Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Number Appearing vs. Challenge Rating

So, I write this article after having a realization of the obvious. What I’m about to describe might be self-evident to you, but it felt like a big deal to me.

How did I come to this realization? I looked through the D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual, which I haven’t done in a long time. I recently started a campaign using Five Torches Deep (which I will eventually review), which necessitated my perusal of the bestiary.


Here's the situation: I was designing a mini-adventure for the party. The village elf tasked them with getting some honey from nearby giant bees so the elf could make salves of de-petrification for two party members turned to stone by a gorgon (the metal gas-breathing kind, not the snake-hair kind). I needed to develop some random encounters for the players to possibly run into on their way to or from the beehive, if the numbers came up right.


I decided that a good random encounter would be an ambush by orcs. Very original, right? But I was sick and pressed for time. Plus, it sometimes just feels good to have a classic encounter like that.


So I looked up orcs in the Monster Manual to get their stats, and this is what I found (sort of). This image is from Roll20, though what I found was obviously in the Monster Manual.

Which gives me almost all the info I would need for a random encounter with orcs. But there was one crucial piece of information missing: how many orcs attack the party?


I stared at the page, wondering where that information was. “Perhaps it’s in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide I lent my sister,” I thought. So as a stop-gap, I looked up orcs in Old School Essentials instead.

Sure enough, there was the NA (number appearing) stat, right where I expected it to be: 2d4 (in the wilderness. 1d6x10 in the lair).

So I ran the adventure and, as it turned out, the party encountered five orcs on their way to the beehive (since they were travelling in the forest and rolled a 2 out of 6 for wilderness encounters). One of them was knocked unconscious, but they managed to kill four of them (including the leader) before the last ran away.


Overall the party was very badly wounded and lost a lot of HP before they even made it to the beehive, making it a pyrrhic victory. Of course, the beehive itself was much more interesting and deadly as a result ;)


Had they rolled a 1 or 2 on a d6 on the return trip, they would have encountered an inquisitive treant. But alas, they rolled a 5.


That question about the number appearing still stuck with me afterwards, though. Why couldn’t I find the number appearing in the 5th edition Monster Manual? I used to run 5e, back in the day. How did I do it then?


Eventually, it "clicked" for me: 5e doesn’t have the “Number Appearing” in its monster descriptions. It uses CR (challenge rating), instead.


Again, this may seem obvious to you. But it felt like a real lightbulb moment for me, partly because this feels like a fundamentally different approach between “new-school” and “old-school” systems. One that has profound implications for the kind of game you play.


As usual, I am not the first one to come to this realization. A similar realization was made on RPG Stack Exchange over four years ago. I have included a quote of SevenSidedDie’s post below:

In AD&D and earlier, combat encounters are intended to be somewhat more naturalistic and organic to the setting. The idea of “number appearing” follows this philosophy, indicating how many creatures tend to be encountered when that type of creature is encountered. This is regardless of how difficult it would be to fight that many of that type of creature. DMs can also easily choose more or fewer creatures for a situation, as appropriate to the situation — again, because the game is concerned with giving the DM tools for deciding what makes naturalistic or adventure-plot sense. The players are expected to scout ahead and learn about the dangers around them, to make informed decisions about whether and how to engage them. (A party that fails to do this is making a strategic error.) A war party of 300 orcs was possible for a 1st-level party to run into in AD&D.

D&D 3rd edition and later use a different encounter design philosophy that is orthogonal in purpose and execution. Instead of asking “if they meet an orc, how many are they likely to meet?”, the game instead asks “how many creatures of what toughness make for a good combat challenge, and how many such challenges should there be in a day?” This philosophy means that “number appearing” isn't directly useful rules-wise, and instead a measure of the creature's combat difficult is needed. This is what Challenge Rating is.

So in old-school games (such as B/X and AD&D), the number of monsters encountered was more “naturalistic,” considering the type of creature and their social organization. Conversely, in “new-school” games, the rules expect the Dungeon Master to have the party encounter an “appropriate” number of creatures using the Challenge Rating (or their XP value).

It reminded me a bit of the difference between Morrowind and Oblivion. While both of these games have some degree of level scaling, the level scaling is much more pronounced in Oblivion. In other words, the monster and treasure encountered in the game world leveled with you. You could enter a dungeon as a level 1 character in Oblivion to find rats and iron weapons, but enter that same dungeon at level 10 to find spriggans and dwarven weapons.

The same isn’t quite as true in Morrowind. I remember wandering around as a low-level character, entering a random tomb, and encountering a Bonelord. I promptly shut off the Xbox out of fear.


