Sunday, 20 May 2018

Dungeons & Dragons: Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

  • Lots more of full colour art. I've been saying this throughout this iteration of D&D, but it's been consistently good and plentiful. My favourite illustrations continue to be the more photorealistic style environment shots.
  • New monsters are provided for Dungeon Masters. About half the book is basically a Monster Manual. Many of them are generally useful demons, devils, humanoids and undead.
  • New player options are provided here in the form of subraces, and one new race. These get a fair amount of detail. Treat these as a bonus though as this is a rather Dungeon Master focused book.
  • Well written exploration of the Blood War (yes please, one of my favourites), gith, dwarves, gnomes and elves.
  • The limited edition covers have looked consistently good and the option being present is nice. I also like this limited edition cover.
  • At 256 pages, this book is about 60 pages fatter than Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which I felt was getting too light. Great to see the page count go back to roughly 250.
  • A nice breakdown of monster by environment, and challenge rating. Not too impressive page count wise but so very useful.

Could Go Either Way:
  • Topics such as the Blood War, gnomes and elves are well covered in previous editions. This reduces the value of the book for those that already read about these things in previous editions and aren't curious about the changes made for this one.
  • A more even distribution of challenge ratings compared to the Monster Manual. About 2/3rds of the creatures are challenge rating 7 or higher.
  • My copy had quality issues. Both of my books had improperly cut pages that were folded into the book. Now, this doesn't make the book impossible to use but I'd recommend taking a careful look when picking the book out at the store. If you see a section with folded corners, there's a good chance it'll have this issue. Look below for pictures.
  • The demon princes are taken from the existing adventure Out of the Abyss. If you don't have that adventure you won't notice but for those of us who do, the usable page count of the book decreases.
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Covers
The standard cover (left) and deluxe cover (right). Not bad, right? I prefer the deluxe one myself.


It's been rather quiet this year on the D&D book front, however the silence has now been broken. Having a full release on May 29, Mordenkeinen's Tome of Foes bring new subrace player options (which also nicely double as things we DMs can use), monsters, and more to help build worlds and adventures. The Blood War is back. Gnomes and elves are getting attention. If I had to describe it in one sentence I'd say it's a rather good book that's a sprinkle of Player's Handbook and mainly Monster Manual, which should have been expected from a name like Mordenkeinen's Tome of Foes. And with that description, let's jump into the meat of the book.

New Player Options

The new player options here are in the form of new subraces (8 tiefling, 3 elf, 1 dwarf, and 1 gnome) for established races and a new race for gith. They also come with flaws, bonds, and other roleplay goodies. As always, this also can double to aid the creative Dungeon Master in creating NPCs. If you were looking for a lot of mechanics and crunch to help create new characters, there is some but you might be left wanting more. The majority of this first section is instead chronicles what these groups look like from a society and history stand point. Naturally this is interesting to both Dungeon Masters and player. It also includes ideal, flaw, bond, and some organization tables such as what a traveling group of dwarves looks like. It's a good read, but as always with this sort of thing it may be lost on you if you are running your own campaign where dwarves, tieflings and elves are drastically different from their published versions.

New Monsters

First thing's first, there are some repeats from previous books. In particular the demon lords from Out of the Abyss return along with their art. If you missed that book you'll probably like it, but if you have Out of the Abyss this does reduce the useful page count a bit.

The monsters themselves span a very impressive range. Earlier books, such as the Monster Manual, tended to have a clustering of low level monsters and then a sprinkling of higher level ones. This book, on the other hand, has a more even distribution of creatures. Roughly 2/3rd of the creatures are challenge rating 7 or higher. The basic rules, SRD and Monster Manual provide a good basis for low level campaigns so an emphasis on higher challenge ratings is what I think we needed.

