Sunday, May 17, 2015

London Calling - LOTFP in the time of Shakespeare

Ah, Spring - when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of horror.

I started a new job in April (same company, bigger role) and it's put the hurt on gaming and writing.  I've played a little Magic here and there, since it's so easy to fit into small pockets of free time, but otherwise, I've been reading.  I had never read Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories, so I've become acquainted with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.  As a seminal influence on early D&D, it's pretty interesting to see the focus on a city setting, the ever-present Thieves' Guild, and Fafhrd and the Mouser undertaking various D&D style jaunts and adventures.  It might not be great literature, but the stories are fine entertainment.

I've messed around with hex crawls, and any long time visitors know I suffer from extreme dungeon love - especially the mega dungeons!  I've never really tried to run a D&D game focused exclusively on a large city.  It's hard to read about Lankhmar and not consider the possibilities of an urban game.  The City-State of the Invincible Overlord looms over the early days of the hobby as a foundation work, yet no players of mine have ever walked the streets of that storied place.

Of course, whenever I spend too much time away from Call of Cthulhu and similar games, thoughts turn to horror, and I pine for adventures that challenge players with death and madness.  I see a way to combine both of these imperatives.  Consider this as the elevator pitch for a new setting:  adventures in the manner of Call of Cthulhu, set in Elizabethan London, with lightweight D&D style rules - Lamentations of the Flame Princess would work very well, for instance.

London in the time of Shakespeare is familiar and accessible to players through film and cinema, yet has enough of the rowdy elements to appeal to the "Wild West" style of games favored by D&D players.  The city south of the Thames is flush with thieves, cut-purses, entertainers, charlatans, and an ale house on every corner.  It's a time with little law and order (no police force) and every man carries a blade or weapon for defense or dueling.  It wouldn't take much to push this into a setting fine for hybrid D&D\horror adventures.

In fact, there was a Swords & Wizardry setting some time back, Backswords & Bucklers, that provided rules guidelines for adventures in Elizabethan England, but more to the point, it suggested using a local tavern as the home base and building all the adventures around street-level challenges in the neighborhood.  Now just take that a step further and make the adventures inspired by Lovecraft, or gothics like Bram Stoker's Dracula, and you can see where I'm heading.  I recently had the chance to see Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere TV series on DVD, and "London Below" (and similar tropes and ideas from urban fantasy) would provide inspiration as well.

Anyway, this has become the subject of my latest 'little black book', the brainstorming notebook I carry around on trips and daily sojourns.  I'm learning how to visit Shakespeare's London on 5 Groats a Day (via a faux travel book by the same name) and musing how classic stories and situations from Lovecraft's work could happen in the sordid back streets and alleys of London in the time of Dr Dee and the School of Night.

Suggested resources would include the aforementioned Backswords & Bucklers, the Vornheim city kit, various Call of Cthulhu supplements, LOTFP game rules, and Ken Hite's "The School of Night" (a setting sketch for Trail of Cthulhu). (Edit:  there was also a 2E era book, A Mighty Fortress, that featured rules for Europe in the 17th century that I'll consult as well,  )In the meantime, I'll see how things brew and ferment in the notebook and whether I see enough campaign potential there.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Attack on Titan on Taenarum

I just finished binge-watching the Attack on Titan anime series.  I know it's on one of the big streaming services - Hulu or Netflix.  It's a post-apocalyptic series where humanity huddles behind a giant series of concentric walled areas because the outside world has been overrun by "titans".  Titans are gigantic smiling idiots that shamble around the countryside and eat people.  It's a clever variant of the zombie apocalypse genre.  The main characters are a bunch of cadets who join the armed forces to fight the titans, and the extreme violence and presentation reminded me a bit of Starship Troopers.  It's both horrifying and comical watching titans eat people with those idiot smiles on their faces.

I don't think I'll ever look at D&D giants the same way.  Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an englishman!  But D&D giants are only 8 - 12 feet tall (or thereabouts) - not big enough to hold people dangling by their feet and swallow them whole like sardines.  We must go bigger!