It is important that we don’t "paint with too broad a brush," however. Even in early D&D, there is some indication in the text that “balance” should be considered when designing encounters for adventurers.


The first indication is that monsters are scaled to the level of the dungeon they’re encountered on. In a typical dungeon, 1HD creatures are encountered on Level 1, then 2HD creatures are encountered on level 2, and so on. As the party ascends in character levels and descends deeper in the dungeon levels, their capabilities and the challenges they face are commensurate.


You can see some examples of this idea of “balance” in harlandski’s quotes from Moldvay’s rules in these posts, where the Basic set says, “The Wandering Monster tables (below) give a balanced mixture of monsters for the dungeon levels,” as well as, “Most Wandering Monsters are the same level as the level of the dungeon (...) The "Number Appearing" of some monsters has been adjusted to make them more appropriate for encounters on a dungeon level" (emphasis added).


Over at Delta’s D&D HotSpot, Delta also pulled out some references to this idea of scaling as far back as OD&D. For example, a footnote to the Monster Reference Table gives the referee the “option” to “increase or decrease according to party concerned.”


There is also some indication in OD&D that the number of monsters encountered was adjusted according to the number of party members, rather than their level. According to Delta, the Monster Determination table gives the following instruction:


If the level beneath the surface roughly corresponds with the level of the monster then the number of monsters will be based on a single creature, modified by type (that is Orcs and the like will be in groups) and the number of adventurers in the party. A party of from 1-3 would draw the basic number of monsters, 4-6 would bring about twice as many, and so on. The referee is advised to exercise his discretion in regard to exact determinations, for the number of variables is too great to make a hard and fast rule... 


So it would be unfair to say that the idea of scaling encounters to the party’s level, or to the number of characters in the party, is completely a “new-school” mindset. That idea has clearly been around in some form since the inception of D&D.


However, it is fair to say that the idea of scaling encounters to the party’s abilities is much more prevalent in new-school games (from 3rd edition forward). In fact, it is so prevalent that the 5e Monster Manual omits a “number appearing” entry in its monster descriptions, instead providing Challenge Rating.


Sort of like Morrowind and Oblivion. Level scaling is present in both, but it is much more noticeable in Oblivion – such as when every bandit you encounter suddenly has glass armor and daedric weapons.

How did every bandit ringleader come to possess glass armor and Daedric weapons? The world may never know.

It is important to recognize that these assumptions have an impact on the game, however. If the players can “rest easy” knowing that most encounters are scaled to their level, they are much more likely to enter combat frequently and confidently. The world (including dungeons) also becomes much less scary and dangerous, as a result.


However, if the players know that the difficulty of encounters is “up to the dice,” I think it encourages them to play with much more caution and creativity. This lack of level scaling encourages investigative and careful play, in my experience.


Though really, given the presence of some degree of level scaling in early D&D, it seems to me that most folks would likely use both of these measures.  When it comes to Number Appearing and Challenge Rating, why not list both?

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

REVIEW: Castle Xyntillan

I write this review after running Castle Xyntillan for about eight months using a slightly house-ruled version of Basic Fantasy RPG. If you’re reading this review, you’ve likely already seen Questing Beast’s review or Bryce Lynch’s review. If you haven’t already, I recommend you check those out. I bought this adventure on their recommendation.

This review contains SPOILERS for the adventure. Only Dungeon Masters past this point, please.


Overall, I think Castle Xyntillan (CX) is a very strong adventure. Perhaps the most noticeable strength of CX, as other reviewers have noted, is its formatting. CX uses a concise “bullet-point” style formatting of its room descriptions to ease use of the text at the table. To see what I’m talking about, see the example below:

This is probably some of the best formatting I’ve seen in a published product, reminiscent of Gavin Norman’s work in The Hole In the Oak and Winter’s Daughter. It first provides an overview of the situation with interactive bits highlighted in bold, then an explanation of the interactivity below. Relevant stats for creatures are also provided close-at-hand for ease of reference.


Admittedly, there are some instances where some relevant information is hidden in the bulleted text. For example:

In the example above, I think the animated hammer should definitely be referenced in the overview paragraph, as PCs would notice it immediately when entering the room (and perhaps even beforehand, due to the noise it makes). These instances are generally few and far between, however, and I would say the descriptions overall are exceptionally well-formatted. I wish every dungeon was formatted this way.


Furthermore, beyond the layout of the writing, the writing itself is genuinely good. There are many things for the players to investigate and interact with. It’s not all “bust down the door and kill things” (though players certainly could try that). The tone is a mix of fairy-tale fancy and grimdark macabre, which I think tends to work well. I often find myself rewriting parts of published modules to make them more dynamic and interactive when I can tell the authors got lazy. I had to do very little of that with CX, though – the rooms were generally fun and interesting to run as-written.


