Category Archives: Playtested

Prisoners of the Seatower of Balduran

This encounter is intended for any number of players of any level using the  Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition ruleset

Most gaming groups who run last year’s nostalgia inducing Murder in Baldur’s Gate will pick a faction and support their side throughout the adventure’s many and various short quests.

Of course, my group decides to get themselves thrown in prison as a ruse to earn the confidence of the crime faction in order to serve as a vice squad for the authorities. This is why it is hard to write RPG modules – how are you supposed to anticipate this madness?!

The result, ultimately, is that I accrued a few short encounters that you can throw into any prison scenario – whether you are in Baldur’s Gate or elsewhere in the multiverse. It’s not a full on encounter, but a string of “incidents” that can be used to spice up your game.

•An older prisoner is coughing and sputtering, but who isn’t in this damp and dreary place? A DC 15 Medicine check reveals that this prisoner has caught “the damp” and will die within a few days if not treated. Convincing the guards that he isn’t just faking the illness requires a DC 10 Persuasion check (with Advantage, if some medical jargon is applied to the entreaty). Once the prisoner is well and back in his cell, he will be grateful and reward the heroes in some way (handing them a spare shiv, warning of some impending plot against them, or cutting them in on a prison break, etc.)

•An upper level of the prison is home to the more affluent incarcerated. A nobleman named Rexus Bormul has become the defacto “lord” of the cellblock. Technically speaking he could walk right out of here (either legally or illegally) but prefers the immense power he has over the prison to the relative power he has outside it. From his poshly appointed cell he entertains guests and chats jovially with the guards and wardens, bribing them so thoroughly that they may as well be his henchmen. 

    Rexus calls the PCs up to his spacious cell block for wine, food and entertainment. After attempting to woo them, he requests their assistance in some matter – perhaps delivering a letter once they make it “outside,” breaking up an escape attempt, murdering a fellow inmate, or simply spying for him. It is up to you whether Rexus is a genuine ally, a scheming villain, a friend of an enemy, or an enemy of an enemy.

•A scrawny halfling inmate palms a valuable or contraband possession from one of his fellow convicts – one who has been threatening the tiny criminal. The thief plants this personal treasure on one of the PCs, hoping that in the ensuing scuffle, the party will be able to solve this problem for him.

•One select nights, a corrupt warden holds prisoner brawls in the late evening. He allows guards, and maybe even inmates to net on one another in bare-knuckle brawls (fought until unconscious). This is highly illegal, and no doubt he PCs will be pulled into the matches. They may be asked to take a fall in a fight, may curry favor with their keepers by winning fights and earning a particular guard a lot of money, or they might try and rat out the whole operation to the day warden.

     Perhaps the fights even take on a more sinister turn as knives, or even desperate wild dogs are pulled in off the streets to fight inmates for “entertainment.”

•A hero with a particularly valuable skill (a bard who performs, a crafter, a learned sage, etc.) is taken from the general population cell to a private chamber where a warden, or ranking guard asks their help in a special project. This might confer the party some boon, earn the ire of their fellow convicts, offer a chance for escape, or even present an opportunity for an advantageous romance.

•An odd, squirrelly inmate reveals that he was a mage the whole time, hiding his abilities for months (or even years!) in order to facilitate a riot or prison escape plan. The PCs might learn this ahead of time with an Arcana DC 15 check by finding impromptu spell notes carved amongst the hash marks that litter the wet stone walls.

•Being below sea level, this section of the prison has a small pond in the ruined part of the tower. Escape would be impossible through the sturdy iron grate, but small fish do manage to swim in and out. Inmates are welcome to try and catch their own meals by hand (eaten raw, or cooked by sympathetic guards), or this paltry place to while away the hours might be the scene of a struggle as one convict attempts to drown another. Or perhaps impromptu lock-picks can be crafted out of the bones of some unlucky fish?

•That dead rat has been there in the corner for weeks, and the guards refuse to remove it! In truth, the very slowly decaying corpse is serving as a dead-drop for the passing of notes; perhaps between prisoners, guards, or someone on the outside. Tiny notes are rolled up and slid into the varmint’s rotting maw. 



Features of the Area

1. Stairs up

2. Guard Station

3. Storage

4. Double locked entry portcullis

5. West general population cell block (Barred walls and locked doors, includes simple cots and sewage holes for bodily waste) DEX DC 15 to Lockpick

6. East general population cell block (Barred walls and locked doors, includes simple cots and sewage holes for bodily waste) DEX DC 15 to Lockpick

7. Mess hall

8. Kitchen (Locked, guards only. Only dull knives present)

9. Underground pond (entry to the lake barred by an iron grille)

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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in Incidents, Playtested


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Mobbed in the House of Knowledge

This adventure is intended for 3-5 player characters of 3rd level and applies to the final release of the D&D Next Playtest

     So last year my fledgling 4th Edition Neverwinter Campaign Setting game fell apart thanks to my busy schedule. Though I lament its loss, I think the last encounter I ran can have some future life – potentially in your own game. The PCs were investigating some Ashmadai (read: evil devil-man) cult activity in the decrepit ruins (NEVERWINTER CAMPAIGN SETTING SPOILER AHEAD) of Neverwinter’s once beautiful House of Knowledge. They were questioning some of the squatters and homeless holed up in the old Oghman shrine, when their inquiries got the attention of cultists concealed amongst the rabble. A desperate melee ensued wherein the party had to limit their area attacks – lest they harm innocent bystanders. But with the cultists disguised in the crowd and the doors to the room shut, the party was in a dangerous (and near TPK!) situation.

