lab. Every once in a while the players think about going back in there, but there's a crystal mist in there that does 1 hitpoint of damage for each 10 feet they walk, and deep inside they encountered some shadows shaped like Lords of Change which stole XP and ability scores and KOd Dirtface in one round, so they manage to talk themselves out of it every time.

The Black Pharaoh of the Grinning Pharaoh is named after one of the ancient rulers of the Psychodesert, and said to be buried inside. The two to three revenant warriors dislodged from time who guard the pyramid's entrance were awfully worried about the possibility of him coming back to life, but that doesn't seem likely, right?

General Malagon has sent them to steal a crown from a Demon of Song. Its music seems to permeating level three, and when their mantis-man, Zaxas, tried to sing his Fine Song and buff the players, he instead accidentally sang the demon's song, to no effect.

It is said that, before his death, Illith Varn built a golden tomb for himself. Nick, immediately on hearing this: "Fuck, I shoulda known he was a lich!"

Sometimes Nick says he wants to fight the Purple Dragon, Terrifex. He sleeps beneath the tower of slime in a bottomless pit in a crown the size of a stadium, which to be clear he more than fills. I say, bring it on.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Golden Dragon

In the depths of the Black Pyramid of the Grinning Pharaoh, secreted far underground by the long dead kingdom of Uldru, in a black chamber where a black statue of a screaming pharaoh reclines gargantuanly, the players fought their once allies, the duplicitous priest Claptrous Orng and duplicitous snake-man Lithrezeck. Even with his last breath the priest lied, and the snake-man shrieked his right to the Screaming Serpent Staff, and bit at his foes. They died, but managed to barely open one door into an innermost chamber of the pyramid, whose ancient mechanisms worked only well enough to crack it.

"Phew, let's take a rest. Should we rest here?"
"Maybe we should make sure the next room is safe first"
"I'll take a quick look"

Dirtface crawls on his belly into the crack, in one hand thrusting forth a gleaming skull, whose shining eyes light upon more wealth than he has ever seen: an ocean of gold, weaponry, armaments, and jewels, gold, glittering from all corners of the massive room, and the golden pantheon of the Psychodesert presiding, jackalmen, scarabmen, falconmen, sphinxes, skeleton headed pharaohs, all grinning -- (at this point Dirtface's player, Nick, to my delight, says "Oh no") -- and atop the bed of gold a dragon, all of gold, but fairly small (maybe the size of two lions) lifts its head, adjusts its wings, uncoils its tail, and looks at Dirtface. Its claws and horns and hide glitter. Dirtface loses initiative. The dragon breathes fire.

"Okay, make a Dexterity saving throw, difficulty 22. Failure? Okay, you take 96 damage"
We wait a beat
Nick: "9d6 damage, right? How much damage was that?"
Me, delighted again: "Oh no, 96"

At this point, sirens start from somewhere out of sight. The eyes of the gold statues light up. The ceiling begin to strobe a flashing white. A low beat is drumming from another room. The sirens get louder. The dragon is screaming and standing up. The 50 foot tall jackal-head statues in a previous room, their eyes are lighting up and they're starting to move, creakily.

"We need to get out of here"

So they do, quickly, via teleport, but not before Sad Ed the Bard casts a spell to close the door to the dragon's room.

Next session: "Alright, Sad Ed, you're walking down the hallway, Dirtface is sneaking 20 feet in front of you. You feel yourself gripped by a pair of claws, you're lifted into the air. Hanging from the ceiling above you is the golden dragon. Its tail and wings are unfolding from the darkness where it was hiding. An unbearable heat is coming off its hide. You take 19 damage . . ."
Thomson, Sad Ed's player: "Wait, I closed the door. Even though I closed the dragon's door?"
"Yeah, sorry. It was a good idea. Go ahead and roll for initiative."

A solid hour of panic ensues, but they manage to escape again.

Thomson: "I'm afraid it's hunting our gold."
Me: "Apropos of nothing, where do you keep your gold?"
Thomson: "There's like a blank space right between my shoulders where I reach back for my stuff..."
"Ah, inventory null space. Alright good to know."

So now they're being hunted by a dragon.

Monday, November 25, 2019

DM tips

Here's my DM tips

Tell the players when NPC is lying, unless NPC is really good at lying
Show off enemy powers
Try to meditate morning of d&d game
Set obstacles and problems and let players solve them however they want
Don't use dragons until they're really high level
Never re-use a monster, they get boring really really quickly
For persuasion type conversations, only let players roll after when the NPC isn't sure how to respond, or when there's an appropriate break in the conversation where you don't know how the NPC would respond
If something doesn't make sense to the players and "show not tell" isn't working, just tell them what's going on
Try to keep the game in a zone of pleasant challenge, "high level" doesn't have to mean "hard"
For stealth, always roll stealth vs perception
Give one-enemy boss fights ability to re-save against powers affecting them by sacrificing their extra actions, these guys can get locked down really really quickly and it's not as fun
For the hardest encounters, think about the tactics your players rely on, and design encounters to bust those tactics
When you aren't sure how a monster will respond to parley, think about its temperament and desires
It's okay for some monsters to be intractable, that's why they're monsters
Always leave room for mystery, things that can't be easily discovered, or secrets that refer to deeper secrets, things hidden inside other things, that way curiosity will be consistently rewarded and also the world will seem (and actually be) both dense and larger than the players
It's okay for some NPCs to be purely good-hearted and helpful, but use these guys sparingly. They can then be treated as an emotional resource to fuck with and threaten. But also they're nice to have around to introduce levity and comfort
When the players panic, slow down combat
As much as possible, re-narrate exactly what's happening in combat during each player's turn
Close off all escape routes only sparingly, and when you're prepared for a possible TPK
Tumblr is still a good resource for ideas
D&d is most fun when there are vivid and strange characters to talk to, so put opportunities for that in every session