Quite a few of the monsters here have a gimmick. Chokers can suffocate players on a critical, for example. Again, this is what I like to see since it prevents combat from devolving into hitting a hit point pinata and instead allows for interesting things to happen. And outside of combat, there are many monsters that just beg for an adventure to be written about them. I'm glad to see the boneclaw back, and vampiric mist seems like a fun one to run too. Since the Blood War is a focus of this book, there are a lot of fiends. There's also a lot of humanoids as you'd expect with chapters on drow, gnomes, and dwarves. There's also a smaller number of undead, constructs, monstrosities and aberrations. If you are planning to run a devil centred campaign, this will come in very handy. Humanoids, demons and devils are very common in campaigns so I wouldn't call these creatures niche either. High level creatures are less general purpose but challenge rating 20 creatures and higher tend to be unique.

Demonic Boons

Since we have demons, and cults, there are boons provided here. These boons are granted to cultists from their patron and enhance them in some way. I really like these. It allows for easy customization of cultists, and makes a whole lot of sense. They provide stat bonuses, and special abilities to cult member and cult leaders. And of course, you can use them as templates for making your own. Or disregard them because you have a better idea for one of your cults.

World Building

There is quite a bit of emphasis on world building here. From the Blood War to the gith, to the Raven Queen, many different aspects get focus. A common theme through this book is that the knowledge presented isn't the be all and end all. For the Raven Queen, for example, is mysterious and the text provided details doesn't sound definitive. This is really nice from a Dungeon Master perspective because it gives us leeway and leaves a lot in our hands. I like this aspect of this edition in general.

It's interesting and well written. The Blood War in particular was a bit overdue for this edition so it's really nice to see it here. Many a campaign had the Blood War as a backdrop including one of my earliest. The other sections (gith, dwarves, deurgar, halflings, gnomes, and elves) are also well written. I may be a bit biased towards the Blood War though. There are also a good number of tables to help you customize these groups. This is very useful and I love this addition. The only big problems I could foresee here is people not liking some of what is done in this edition with things they already knew from previous editions, and that it would be familiar to D&D veterans. If D&D 5th edition is your first, I think you'll have a pleasant read. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Gith
Gith image from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. Rather typical example of the art style in this book.

The Art

If you've bought any books in this edition you know what to expect. Art is plentiful and maintains the same style found in the previous books. Typically this means stylized depictions of monsters, people and places with the occasional water painting like location. The water painting style was always my favourite of the bunch and the rest didn't appeal to me in the same way. I've also included the cover images for both. I think I prefer the deluxe version again. Unfortunately, the art for the demon lords is reused from Out of the Abyss. It's not bad, and the two page spread of Zuggtmoy still looks great to me, but it would have been nice to have some new art too. In the original Monster Manual I really liked the depiction of the wraith. In this one, image I've included below was one of my favourites. This style is an outlier in this book though. Other monsters deserving a shoutout are the boneclaw, astral dreadnought, and leviathan. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Tower
One of my favourite images from this book. The environment art continues to be great. More of this please.

Book Build Quality

The overall design of the book, the quality of the pages and the cover are all things we've seen before. Put this book on a shelf with another book from this edition and they'll look like they belong together. However, both of my books had some quality issues. It looks like the pages were improperly cut and folded into the book. It's easier if you just look at my example picture. This occurred on both my deluxe and standard edition so I'd suggest that if you are picking up the book from your local game store, take a quick peek for any folded corners. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Defect
Keep an eye out for this when picking out your book. The pages weren't properly cut.


Nothing new here. MSRP is $50 USD for both the standard and limited editions, and you can get it for cheaper by looking online and going used. If the quality issues I mentioned above concern you, the extra cost of getting the book in person may very well be worth it.

What I felt was Missing

This is a solid book. However, I would have liked to see more maps and lairs in the same vein as Volo's Guide to Monsters. This book is heavier on the crunch for new monsters, but maps are always a big help for Dungeon Masters looking to run them. We also have a lot of monsters included here and I would have liked to see some encounter groups included in Dragon+ and linked on book page on the Wizards of the Coast website. We got the stats for some archdevils but it would have been nice to have all of the archdevils defined here as well. As it is now, you read through the section on the current archdevils, and are disappointed when your favourite doesn't have stats.