     This encounter seeks to capture the tension of being locked in a room with an overwhelming number of foes, and many innocents caught in the cross-fire. I’ll also explore some home-brew rules for dealing with grappling mobs in a fast, easy way that affords you some realistic options in regards to being pinned by multiple attackers. 

     And you don’t need to be playing a Neverwinter campaign to benefit! Bear in mind, this encounter is tuned between moderate and tough for the level the players are at. Still, multiple opponents tends to make encounters much more difficult. You may wish to spring this encounter on a party that is fresh and has all of its resources to bear.

Setup and Tactics

     The PCs must track down a lead related to their current plotline. A possible informant lives amongst the squatters in a rundown library (In Neverwinter, the House of Knowledge) in a desiccated part of the city. Unbeknownst to them, less than savory elements (The insidious Ashmadai Cultists of the Forgotten Realms, for example) move in and amongst the destitute persons living in the ruins. Some of the rabble are evil agents taking advantage of the fact that few wish to be bothered with the City’s poor and downtrodden. 

      The vipers amongst the peasants are carefully concealed – and would like to remain that way. The main chamber of the library is a tall, dome roofed rotunda crammed with the unwashed poor. Let the PCs ask some questions of the unwashed masses and do some investigating before the action starts.

     The PCs may opt to flee, rather than fight –  a perfectly sensible response! However with the mob latching hold and supernatural cultists barring the main means of egress, that will be easier said than done. The cultist rabble will attempt to grapple PCs (two or three at once) to keep them in the room and allow the tougher cultists to more easily slay them. None of the cultists is above using an innocent bystander as a human shield.

Plot Text

      The conditions in this once shinning bastion of knowledge couldn’t be worse. The destitute are crammed into every nook and cranny of the dilapidated ruins. Clotheslines now hang haphazardly from rotting bookshelves, old folios feed pathetic cookfires, and all around you is the smell of mold, decay, and human waste.

     But you can detect the shifting air as someone closes the worn double doors to the library’s central rotunda. Standing in front of the only entrance to this lobby is a tall man in a black cloak. He sneers at you and hisses, “We don’t accept outsiders prying into our business. You know too much for your own good.” A warm, eerie light emits from the man’s open palms and with a snap, magical chains of molten hot metal slide out of his hands and clink on the floor. 

     Around you the crowd cowers, and backs away. Most of the crowd, anyway. Some anonymous vagabond shouts “Kill the outsiders!” There is a flash of movement as the squatters run too and fro…some scrambling to get away from the melee…others pushing forward with rusty knives, clubs, and bare hands to strike at you!

The Rabble Attacks

Part of the challenge in this combat encounter is separating the innocent squatters from the concealed cultists. To create an environment of confusion and tension, only have part of the hostile human rabble attack at first. Each round, more of the incognito cultists will strike at the PCs. Use the below guidelines for how many Human Rabble to introduce per round:

If the players attack the crowd indiscriminately, assume that some of those killed were indeed cultists; other were not. Innocents who are attacked will opt to flee rather than strike back. The cultists won’t bother to attack the other squatters – nobody will believe their claims of Ashmadai cultists hiding iut in the old library anyway. However, if barring the PCs path means injuring or harming innocent civilians, so be it.

Innocent squatters use the same “Human Rabble” stats as the cultists.


The grapple rules in D&D Next (found on page 17 of the How to Play document) are simple and efficient, but lack a bit of the nuances that apply to attacks from mobs. Consider applying some of the following optional rules below to make this encounter mor dangerous.

For context: restraining a target is like holding them tight bodily, while their arms and legs are still free to move (albeit in a much more limited fashion, hence the apllication of disadvantage). Pinning aLimb is like getting an opponent into an arm or leg lock; stopping their limb from functioning while not impeding overall bodily mobility. In either event the target is grappled, and thus bound in place, though not completely motionless.

     Multiple Grapplers – •A second (third, fourth, etc.) attacker may grab an already grappled target using the normal rules for initiating a grapple, and does so with advantage. 

•There should be a limit to the number of assailants in a grapple (4-5, DMs discretion). 

•Three or more grapplers may move a target without taking the normal 5 extra feet of movement penalty. Doing so requires that they all act on the initiative of the lowest attacker.

•Any assailant may attempt to restrain, or pin the limb a grappled creature.

•Escaping a grapple with multiple creatures requires you to make a Strength or Dexterity roll opposed by a Strength roll from each attacker. You need only beat the highest attacker’s result to escape the grasp of each assailant. 

     Pinning a Limb – While grappling a creature, as a separate action you may attempt to constrain a creature’s limbs by making an opposed Strength check opposed by the creature’s Strength or Dexterity (their choice). Doing so prevents the creature from using that limb (possibly denying them use of a weapon, or spellcasting ability if both hands are bound). The creature need only escape the grapple to cancel the effects of a pinned limb.

Features of the Area

     Lighting: Cracks in the walls and broken stained glass windows in the upper floor, along with the blaze of cookfires and candles make this room brightly illuminated.