Ok that's all I got for now

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

General Malagon of the Cruelest Eye

General Malagon of the Cruelest Eye, one of the four living generals of the slain wizard Illith Varn. He has one horn, his hands are bent like claws, he lives on the second level of the Shattered Labyrinths of Illith Varn in a well-protected sanctum. He has seven wives, all of them are part demon and one of them is half-demon. He's befriended the Deadboyz, the rival adventuring party in the dungeon. He's captured several of the party's attendant louts, as well as Bashro, the four-year-old son of their traveling knight, Vlawyn the Ket. And he guards the way down to level three, which they need to make progress. And on top of all that, he's a powerful wizard, apparently specialized particularly in the spell Disintegrate.

Here are Malagon's known defenses and allies:

An ENCHANTED ANTECHAMBER that traps you in an infinite repetition of mirrored antechambers unless you pass through them in the correct order
ENCHANTED SNAKE-HEAD DOOR-HANDLES, which guard his inner sanctum, and which bite your hand if you don't have the key
A number of THREE-LEGGED CRANE-MEN, all proficient in the fighting arts and able to come back to life
THIRTY HEADLESS FLOATING TORSOS wielding serrated weapons, whom the inhabitants of Malagon's headquarters refer to collectively as NERWO, and suggest may be partially omniscient
HOYVEN LARTH, an adventurer proficient in the rapier, who has abandoned his quest to find his mother's soul, and prefers to spend his day rereading the same crime novel
VARGA and NORN, twin goth sorceresses, wearing ankhs around their necks, and eating black cake. They are bored and wish they could kill something. Their bored cat Bat has told the party they are reluctant to be separated from their ankhs...
The lava elemental TANTRUM, a newt-man who lives in a giant walking metal brazier filled with lava. The brazier's named is CHARD. Tantrum is working for payment in rubies, he would rather live in the Plane of Fire but Malagon is paying him too well.
SIX LOVELY WIVES, each with a different demonic bodypart. Their powers are unknown, but they delight in the soft, perfumed, and lovely things. They have possession of the young boy Bashro.
FELRA, the head of Malagon's harem. Her left half is a bright red scaled demon. She seems to know magic, but powers are unknown.
A DISGUSTING INSECTILE MONSTER, which guards the party's louts. Its powers are unknown.
THE DEADBOYZ, a party of three powerful evil adventurers and their large number (30+) of monstrous Deadboys. Their exact relation to Malagon is unknown, their powers are unknown, and their location is unknown.

Notably, he has captive the SKY WITCH, QUEEN JUPITER VOLARIS, who surely hates him. At this point though, the party has calculated that the Sky Witch probably hates them too, and so they're reluctant to free her.

He sent the party to the Flying Fortress of the Sky Witch in order to recover the Sky Witch's diary, which he has offered in exchange for the boy Bashro. Malagon desires to kill a god, in order to use its blood to forge a Ring of Flight (my players: "so he can... fly around..?"), and in his psychic barrage of the captive Sky Witch's mind was able to determine that she held a useful secret in her fortress, but could not tell what. The party has discovered that the eye of the Sky Witch's adopted daughter, the maiden Xoanna Julius, leads directly into the Celestial Realm of the Witch Goddess Izorides, and so they are reluctant to give Malagon the diary unaltered. Not because they care about the god, but because they like Xoanna, who they have secreted away in a distant and well-guarded black-market auction house, along with her lover, the Prince Aldarys of the Kingdom of Loiveth.

I hope they all fight each other in a huge multi-session brawl but you can't always get what you want.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

dragon poem

Dragons are living
In coils
Where the sun doesn't shine
Far below the water
They laugh
They scoff at us

We are fast
They have been together
Pierced by daggers
Memorialized in quatrain
But alive
Their eyes are red
Their tongues, red
Sleek, shining
Finely adorned
Who eat
Who cut
They come out at night
And fill
And return to their waiting nests
Where rivers pour

I wish I could see them
But, hidden, underground
They are safe
And can exist apart

Last week my players fought their first dragon: Corvenon, Son of Valathex, who guards the Flying Fortress of the Sky Witch, and finally decided after enough of their shenanigans that they deserved to die. They weren't expecting this, and he stripped their wizard and bard of 2/3 of their HP in his first round with his poison dream fog breath breath, and they put up a wall of force and ran. I'm very proud of Corvenon. I hope he never dies.

Monday, October 21, 2019

spell ideas

spell takes one power or spell from one character and gives it to another
spell makes an area assume the qualities of night time
spell allows seeing through walls
spell makes person exceedingly small, size of mouse
spell creates rays of golden light
spell causes object to swell
spell causes object to melt that wouldn't otherwise
spell causes object to float and bob buoyantly, either in air or in water
spell causes own skin to become poisonous
spell allows you to move so fast as to be instantaneous, but no additional movement speed
spell makes body stretchy and rubbery
spell guarantees a good night's sleep
spell pulls disease out of body as a slug, slug now causes disease
spell causes song or message to hang in the air, repeating
spell allows you to eavesdrop back in time
spell creates an exceedingly sharp and long lance
spell causes you to melt into fluid form, move quickly
spell shoots you straight up, then fall very slowly
spell makes only one part of your body poisonous
spell creates unnatural winter
spell summons an elf
spell makes person short-sighted, cannot see more than ten feet
spell allows you to see fine details at a distance of one mile or more
spell gives you extra arms
spell gives you claws for one attack, reaction?
spell creates multiple illusory doubles in sight, you teleport