In Greek Myth, there are all sorts of primordial beings.  There are the personified great forces of the universe, like Erebos, Nyx, Gaia, Chaos, and Uranus.  There are gods and titans, monsters, and giants.  Gods and titans are pretty much indistinguishable to me.  The Greek gods act like a bunch of petty teenagers with super powers with the titans as their super rivals.  Half the gods and heroes have titans for parents, so there's no dearth of cross-breeding.  I see them a bit like Zelazny's Courts of Amber and Chaos in The Chronicles of Amber - they're reflections of each other, and alignment is all relative.  The one thing the gods are good at is beating up on primordial monsters.

The Giants of Greek myth could be made scary.  They're born of Gaia, one of the primordial beings, and clamber up out of the earth.  They're dangerous enough to fight the gods.  They could be super giant!  In pursuit of that goal, the giants of D&D are herby demoted to "lesser giants", the descendants of those 60' tall primordial giants from the dawn of time.  There's even precedent in Greek myth, since there are the 3 primordial Cyclopes that serve as armorers for the gods, and then a lesser race of degenerate cyclops that live on islands and eat people, like Polyphemus in "The Odyssey".  Giants are now the same way.

One of the themes I'm striving towards in the Taenarum campaign is that all those origin stories in the Greek universe are true and relevant (to a point) in the current age.  The primordial beings are still out there, sleeping and sessile.  All of the titans and monsters trounced by the gods in Hesiod's Theogony, and imprisoned in Tartarus, are all there, guarded in small part by Hades, who acts a bit like hell's jailer.  The road to the underworld is a direct path to the realm of Hades, but it's also a path to Tartarus - and all sorts of malefactors that would like to see the Titans returned to power, or legendary monsters freed from Tartarus, scheme in the depths of the dungeon on how accomplish these ends.

That also means there are ways to awaken the Primordial Giants.  With Attack on Titan firmly in mind, how can I not unleash some 50-60' tall horrors that stride across the countryside like dumb smiling Kaiju and lift the roofs of buildings, scooping out the inhabitants like a child pulling dolls out of a doll house?  This is a thing that must happen in this campaign:

Anyway, back to Attack on Titan.  The anime was great, but there was only one season (25 episodes) so we're off to figure out the best way to keep up with the manga.  My wife would exile me to the couch if I dropped a few hundred dollars on manga back issues, so I'm hoping the library has them, or there's a streaming service to read them online.  Wikipedia mentions a potential live-action movie and the idea that maybe there's a second anime season in the works, so we'll see.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

13th Age and Taenarum

One thing I've been considering as Taenarum motors along is how to incorporate more effects of the gods (and their intrusions on the mortal world) into the campaign.  This is the time after the heroic age of mythic Greece; heroes and dungeons are the new spectator sport of the gods.  Once players have earned a few levels and started to experience some success, they should be on the radar, coming to the attention of otherworldly patrons and antagonists.

I never picked up the 13th Age game from Pelgrane, but I'm a fan of the publisher and follow its projects.  A thought flew into my brain - 13th Age had a system called "Icons", powerful background characters in the setting - and a way for either the player or DM to invoke them during the game session.  I'm not fully clear how the system worked, but it seems like an option to present various Greek deities and similar powerful characters in Taenarum.  Aid from an Icon, assuming that's something they do, could easily be represented via 5E's inspiration mechanic.

Does anyone have practical experience with 13th Age and can provide some pointers on how they used 13th Age style Icons in their game?  Does this seem like a good fit for various petty Greek gods?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

New Delve Maps for Taenarum - areas 1.2 and 1.3

Here are some maps from past two week's dungeon adventures.  I've been working in a "dungeon delve" format to keep things sized for a single night of play.  Here I've annotated the maps with the main encounter in each area.