     Statue: In the middle of the room is an enormous statue of Oghma – though this may not at first be apparent. Weather, vandalism, and seismic disaster have all contributed to this once beautiful piece of art’s decrepit appearance. Stained and pock marked with ware this 30 foot tall statue is barely recognizable, but its size is no less impressive.

     Stairs: Though damaged and now treacherous, these marble stairs wind around the wall of the rotunda and climb up seven stories. Each floor above the main chamber is lined with stacks of rotting books and crumbled shelves, niches where statues once stood, and the occasional row of scholar’s stalls. Anything of value has long since been looted.

     Floorspace: Though left open in the image, feel free to clutter the floorspace with tents, cookfires, clotheslines, cots, waste piles, barrels, crates, fallen sections of ceiling, and any other debris you might expect in a shanty-town.


This map was made using the Dwarven Forge map visualizer 


Branded Zealot – (Storm Over Neverwinter pg. 6) [3 Players: x2, 4 Players: x3, 5 Players: x4]

Human Commoner – (Bestiary pg. 57) [3 Players: x15, 4 Players: x19, 5 Players: x24]

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Combat Encounter, Playtested


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The Heist


One last job – nab the Maltese Owlbear at all costs. It was a simple plan – what could go wrong?

Hands down, the best Skill Challenge I ever ran was a heist. It was also completely impromptu – while preparing to move the adventure along to our planned portion for the evening, one of the players simply said “Before we ship out, I need to pay my old rival back. We’re going to rob his brothel.” There was a moment of silence. I took my twenty minutes to prepare the skill challenge, they took theirs to plan the job.

It’s a great scenario for any RPG game: The team of specialists coming together to separate and use their individual skills to overcome obstacles, then working together to eliminate the unforeseen dangers.

What follows is not a specific heist, but the guidelines on how to run a freeform caper scenario using the Skill Challenge as the core backbone of the action.

Whether you are knocking over the safe in a backwater town’s brothel or infiltrating the Inter-dimensional Bank of Sigil, a heist should be meaningful and complicated, with plenty of risk and opportunity for the whole party to stretch their specialized skills. I’d recommend a minimum of Complexity 3

It All Starts With a Simple Plan
Behind the DM screen, keep a numbered list of the total successes needed to complete the skill challenge. Leave a line next to each digit to be filled in momentarily.

A strong benefit to using a heist in your game is that they always begin with a planning and prep phase. This allows the players to participate alongside you in building the Skill Challenge itself – and lets them do some of the heavy lifting! Begin the scene by introducing the idea of the heist, but don’t specify a skill challenge. As each PC adopts a role in the heist and adds steps to the plan, mark down those steps on your numbered list. The players might do your work for you, creating exactly the same number of “steps” as there are requisite successes in the challenge. If they don’t, start pointing out complications to the players – only things their characters might legitimately notice or recent changes in the lay of the land – What if the safe is trapped, too? … You notice a guard with a crossbow walking the roofs … The Countess will be wearing a mask just like all the other guests, (etc.)

No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy
In a heist, primary skills represent the PCs actions to further the goal of nabbing their quarry. In the normal skill challenge, the only risk for failing a roll with a Primary skill is that the party is one failure closer to losing the skill challenge. During a heist challenge, this also generates a Complication.

The Complication must be resolved (usually by the character that failed the roll though not necessarily) before that character can attempt any further rolls towards completing the skill challenge. Failed attempts to remove the complication also count against the skill challenge, but will rarely count toward it. Because heists are long, difficult, and dangerous skill challenges – it might behoove a DM to use one or two of the Complications (depending on their circumstances) to also remove a failure from the challenge. For example: Dispatching a sentinel who caught the PC using Stealth might remove that failure (the witness is gone) but successfully hiding to avoid a patrol after setting off an alarm doesn’t halt the alarm and thus shouldn’t cause a failure to vanish.

Use Complications as a tool to mechanically reward/hamper the PCs actions in the story. They ramp up the tension, pad the challenge into becoming a longer and more meaningful encounter, and ask the players to stretch their character’s creative muscles. Specialists who botch a die roll may need to improvise, rely on often ignored skills, or use teamwork to overcome an unexpected interruption.

Below is a chart of some suggested Complications and likely skills used to respond to them. It is by no means exhaustive and as always good roleplaying and clever but logical thinking should always win out over the base rules. Use this chart as a guideline to improvise the use of other skills in these challenges as well (Arcana might work in place of Thievery to disarm a magical rune trap, perhaps Religion stands in for Bluff to deal with a nosey cult inquisitor):

*Combat – Erupting into a full mat-and-minis combat would definitely bog down and steal the thunder from a heist (if an extensive combat is involved in the heist, it should probably be an expected scene that occurs anyway). If the player opts to use feat of arms to get out of a scrape simply have them make an attack roll, and make attack rolls for the sentries opposing them (ideally an appropriate minion of the player’s level +/- 1). If the attack roll hits, the PC dispatches all foes involved single-handedly, but incurs damage from any of the attacks rolled against him/her. If the players opts to use a Daily or Encounter power, forgo this roll as they have paid for the error with a resource.

Players may have more detailed wishes for this scrape, and that’s fine. Do whatever you can to keep the fracas in a “theater of the mind” kind of resolution system to speed things along. Depending on the situation, they might need to make a further Complication roll to get rid of the bodies (Stealth or Athletics being the recommended skills).