Free Stuff

These later books have not been as consistent for free stuff as some of the older ones. Indeed, this book doesn't lend itself to it as well as the adventurers where the introduction section like Death House could be given out for free. Actually, I think we got more stuff in the form of free maps from previous adventures leading up to this edition (I'd recommend taking a look for those here). The adventure there, The Risen Mists, is also of interest in that edition. It's a bit odd that the free things don't directly advertise the new book, but I guess that what keeps people playing helps in the long run. You can see some art from the book. That's mostly it. So unfortunately, not much free material for this particular book.


Overall, I enjoyed this book but by far enjoyed the Blood War, githzerai and githyanki, and monster sections the most. This easily takes up more than half the book, so I'd say it's an interesting book for Dungeon Masters wanting to throw more creatures at their players. It's well written, and the subject matter is widely applicable to campaigns thanks to the focus on common creatures like devils, demons, undead, and humanoids. These creatures are also more spread out than previous books, and many monsters are meant to challenge higher level characters. It'll be a harder sell to veteran players who already know these topics, but the second half being a mini Monster Manual will still make it tempting. Just keep an eye out for the defect I mentioned. 

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Monster Ideas: Bandits

I'd be very surprised if someone went their role-playing career without encountering a bandit. These guys are everywhere. And not only are they an easy source of low level baddies in campaigns, they say something about the location they are found in. From brazen daylight robberies or late night pick-pocketing, there are a lot of schemes these guys can be used for. And it is in the hopes of arriving at more ideas to use these baddies that we'll explore them today.


A group of bandits should have some sort of money making scheme. Pick-pocketing the rich, attacking caravans, and extorting high ranked people for favours are all examples of things that they can be trying to do. However, this element is very important for your group of bandits as it will determine their motivations and often their skill level. A group of assassins in a big city will not be comparable to a bunch of highway robbers far from civilization. It will also affect how exactly the party will be hindered by them and in what manner. Change the scheme, and you change the entire situation with these guys.


A few thoughts about the organization of the bandits is a good idea. Is it a centralized structure with some outside groups responding and doing as they are told? Is this a small operation so there is only one level of management close to where the action is? Or is it a large, decentralized organization that occasionally gets some orders but has a lot of leeway as well. What this does, besides helping us understand how the group might act and whether they can get help from another office, is let us think about the heads. How many levels of organization are there? Is there the regular bandits at the bottom and one level 2 leader above them? Or is there an evil level 18 wizard leading a level of level 10 enforcers who have another 3 levels below them? With that kind of organization, they could get into conspiracy theory territory.

Good Henchmen

Of course, bandits could be convenient henchmen for something bigger. They could be a front set up by a noble to take care of business that can't be dealt with legally. The operation could've been taken over by mindflayers or vampires. Do they know? Maybe yes, maybe no. Regardless there is a layering of threats in this case. Making sure these layers make sense together is important. Also, the bandits could eventually become the henchmen of your characters. Perhaps they are competing with your players to steal something.


Oh, it turns out they aren't bandits. They are an invading army looting or something. Kind of a copout? Yeah, but it can work. The important part here is that banditry is an occupation, and people can use it as a front for something else.

Fighting Style

How do these bandits fight? By the D&D 5th edition book, they'll have a scimitar and a crossbow. However, we can play with this a lot and in fact likely will need to. If this is all in a city, you wouldn't expect your bandits to walk past guards wearing weapons in a slum. Instead they might be wearing concealed knives. Likewise, they don't all have to be the same bandits. One might use a whip and short sword, one might hand back with a bow and help their wizard, and another two might try to hold the enemy in a desirable location with shields and swords. Perhaps they don't actually fight. Instead they lay quick ambushes, attack, and then disappear. Or maybe they are experienced and rely on a combination of martial prowess and magic. Not every group in the bandit organization needs to have the same outfit either. In general, I'd recommend treating the entries in the Monster Manual for bandits as a starting point.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Monster Ideas: Humanoids

Most NPCs in a campaign tend to be some kind of humanoid. Whether human, elf, drwarf, or any other humanoid, they are used to help flesh out the world. The problem though is that they are incredibly versatile. A human can be anything. In contrast wights, vampires and liches have their own applications that make them special. These imply and inspire stories due to their uniqueness. Humanoids are more difficult in this way precisely because they can be anything. And it is for that reason that I hope to explore this topic. I also know they aren't very monstrous, but hey, we Dungeon Masters throw them at our players so why not?

