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.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Dungeon Master: Intuitive Rules

Being a Dungeon Master can be hard. There are so many rules to remember and use throughout our sessions. On top of that we come up with our own creatures that often follow their own rules. Keeping all of this in your brain at once can be difficult, especially for the new Dungeon Master. For this reason I often find Dungeon Masters doing whatever they can do in order to avoid having to remember. Part of this is what I call “Intuitive Dungeon Mastering”. Well, I actually shamelessly reused the term from someone I know, but let's not sweat the details. The idea here is that things should just make sense to the Dungeon Master. It's a simple idea but like so many simple ideas it can be easier said than done. And so, here is my advice when implementing the concept. As usual, it's a bit biased towards D&D 5th edition, but still applies in other rule systems.

Keep Rules Down

If you are trying to remember a whole role system, superfluous rules are the enemy. Commonly used rules are best remembered and if you can reuse them, it makes things doubly easy. They probably make sense to you already, and it's less to remember. Of course, while we often can reuse rules for our own evil ends (stealing spells, applying clever use of contests, etc.), it isn't always possible. The more alien the ability or situation the less likely it is that there is a rule that will apply. It's worth noting here though that the presence of spells makes recycling rules far more potent than otherwise possible. If we are designing a new rule, I think it should be because the situation is very alien or we want to add complexity. Complexity isn't always bad, such as when you are trying to model giant armies clashing or the new powers of your godly players. However, not everything should add complexity. Some things are natural extensions of what already exists, or we can use what already exists easily to do what we want.

Criteria for New Rules

Okay, well, we failed step one. We can't re-purpose an existing rule and apply it into a new situation. That, or it doesn't actually work in this case. Don't panic. Everything is fine. We can make a new one! Yeah. Only problem is that making rules is a bit of an art. There are awards for game design, and I don't have one of them. We want the rule to be easy to remember, to make sense in context, and to not forget it during play. Not forgetting a rule tends to be easier if you made up the rule since you have an intuitive understanding of the thought process behind it. However, given a bit of time it can be forgotten if it doesn't make sense. For those reasons I find it helpful to keep those considerations in mind when making new rules.

Make One Up On The Spot

Rules made up in the heat of the moment can be surprisingly versatile. Since they are done in the moment, they often make sense for the context that they were born from. You use your understanding of the rules to make something that probably makes sense to you in the moment. That is, of course, if you didn't have a complete mind blank. That's why you can't rely on coming up with a rule in the moment. If you get caught and need one, roll with something. My experience is that anything that keeps things moving is better than consulting rules for half an hour. If you realize there's a problem, amend it going forward based on your reflection after the session. Still, what I often want to do is capture that simplicity and intuitiveness. A rule thought up on the spot may not be final. It was fine to keep things going but you can further refine or simplify it afterwards after reflection on it. Rules in the moment can fit perfectly into a situation and be simple. However, they can also be half-baked.

Just For You

If you are running a session, chances are high that many of the rules you'll be using are meant for you and you alone. And you know what? That's fine. It makes things easier in a way. All you need is for the rule to make sense to you. Don't worry about making it fit into the rule system or how someone would understand them when you are in the heat of playing a game. If it makes sense to you, and you can easily remember it, what else do you need?

Rules are an abstraction. Your players typically won't know what determines your decisions in many cases. That's part of the fun too: not knowing how things will go. They are a tool to get you to take input from your players, add some input from yourself and return it back to your players. That, or give your players something that they will then begin to shape. What mechanism decides these things often isn't important. Whatever helps the Dungeon Master do their job is fine.There is a caveat though. To make a decision players need some level of understanding of what is going on. They may not know the rule, but they will need to know roughly how crazy a certain action is. If anything can happen at any time for any reason, how can we expect them to know what options are available?

So Give Up Making General Rules?

No, I didn't say that. I find that there are some situations that more often lead to intuitive rulings or rules. Sometimes there's nothing to be intuitive about because it never happened before. What is a problem is coming up with a rule that doesn't work for you because it is too complex, or too easy to mix up with another existing rule. It's a careful a balance between not reinventing the wheel every time, and knowing when a new rule is necessary.

If you are playing D&D, thinking about DCs is a good starting point I think. It might not even use a stat from the players, such as a death saving throw. However, they give you a quick way to determine difficulty for a task and a mechanism for resolution. They are the central resolution mechanic and you probably don't want to try to subvert it when it makes sense to apply it. The results of doing so can to be complicated. Piggy backing off of this rule feature also typically means that its easier to remember the rule. It's also amazing how much the existing spells can give you. Often they might need a bit of retooling but again, they make for an amazing starting point. Knowing how hard it is to do something is often one of the big questions in many situations.


Part of what I'm saying here also related to creating rules through rulings. If you decide that a certain rule applies in a situation where it may not be obvious, your ruling is establishing an intuitive rule. You can decide that if a flying creature was killed in the air, fell down 20 feet, and hit someone on the ground, they both will take the equivalent falling damage. That would be a great example of an intuitive rule. However, since it was moving before it got hit, you might put an extra 1D6 of damage. It had extra speed, so why shouldn't there be more damage? Such an argument is intuitive, and makes sense in context. Neither is wrong, but it's the kind of thing I'm talking about here. Depending on who your players are, they might always expect that damage now, or they may just be happy it happened once and not rely on it later. Many times these kinds of rulings lead to rules.