Obviously, attacking nosey servants or bumbling guests poses little threat, but the problem of removing the body (as well as the moral ramifications of harming and innocent passerby) should serve as the appropriate challenge. And if the witness escapes the attack, the PC might be in even deeper water.

Secondary Skills and Complications
What constitutes a primary skill is very open for debate in a heist. Perception could be used in a leading role to discern which casino guest is carrying the mcguffin, or it could be used in a support role to be on lookout duty for another PC using Stealth to sneak into the governor’s private rooms. Only Primary skills are subject to Complications if they fail. However, you might rule that an appropriately applied secondary skill (such as Perception in the above example) permits a PC to ignore the effects of a Complication, ignore a failure, or both. If a player is not using a primary skill to push the challenge along but is helping in other ways, don’t be afraid to make their contribution meaningful – negating failures is a great way to do this.

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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Playtested, Skill Challenge


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Panopticon of Torment


The orcs slave’s need your help – but can’t risk activating these deadly collars to aid you

This adventure is intended for five players of 4th level

Some time ago, the consistent campaign I was running saw the player’s recently liberated base of operations under attack by a floating fortress full of orcs. The castle was built on an earth mote (technically a device within the castle powered the levitation) and its occupants – who were clearly not responsible for its original construction, used it as a high fantasy aircraft carrier of sorts.

I had a hankering to go “old school” with mapping, and so took to pencil (for sake of clarity, I opted for a mechanical, rather than a truly old school no. 2) and graph paper to detail the entire complex. It had all the expected features, main gate, dining hall, supply closets, arcane ballistas, wyvern rider hangar, latrines, etc. But in addition to the main complex It had an adjoined hunk of rock (also floating) full of useful ore, where the orcs kept slaves working round the clock.

The following encounter details the interior of said anti-gravity prison. Though it could just as likely be placed in a much more mundane setting.

Whoever built this sophisticated mine complex/prison camp originally is long gone, and it is now run by a savage and crafty band of orcs. The new occupants found the place already stocked with eldritch devices used for controlling prisoners with magically applied pain compliance and – if need be – a summary and explosive execution. Though difficult for the wizard who concocted it, the system was easy enough that the orc’s warlocks and shamans soon figured out how to use it with few “accidents” during their experimenting.

The prison’s architecture is also impressive. While not an archetypal application of the design theory, it is a panopticon – a prison arrangement in which the guards can view all prisoners at all times, yet the inmates cannot see their captors at all. Naturally, a few choice arrow slits allow the guards to fire upon the prisoners as well.

Slave Collars
When they moved in to the mine, the orcs found and eventually figured out how to use a nefarious device used by the previous occupant to keep his own slaves in line.

This wicked enchanter created several “control collars” that lock around the neck of a victim. The collars are a cold, stark metal, with a gleaming gem inset in them. The lock is a removable, mundane lock (Moderate Thievery to open), but has a tamper-proof magic cast upon it…causing the gem to explode with great force, killing the wearer and harming anyone standing too close. The gem is further enchanted to induce pain in the victim when a corresponding “control crystal” is depressed. The idea is to torment the slave until they act in accordance with the master’s wishes.

As a final and perhaps the most insidious option, the master can simply detonate the crystal remotely. In this way, the slaves are conditioned to be “moveable” by the operator of the collar.
The collars are collectively controlled from a guard house in the prison, where a single person can orchestrate the entire mine from one spot.

Eventually, the prisoners are so physically and mentally exhausted by the torture, that they are easily conditioned into carrying out their tasks without any need of further pain compliance.

• In game terms, a creature operating the collar control board (Move action) can cause slaves to move 4 squares, or can cause a slave to “explode,” killing the slave and dealing 1d6+Encounter Level Force Damage to any creature in an adjacent square.


Features of the Area
Entrance Corridor: The PCs enter from the short passage to the west.

Cliff: This sheer cliff provides almost no handholds (Hard Athletics) and drops down 20 feet.

Barred Gates: These two conventional prison gates each feature a single door that opens outward. They are both locked (and can only be unlocked from the inside or with a key). Picking the lock on the first is a Moderate Thievery check, requiring a Move action to accomplish. The second gate has a much sturdier lock, requiring a Hard Thievery check. A combatant can make attacks through the bars with appropriate weapons, but takes a -2 for doing so.

Guard House:Standing on three sturdy, polished stone pillars is the prison’s guard house. From the outside, it appears as a windowless metal building. Magical scrutiny however, will reveal that the facade is enchanted. The effect is like that of a one-way mirror: the orcs inside can see out as though the wall were not present at all (visible light outside is slightly dimmed).

At intervals around the wall (and even cut into the floor and angled beneath the guard house) are thin arrow slits (not visible from the outside). The iron door that leads in is visible, and is locked Moderate Thievery.
A metal bridge leads from the upper level of the mine cavern. As a move action, a lever in the same square as the door can be pulled and this bridge can be retracted underneath the building. Or vice-versa.

Around the central building support pillar is a circular trap-door. Attached tot hat pillar is a retractable ladder that allows the guards to drop down into the pit if need be (and prevent prisoners from climbing up into the guard house). The trap door is usually closed, the bridge folded up, and the trap-door itself locked (Hard Thievery).