CX is also very well-constructed in terms of its blueprint. You could say Castle Xyntillan is significantly “Jacquayed.”There are plenty of directional options for the players, a variety of room shapes (it’s not all 30ft. square rooms), and loops & connections between sections. One thing I would have liked to see would be a sort of “theme” for each region to “clue players in” when they’re entering a new section (ex. a color theme for each wing of the castle or something), but overall the castle’s blueprint shows thoughtful and careful design as a dungeon.


Another strength about the maps is the different digital formats. The PDF version I downloaded came with labelled and unlabeled digital versions of the maps. It also provided a map optimized for use with virtual tabletops, as well as explicit instructions for how to upload it to your virtual tabletop of choice. This was my first time seeing that sort of support in a published module, and I thought it was stellar.



My most significant criticism of CX is its lack of high-level support the referee. While it does a great job facilitating play at the table with its formatting, I found that CX offered very little support for the referee “out-of-session.” One significant thing I missed was some overall explanation of “what’s going on” or “how the castle got this way.” Admittedly, the author Gabor Lux responded to this omission in the very first paragraph of the adventure’s foreword:

"(Castle Xyntillan) makes no claim to either realism or narrative consistency: it is a storehouse of the macabre and the whimsical, founded on dream logic and loose association, and striving to be confounding and entertaining above all else. And yet, it is not formless. You may note places where its elements form apparent patterns, or at least seem to rhyme – but it will be up to you to make the connections, and interpret them according to your ideas, as well as the needs of your campaign."

So basically, what I interpreted the above statement to mean is that the adventure wants you to “make it up yourself,” when it comes to what happened or what’s going on now. Personally, I found that unsatisfying, and I think the inconsistency deprived my players of a sense of “discovery” in their explorations. They could not “figure out what was going on” through their explorations, as ultimately there was nothing larger going on – at least not as written. The dungeon just kind of is there, being weird. There's nothing to make sense of, because there is no sense behind the situations.


This issue with the lack of support extends beyond the “backstory” to the NPCs themselves. While CX provides a good appendix of NPCs at the back of the book, it provides little description of their wants and motivations, or what they think of one another. As a result, I found it difficult to run them – particularly when players would try to talk to them and ask them questions about the castle, as it’s hard to get a sense of what each NPC would know.

(Also, as a brief aside, the adventure made little distinction between intelligent and unintelligent undead, which made it a bit difficult to tell whether the PCs could talk to certain NPCs or not. I ultimately ruled that the PCs could talk to most undead family members, including skeletons, but some guidance here would have been helpful).


I am not the first person to experience this issue with the lack of support for running the NPCs; someone else noted it in a comment on Bryce’s review, and the author (Melan) responded:

I understand Melan’s point here that a web of ALL the NPCs would have been unwieldy. However, a relationship map of the half-dozen most significant NPCs (ex. The Count / Countess, the Beast), a list of the folks allied with them, and what each major NPC thinks of the others could have taken only something like a two-page spread. For an example of what I’m talking about, you can reference this relationship matrix from Woodfall:

While I do think the one from Woodfall is a bit too dense, having just a half-dozen factions or important NPCs would make it much more manageable.


More information about the NPCs would have encouraged faction-based play, facilitating a dynamic environment for the PCs to explore where the Castle’s denizens react to the actions of the PCs. It would give me a better idea of what each NPC wants, if the PCs offer to complete a quest for them. It would also give me direction on how the castle might change over time, as the different factions try to achieve their goals. As-written, the NPCs are basically all just standing around, waiting for the PCs to walk into their room. They have no plots, plans, or aspirations.


You may be thinking, “Well why not just that make that stuff yourself, like the adventure says?” However, I find two issues with that suggestion.

1.     I buy published modules to do this work for me and save me time. If the author tells me to write this content myself, that defeats the purpose of me buying the module.

2.     Castle Xyntillan is SO large that, having purchased it (rather than written it), creating a sense of “what happened here” or a write-up for each faction would require me to put in hours of work and study… which I think is exactly what the concise room & NPC descriptions were trying to prevent. Reading and annotating the entire module seems to negate the value of having short descriptions I can run with little prep, since I would have to closely study them anyway.




Overall, I would say Castle Xyntillan is an excellent dungeon on the micro-level. Its room entries are written perfectly for low-prep, session-level play and it provides great support for the referee to run the game at the table. It has fun and interesting encounters that are concisely written with little wasted text. I would like to see more adventures emulate its format.


