D&D Emergent Strategies: Animal Friendship

Do you know Kira Magrann? She’s a smart and cool game writer; you can find her here on Twitter and Patreon. She tweeted this:

It caught my eye because, in the 5ish campaigns I’m currently running, this is actually really common. Kira noted that D&D mechanics don’t explicitly support this type of play, and it got me thinking about why my players do it and what I might be doing to push them in that direction (or at least not pull them away from it).

First, while there aren’t any big rules expressly pointing players toward helping animals, there are at least a number of features that might act as signposts in that direction. A few of them off the top of my head:

  • the speak with animals spell, available to rangers, druids, Oath of the Ancients paladins, Nature clerics, Path of the Totem Warrior barbarians, and potentially bards and warlocks depending on their build (and the forest gnome’s ability to speak with small animals)
  • the ability to turn into animals, especially the druid’s wildshape, but also via spells like polymorph
  • animal companions, such as from the urchin background or Beast Master ranger build
  • other animal-centric spells like awaken and animal messenger

So Kira’s definitely right; there’s no “help animals to advance your characters” or similar rule in D&D. But with all those options, if the group has the right make-up, there’s a lot of animal business in there. However, that could easily get squashed under the D&D stereotype of “kill monsters and get loot.” So why isn’t that the case in my game?

A big part is because I give XP/levels just for showing up.

I don’t track monster or encounter XP, I don’t give XP for quest milestones—everyone gets a fraction of a level after every session.

Originally, I did this because I ran a pure drop-in game where anyone from a group of 14ish players was invited over every week. They ranged from the ages of 25 to almost 50. It was a miracle that any of us could find a free night. I didn’t want to penalize anyone if they happened to come play when the game was more focused around travel, carousing, or other interactions not typically considered XP-worthy.

And it may not have been conscious, but once the players realized they didn’t have to quest for XP, they started doing all sorts of strange things: getting drunk and rambling around town, uncovering reticent NPC’s backgrounds, going on dates, and, well, talking to animals.

The party I was thinking about when I said that my D&D experience has been animal-centric has a druid, a ranger, a Totem Warrior barbarian, an urchin sorcerer, and a rogue who bought a goat. Once they realized they could do animal things, it became a primary way of scouting locations, interacting with NPC friends, and traveling. They save “dungeon monsters” from the intelligent baddies that imprisoned them. They ask me every session how their animal companions are and what they do with their downtime. They once all turned into mice and saved a mouse kingdom from a fungal invasion; the ranger almost excepted the mouse king’s proposal to rule beside him, which would have led to her retiring that character and making a new one.

It makes me wonder what other emergent themes might be hiding out in D&D.

(Shoutout to Greg the Mouse, Ricky the Goat, Rations the Pig, the swanmays, and all the other animals in my current campaign. And shoutout to adrienne maree brown, whose book title I stole for this blog post but whose work is otherwise unrelated to mine. Or is it?! Regardless, get the book. And of course, go follow Kira Magrann.)

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Session Planning in the Shower

I turned my spur-of-the-moment session-planning methods (often done in the shower) into a full-blown game (meant to be played in the shower). Apologies to the great Dr. Bronner. Full text below.

ENJOY ONLY 2 PASTIMES, cleanliness and preparation for ‘Role Playing Games’ which prepare your body-mind-soul-spirit for unsullied life. For a flexible and holistic gaming session, combine a shower with your planning as ‘Game Master.’ ALL-ONE!

For use with games of all type and especially when feeling that singular & human stress that comes from not having prepared for a night in which you will act as ‘Game Master’ for friends & loved ones.

Soap up your hands and arms and laugh wickedly to embrace tradition dating back to ‘sardonic laugh’ of 1784 when Fanny Burney wrote in ‘Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay.’ If the sound you make pleases you, your session will be masterminded by a singular and villainous ‘Non Player Character.’ Has your struggle through life left your hands & arms marked with wounds? If so, the villain has true and good reason for how they act. If your hands are smooth as well as clean, the villain is inexplicably bad and proud of their sin, descended as they are from sinful sinners throughout history. However, if the sound you make is cacophonous or displeases you, the action of the evening’s session come from misunderstanding, as we are simple & corrupt beings all. Count the scars that decorate you from shoulders down to fingertips. This is the number of beings involved in the night’s misunderstandings. Name them and their grievances! Scars on your knuckles signify those who are stubborn & uncompromising. Scars on your forearms translate to scared and forthcoming ‘Non Player Characters.’ Remember that they are All-One! They interact as we all do and we are one!