Arrow Slits: Indicated by red “Ranged Attack” emblems on the map, these firing positions provide superior cover, but allow attacks only in squares that follow a straight line out from their position. The two opening in the floor are angled to provide a clear line of sight/effect to any square beneath the guard house.

Control Board: This strange metal board juts out from the wall at about waist height. embedded into it are small crystals, each of a different color. Slots next to the crystals indicate there is space for three more. This board is used to manipulate the collars affixed to each of the prisoners. Touching the crystals induces pain in the victim – the greater the pressure, the more intense the pain. Pushing the crystal down causes the slave’s collar (and thus, the slave) to explode. Removing the crystal will deactivate the collar, rendering it safe to unlatch.
A Move action by anyone adjacent to the board can be used to cause a slave to move 4 squares, to deactivate a collar, or to cause a slave to explode (see ‘Slave Collars” above).

Mine Pit: This area is being excavated to get at a particularly rich cache of ore. The drop down is only 10 feet and on a good day the prisoners are afforded 4 feet of rope to make the climb down.

NOTE: I chose a few monsters from rarer publications – those without a subscription to DDI or the names books might want to substitute for some other orc of the appropriate level/role

x3 Orc Bolt Throwers (Dungeon Magazine 157 pg. 31) OR x2 Orc Archer (Monster Vault pg.226)
x1 Orc Wolf Shaman (Orcs of Stonefang Pass pg. 27)
x2 Orc Raider (Monster Manual pg. 203)
x10 Slaves – use stats for “Human Rabble” (Monster Manual pg. 162) PCs only receive experience if a slave is rescued. Slaves do not actively seek to harm PCs and flee from being attacked.

The Raider’s task is to tie up the PCs in direct confrontation, skirmishing and moving back into cover. The archers/bolt throwers stay safe inside the guard house, hurling their projectiles through the safety of the arrow slits. While the shaman prioritizes using the control board to send slaves off on suicide charges, he will summon his wolf spirit in order to clear out any PCs approaching the door to the guardhouse.

Unless controlled to rush at the party, the slaves cower; avoiding combat and taking cover when possible. They are not active combatants either for or against the PCs.

Possible Rewards
Most of the orcs here are on duty, and aren’t carrying much in the way of treasure. Consider dropping your smallest monetary treasure parcel here. You might also exercise the option to provide some Ritual Components if a PC makes a successful Moderate Arcana check to find a way to break down the collars into useable components.

The control collars are recoverable, but won’t function more than 150 feet from the control board, which could be removed by resourceful PCs.

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Posted by on April 19, 2013 in Combat Encounter, Playtested


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Guest Post – Hexual Intercourse: Art of the Hex-Crawl


A trusty mount – the hexcrawler’s best friend. Also, a delicious morsel for those 1d4 griffins following you!

A little while ago I sounded the horn for submissions, and they have started rolling in! Not every guest article will fit the usual MO for “Save Vs Weekend” but they’ll all be valuable for you to apply to your games in some direct way.

Our first post comes from a player and sometime DM from my own core group of gamers – guys I have been playing with since high school. He recently ran a short-term “hexcrawl” style game, and wanted to share some of the nuts and bolts of that style of play (A type of game I’m rather enamored of and intrigued by. It has a very “sandbox” world style. Your own little Skyrim at the table!). It was part of a phase we went through in which we tried going “back to basics” and exploring some tenets of the retro-cloned old-school…with mixed results.


So, this is my summary for my hexcrawl game. I’m sharing the format with TheYoungKing despite the fact that he played in the game, so he’ll have to feign ignorance if we start it back up again. [He’ll also take the luxury of inserting the occasional comment in these brackets.] The Hexcrawl was a common game type in the 80s; they fell out of fashion but they’re system agnostic, and a blast to run if you’re used to completely plot driven games. In essence, the GM has a map, and you wander around on it. The best example I can think to explain it is Baldur’s Gate. You wander from area to area; there’s an overall theme (in Baldur’s Gate, it’s the Iron Shortage), but the vast majority of your encounters are random, or mini-quests. Here’s the basic outline of how I set up my game.