However, I would like to have seen greater support for the referee at the “macro” level. This adventure does not have a consolidated description of what NPCs want or how they relate to each other. It has no high-level explanation of “what’s going on” or “what happened here” for the referee. The text tells you to come up with those parts yourself… which disappointed me and defeated the purpose of buying a published product (in my opinion).


Ultimately, I could compare Castle Xyntillan to a bag of M&Ms. Each M&M (room description) tastes good, on its own. However, the only thing that holds the M&Ms together is the fact that they’re in the same bag (i.e. in the same castle). With a “mega-dungeon” like Castle Xyntillan, where the PCs will explore the same location across many sessions, I found myself needing greater “cohesion” between its disparate parts to turn the Castle into something satisfying. That sort of nonsensical play got tired and unfulfilling after a few months. Turning the Castle into something more than a weird, inexplicable funhouse proved too difficult / time-consuming for me, considering the lack of support in the text.


Overall I would recommend this adventure if you’re interested in a well-formatted funhouse dungeon that’s easy to run with little prep. Understand that it really is a true funhouse dungeon, however, meaning that there is little sense to make of it or mysteries to uncover (beyond hidden objects to find). Players who enjoy that sense of discovery and “figuring things out” likely will feel unfulfilled unless you invest the time and effort to provide those things yourself. For me it was fun for a while, but lost its zest quicker than I expected.


4/5 Stars

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Lair of the Lamb - Summary

Recently, I ran two and a half players through the adventure Lair of the Lamb by Arnold K. We had a damn good time of it – or I did, at least.

This adventure is free-to-download, though Arnold asked that anyone who runs it provide a summary of their experience. This is that summary.

Beware spoilers for the Lair of the Lamb, obviously.

I also made several errors while running this adventure. You may notice them while reading. I don’t think they lessened our enjoyment of the adventure, but they do make our experience with it less true-to-text. I will likely reflect on these errors in a future post. For now, I will try to keep this post descriptive and non-evaluative.

Each player made four characters. Player one created Lyrathil, Arthuit, Legoland, and Lizbeth. Player two made Benny, Thomas, Oswald, and Martha.

Their characters awoke in a dark chamber. All of them were hogtied with ropes except one, who found a knife trapped beneath her. They began cutting their ropes and working their way free when a creature came down the hall, smelling of ammonia. They couldn’t see the creature, but the characters in one bowl felt Oswald’s entrails spill out and heard Oswald scream as he got eaten. The survivors ran towards the light at the end of the hall.

At the end of the hall, they found a lit torch. The characters then carefully travelled east around a pit and north to a fountain, where they found water. The fountain was a dead end, however.

As they exited the fountain, they saw a mud-covered shape moving and crying out in the bottom of the pit. Panicked, they ran east through the Crab Mural and busted down a locked door. Beyond they found a group of sleeping, prune-skinned priests bathing in pools of warm water.

Curious, one of the characters reached out and tried to rouse one of the priests. The priest shouted in alarm. As the priests’ raisin-like bodies jumped from the pools, the characters raced up a set of stairs to the east.

Atop the stairs, the characters came to a pair of heavy doors bound with chains. The priests caught up as the characters tried to pull the doors open. A battle ensued; some characters held the priests off while the others escaped. One of the priests’ spells reduced Lyrathil to dust.

Breathless, the surviving characters slammed the doors shut behind them. On the other side, they found two sallow-skinned humanoids dressed in fine clothes staring at them. They looked undead.

Frightened, Benny bolted down a hallway to the east, but quickly disappeared down a trapdoor with a splashing sound. Thinking quickly, the rest of the characters offered to let the undead eat Benny if the rest of them could go. The characters even offered to help the undead get Benny out of the pit. The undead agreed, as Benny would be even “juicier” after soaking in the pit’s water.

One of the undead left and returned with a rope. While one undead held the trapdoor open, the other undead worked with the characters to lower a rope into the pit where Benny swam. Just as Benny emerged from the hole, the characters pushed one of the undead into the pit. The other shrieked.

We ended the first session there.


We had a third player join us for the second session. Considering that the first two players each had three characters left, we let him roll up three characters. They were dwarf sisters named Dimira, Durthina, and Dundra.

Just as the characters shoved the undead humanoid down the trapdoor, these three dwarf sisters came through the heavy doors to the west.

In the ensuing chaos, the creature killed Dimira. As it ate her corpse, the rest of the party jumped across the pit Benny originally fell in. Safely on the other side of the trap, they continued down the hallway.

They encountered another pit, similar to the first. Thomas and Durthina fell inside, landing in water at the bottom, while the rest of the party jumped across successfully.