Wash your back with loving massage. How much of it can you reach? Using ancient mathematics, name the %! Let that be the amount of the night’s plot that the ‘Player Characters’ can learn without heavy investigation, heavy fighting, or heavy exploring. Let the dirt you can’t reach become dirty secrets kept from your players. Dirty secrets unite all humankind.

Cleanse your face. If your eyes are invaded by stinging cleansing, tragedy befalls a ‘Non Player Character.’ What happens & what triggers it? Remember the ancient wisdom that declares that all triggers descend naturally from ‘Player Characters.’ Carefully wash your hair. What-cunning-and-numberless-products. How many did you use for hair & face combined (ALL-ONE!)? Each is a treasure to place lovingly into your session. What treasure? Why are they coveted, for all things are coveted in a sinful world? Who holds them, and how are they protected? Scrolls: $10 for 10, $3 for 1, help unite all!

Let suds and bubbles cascade down your front & all down to your thighs. Does it feel good, as all of us on this world are deserving of pleasure? If you think of ‘Sex Things,’ a ‘Non Player Character’ desires a ‘Player Character.’ Why & for how long & are their intentions good? If your mind is clear & clean of sex, give a ‘Non Player Character’ a vulnerability or weakness. Is it a curse, as sin is our curse in the human world? Or an everyday vice? How is it telegraphed to the ‘Player Characters,’ as all weaknesses must be signaled and shown as though a great & traditional ‘Boss Battle’?

Wash your butt. ALL OF IT AS ALL BUTT MUST BE CLEANED. Would it please you if your butt was bigger? Consider consequences or rumors that might reach those who wield power over the ‘Player Characters.’ If you wish it was smaller, plan a way for common people to interact, as the will of the people will always make itself known. If you’re content with or don’t care about your butt, consider this: a foil-double-echo of a ‘Player Character’ who appears as a ‘Non Player Character.’ Similarities are everywhere as all are one!

When you wash your legs, is it easy & painless as you are blessed with flexibility of body-thought-shower? Then a scenario solution can be discovered without great sacrifice as others have sacrificed themselves before us. But if you, as most, suffer from pain or awkwardness, then it shall be reflected in the scenario when someone will have to lose something important to solve everything. ALL IS ONE! CLUES ABOVE SOLVE PROBLEMS BELOW, AND THE INVERSE IS TRUE TO ONE AND ALL!

Let your feet inspire the landscape of the scenario as you wash them with loving care. Where did the dirt on your feet come from, for all dirt is unique and speaks to someone’s home as draculas have always known? How do they feel? What is smooth and what is textured? Even if your ‘Player Characters’ don’t travel because their home is where their heart is, your own unique feet can inspire & invoke emotional landscapes instead of physical.

A question echos through the ages: ARE YOU SHAVING? Let the where and the why of it guide side paths & future consequences because what you shave away might grow back tomorrow.

As you carefully dab away the consequences of your cleaning, give your main new ‘Non Player Characters’ distinct clothing styles, for as English playwright Shakespeare 1599 wrote in ‘HAMLET,’ clothes make the man. But not all are man nor are all woman, and variety is the spice of life. Let them dress a degree better or worse than those around them. Jaunty or bizarre accessory: $3 Who made their clothes, for they do not come from nowhere and ALL ARE ONE.

Put on your own clothes. (Who made them?) It must be done in a certain order. For each item you don, pick a piece of the scenario you’ve dreamt and decide how it’s introduced to your ‘Player Characters.’ When you put garments over other garments, think on how two components of your scenario overlap, co-occur, and change each other. ALL ARE ONE! How does the order of introduction shade and escalate feelings & deadlines? NO COMPONENT STANDS ALONE! Exceptions? None!