Look Somewhere Else

The first way to address this situation is to not rely on the humanoid background for your story. Instead, it needs to come about through other means. If you run enough liches, you'll run into a situation where you don't know what else you can do with a lich. However, that doesn't mean you will never run a lich again. Instead the focus turns to the character of the individual lich in question. What are they after? Who do they hate? Why are they doing what they are doing? Here the difference is between what you can do with just any lich, and what a particular lich might do. Simply put, you need to come from the character first. I find myself in this situation very quickly when needing to make humanoids.

Be Distinct

Elves, drwarves, humans and other humanoids tend to have something that makes them distinct from each other. Further, even in the core rules, there are further divisions in terms of different types of dwarves and elves. This is immensely helpful for me. Instead of thinking of a human, think about what a resident of Baldur's Gate would do or say. If the type you've chosen is too general, go more specific.

Let's Change Things Up

If the nature isn't inspiring, you can change the nature. Perhaps your humanoid baddies are the reject descendants of gods trying to prevent your players from achieving divinity. The key here is to go more specific. Human might be very general, but godkind may not be. In the core books there are many kinds of humans and likewise you can do the same. It's not just a war between humans on one side and humans on the other. It's two distinct cultures with their own values. As a result, they are no longer just humans. What we are doing is making the type of humanoid new by changing them. Of course, the extent we'll need to do this to help inspire ourselves will vary depending on the Dungeon Master in question. This is a bit different from the above option but very similar. There, we went more specific to find something to inspire us. Here, we make up something new. It will be more specific, but it doesn't exist yet. Often this takes the form of a subversion. Good orcs, good succubi, etc.

Social Structure

One humanoid baddie by themselves often isn't enough to challenge a party. Instead you throw 4, 10, or 40 at them. And when you have that many humanoids, they'll have a social structure of some kind. These interactions and structures are some of what makes humanoids so fun. They aren't undead skeletons who are probably the world's worst standup comedians. You also don't want them to be the same as undead skeletons. Naturally personal motivations also come along with social stuctures. Thinking about both social structures and character motivations is a path to many an interesting adventure. Even a necromancer might have apprentices with their own relationships with each others and others outside the organization.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Monster Ideas: Vampire

In the big book of things we can throw at our players, vampires come up fairly often. They are iconic, they are deadly, they have been imagined in many different ways, and they tend to come with specific rules. As a result they make good choices for big bads but also for one-off encounters. Of course, there is quite a lot we can do with these badies and I hope trying to put it to text helps someone out there. Of course I also hope it'll help me think of a new way to throw one of these at my players.


The vampire, as presented in D&D 5th edition and other places, tends to come with a set of rules. They take damage from running water, sunlight, holy water, die from stakes to the heart, and whatever else you want to give them. Don't want to let them enter a residence without invitation? Also good. What's nice about this kind of thing is that can result in different approaches, and player hitting above their level by exploiting the weaknesses of the creature. They don't need to kill the vampire. They just need to survive until morning, for example. Not every vision of vampires has the same weaknesses and rules they need to follow, but thinking about these can lead to very interesting situations. A classic one is where the party is trapped in a building besieged by vampires who are trying to charm someone into inviting them in.

Magic Items

Of course, magic items are a great way to exploit weaknesses. With something similar to a sun blade a level 1 party has a chance against a vampire spawn. Now, the magnitude may vary depending on the rule system, but it will still help (it still won't be a good chance in D&D 5th edition). You can also easily come up with other anti-vampire magic items. All they need to do is give off sunlight. I fondly remember a lantern that gave off sunlight in one of our campaigns.These may be too powerful, so you may want to make holy water easily available so that they can test for vampires. Alternately, a magic lantern can reveal the true appearance of these baddies.