Area 1.2, Vermin Caves, is the lair of a Mushroom Dryad - a winsome fey with mottled grey skin, a gossamer dress, and various abilities over mushrooms and beasts.  For instance, she cultivated fragrant mushrooms in area 2 to draw in rats, rodents, and small mammals to keep her giant snakes fed; she had enslaved beasts in her lair, covered in mushrooms and under spore-effected mind control.  The players didn't make it far enough into this delve to meet the mushroom dryad, but this isn't the only one in Taenarum; I see the generic "dryad" as a signature nymph for a Greek setting, and the mushroom dryad combines allure, toxicity, and rot, in a disturbing way.  Plus, they live in caves.

Area 1.3 is the lair of the first eidolon of Hades, the Lord of Bones.  The area has mustering rooms with dormant skeletal soldiers awaiting activation; a rendering site where corpses are stripped to the bones by flesh eating scarabs; it has the Arch of Greed, a trapped hall that compels adventurers to ignore their defenses and focus on a wealthy treasure; a final area is the boss fight with the Lord of Bones.

I've been enjoying a book called 5th Edition Foes (5EF) from the Frog Gods - it features a blend of Fiend Folio updates and new monsters, all in 5E terms.  I'm basing some of the exotic undead "lords" in Taenarum on monsters from that book.  I used the 5EF "bone collector" as the starting point for the Lord of Bones used here.  The Lord of Bones fight included a handful of misshapen skeletons, and some pit traps that drop victims into a small warren beneath the floor where the Lord of Bones can stalk a victim for flaying.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Taenarum Game 3 - Cry Ref Cry

We had our full compliment of players last weekend, bringing the party size up to a lofty 7 players.  The two new players each decided to bring a warlock to the table.  Joining the party was a Drow Warlock named Seldron Subarashi, and a Tiefling Warlock named Flesh.  Seldron comes from the underworld beneath distant Asia and serves a mythic fiend he's calling Chu-Jung the Heavenly Executioner.  He's come to the Greek world to see if the rumors are true, that there is actually another underworld and a pretender deity.  I don't know too much about the Tiefling's background, other than it's a she, and she looks skeletal and gaunt beneath her warlock robes.   The players' insistence on playing mostly mutant non-Greek loners in my  "Mythic Greece" campaign continues unabated.  Long live "The Outlanders"!

Also, some of the previous characters leveled up.  Our cast of characters for this week appear like so:

Modred:  Dragonborn Bard, L2
Etor:  Spartan Fighter, L2
Gati:  Halfling Rogue, L2
Aldrian:  Wood Elf Druid, L2
Stompy the Angry Dwarf, Fighter, L1
Seldron, Drow Warlock, L1
Flesh, Tiefling Warlock, L1

One of my "house rules" about the Taenarum campaign and dungeon is that every adventure needs to start and end back in town, to support drop-in attendance.  The delves are small enough that the party should be able to completely finish one in a single night if they don’t mess around or draw too many wandering monsters.  (This makes the whole "short rest" question a little more challenging for the players, since a short rest refills my grip with punishing wandering monster dice checks.  Muhaha.)

Gaming resumed with the party at the Adventurers Guild Hall, meeting the new recruits and confirming their membership in The Outlanders.  The players learned this week what can happen if you don't finish a quest.  While they were discussing what delve to explore this week, there was a heartfelt reunion on the other side of the tavern; the Big Gold Hunters (BGH), one of the haughty rival adventuring parties on the Scoreboard, had rescued a Spartan soldier who was imprisoned by a cave dryad (and reunited him with a grateful wife, earning a fair reward).  This was a dungeon area the players started last week, clearing most of it but not finishing it.  The players could overhear BGH, "Yeah, it's like someone cleared out half the area, there were dead snakes everywhere - it was easy for us to "convince" the dryad to let Barasidas go."

Now, I get there could be differences of opinion on how I'm such a mean ref - the players clear half a lair, then some other group of knuckleheads comes along, finishes the job, and gets the treasure.  Let's be clear - the players are not precious snow flakes, they're part of the same compost heap as all the other adventuring groups trying to get ahead by looting Taenarum.  Or at least, that's how I want them to feel!  If they don't like the Big Gold Hunters jumping their claim, they can arrange an 'accident' to happen to the Big Gold Hunters.  You can be sure the NPC groups are going to be looking for chances to knock The Outlanders off the Scoreboard - permanently.  This also demonstrates the world isn't static, and things are going to continue happening while the players are out of the dungeon resting.  The ulterior motive is to make sure the players explore with a sense of purpose, avoid wandering monsters, and work hard at finishing the whole lair (or at least getting away with the treasure before they quit for the night).  If they leave a lair weakened and half explored, someone else may come along and finish the job.