As bodily cleanliness is important, so too is the order and cleanliness of your space! Return your soap to its proper home. Place dice, pencils, and other materials within easy reach. Consider your players and build in your mind a place of love and trust for them. WE ALL ARE ONE, and as has been said since the oldest times, you and your players are more important than your plans. If anyone seems uncomfortable or plays an ‘X CARD,’ move your plans from the public arena to a quiet and secure place in your deepest mind. They can be cleaned and salvaged for another time, and it will be much easier than cleaning and salvaging comfort and friendship. ALL ARE ONE AND SHOULD HAVE FUN!

Patchwork World: The Playbooks

I’ve been slowly putting together a collage/remix game powered by the apocalypse. It’s meant to be an entire collage of a game: characters mutate and gain pieces from other playbooks, the rules are put together from other PbtA games, and the setting itself is a collection of chunks torn from other worlds.

A big(ish) part of the game is randomly rolling your character’s looks, starting moves, and advancement. This is a major part of many games, especially OSR-style games. It hasn’t made it into many “story” games, though, and I understand why; complete stories or powerful moods rely on controlled input, and randomness can be a threat to that.

However, I wanted to create a place where randomness is an expected and vital part of the game. Part of that is because I’m thrown off by unexpected things in real life; I hate it when plans change, and I have trouble adapting to unexpected things. I thought (probably a little romantically) that this game could serve as a place where I could “immunize” myself against the unexpected.

Here are the (1d)6 playbook descriptions and their accompanying collages (plus a bonus playbook requested by a friend.)

Fighting Folk
You might believe that violence is inevitable, or you might practice the infliction of violence as a form of self-discipline, or you might just think it’s fun.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: well-muscled, scarred, attractive
2. Elfin: lithe, compound eyes, bald
3. Dwarfish: hairy, pale, tattooed
4. Gith: sharp-toothed, lanky, limping
5. Monstrous: furry, scowling, one-eyed
6. Discarded: scratched steel, immobile face, bulky

fightingfolk

Diplomat
Whether you work for the Heartless Princess or a someone else, you’re searching the Patchwork World for political alliances, potential enemies, and useful information.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: well-dressed, alert, antsy
2. Elfin: sumptuously dressed, made-up, antennae
3. Dwarfish: flawless posture, gold-dusted eyes, dirty fingernails
4. Gith: long-limbed, sharp-toothed, crowned
5. Monstrous: scaled, lilting voice, luscious hair
6. Discarded: decorated porcelain, wrapped in scarves, posing

diplomat2

Doomster
You’ve made a pact with a powerful extradimensional being: god, demon, fae, spirit, or directed energy. It’s bound by the old ways; it might be trapped by the Heartless Princess. You are its servant out in the Patchwork World. It might ask you to perform a specific duty or merely spread its word. In return, you have worlds of your own. It’s all based on promises.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: concealing robe, strict hair, mirror-like eyes
2. Elfin: dusty exhalations, tiny mandibles, imposing hat
3. Dwarfish: protective beard-plate, tattoos, hint of smile
4. Gith: wrapped ankles and wrists, minimal clothing, vestigial tail
5. Monstrous: ritual scarring, horns + halo, six small wings
6. Discarded: rough wooden form, studded with nails, crown of iron

Die Serben an der Adria. Ihre Typen und Trachten. [By Louis Salv

Goodwalker
Four nights a year, the demons come. Like hateful locusts, they attack the fields and livelihoods of mortals. The goodwalkers ride out on stalks of fennel to stop them. Born of caul and witchcraft, they fight against the Pall in defense of the common folk.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: peasant-ish clothes, blocky face, strange amulet
2. Elfin: leather straps, crusty body paint, pincer hand
3. Dwarfish: large feet, angular face, loincloth
4. Gith: immaculate & complicated hair, broom-sized paintbrush, stone-faced jewelry
5. Monstrous: hump or lump or cyst, oversized broom, ragged clothes
6. Discarded: spiky straw hair, dessicated leather form, cat eyes

goodwalker

Chimera
While many rightfully fear the Pall and its Hex, some choose to embrace it and even manipulate it. You collect the strange curses and mutations of the Patchwork World, incorporating them into yourself.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: pointed ears, vitiligo, piercings
2. Elfin: chitinous forearms & shins, green or blue skin, petrichor scent
3. Dwarfish: gem-spiked joints, granite-colored skin, secret gender
4. Gith: smoky exhalations, leathery skin, extra fingers
5. Monstrous: tail, spots or stripes, animal head
6. Discarded: mismatched limbs, hollow torso, eyes that cry milk, wine, or honey