  • I started with a concept; in this case, the players were explorers. Really any type of plot could be factored in, the hexcrawl is much more of a setting than it is anything else.
  • I then built a large map in a program called “Hexographer“, from Inkwell Ideas. Each hex is (naturally) 6 sided, with a terrain type; i.e. mountains, plains, ocean, etc.
  • Using general principles of geography (i.e. which side of mountains have vegetation, rivers run downhill, etc.), I filled out my map with a few continents.
  • Now that I had continents with forests, rivers, and hills, I placed towns appropriately (i.e. near coasts, intersections of major rivers, etc), then supporting villages for those towns (i.e. within a day or two of travel to their “parent” town).
  • Now that I had my towns and villages mapped out, I drew borders of countries, based on obvious geographic limitations (i.e., most borders were either on major rivers or mountain ranges).
  • So now I’ve got a continent, with countries, and cities. You’ll notice I haven’t named anything yet; this is important.
  • In my opinion, the #1 time-waster in world-building is spending time creating content that your players will never see. To that end; I spent 20 minutes brainstorming country names, and placed those randomly. I then zoomed in on 1 particular village in 1 particular country, and named it. This was the seed of my first adventure. I then started mapping (i.e., adding content) for the hexes around that village (i.e. the village was raided by orcs, so traveling in nearby hexes has a risk of… running into orcs!)
  • I went to the next closest village. I named it, gave it a few inns, a blacksmith, and a temple. I named the temple and blacksmith, gave a general overview of their services. The inns I populated with rumors. Some of the rumors were false, some were tied to monsters in locations (i.e., there’s a basilisk southwest of here!), some were tied to dungeons (The abandoned barrows are haunted!).
  • I then populated the appropriate hex with the basilisk encounter; then wrote a short (5 room) dungeon for the “Dungeon” rumor. From there, I started going to other (i.e. potential choices of my players) villages, and filling them out similarly. At the same time, I started filling out the other hexes in their anticipated route of travel. Were there any monsters they may encounter?
  • So, at this point, I’ve got something like 100 hexes mapped with content. Probably 5-10 are villages or towns (towns are basically the same as villages, except they have a few more inns, and maybe a marketplace). I’ve also go 5-10 full on “dungeons”, where I wrote room descriptions, gave them a theme, populated them with monsters, and treasure. Another 5-10 of the hexes are the “encounters” I described, which effectively are just 1 room dungeons, i.e. a location and a challenge.
  • So that means of my 100 hexes, 70 or so are just random monsters the player could run into. Since I am mapping these iteratively, I’m able to make it so that the monsters are in similar areas, i.e. if you go to any of the hexes north east of a particular village, there’s a chance you’ll run into some goblins in the area. I don’t really have “random encounter charts”, thus far I’ve only tied 1 type of monster to each hex (just to save myself the work). Odds are, the players either run into that monster or they don’t. The players didn’t complain, because they’d travel enough that they may run into 4-5 different types of monsters in the general area.[The players DID complain when those monsters were manticores…but enough of my sulking…]
  • Next steps are to continue filling out towns and villages, which then feed me having to create content based on the rumors I come up with, which leads to more encounters and dungeons.
  • To keep track of all of this, each hex has a numeric code, i.e. 71.22. I then have an excel [Or numbers, or GoogleDrive, pick your poison], which I tie to that particular hex information. Hexographer’s Pro version allows you to write notes directly on hexes, so for non-dungeon tiles, I just use that. For my dungeons, I just use excel (GoogleDrive née GoogleDocs would also work).
  • I would not have been able to run this game without Hexographer, or the great guide available on the Alexandrian blog.

This type of game can be a lot of work. You can and will create content that your players will never see; the advantage of a plot driven game is that all your great encounters are on the rails, so the players face them no matter what [It’s also not impossible to hold onto some of those good ones and slot them in later. It violates the ethos of the sandbox world a bit – but anything in the name of fun is the right choice]. That said, it can even more rewarding when a trap you set 5 weeks ago comes into play; I’ll give an example.

My players were following up on a rumor that if they caught a fairy to the west of the town they were visiting, it would be forced to grant them one wish. The players outfitted themselves with nets [Do you know how much a cold-iron net costs?! A lot!], jars, and other “fairy-catching” equipment. However, they did not know they were pursuing a *false* rumor; the area to the west was actually lousy with bandits, who had started the rumor in the first place.

It was a while ago that I ran this game, and looking back there are several things I would have changed that would have added more flavor to the game.

First and foremost, I would have come up with some overarching plot. Baldur’s Gate without the iron shortage is rudderless; it also would have allowed me to plan a bit better which direction the players would have headed; instead of having to map in a circle outward, I would have had a better chance of mapping a “path” of hexes the players were likely to go through.

Second, I would have been much more mysterious about what was out there. In my rumors, I named specific monsters the players were likely to encounter; instead, I wish I had said there was a “dark force” or “an unknown evil”, describing what it had done. Keeping the mystery of the unknown is a key portion of any exploration based game.

Finally, I wish I had had more time between sessions. As a result of trying to keep a fairly rapid pace, the quality of my encounters suffered. I am not a great encounter planner, so I am afraid several of my dungeons were rather mundane as a result of having to plan several of them at once in a few weeks time. Getting something right rather than finished I think would have added an extra layer to my campaign. [This is where resources like the One Page Dungeon contest or…ahem…Save Vs Weekend come into play – they can be used to fill in coherent “random” dungeons or encounters to populate a larger world.]


I’m of the opinion that 4th ed D&D is a perfectly feasible platform to run a hexcrawl. True, the resource management of 4th ed centering around encounters doesn’t particularly favor a model in which most conflicts occur only once a day, and night’s to rest in between run-ins are frequent. But that requires some slight modification tot he encounter format:

One method is to make travel encounters exclusively of the ‘Hard” and “Very Hard” variety. That way the players are almost always expending their dailies and relying on potions and other consumable resources, giving random encounters a significant impact, event hough the players will likely rest for 8 hours right after.

Another, (and perhaps the more favorable) implementation, is to always make overland travel a simple skill challenge: perhaps calling for rolls with every hex traveled. The particulars are up to the DM and various published adventures might have some insight, but generally calling for Endurance checks for each day travelled, and consuming healing surges when those checks fail (and allowing a small number of healing surges to be replenished while traveling overland) could easily create a resource tension in travel without requiring much tweaking of the original game. It stands to reason that resting on the hard ground in a chilly tent after 7 hours of forced march and resting in a soft, warm inn bed after strolling around town or slowly creeping through a dungeon would provide different levels of physical replenishment.