Long Running Campaigns

These kinds of rules and constraints can be very helpful, especially when making a long running campaign. Going from thralls to weaker vampires to vampire leaders presents a natural evolution over the course of a campaign. The same can be said about going from trying to exploit the weaknesses of vampires to outright head on assaults against their headquarters. That they are presentable, social, and manipulative is also something that is easy to exploit for a campaign. Such an adversary lends them to have long running schemes like a lich, but also able to easily be in the forefront of their plots. Their ability to easily make new spawn also makes them a consistent threat, as well as a reason to fear death at the hands of one.

Other Vampires

There are quite a few different variations of vampires out there that we could use. A large swarm of vargouilles can be an interesting situations for lower level characters to fight against. I always considered them to be rather vampiric in nature. Of course, mythology is full of many vampiric variants. Perhaps a sorcerer who had a taste for blood became a vampire in your campaign? Would they have an immunity to sunlight if they did? All good questions that can lead to interesting campaigns. Technically this also wouldn't be a monster like the vampire in the manuals. However, it is still vampiric in nature and could help create a new interesting villain. I recall one game where a creature was attacking people and draining their health through their dreams. The solution involved a dream battle where belief rolls were used to allow players to do impossible things, such as spider climb without casting the spell, and killing it in their dreams. The great thing about these creatures is that playing around with the concept can lead to a new adventure idea. It also makes sense that a vampire would look for ways to mitigate their weaknesses.


Since vampires tend to be smart, charming, and long lives, they present interesting relationship structures. You could easily have a city full of vampire spawn that keep wreaking havoc, but no sign of the vampire that leads them. They could work alone and have everyone working for them without their knowledge. They could also have goals unrelated with domination, such as a hedonistic delight in taking blood. There was one campaign I played in where the vampire was living on the street as a pickpocket and a rogue. It would take out easy targets in order to remain less noticeable, but was acting purely for its own enjoyment.Vampires are intelligent as well so complicated vampire societies with civil wars while being under attack by non-vampires could lead to interesting situations as well. However, the relationship between the vampire(s) and their world tends to be important.

Vampire Spawn

As written, vampire spawn can be freed when their master dies in D&D 5th edition. This makes for an interesting low level badie, but it also has a major different from their master variant. These vampires cannot escape as mist back to their coffins. They have one chance at life and as such, you'd expect them to be more cautious and probably use henchmen. Or maybe they are more animalistic. Regardless, you probably wouldn't expect to see this type of vampire act the same way.

Vampire Hunt Adventure Idea

A vampire is terrorizing the village at night, but the people don't know where the vampire hides during the day. At night they may be under siege and find a house to hold down in while blocking all the windows. Investigate, fighting off the vampire's henchmen, and try to stake the vampire (probably best to go with a vampire spawn here). Could end with a combat encounter in a room with windows, allowing the players to hide in the light to keep the vampire away or drag it into sunlight. Also could end with them staking the vampire in their coffin. If these aids are given, being a level or two below the recommendation is probably a good idea or it may be too easy. Alternatively, fighting the vampire in a head on fight before it tries to leave the town and set up somewhere else could also work.

Vampire Ship Adventure Idea

A vampire is moving from city to city in a boat, claiming a few victims, and then moving on to a different port. The players need to investigate the cause, track it down to it's old hideout, which heavily suggests it's a vampire (probably a vampire spawn if you want to run this at a low level), and then try to hunt it down out in the world before it changes locations again. This will probably be more episodic in nature and have a few false leads.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Monster Ideas: Lich

From high level to low level, there are many different creatures you can throw at a party and many different ways to do so. For a while now I've wanted to go through a few different monsters and throw around some ideas for their use. It's an exercise that has helped me before in the past and I hope that people who find this get some use out of it as well. And given my long standing tradition of sending hordes of undead for my players to kill, where better to start than with the evil old lich?

Why Lich?