chimera2

Pythian
The Pall can be entered, it can be explored, and it can be bound. Pythians (named after an ancient summoner) use the Pall to see past human barriers and bring strange things to them.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: strained skin, frumpy toga, white eyes
2. Elfin: spider silk clothes, sooty flesh, long fingers
3. Dwarfish: chemical humours, facial piercings, wooden jewelry
4. Gith: widow’s peak, claw-like fingernails, purple clothing
5. Monstrous: striped fur, long pipe, reverse hands
6. Discarded: twisted sticks, burning head, iron teeth

pythian

Dracula Cowboy
Drive the herds at night to better protect them from their predators. Sleep in covered wagons during the day. Drink the blood of strong oxen and bulls.

Look
Roll 1d6.
1. Humanish: pale skin, leather boots, sharp canines
2. Elfin: unfurling straw tongue, all-red eyes, silk handkerchief
3. Dwarfish: ten-gallon hat, topless head full of sloshing blood, cold and shining skin
4. Gith: dry gray skin, intricate headdress, hemp piping
5. Monstrous: lamprey face, rubbery skin, minimal clothing
6. Discarded: needle fingers, permanent spurs, straw-stuffed body

vampirecowboy

At this point, the first drafts of the playbooks are entirely done, and so are the mechanics and most of the text. I still have layout to do, and I want to add vehicles (?!). I’d love to get it done by the summer.

DM’s Guild: Heartless Princess Anthology

Here’s my first upload to the DM’s Guild, Wizards of the Coast’s user-contribution storefront: The Heartless Princess Anthology. The product description:

Accompany an eclectic caravan through a patchwork world or get shot from a cannon into a patch of dead land ruled by indolent liches. These two scenarios are made for first-time players and DMs. While made for 5th Edition, they’re easily usable in other D&D editions and fantasy settings such as Dungeon World.

Both of these adventures are vinegar reductions of my DM approach: scared or cagey or wounded people have competing wants and interests that exist outside of the typical limits of economics; they need compromise or negotiation or protection.

The first scenario is a murder mystery set around a traveling caravan the PCs are leading and guarding. The victims: humans with the minds of dogs that are pulling a mysterious sled. The suspects: a shih-tzu monk, a dishonored diplomat, two dwarven war nuns, a grody librarian, and a troupe of actors. Can the murderers be found before the caravan arrives and disperses?

The second scenario has the PCs negotiating with three mad liches who used to serve a mobile, evil planet. Now they’re like Grumpy Old Men but with terrifying magical powers. Will the characters heal their ancient rift? Find the object they seek? Or just troll the crazy old men?

The adventures rely on the same implicit world and can be run in sequence or on their own. While NPCs are given fifth edition D&D stats from the Monster Manual, they can easily be converted to other editions and even other systems. They’re not mechanically reliant on D&D in any major way.

 

Halloween Hallucinati adventure outline

Every two months, my two D&D groups meet for an all-day, all-group session. This brings its own set of challenges—with 10-12 players, combat turns take forever; deciding what to do can take equally long; and quiet players get even more drowned out since there are more voices to contend with. For our Halloween all-day session, I wanted to make plans to minimize these problems. The following “adventure” was built around those three pillars, then

1. Combat can be present, but it must be optional.
2. The session should have a clear goal.
3. There will be times where each player is asked to contribute.

With those in mind, here’s a session’s worth of notes that could probably be repurposed for anyone’s campaign.

One of the PCs’ mentors has been incommunicado for a bit. Whether by investigating or being flat-out told, the PCs discover that the mentor has infiltrated a group of decadent nobles who, seeking to escape the drudgery of their everyday existence, take solace in a mix of illusion magic and hallucinogenic drugs they use to create their own worlds around them. Calling themselves the Hallucinati, they hold an annual masquerade tour of their individual fantasy worlds. The masquerade is coming up, and the mentor will probably be there if he’s trying to pass himself off as one of the group.