TL:DR – The hexcrawl…try it!


Posted by on January 30, 2013 in Guest Post, Playtested


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Kill Your Darlings


This encounter is intended for any number of players of any level

Let me tell you a story about my early days of DMing – back when 3rd edition didn’t need a decimal point after the number. Back when you were excited about “Song and Silence” hitting the shelves of your FLGS. Back when Cause Fear lasted 1d4 minutes (seriously, why not make a spell that just tells one of your friends to go home and hang out by himself?)

I was asked to run an impromptu game for some friends. We were all pretty deep into playing Warcraft III at the time (this was, after all, the world before the World of Warcraft) and that had infected our thinking. Their was a mutual suggestion to play a party of orcs – a short term brush with running an “evil” campaign. This half-cocked little session ended up being the impetus for a long running campaign, but that’s another story for another time.

So as they all rolled up their heartless orc raiders I started digging through stat blocks and the DMG for challenges. While going through our collective resources I stumbled upon some character sheets that the guys had used a week before, for a game I wasn’t present at.

I slipped those character sheets in with my notes.

I ran the game. It was what they expected. They raided a village, killed its militia, pillaged the farmsteads, laid siege to the kind-hearted land-baron’s villa, and awaited the armed response from the incensed lord of the realm. That response came.

It was headed by their characters from the previous game.

It was a resounding moment for the players. A conflict of interests slashing into their previously simple world of callous orcish brutality. They wanted to win – but winning meant destroying something they cared about. Also they had min/maxed those characters like crazy, and the fight would not be won easily. In the end it was a memorable game in which the players were invested, conflicted, and had a lot of fun.

And that’s the goal for this weeks encounter: have your players make a one-off character, grow to love them, and then force the players to betray their darling PC. Old school DM cheatery – or compelling gimmick to encourage player investment? I’d argue it’s both.

Part I: The Bait
New sourcebooks are coming out all the time, and so are new ideas for characters. Running ongoing campaigns is great, but it doesn’t provide players that opportunity to mess with other character concepts, races, class builds, or backstories. That’s where the one-shot adventure comes in – and that is stage one in your emotional terrorist plot! This will take some careful planning on your part, but the payoff will be worth it.

Propose a one-shot adventure set in your campaign’s world (in fact, you may wish to abstain from any mention that this session takes place in the same continuity, but don’t be untruthful if asked.) Secretly the purpose of this adventure is to establish these player-made characters: their history, group dynamic, and accomplishments – just before they are handed over and made NPCs. For maximum impact, they should not return for a couple sessions, giving your players time to get back into the swing of your usual game, to the point where their “alt” is almost forgotten. Almost.

While the one-shot has a nefarious goal, there’s no reason why you can’t use it as a chance to introduce a place the “real” PCs will soon visit, explore another aspect of the campaign world, mess around with gameplay at a higher or lower level (adjusting these characters accordingly when the final showdown with the “main” PCs occurs) or to tell the story of other NPCs both new and old. This one-shot gets maximum use as a “flashback”, “flashforward,” or a “meanwhile, 100 miles to the north…”

So the location of this adventure is likely to be somewhere the original PCs will be going soon (whether they know it or not). Set some guidelines for the one-shot characters, but encourage your players to try new things, or explore other aspects of the campaign world. Playing a valiant paladin who is a sworn vampire hunter? Try playing a necromancer! Used to your city dwelling guild assassin? What about a skilled, anti-social ranger? Steering them toward characters who would conflict with or (worse) be friendly towards their usual characters isn’t absolutely necessary, but it might not hurt. Maybe run it as I did, demanding that all the players choose an evil alignment (assuming your PCs to be predominantly good).

Now comes the hard part: running a session that is fun and having the players make characters they enjoy. Obviously there’s no quick and simple advice for this: it’s a honed craft and an art all its own. But giving the players an opportunity to try out some off the wall or atypical characters is usually enough. I’d suggest setting most of the encounters on the easier spectrum – that way the players succeed more often, and have a good opinion of the usefulness of these characters. Don’t wuss out on them or anything, but definitely pull some punches. Consider it an investment for later.

Part II: The Switch
Your game returns to normal. You run a session or two as always, with the same Pcs the players have been consistently playing, furthering your group’s collective plot-lines. You might lay down some hints of what will be to come, but you’ll lose the element of surprise if you get too heavy handed. Then, roundabouts the 2nd or 3rd session after the one-shot, the “alternates” show up!

Don’t just state that the characters are there – describe them in detail as though the players had no knowledge of these knaves. Let the realization sink in! Remind your now conflicted players not to do too much metagaming here. While they may love Torbash the Dark: Half-orc Necromancer, their lawful good paladin has no appreciation for him. And if he never took prisoners before; why would he now?

The “alt” characters (please don’t mind the MMO terminology) can be in conflict with the PCs in many ways: commanders of an enemy army, a rival adventuring company, they might be bandits preying on the PCs, mercenaries hired to “deal” with the heroes, mind-controlled pawns of an evil overlord, opponents in a competition, etc.

Though I joke about being brutal to your players it is mostly just that. This is meant to be a fun challenge and add some drama and pathos to your game, not to be particularly emotionally abusive. The PCs very well might find a way to avoid bloodshed, take prisoners, escape, or even turn enemies to tenuous allies. As always, give the players a fair shot to improvise and “make things right” no matter how hopeless or straightforward a situation you throw at them.