These guys are amazingly versatile. From big bads, to interesting enemies in a dungeon to a cool thing for a low level party (this is atypical but I'll get back to this), there is a lot you can do with these guys. They also hit on a few themes that I for one find cool. Life, death, undeath, all the cool stuff. The phylactery is a quest just waiting to happen as well. Since just killing them isn't enough either, and liches typically don't carry their insurance policy on them, chances are high that players will meet the same one more than once before finally putting an end to them.

Playing With Alignment

These guys are evil. Right? Well, playing around with their alignments and goals can yield a lot of interesting situations. One of the first campaigns I played in had a lich that had been transformed against their will and tried whatever they could do to regain control of their own unlife. They couldn't escape undeath as long as their phylactery was held captive and they couldn't rebel without consequences either.

While these creatures tend to be portrayed as evil, all of the other alignments present opportunities for something new. It largely goes back to what your world thinks about trying to dodge the regular flow of life, but I've seen interpretations before where they were the main ally for the players. Now, of course, they had their own interests and their undead nature fed into their character and how they saw the world. However, they did try to help the party as well and wanted to leave the world in a better state. One I remember very fondly, though I don't recall if I've mentioned him before in my writing, was a brilliant inventor and mage that would massage events in order to have his inventions fall into the right hands to spread and improve the world. The only issue is that things rarely go as planned, and the inventions would often cause much destruction as well.

Liches For Low Level Players

Low level players also want cool things to fight and situations to encounter. Whether you are level 1 or 20, undead can still be cool and tough. For level 20, the classic lich is perfectly fine. For low level players, a rotting, falling apart lich who stays undead through pure sheer of will after being starved without their phylactery is a lot of fun. Now, I'd be careful about throwing one of these at your players without them knowing what happened here. Otherwise the next time they meet a lich, it will be an absolute disaster.

Big Bads

They tend to have tons of undead minions, and possibly cults working in their name. They spin plans that span hundreds of years thanks to their lack of permanent death. They are one of the first things that comes to my mind when someone says “big bad”. That said, we can have a little more fun with these guys than that. Since anything can die and become undead, we can have a lot of fun with undead armies. Undead minotaurs, skeletons, ogres, and dragons all rolling in and attacking a city. Being that they are spellcasters as well, you can do amazing things by just tweaking their spell lists. Having them as combat challenges for lower level ranges can also work, but you'll need some justification for it. The methods that come to mind are having their spellbook destroyed, reducing their spell list, a curse preventing or injury preventing them from regaining spell slots, or simply never being strong enough to complete the process themselves and instead having been turned by their more gifted master (their magic skills reflect this).

What Happens After?

D&D and the campaigns I've been involved in often have legends of liches that became for greater than mere liches. From gods to forces of nature that project their strength from the negative energy plane, the goals of a lich and what they achieve can be vast. Don't feel you need to stop at just a lich.

Spell List

Since we are dealing with a spellcaster, remember that playing with the spell list can greatly change everything. You can make a defense minded lich, a pyromancer, a seer that manipulates events for centuries, and many others. It should, of course, reflect their character but this versatility helps keep them from becoming boring.

Lich Battles

Another one of my fond memories was a conflict hundreds of years long between two liches. They bested each other and destroyed their bodies time and time again, savagely unravel each-other's plans both for reasons of gain and spite, but had never been able to find each-other's phylactery to finally end it. It's was an entertaining thing to witness and also has a lot of potential as the setup for a campaign. It lends itself quite well to games of intrigue as well.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Dungeon Master: Creating Random Dungeons

Exploring dungeons is a long time staple of tabletop role-playing. Naturally, it's been a staple of D&D for decades as well. However, coming up with dungeons is a bit of an art. There are so many elements to consider in designing a good one. On top of that, sometimes things go off the rails. What do you do if your players jump into catacombs before you had expected? The first thing that comes to mind is to just make things up as we go along. However, due to the complexity of the situation, this is easier said than done. It is for this reason I hope to give my advice on the matter.