Preparation for the masquerade should obviously involve a shopping trip for costumes. Ask the players what their characters dress as.

Here are the 10 Hallucinati present at this year’s masquerade:

1. Yzonde Carn (f): plague mask; has precognitive dreams; child of a frost giant queen; jewel-covered, vain; seeks aid of…

2. Baroness Dominique Bilious (f): feathered mask; has a peculiar fondness for injured women; translates foreign documents; high strung, middle aged, pale; is suspicious of…

3. Osrick of Hogg (m): domino mask; was once a spy for the goblins of Gaxen Kane; importer of fabrics; open, honest, friendly; worried about…

4. Enn Grath Orq (m): featureless wood; surprisingly normal; owns the land beneath the brewery; intense, passionate, green eyed; exercises undue influence over…

5. Genevieve the Cleaver (f): riveted metal; 8,000 years old but looks 14; spy for the Baron; suspicious, excitable, hot-tempered; adopted daughter of…

6. Ludwig the Shrike (m): knight helm; has a paralyzing fear of churches; important tastemaker; energetic, full of black humor; frequently employs…

7. Unwerth gon Grolsch (f): executioner’s hood; collects fingernails and engraves herself on them; commands an army of mutators; mincing, meek, clever; daughter of…

8. Sasha of the Glove (f): fox mask; worships Groan, god of despair; import administrator; white hair, speaks in whispers; is friends with but wants to destroy…

9. Vorgus Orq (m): leather mask; paints women while they sleep; minister of ratcatchers; crude, jocular, skin missing near jaw; friend of…

10. Lord Ascarious the Jeweled (m): leafy mask, actually the PCs’ mentor in disguise

(These nobles were generated using Vornheim by Zak S, which you can buy here. Feel free to generate your own to replace these.)

The masquerade kicks off at a defaced church of the forgotten moon goddess. (This makes Ludwig nervous.) It’s up to the PCs how they discover the location and how they infiltrate it—it’s a well-known event, and the Hallucinati are too confident to be too suspicious of strangers, so it wasn’t too hard in my session. Make sure to at least describe the nobles’ masks.

In each of the following exhibitions, give PCs the chance to interview the nobles and try to figure out which one is their mentor. Depending on how well they know the mentor and what they know of them, this could be easy, hard, or anything in between.

First Exhibition
In the church, Enn Grath Org is hosting the first of three hallucinatory exhibitions of the masquerade. He serves mushrooms around a table, and once they’re eaten, the church morphs into a dark, torchlit inn with walls of living wood. Food is served out of these walls by tangled tendrils. As the torches burn down, the floor gets soggy. When the food is done, the roof of the church opens up, and the stars dance milkily for the diners.

Ask the players what their character’s favorite food is. This food is served to them along with anything else they want. It tastes perfect.

The Hallucinati are dining on a variety of things: fish eggs, living cuttlefish, human hands, and so on. They’re all willing to talk about themselves. “Lord Ascarious,” if asked, gives a made-up history of his life as a noble of a nearby city.

When everyone is done eating, the hallucination ends. The feeling of having eaten is gone—the food provides no actual sustenance.

Second Exhibition
Unwerth gon Grolsch takes everyone to the reeking pile of garbage that lays against the city wall. He pulls a cloth from a rectangular pillar to reveal a glass case containing a number of living variegated frogs. Everyone gets to pick and lick one. The garbage pile becomes a stone labyrinth of pain and pleasure devices. Everyone’s costumes morph and change as well. Below is a list of the nobles, the masks they originally wore, and what they become. PCs can easily keep an eye on a single noble to note what they become. Watching more would probably require a check of some kind.

Noble Original Mask New Form
Yzonde Carn plague mask skeletal horseman
Baroness Dominique Bilious feathered mask preening bird
Osrick of Hogg fabric mask mummy
Enn Grath Orq featureless wood wooden column
Genevieve the Cleaver riveted metal steaming automaton
Ludwig the Shrike knight helm knight dripping blood
Unwerth gon Grolsch executioner’s hood beefy woman
Sasha of the Glove fox mask slavering tongue
Vorgus Orq leather mask leather daddy
Ascarious the Jeweled leaves blooming dryad

Knowing they’re entering into a pain/pleasure dungeon, what forms do the PCs assume? (New forms give no mechanical changes.)