With that sorry news, the players decided to follow up on their next lead - a dungeon deeper along the great road, where 'torches of ever burning green flame' denoted a "Hades dungeon".  They knew that these types of areas were considered 'challenging' but they'd have the chance to get a rare item from the vaults of Pluto.  Off they went.

I'm going to skip a lot of the play by play, as it makes dry reading.  The new members demonstrated their worth early and often, using various blast spells to get past a wandering monster problem (giant centipedes) and really carrying the day at one of the tougher fights.  The party was in a room where swarms of flesh-eating scarab beetles were stripping some corpses down to naked bone, while a couple of skeleton hoplites oversaw the process.  The battle ended up being the characters fighting the insect swarms, while the skeletons ran over to where there were huge clay amphorae along the wall (filled with more scarabs) and they knocked them over, creating more flesh-eating swarms.  All told, it was a fairly intense battle, with 5-6 flesh eating scarab swarms and a couple of loose skeletons.  Between multiple thunder waves, a burning hands spell, and lots of eldritch blasts, the new-look Outlanders handled the combat really well - swarms are dangerous.

Other encounters in the lair included a couple of "trick" rooms with lots of frozen skeletal hoplites, waiting for a trigger to spring into action (the players adroitly avoided triggering them).  They dealt with the Arch of Greed, a magical hazard that compelled its victims to wallow in a nearby treasure, while undergoing attacks from some nearby skeletons waiting in ambush.  But the capstone of the evening was the boss fight against the Lord of Bones, the skeletal eidolon and servant of Hades.  I have this whole mechanism (in my BRAIN) where there is a pecking order amongst the eidolons , a hierarchy;  if you kill enough adventurers, you get promoted to the next level up the chain, and mutate into a higher form of undead boss - from the Lord of Bones to the Zombie Lord to the Ghoul King and so on.  Meanwhile, when the Lord of Bones is destroyed, a new larva is spawned from the Underworld (extruded somewhere) and quickly forms into a new Lord of Bones.  These are the things I think about in between meetings and conference calls.

The Lord of Bones sat across a broad chamber on a throne surrounded by green fire braziers.  A handful of minions assembled themselves from discarded bone parts and shambled towards the party - misshapen skeletons with a blend of animal and monster parts - a bull's head or a cow skull, an ogre hand, and so forth.  Meanwhile, the front rank of players triggered a pit trap, dropping their tank-like dwarf fighter into a deep hole.  There were a few small side tunnels leading out of the pit, revealing a warren of tunnels beneath the room.

While the party surged around the pit to engage the Lord of Bones' misshapen minions, the eidolon itself opened a trap door next to the throne, and entered the warrens, stalking the dwarf!  The dwarf could hear it calling out to him in the dark tunnels, "I'm going to flay you and make you a skeleton!".  The dwarf backed up into the pit and went into 'defensive fighting mode' to keep from being flayed alive - the Lord of Bones had razor sharp claws and is capable of reducing a humanoid to a skeleton minion in minutes!

Despite this challenging set up, the new-look Outlanders handled the fight really well.  The dumped their remaining resources into defeating the Lord of Bones from above the pit (daily spells like Hexes and Witch Bolts) while keeping the dwarf on his feet with Healing Word(s) and second wind.  Tying down the boss with a hard-to-crack tank fighter, while peppering the boss with powerful ranged strikes, is a tried and true formula to success.  Outlanders win, flawless victory!  Finish him.

Before he died, the Eidolon relinquished his key, and then withered away to oblivion.  The players found the nearby Hades Mystery Box, a one-use chest that allows a random roll on the magic item table.  One of the players obliged with the 'Legend of Zelda' opening-a-chest music, and away we went.  Emerging from the glowing void was  a Wand of the War Mage +1, wahoo.  It was late - I need to get better at improvising setting appropriate names - maybe it's actually a Hyperborean Cylinder, an Atlantean Boom Stick, or one of Hecate's Scepters.  Dunno.