Word of Caution

What we are talking about here isn't an easy thing. The difficulty also increases the larger a dungeon that we create. Typically if you are in this situation, it's because things went off the rails. I'd say that 9/10 times, having the dungeon prepared a head of time leads to better results unless the Dungeon Master in question really knows what they are doing.

A Bit of Cheating

I'd be very hesitant making up every element of a dungeon on the fly. However, we don't have to. There are a myriad of techniques at our disposal to make things easier. This means that a large portion of the work will be done on the spot but many elements will be taken ahead of time. Sometimes a bit of cheating like this is required. One of the most effective cheats I've found is the use of dungeon tiles or 3D printed terrain. Being able to grab pieces and put them together on the fly like makes it far easier than coming up with every bit of the area. Sometimes restrictions are a good thing for creativity, and I'd argue that when doing things in a crunch like we are in this situation, they are beneficial.

I'd also recommend some pre-made room designs for common uses. Bedrooms, hallways, halls, and chapels are some very commonly used elements that can easily be reused or combined. As you go through more campaigns and gain more experience as a Dungeon Master, you also naturally build a backlog of these things. Previous maps can be a great source for old parts that can be changed for new uses. This can be done both by changing the structural features (adding columns, increasing the room size, adding balconies) or by rearranging the furnishing inside.


If I start making things up on the spot with no foundation I find myself in a kind of paralysis. Depending on how inspired I am, it can last a few moments or minutes. However, I don't want to be stuck for minutes trying to think of things when running a campaign. To make matters worse, this kind of paralysis can return later in the session when I've exhausted my previous inspiration. The thing that works best for me in these situations it to ensure I have a place to draw from. It can be a goal to work towards, a concept for an area, a fragment of a story I want to tell, or a bunch of other things.

Themes and Ideas

I mentioned how I like a starting point to work from. I've also written before about how I value themes for campaigns, and locations/dungeons are no different. When coming up with a dungeon on the spot, this is typically the hardest part for me. I want a good theme or idea to work from. Otherwise I'll get into trouble later. This is why I make myself a list just in case. That way I have a list of ideas I feel are strong enough to make things up on the spot. I typically aim for 3-5 of these on reserve at a time and sometimes I'll think of a new list as an exercise. As an example, here was my list from my last session:
  • A dungeon where all of the traps have decayed into basically being useless and all of the real dangerous are coincidences caused by decay.
  • A dungeon made by the followers of an insane god/demon. Probably includes many dead ends and insane things like a table attached to the ceiling.
  • A dungeon heavily looted previously, but not completely. The best loot is still waiting to be discovered, though in the best hidden places.
  • A castle that was the sight of a massive battle, resulting in the deaths of everyone when the wizard of the castle decided to take everyone with them. When entering parts of the battle are relived.
  • An ancient dungeon expanded upon and expanded upon again over a thousand years of use.

Points of Interest

I tend to feel that every dungeon needs to have at least one point of interest. It'll be that one element that is remembered later. It could be related to a character. It could be related to an incredibly inventive trap. It could be related to the location, or what the whole dungeon implies. I also found that entire rooms work the best. This way the whole point of interest can be easily encapsulated for drop in use. I aim for between 1-3, depending on the size of the dungeon. It's an easy way to add that special element to a dungeon when being put on the spot. It also gives flexibility. If you have a moment of inspiration for a point of interest that is even better than your fall back list, you've won. If you need to use your fallback list, you are still adding something special to the dungeon. It also gives you a minimum level to fall back on for the dungeon, just in case the inspiration doesn't hit. The rest of it can be more easily thought up on the spot, though of course it will still be challenging.