Everyone tours the devices. PCs are welcome to try them. As each one is used, it falls into its component parts—it’s only usable once. Roll a d10; if you get a duplicate result, move to the next one.

Device Effect
1. blade-filled iron maiden 1d4 damage + cool scar
2. bundle of needles attached to slot machine painful tattoo, +1 on death saves
3. tubes run through stone idol blood cleaned, +1 max HP
4. cot surrounded by electric globes hair falls out; resist lightning damage
5. shrinking chamber lose 1” of height, -1 max HP
6. rainbow pool skin changes color
7. exploding library 1d6 damage, learn new language
8. metal manicure (metalcure?) station 1d6 damage, metal fingernails, 1d6 unarmed
9. headquake machine small mountains rise from head
10. breathable water tank serenity, Wis save advantage in illusions

At some point during this expedition, Vorgus Orq is killed by Sasha of the Glove. The murder is discovered when the exhibition ends—Vorgus is not there, and Enn Grath Orq finds him strapped to one of the machines. Investigation shows him to have been strangled, which is not something the machine could do. It only held him down while he was killed.

Third Exhibition
Baroness Dominique Bilious gives false communion in a fallow field at the edge of town. The wafers are obviously drugged. Behind her, the field, initially studded with rotting animal carcasses, becomes a pastoral paradise. Everyone becomes an human-sized or anthropomorphic animal. The nobles’ new forms:

Yzonde Carn plague mask tapir
Baroness Dominique Bilious feathered mask ostrich
Osrick of Hogg fabric mask sheep
Enn Grath Orq featureless wood giraffe
Genevieve the Cleaver riveted metal cow
Ludwig the Shrike knight helm horse
Unwerth gon Grolsch executioner’s hood vulture
Sasha of the Glove fox mask fox
Ascarious the Jeweled (Jon) leaves lizard

Everyone begins frolicking and making out. The Baroness, always suspicious of Osrick of Hogg, tells the PCs that he killed Vorgus Orq. She asks them to kill him, offering 1,000 gold. Her exhibition even includes a built-in distraction: a horde of goblins runs over the horizon and begins attacking the party. PCs are welcome to join the fight. The goblins aren’t much of a challenge, but the damage they deal is real enough.

If the PCs don’t join the fight (if they’re busy assassinating Osrick, for instance), the battle with the goblins becomes a passionate lovefest. As the passion climaxes, the illusion dissolves, and everyone goes to the last exhibition.

Final Exhibition
Osrick of Hogg created this exhibition, but depending on how the third exhibition goes, he might not make it. If that happens, it becomes an exhibition/memorial service led by Enn Grath Orq, still torn up about his cousin Vorgus’s death.

Regardless of who leads the exhibition, everyone is led to Osrick’s home. They go through his library and down to a cellar. There are iron tanks filled with salt water. Entering and sealing them triggers the illusion. Everyone’s spirits leave their body and head to the moon, where the spirits of the dead reside. The nobles assume their ghostly spirit forms:

Yzonde Carn plague mask frost giant
Baroness Dominique Bilious feathered mask wire bundle
>Osrick of Hogg fabric mask goblin
Enn Grath Orq featureless wood green-eyed, plain
Genevieve the Cleaver riveted metal ancient
Ludwig the Shrike knight helm wavery edges
Unwerth gon Grolsch executioner’s hood all fingernails
Sasha of the Glove fox mask long white hair
Ascarious the Jeweled (Jon) leaves mentor form (see below)

What does each PC look like as a ghost?

On the moon, ghosts arise. Each PC is confronted by a projection of a meaningful person they’ve lost. Who is it? What do they say? Is closure achieved?

In spirit form, perhaps the PCs’ mentor is revealed, or at least one more clue is given.

Once everyone’s done with their personal seances, the final exhibition is ended. The Hallucinati all go home. Did the PCs find their mentor? Did they solve their murder? Why was the mentor looking into the Hallucinati anyway?

Two-Year Dungeonversary

Mid-November 2016 marks the start of my third year running a weekly D&D game. It’s our second dungeonversary. Below are some statistics and thoughts.