Jumping over another pit, the remaining party members found a coffer with a green mushroom atop it. They ignored it and proceeded north. There, they found a 20ft. wide pit with a rope strung across it, spiked into the wall.

One party member successfully climbed across using the rope, but not before a massive crab claw reached from the water and tried to grab them. Not wanting to risk getting grabbed, one party member took the green mushroom from the previous room and threw it into the water. The creature at the bottom swallowed it, then started glowing green and thrashing around violently in some sort of fit. In the ensuing confusion, the rest of the party made it safely across.


Meanwhile, Durthina and Thomas treaded water at the bottom of their pit in the dark. Durthina used her strength to break rusted bars that led to a larger room with a half-dozen statues inside. Durthina could see well enough with her infravision, though Thomas was effectively blind.

Wanting to get out of the water, Thomas climbed atop a statue. Feeling around, he deduced the statue held something like a box. He opened it to investigate, then choked on the poison gas it released.

Using her infravision, Durthina learned that all but one statue held a coffer; the last held a scroll, instead. Most statues held their coffers out or under their arms, but one statue held the coffer behind its back.

Unable to read the scroll in the dark, Durthina opened the coffer behind one statue’s back. Inside, she found a hand mirror, a potion that tasted of saltwater, and a pouch of gold.

Durthina then went west into a room with another statue, but was attacked by something beneath the water. She quickly swam east through the door, where she found a creature splashing in the water as if in a fit.

At this point, the rest of the party heard Durthina’s cries and used a rope to haul her up (the same one the undead creature used to hoist Benny out of the water). She narrowly escaped her subaquatic assailant.

Reunited, the party progressed through the northern door and met some strange, bipedal isopods. By sticking the handle of their almost-exhausted torch into the wall, they also opened a secret door to the west, which revealed a room of glowing blue mushrooms.

Using the glowing blue mushrooms as a light source, the party progressed down the hallway to the east (carefully jumping over the pit they detected in the floor). They came to a room with a table and a plate with a green mushroom growing out of it, like the one they encountered before.

Opening the door to the south, the party found a room with slightly-sinking bricks in the middle. A decapitated head lay in the center of the room. Dundra went forward to investigate, but fell to her death as the floor collapsed beneath her.

With that direction thoroughly eliminated as an option, the party progressed north to a room filled with chewed bones. From here they could see a line of decapitated heads to the north. A string of human hands dangled from a rope above them, barely touching the tops of the heads. The characters’ teeth began to chatter as they got within eyesight of it. A set of stairs led down on the other side of the room.

Using her knife, Martha bravely went forward cut the rope. She swiftly died. The rest of the party then passed safely, however.

There were now three party members left: Arthuit, Legoland, and Durthina.

After making it past the heads and reaching the bottom of the stairs, the party was stymied by a brick wall. They could smell fresh air coming from the other side of a loose brick, however – so they were desperate to get through.

Without a way to destroy the brick wall, the party returned to the bone pile and tried another, boarded-up door. Beyond it, they found a large guillotine. With enough time (and a lot of noise), the party disassembled the guillotine and formed a makeshift battering ram. With it, they tore down the brick wall at the bottom of the steps and found a large room flooded with water.

About 60ft away, they could see a faint light coming around the corner. The party used the potion Durthina found to summon a large boat for themselves (they had poured some of it out on the ground earlier and learned that it summed a magical boat).

However, the boat they summoned was too large to row. They used their makeshift battering ram to inefficiently move themselves through the water, pushing off the various columns in the room.

They smelled ammonia. They saw a large, dark shape beneath the water. Suddenly, some large, horrid creature emerged and took the battering ram from Durthina’s hands. The party now had no paddle. They would soon get eaten.

Desperate, Durthina used her potion to summon a smaller rowboat for the party. The three of them quickly jumped inside and paddled to the light they saw. The creature followed close behind.

They came to a room with daylight breaking through the top. A set of crumbling stairs led to a door overhead, but the stairs were broken 20ft. above the water. The characters began climbing the rough walls, trying to reach the stairs.

Arthuit was successful.

Durthina and Legoland were not.

As Arthuit reached safety at the top of the stairs, he watched as the creature consumed his last two companions. Such is the story of how Arthuit escaped the Lair of the Lamb.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Notes on the Weird that Befell Drigbolton

While scanning through the posts in the Necrotic GnomeDiscord server earlier this week, someone asked for advice on running the Dolmenwood adventure The Weird that Befell Drigbolton.

How fortunate! I happen to be running a pair of players through that adventure, currently. And nothing gets me in the writing mood more than the belief that I might help someone. So I offered to share my notes.