Anyway, that was Game 3.  Much fun, although in hindsight I could have upsized a few of the encounters even further than I did, to account for 7 players - I didn't fully account for the force multiplier of jumping from 4-5 players to 7 (which would increase the monster budget by about 25%, a pretty sizeable jump).  There are guidelines on encounter building in the 5E DMG (page 56 of the free rules) but you also need to account for the experience and tactical skill of the players.  Adding a tank and some blasters and some tactics has increased the party's threat capability a lot - much more than when they were a bunch of happy go lucky squishy guys that just ran headlong into combat.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I've only run about 5-6 sessions of 5E, but I'm beginning to get a sense on some adjustments to make to my encounter and dungeon designs going forward.  Here's what I'm figuring out.

Rest Versus Lethality
5E has very generous recovery rules.  Characters completely heal over night, and the party can recover a lot of their fighting capability after a short rest (defined as 1 hour, sitting put in the dungeon).  Once the party manages to survive a treacherous encounter, they can recover quite a bit back to normal and take on another difficult challenge without leaving the dungeon.

There's the rub - surviving the encounter.  Monsters hit hard, dice matter, and players frequently go to zero hit points, getting revived mid combat by healing.  My old school games featured a longer attrition based approach to whittling away resources, with cumulative small combats wearing the party down over time until they hit a breaking point and decided to leave the dungeon site entirely to recover overnight.

In 5E, you can push the players to that breaking point repeatedly in a single game session, because once they survive the first encounter, enough resources reset for the next encounter and the party can stay in the dungeon.  The angst filled discussions aren't "can we go one more room", they're more like "can we actually survive this room and get to a rest point?"

Delve Pacing
We try to play a 3-4 hour game session.  Depending on how long it takes everyone to catch up with the chit chat at the beginning of the game session, the group has been able to clear 3-4 combat encounters per night.  That means a one night delve or lair should be 2-3 planned encounters, plus the chance for a wandering monster or two.

This is important to realize:  In old school games, wandering monsters waste party resources.  In my current game, where I'd like the players to complete a mission by the end of the night, wandering monsters waste table time and threaten the party's ability to clear the delve.  Technically the wandering monsters waste resources, too, but I'm much more sensitive about the time, because resources refresh so much in between fights.

This is a self-inflicted problem.  I don't know which players are going to show up each week, so I want the games to always start and end back in town.  And because I'm a jerk, if the players leave a dungeon half-finished with a dangling plot hook and the treasure just hanging out, it's likely someone else (one of my asshat NPC parties of rival adventurers) is going to come along and finish the quest while the party is out of the dungeon.  Wandering monsters waste the player's time, not their resources, by preventing them from completing objectives.

Although they're not explicitly called out in MMORPG terms like tank, cannon/DPS, buffer / healer, etc., it's clear some of that philosophy is still present. An optimized party backed by good tactics will do much better in combat.  I saw a glimpse of the future last game session, where a tankish fighter tied down the enemy boss (and went into defense mode) while a group of heavy-damage striker types pummeled the boss at range - it was ugly for the bad guys and I wept bitter tears on the inside.  Luckily the tank player isn't an every week player, and the high-defense damage sponge is an unglamorous role.  Hopefully, the glory hounds of the group will continue to turn up their noses at playing "boring" sword-and-board fighters.  It's much more fun as referee when everyone's a squishy striker with low hit points, and the monsters get to wail on them.  Just saying.

The net-net - much like 3.x or 4E, a highly skilled party will be able to roll over poor encounters that don't present the players with tactical challenges, either through raw power or difficult terrain, environments, or deployments.  It's important to give some thought to challenging the players via sound tactics.  I'm off to read some Sun Tzu.