Overview
90 sessions, or about 270 hours of play

This encompasses two discrete campaigns. The first was 60 sessions. It included one session of a home-brewed Fiasco setting I sneaked in as a supposed side session but actually established the setting of the final act. It also included 3 one-shots that highlighted side characters and other locales.

The new campaign (in the same old world) has run 30 sessions so far, split between two groups with the occasional both-groups-combined session.

Holidays approximately celebrated in game: Christmas, 4/20, Halloween.

The paper (Google Docs) trail encompasses over 86 pages of notes and 43,000 words of post-session adventure logs.

Players & Characters
Since the first campaign was largely drop-in and the current one has two groups, I’ve had 20 players come through. One of them only came for 1 session. One has been to 62 sessions.

Between them, they’ve played 41 characters, but this includes all sorts of side characters for one-shots, guest spots, etc. Excluding those one-shot characters, we’ve had…

art by Trungles

1 dragonborn
4 elves
1 genasi
4 gnomes
2 half-elves
2 half-orcs
4 halflings
6 humans
2 tieflings

1 barbarian
1 bard
2 clerics
3 druids
3 fighters
1 monk
3 paladins
3 rangers
4 rogues
1 sorcerer
3 warlocks
1 wizard

Final lessons?
It’s a testament to my players that they’ve stayed engaged this long. I can take a little credit as the organizing force, but I screw up a lot too—there are always things I forget, things that don’t go over as well as I’d hoped, players that don’t get along. But we keep going. If I had to pinpoint one thing responsible for all this sustainability, it’s a willingness to talk. If I’m gonna run a weird session (“Hey, let’s do a no-combat, hallucinogenic masquerade session”), I let them know ahead of time and ask how it went. And when I’m not doing my job (when players are bored in Hell), they let me know. In a nice way. Just like everyone says, the secret is being able talk and being open to change.

So thanks to all these weirdos:
Roscoe the half-orc fighter, Pepper McTavish the elf ranger, Stickly Figgins the gnome rogue, Sunniva the halfling druid, the tiefling ranger with no name, Sylvester the halfling rogue, Simon the human warlock, Luckyuk the gnome paladin, Althea the halfling fighter, Klef Solo the human bard, Heritage Denim the human cleric, Pride the elf paladin, Gobthe master of illusion, Dildo the mad alchemist, Mangrove Joe the beastmaster, Peter the china abomination, Pussywillow the warlord, Banks the water genasi monk, Trek the elf warlock, Dunbar the gnome barbarian, Thad the giant-kin cleric, Blurg Wife-Gone the orc ranger, Stone Krumbul the dwarf druid, Smolder the dwarf rogue, Shorn Ornery the dwarf monk, Chris the dwarf wizard, Aeryk Darksbane the human paladin, Dragula the dragonborn warlock, Blaze the half-elf druid, Brother Gilgalog the half-orc war cleric, Trimble Timbertrench the gnome wizard, Null the tiefling ranger, Griswold Dazzler the halfling druid, Garack the human rogue, Figwort the gnome fighter, Amaretta Wolfram the elf warlock, Pilar Ambergeist the half-elf sorcerer, Chip Holloway the human barbarian, Carlton Beerjug the elf rogue, Beefy McTavish the human captain, Buddha Sandwichesthe human harpoonist

Chained Worlds: Deep Carbon Observatory

In almost two years DMing for the same group, I’ve used two pre-written modules. The first time, it was a short-notice replacement session, so I ran an “official” module, Death House, because it was free and on hand. This time, I ran Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess’s Deep Carbon Observatory. I ran it because it’s weird and scary and flexible. Here are some changes I made, some things that happened, and some thoughts I had.

SOME CONTEXT
– I run two groups that are all members of the same organization. They each meet every other week, but every two months, everyone’s invited to an all-team session.

– It’s very much a “drop-in” environment. Each group has five or six people, and as long as at least three of them show up for any given session, we play. Most sessions last about three hours, and I try to get a lot wrapped up by the end so that people who missed the session don’t have to start in the middle of things the next time they show up.

– Half of my players have never played D&D before we started this campaign in May 2016. The other half played in a 1.5-year campaign I ran. Only one has played D&D as, like, a lifestyle.