Rather than clog Gavin Norman's lovely Discord server with lengthy back-to-back posts, I will consolidate my thoughts in this post. In the future, I will likely 1. write a summary of my players' escapades and 2. offer a review of the adventure. But for now, I will focus on the preparations I made to run this wonderfully weird adventure.

Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for The Weird that Befell Drigbolton (hereafter abbreviated as TWtBD). Unless you intend to run this adventure as a referee, you should stop reading here.

The beautiful cover of this adventure, drawn by Andrew Walter.


The first thing I would like to share is a map I made of Drigbolton's surroundings. A large part of this adventure involves the players exploring Bolton Moor. Although the adventure's map fits neatly into a single six-mile hex in the north of Dolmenwood (specifically Hex 0702), it does not have a scale.

This lack of a scale makes it difficult to track time as the player characters travel between locations. By making it difficult to track time, this adventure also makes it difficult to know when to use the zany random encounter tables included at the back of the book. As Gygax himself said in the Dungeon Master's Guide, "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” And keeping track of time in this adventure is especially important, given how things progress and develop over the course of several days.

To solve this problem, I subdivided the six-mile hex into 1-mile hexes. I shifted a few locations slightly to ensure only one major location sat within each hex.

While running this for my players, I allowed them to move three hexes per hour while on a road, two hexes per hour on open land, and one hex per hour in rough terrain (forests, swamps, and hills). Expressed in terms of time, a road hex takes 20 minutes to travel through, an open hex takes 30 minutes to travel through, and a hex of rough terrain takes an hour to travel through.

The map I created is below.

A map of Drigbolton's surroundings, divided into 1-mile hexes.

Knowing that you might be playing on a virtual table-top (or just don't like my colored-pencil drawing), here is another version I made using Hextml.

A digital, 1-mile hex map of Bolton Moor.


Another area I remapped was the hamlet of Drigbolton itself.

The adventure itemizes each building in Drigbolton, noting the inhabitants of each. This is par for the course. This method of keying villages goes all the way back to T1: The Village of Hommlet.

However, I've always found such keys only marginally useful. One reason is that it doesn't help make a village feel alive; villagers hardly spend all day in their homes. So although the house-by-house key may help me, as a referee, know where each villager lives, that information is really only is relevant at the outset if the villagers all line up at their own doorsteps like the von Trapp family when the PCs pass through.

Secondly, it also does not help me provide a narrative description of the village. A house-by-house key is too granular. Just using this map, if the PCs approach from the north, I would say to them, "You approach the village from the north. You see two houses to the right (J and C), and another house by the well (K). Other paths lead to the left (F and I), right (D), and ahead (the rest of town)."

YAWN. How boring.

When I think of running a town, I tend to think of it like a room in a dungeon: I want to give 1. a general overview in one sentence, 2. one or two relevant details, and 3. two or more interesting things for the players to explore. This map does not help me do that.

So I created the map below.

The reason I like this map is because it "chunks" the information into discrete "zones" that I can provide to the players. It gives them specific places to go - almost like a point-and-click adventure game gives you specific things to click on.

Now, were the players to approach from the north, I could say:

"You arrive at a hamlet of about a dozen wooden cottages gathered along a river. It looks like a sleepy village suddenly come alive; gaudy, colorful flags decorate every building. To your right you see a large, wooden structure - like a hall or barn or something (if after dark, they would hear music there). Straight ahead the path continues past a well, around which you see a cluster of houses."

Now the players have a general idea of the village, as well as two potential directions to head in. They can either check out the barn or proceed to the well. If the village were more "normal," I might describe all its "zones" at once when the players arrive. But Drigbolton in this adventure is far from normal, so I run it more like a dungeon.

I should add that 1. a roster of villagers (independent of where they live) and a brief description of their appearance / personalities is helpful to have. I have not posted that here. And a random encounter table for the village would be cool. I haven't had time to write one myself, but I think it would be a great way to make the village seem alive.


Another piece of advice I would give is to know 1. where the goal(s) of the players is/are and 2. how they might get to that goal. That may seem obvious, but I failed to do that.

Because we are running this adventure as a "one-shot," I asked my players at the beginning of our first session what "prompt" they wanted to start the adventure with (out of those provided at the beginning): salvaging star-metal, finding the Black Book, or uncovering the Arch Mage. They chose to search for star-metal.

That was fine. But after they made their choice, I quickly realized that I did not have a comprehensive list of where all the star metal was. I knew they could find it as part of a random encounter. I remembered reading that there was star metal in several places around Drigbolton, but I couldn't remember specifically where - and the book refused to tell me. The references to star-metal are buried within the dense prose of the adventure and not highlighted or "called out" in any way.