The complexity of running the game during the combat has shifted more towards the players, who have all the custom abilities and fiddly bits.  Monsters are very easy to run in 5E - it's so easy to run as referee, my heart is about to explode in my chest with joy at the ease of running 5E.  So yeah, the point is you should have brain power left over to think about tactics, because your brain isn't forced to keep bonuses, modifiers, and player facing rules in the frontal lobe during the game.  It's all been shifted to the player's side of the table.

Say Goodbye to Your Chestnuts
Our old school groups used to feature 8-10 characters; 5-6 players and the rest were meat shields, hirelings, and retainers.  Because the old school game is attrition based, the players needed those bags of hit points to rotate in and out of the front lines - sheer numbers mattered.  This isn't really an issue in 5E and the party hasn't had a need for any retainers or mercenaries.

There's no zero to hero arc.  Even first level characters can do amazing, every-round magical feats via cantrips.  5E is a high magic, high power style of adventure game.  It's great fun, but it's certainly not literary or amenable to magic realism or the historical fantasy I've favored in recent years.  My players say they don't miss the days of "pitchfork wielding peasants who learn how to fight monsters the hard way", but I love that style of campaign, so I'm still going to inflict some true old school games on them - probably next time I need to run a horror game  by Halloween or something.

I also loved old school reaction rolls and morale rules.  Random results force me to improvise - they're fun curve balls to navigate from the DM's side of the table.  They're not in 5E from what I can tell, so I'll probably have to house rule these things in there some way.

Good Luck With Those NPCs, Ref
Yeah, I don’t love building NPC parties in 5E.  My referee style fills the world with rival adventurers and dungeon factions - it's a roleplaying game, and the players need foils.  There are a handful of suggested NPC type "monsters" at the end of the Monster Manual, but otherwise, you have to build NPC monsters from scratch.  I don't love it.

Here's a sample issue.  XP value of a monster (and therefore challenge rating) is a function of attack, defense, hit points, special abilities.  Two different NPC magic users, each  representing a 5th level magic user, err… wizard, will have a wildly different XP values based solely on their spell choices.  The guy with Fireball, Flaming Sphere, and Heat Ray will have a damage output off the chart compared to the guy with utility spells, or Sleep and Hold Person.

In an old school game, each of these "monsters" would be 5 HD (with an asterisk or two to cover the special abilities) when calculating XP and difficulty level.  But it makes sense that the guy with Fireball is an order of magnitude more difficult to fight than the guy with a Fly spell - not only does he do a lot of damage, but it's an area effect that could nuke the whole party!  5E takes into account that degree of nuance, but it means each homebrew NPC requires assembly or calculation according to the monster rules and their specific abilities.  I'm still in the process of making my peace with this particular sub-system.  I'm not friends with it yet, having only created stats for a handful of NPC's so far (and choosing refuge in the expedient practice of reskinning stat blocks for many of the NPCs).  But your time is coming, awkward NPC rules!  I will conquer you and destroy you!

If you've made the switch from a rules light D&D clone to 5E, what kind of adjustments have you had to make to your style or expectations?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Secrets of the Mini Dungeon Revealed

Yesterday I posted a little mini dungeon with map and key.  The text is kind of bland, and it's only an entrance area, but it actually reveals a lot about my referee style and how I approach campaigns.  Here's a peek at the thought process!

Game Balance Doesn't Matter
Game balance for encounters is an interesting tool.  You can be very transparent about risk vs reward, and relative danger - or you can mostly disregard game balance (as long as combat isn't the only solution to the encounter).  For Taenarum, there's a broad rule that the deeper you go into the dungeon, the more dangerous it becomes, but I have no issues throwing difficult challenges at players with a range of outcomes.  Yesterday's dungeon only had the first 8 rooms of an entrance area, but still had some significant dangers:

Bandit Captain:  The bandit captain is CR 2 (meaning 1 captain is a challenge for a level 2 party).  Oops.  Ghost:  A ghost is CR 4, meaning a single ghost is a balanced encounter for a 4th level party.  Oops again.  Medusa:  the players can't actually fight the Medusa in the first dungeon, so it's more like a trap \ hazard.