– Both of my groups are from Carrowmere, the city in Deep Carbon Observatory (which is actually called Carrowmore in the book, but I misread it). One group has already visited the top of the dam that plays a key role in DCO; there, they met a potential ally who’s opposed to the organization they work for.

– They’ve done some work for the observatory church of the Optic God and its Eyeball Pope, so they’ve heard rumors of another, more ancient telescope…that looked down instead of up.

– The players often talk their way through encounters. Failing that, they fight. They haven’t had much experience with a classical dungeon environment where things are arbitrarily deadly.

This last point had some very real consequences.

So I wanted to run Deep Carbon Observatory as one of the all-day, all-team sessions. I knew I’d have to make some changes—there’s enough content in DCO for months of weekly play. So if you’re familiar with DCO, know that I’ve eliminated…

– most of the flowchart of Carrowmere encounters
– a few sites on the way to the pit
– a handful of chambers in the dungeon
– and most sadly, the Crows

The first three items were removed to save time. The last one was removed because I wasn’t confident that I could DM them properly—I wasn’t sure that I could keep track of their strategies and do credit to their personalities.

HOW IT WENT DOWN
Even with a third to half of the content removed, DCO still took three sessions to get through. And, as we’ll see, the players didn’t even make it through the full dungeon. Here’s a breakdown of the highs and lows:

Player Successes
The ranger used her magic (and roleplaying) to make a deal with a trapped giant eel. I was constantly ready to have the eel turn on them, but they were consistently careful and gracious, so they had an eel buddy for a day.

The warlock saved a bunch of orphans…and promptly took them to live and work in his creepy temple.

Due to some excellent tactics and the paladin’s sacrifice (see below), they found the treasure room without much conflict.

The warlock chopped the cursed thorium tongue in half, avoiding its danger! Until he didn’t. But when his tongue was replaced, he changed his character voice and soldiered on.

After leaving the dungeon, the players had a lengthy in-character conversation about their biggest fears and failures.

DM Successes
The floating brains in the canopic jars were suitably weird and cool. The players loved the regret-or-paralysis mechanic.

The giant was scary and gross. It reached through tiny tunnels to slam people against walls and then ran off when it took damage. There ended up being three discrete battles. In the second one, the giant braced himself between the dungeon’s stalactites, reaching into the salt dryad chambers (previously befriended by the players), and tossed the chemical women at the players besieged on the bridge below. In the last encounter, it almost threw the warlock out into the abyss. In its death, it blocked their way home, so they had to chop it up to proceed.

The thorium tongue! I kept it creepy, so the players chopped it in half. Trap avoided? Nope, the dragonborn warlock decided to eat it once it seemed “dead.” I asked if his tongue was forked. He said yes, so the cloven thorium tongue had to replace it (of course). He rolled a 1 on his save and ripped out his god-given tongue. Now I get to interrupt his spells and attempts at diplomacy with Exorcist-style swearing and cursing.

Player Failures (or rather, things that went bad for them)
The paladin died, eaten by a snake door. See below for how I wish I’d have handled it.

The dragonborn warlock ate a cursed tongue.

DM Failures
I didn’t play the witch as well as I could have. She did manage to charm the paladin and KO the wizard, but she was promptly killed by a powerful 5E magic missile. I should have upped her HP.

The paladin died. He put his hand in a snake door, which hurt but didn’t kill him. He told everyone to let him be eaten by the door, and the party obeyed his wishes. Could I have made this more ominous? Should I have allowed him a save despite his desire to be eaten?

The players decided to leave the dungeon without finding the actual observatory. I think they were bored or tired of the environment. I could have used their time on the bridge to better entice them toward the bottom of the main stalactite where the telescope is kept.

Luckily, they relayed their findings to their ally on the dam, so he can go down there and tempt them back with descriptions of his discoveries and his new views on drow psychology…

Scrap Princess artwork from Deep Carbon Observatory

DCO is an excellent module, so thank you to the authors. Even if someone didn’t want to run it, its perfectly lootable for encounters, items, history, and more. Buy it here.

The players in my group might never use the Observatory to look down through the chain of worlds, but they’ll forever be from Carrowmere, and the Optic God is still watching them.