I therefore began our first session rather "in the dark," hoping my players lucked into some star-metal. I was going to discover it just as much as they were 😂

Needless to say: after our first session, I then went through the book and highlighted every reference to star metal I could find.

The other two prompts - finding the Black Book or uncovering the Arch Mage - are more straightforward. They just require the PCs to go to the Laird's house. Any villager in the hamlet can point them in that direction. However, I don't want someone else to repeat the same mistake that I made.

So, for your ease of reference, the player characters can find star metal:

  • In the vegetable patch behind the Oath House (pg. 28)
  • At Nob's Spinney, tangled among the brambles (pg. 36)
  • Around the barn at Bolton Bog (pg. 38)
  • With a result of 12-15 on a d20 in a random encounter check (pg. 46)
  • POSSIBLY in the mouths of "moon-eyed" creatures, brought as offerings to the star (pg. 18). The text vaguely references this, but doesn't specifically call it out as a "find."

Also, just as a minor detail: the text says star metal fragments are valued "at five times their weight in gold" (pg. 2). The adventure also says that star-metal fragments are worth "50gp per pound of weight" (pg. 57). This conversion would imply that ten gold coins weigh one pound.

However, I use a conversion rate of 50 coins per pound. I consider it to be more believable, based on this post at the Dungeon Master's Workshop. So I said that star-metal was worth 250gp per pound, not 50.

That is an INCREDIBLY nitpicky thing that only I care about (probably). But I just thought I'd mention it.


And that's it: all my notes and advice on running this fantastic adventure. I hope it is helpful for you 🙂

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What's Your Appendix N?

I have recently been thinking about my “history” of interactions with the fantasy genre.

I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because September is a reflective time, or because the stresses of the present have me feeling nostalgic.

Regardless of the reasons why, ruminations on my own influences led me to Appendix N, the list of influences Gary Gygax provided at the end of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I’ll admit that I’m woefully unfamiliar with most literature from Gygax’s Appendix N. Of the works listed there, I’ve only read Tolkien. I’m interested in reading more, though – especially after Web DM’s recent video on Pulp Fiction. I’ve added several Appendix N authors to my “wish-list” of books.

So of course, when acknowledging that many of the works in Appendix N didn’t introduce me to the fantasy genre, I have to ask myself... what did?

This post is an answer to that question.


It is hard for me to establish exactly when I got "into" the fantasy genre. I don’t remember interacting with it much in elementary school. From what I recall, my first dips into fantasy came from middle school.

In middle school, I remember reading books like A Knight’s Wyrd, Sabriel, and The Inheritance Cycle. There’s Crispin and the Cross of Lead, though that might be more “historical fiction” than “fantasy.” And the “ology” series of books, including Dragonology and Wizardology. I loved these books as a kid, and they sparked my imagination.

I also purchased this poster of dragon species to hang on my wall. I didn’t even know what Dungeons & Dragons was, at the time. I just liked dragons.

My first exposure to D&D came from purchasing a poster for a game I'd never played... because I liked dragons.

Interestingly, I didn’t read Tolkien or see The Lord of the Rings movies until much later, as an upperclassman in high school. This was after I’d already been introduced to fantasy tabletop RPGs. Therefore, Tolkien had a peculiarly “late” influence on my inculcation in the fantasy genre. I feel like that’s different from what most people experience.

I also missed the boat on the Harry Potter series. Somehow, as a nerd coming of age during their surge in popularity, I completely sidestepped the Hogwarts groundswell. Oddly enough, I remember reading Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in elementary school. I hadn’t read Harry Potter at the time, but loved the encyclopedic catalog of fantasy creatures and checked it out of the library several times.

I also remember playing several fantasy-themed video games in middle school. Lionhead Studio’s original Fable was perhaps the first one. I can’t count the number of times I played that game through to completion; I even bought Fable: The Lost Chapters with saved allowance money to play the additional content, meaning I effectively owned the game twice.

(I realize it might seem strange to have played Fable as a young kid, considering it was rated “M for mature.” But really I think it was pretty tame for an M-rated game. And my parents trusted me as a pretty mature young person, which I’m grateful for).

Now that I’m older, I can see the flaws of the original Fable. I now know the hype and disappointment that came with its release. However, all of that went over my head as a young person in the early 2000s. I bought it "used" at a discount. It was one of the first RPGs I ever played, and I loved it for what it was.

I also played The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Because I played it at such a young age, its open world and difficulty kept me from making it far. I still enjoyed just wandering around, however. Even today, I’ve never “beaten” the main questline of Morrowind. It’s on my list of games to revisit, at some point.