Random Generation Tools

There are different tools we can use to generate dungeons randomly. From the classic use of tables to generate them (see the end of the Dungeon Master's Guide), to online software, to randomly picking up tiles, there are many ways to get the basic outline of a dungeon. In general I would recommend doing this ahead of time and tweaking things in order to refine it into a better product. When doing it off the cuff, we don't have that luxury. In this case, I find looking at the situation and choosing based on what I think best fits is my first choice. After that, that's when I go to the random options in order to not waste time and hopefully get me to the next stage where I'll have my inspiration. Even so, I'll overrule or adjust things as I see fit to fit my theme or concept from above. This is why I find having a theme or concept is so important for me. It gives me a good place to modify and create from instead of just making everything up. The upside for me is less paralysis and that it seems more consistent.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Dungeon Master: Intrigue Tips

There are many different campaigns you can run. One that my players in particular like are games of intrigue. Inner politics of wizards, gods, kings, and anything else that can amass power are all good candidates for this kind of game. They are also some of the hardest kinds of games to run. Things need to fit together well, and plots need to be put into motion. In the hopes of helping someone out there and consolidating my thoughts, I'll be writing about this very topic today. I'd love to hear differing opinions on the topic as well.

Make Sense

Plots and intrigue games should make sense. The reasoning behind actions, where they lead, and how everything fits together need to make sense. How else can we expect the players unravel them? Above all, don't jettison it in the hopes of shocking your players. If players can predict what is happening next, it doesn't necessarily mean that the campaign is predictable and cliche filled. It could just be that your player was clever and that the events make sense. Don't throw it all away in the hopes of trying to fool or catch your players. I've seen this way too often. It also partially depends on the degree. Seeing part of the plot ahead of time will be far less detrimental than having every twist and turn predicted after the first session. If you do decide to change things from the original vision, it should still make sense in context. A twist that doesn't fit and came out of nowhere doesn't typically go over well in my experience.

Don't Be Afraid

I've seen intrigue games grind to a halt because the Dungeon Master was too worried about railroading. Intrigue centred games will naturally need characters that have their own goals. This naturally tends to lead to more fixed narratives. However, so what? It's my experience that a more restricted story is what people are often after when they want to play an intrigue game. They don't need to be able to go anywhere they want or have all their plans come to pass. They want to be foiled, betrayed, make powerful allies, uncover secrets and much more. There is, like all things, a balance to be found but I've found that it's better to not be afraid and try to give your players what they want, though not exactly what they want. What my players don't want when they join an intrigue campaign is for nothing to happen. They also probably don't want to just explore the local ruins. If it's a narrative and character centred story of politics and betrayal, great. Just don't forget to keep an ear out to make sure you are hitting the right notes. Also don't make a campaign where your players don't need to be there.

Have An Aim

Why is the intrigue happening? Saying you are running an intrigue campaign isn't really saying much. You need a reason, characters, events happening, and reasons for people to create plots. Just throwing your players into a room and expecting things to go well probably isn't a good idea. You need to have a goal for the intrigue to take place, and for your players to interact with others. Trying to raise allies to stop a big bad is one such classic example. It gives a reason to proceed, an ultimate goal, and helps with developing the rest of the campaign. The big bad could look for other supporters as well. Or perhaps the players will need to try to organize a secret overthrow. This is inspired by a session from a few years ago that I remember quite vividly. There was no goal and nothing really happened outside of conversation that went nowhere. I feel the intrigue needs to be there but the players should be influencing it.

Don't Force It

If you don't have an idea for an intrigue campaign, there's nothing wrong with trying something else. Intrigue can and does often naturally happen over the course of a campaign. It is also a means towards a goal that players can seek out to solve their problems. The same way some players may be prone to trying to kill everything in their path (which is often well suited to a dungeon delve), others may try to plot their way through everything. The reason I say not to force it is rather simple: if you do, you risk running an aimless game or one with an aim that doesn't really progress. Intrigue sorts of games rely heavily on the premise, goals, NPC characters, and interesting plot twists. You also run the risk of disappointing your players if you promise an intrigue campaign and fail to deliver. If you are selling your players on it, be ready to deliver. Of course, intrigue games can also have combat, or exploring the local tomb to return something of value. However, when we run this kind of campaign intrigue is an element we are prioritizing above the combat and exploration. Your players expect will probably expect more than being paid, and sent on their way. Perhaps they will be framed. Perhaps someone will try to steal what they got from the tomb before they deliver it. Regardless, it's a question of what me emphasize.