In the actual game, the party fought the bandit captain, though he kept asking for them to surrender.  Still, the fight was close to a TPK, but they successfully defeated him; in actuality, if he defeated the whole party, he would have kept them alive to confront the Fates one at a time as prisoners - and then gone on to be a great recurring villain after screwing them over.  Instead, they carried his head back to town as proof of victory.

The ghost was in the room of the Fates.  They didn't get a chance to fight the ghost because it won initiative, and succeeded in possessing a party member.  Otherwise, it could have been rough.  The party hasn't figured out how their empty soul gem works (yet), but I did seed an alternate solution to the ghost right in the mini dungeon.  Taenarum is the Road to the Underworld - meaning all the dead souls walk the road to Hades.  They're all around you in the dungeon, you just can't see them - that prickling on the neck, the goose bumps on the forearm, whispers of the dead.  So there are also lots of ghosts in Taenarum - victims of violent and unfair deaths that malinger in the dungeon, plaguing the living instead of continuing on to the Underworld.

Random Effects
Old school referees love their random effects.  The whole 'Triad of the Fates' statue, with its random blessings and curses, is an example here.  There are strange things all over Taenarum.  Remember, the dungeon was built by the "mad god", Hades.  It's part West World, part Murderworld.  In fact, I'm sure I'll find a reason to put a Yul Brenner gunslinger in there, somewhere.  (If you're part of the younger generation that has never seen 1970's Westworld, you must correct this at once).

The perfect alignment between randomness and lack of game balance is embodied in my wandering monster table - it's got 100 entries on it, with encounters that would challenge everything from 1st level through 5th level parties.  Anything that can be encountered wandering between the entrance and the underground lake featuring the island of the Hagagora, is on the table.

Story Elements
Sandbox games have lots of story elements.  The difference between a sandbox and adventure path is that the story the players experience at the table follows their choices, and not a scripted plot the referee has made in advance.  But you can jam your sandbox full of story elements.

For instance, why is there a Big Stone Head in the first area of the dungeon?  It's a relic of the god's war at the beginning of time, when the gods overthrew the titans.  Many of the primordial monsters in Greek Myth are incarcerated in Tartarus, guarded by the minions of Hades.  The dungeon is full of factions; there are at least two powerful, villainous factions seeking to open Tartarus and release the monsters.  This is going to be more apparent over time as the players interact more with the environment and meet more people - it’s chock full of plot and story.  It's just that my story is not nearly as important as the story the players create with their antics through game play.  Who knows, maybe they'll join the iconoclasts that want to overthrow Mt Olympus and invert the natural order.  I'm not going to make that decision for the players.

Megadungeon Design
I like big highways in and out of the dungeon to make it easy to get into the depths.  Not only is Taenarum literally a big highway, but the first dungeon even includes a teleporter for high level parties to skip miles of passageways and quickly get into the depths.  I also believe that lots of characters and factions create interesting encounters - as you follow the campaign, you'll meet Amazons, Fanatics of Ares, Iconoclastic Satyrs, Skull Punks and Black Brothers (two factions within the Hades Cult), and the varied and dangerous cults of Hecate.  I'm up to about 15 factions so far.

At the end of the day, D&D is just a game and I always like to keep some humor front and center.  You've already encountered the Scoreboard, a literal 'highest score' rating like an old arcade video game, back in the Adventurer's Guild Hall.  This particular mini dungeon was littered with silly graffiti, including pop culture references.  You have to know the players are going to be cracking in-jokes and making out-of-game references the whole time.  The GM's world is 'straight man', but I'm glad to break the 4th wall for laughs, too, and reinforce that at the end of the day, it's only a game.

Does anyone remember the GM Merit Badges that used to be over at Strange Magic blog?  I couldn't find them - they'd be perfect to slap on here!

Chris in the comments pointed out where the GM badges were being hosted, so I went ahead and added some to reflect how I view my games:

  • Tactics Are Important
  • I Use Maps and Content
  • My Games Feature Gonzo Stuff
  • I Don't Fudge Dice
  • Character Death Happens
  • Be Prepared to Run