I spent much more time playing the next game, Oblivion, and actually saw it through to completion (several times). I distinctly remember one character I made in Oblivion named Rivel. He was a paladin type who used heavy armor and Restoration magic. And I truly “role-played” him in a way I never did before. I haven’t really done the same with any game since, either.

With Rivel, I played the game in a simulationist way. Rivel ate three times a day and slept each night, though the game didn’t require you to. Rivel never fast-traveled. And in my mind, I kind of created the “character” of Rivel as a separate entity from myself. Rather than playing the game as a “player” – doing quests and such because it’s what I wanted to do – I reacted to the situations that arose in the game and responded as what I thought Rivel would do.

When playing Rivel, there would be “days” spent in the game where I simply “role-played” Rivel – walking around the castle, visiting Chorrol to talk to villagers, and scouting the nearby forest for monsters and deer. As an adult looking back, I can see now that playing the game this way was basically me channeling my imaginative play as a kid (“playing pretend”) through a video game.

And as incredibly nerdy and strange as this may seem, it was totally fun. Probably the most fun I’ve ever had with a video game, and maybe ever will. I’m ashamed to say that my imagination isn’t the same as an adult. I can’t lose myself in a game like that anymore; I get distracted by thoughts about changing the oil in the car or repairing the water heater. It’s sad.

Moving on from the loss of innocence…

Thief: Deadly Shadows was another big influence on me. I was too young to enjoy the original Thief game or The Dark Project, but Garrett epitomized what it meant to be a fantasy RPG “rogue” in my mind. The Pagans and the Hammerites eventually influenced my ideas of Druids and Clerics, respectively. And of course, there’s also the guards from Thief, who profoundly influenced my conception of a fantasy “city watch.”

Of all these influences, some elements that stand out as directly influencing on my idea of “fantasy:”

·         The encounter on the bridge with Snowy Granius. For some reason, this single moment in Morrowind seems to encapsulate everything I remember about the game. As a young player, it was difficult, scary, and exciting. And just so wonderfully weird. To this day, my “default” scenario for introducing a new player to an RPG system is this: you come to a bridge crossing a deep chasm. You see a poorly-dressed man on the other side. He looks angry. What do you do?

This moment will forever live in my mind.

·         The general sense of playfulness and innocence. I realize Fable was overtly violent (I mean, you can decapitate enemies and blood comes spurting out of their neck) and the game contains sexual innuendo. But the “fairy tale” setting of Albion (and the humor that accompanied it) has stuck with me throughout my time gaming. My taste for this sort of “light-hearted” fantasy might be why I have yet to “get into” the gritty and dour settings like A Song of Ice and Fire. My taste of fantasy lies somewhere between the “low” fantasy of Game of Thrones and the “high” fantasy of The Lord of the Rings. Both of these are slightly too serious for me; I prefer The Hobbit and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

·         The music. To this day, the soundtracks of Fable, Morrowind, and Oblivion have a permanent place on my playlists at the gaming table. When I hear Oakvale by Russell Shaw or Wings of Kynareth by Jeremy Soule, I am moved.


Why write all of this?

Well, it’s been on my mind lately. That’s one reason.

But another reason is recognition of the fact that role-playing is a generative exercise that draws from source material. In other words, every fantasy tabletop RPG session creates a new narrative from the events that transpire at the table. However, that new narrative originates from references and touchstones rooted in prior experience.

Expressed in a different way, you can imagine each RPG session as an original song. Each song is unique and new. However, each song is composed from notes that existed before the song. Each composer (players and referee) uses the notes they know when composing.

In the case of fantasy tabletop RPGs, the “notes” from which a composer chooses are their prior experiences. Any experience is subject to be reproduced (such as knowledge from history or their own personal lives), but ideas and inspiration from media in the fantasy genre is especially relevant.

And looking back to the early games I ran, especially in high school, I can see how I reproduced those experiences I had in the fantasy genre. I now draw a lot more inspiration from tabletop RPG texts themselves, such as early TSR modules. But before I steeped myself in those, the tabletop RPG games I played were heavily influenced by Fable and The Elder Scrolls.

And in closing, I also think it’s also helpful to recognize how the influences of the fantasy genre are changing. Whereas folks in the 1980s and 90s likely came with primarily literary influences, I would say that visual media (ex. video games, movies, television series) have become more influential in the 21st century, for better or worse.

I can definitely see this in the younger players I game with, who list video games and movies foremost among the fantasy-genre things they like. And when I introduce the game to kids, their touchstones are often things like How to Train Your Dragon and Frozen. I’m not sure what to make of this, but it is a trend that’s happening.

So: what are the fantasy influences you bring to your games? And what parts of them have stuck with you?