Stats and Powers
Running a full player character sheet as the DM can be a bit much – even worse when you have more than one! To simplify things, you might consider “monsterizing” the alts. Draw up a Monster Manual style stat block, using one or two of their At-Will attacks, and one encounter, and one daily power of the highest level available. Keep any iconic abilities (marking, a “Healing Word,” sneak attack damage, etc). Think about what powers, skills, and items the players made use of during the session with this character and use or emphasize those, ignoring the bits that got ignored anyway. That might make a combat encounter with around five fully-fleshed out characters more manageable.

Special Considerations: Ominous Foreshadowing!!!
So I’ve highly encouraged you to conceal the presence of the “alts” before they are finally revealed for dramatic impact – but it can be just as engaging to instead do the complete opposite: foreshadow their arrival at every turn! Building anticipation of this confrontation can be just as valuable a story-telling tool as making it a “twist.”

Maybe the last moments of your one-shot reveal that these characters have arrived in a location the usual PCs have just/will soon explore. Perhaps their last goal put them in league with a hated enemy from the ongoing story. Maybe they arrive in the wake of the PCs, and it becomes clear a confrontation will soon occur as the new characters track the old. This final scene can be used to build anticipation for your next session, and serves as a good cliffhanger.

Another thought: Let’s say you have a player who is very unhappy with his or her character, and you’ve been seeking an appropriate exit for this PC. Now is a great time! The player can “swap” characters in a way that is rooted in the story and the action of the game. Maybe the alt has a change of heart and turns on his allies, siding with the PCs when the conflict is at its most desperate. If the new characters aren’t morally at odds with the party, perhaps the no-longer favored PC duels the alt in a rigged contest and loses, leaving the victor a clear and valuable new companion for the party. Perhaps it is this PC you want to get rid of that proves a turncoat, and the new character, though appearing at first a foe, instead proves to be a misunderstood ally. Whatever your approach, this can be a great avenue to introduce a “replacement” character that already has a place in the player’s hearts and minds.

A final word: the goals here are to be surprising, to get your players emotionally involved in the game’s characters, to add a nice twist to your plot, and to remind them that just because the game is designed for them to ultimately “win,” it does not mean that the challenges along the way will be easy!

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Posted by on October 26, 2012 in Playtested, Story Challenge


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Commedia of Death

This adventure is intended for five players of 3rd level


DM cat dares you to eat the magic cheese…

This week’s encounter is modified from one I ran way back in the day – during my first ongoing 4th edition game. That said, I’ve made some significant tweaks to keep it up to speed with the shape of the game today.

The inspiration for this encounter was twofold. Primarily, I wanted to get some use out of a set of the Paizo “Game Mastery” map packs I had picked up that featured an amphitheater. Though I’m a big fan of the Game Mastery line, their Map Packs line sets are very hit-or-miss and sadly “Ruins” is a big miss. The artwork isn’t up to their usual par, and the editing makes it very unclear as to where the delineated squares are in relation to the structures depicted (is that a window? Is it in my square? Does it give me cover? Is this rough terrain? What is going on with this map!) That said, the amphitheater tiles were precise enough, and I had already bought the tiles so – may as well make some use out of them.

My other inspiration was to use the theater location to depict a theatrically related combat encounter. You may recall that my background is in theatre, and that included more that a few theatre history courses. So I hit on the idea of linking the stock characters in Commedia Dell’arte to some of the various monster roles. What you get is a skirmish that’s a bit off the wall, out of the ordinary, and very memorable (And I’m not just blowing smoke! My players have brought this one up several times!)

As a quick note, the Commedia archetypes are sometimes referred to as “masks” (since most of the characters are represented by a mask – the traits of which are universal and recognizable across different theatre troupes.

Encounter Background
Adjust the encounter’s background to fit your setting. For convenience I’ll relay the backstory assumed for the original campaign setting:

Nearly 100 years ago this amphitheater, now in ruins, was a popular destination for talented performers. All were welcome, and often the elite both locally and abroad would sit beside peasants to see all manner of theatrical spectacles. Its reputation eventually drew the attention of a famous female bard named Achio and her on-again-off-again adventuring companion/rival/lover Tolivar, a talented illusionist.

The two of them sought to put on a performance the likes of which had never been seen – from now until the end of time. Seeking obscure knowledge and through much experimentation, they sought to create spectral constructs that could retain an actors performance and repeat their part over and over. With the bards lore and creativity and the wizard’s raw intelligence, they seemed to have succeeded – enchanting several actor’s masks with the ersatz personas.

They dubbed these concoctions of illusion and elemental magic “Figments.” Appearing as ghostly apparitions when they manifested despite being quite physical, the creatures they concocted were more akin to golems more than anything; though their only material substance was the mask which acted as the magic’s focal point. They were capable of discorporating, leaving only the mask behind until showtime, when the shimmering actor would reform in an instant. The creatures seemed to serve their purpose, reciting lines and following prescribed stage blocking; though Tolivar noted with some trepidation that they occasionally displayed a measure of independence – a quality most crafters of constructs would consider a critical error.

The night of their first performance was a hit, up until Act 4. All at once, something in the creatures snapped, and they began to attack the audience. Not wanting to waste all their hard work (and hard spent coin) Achio and Tolivar evacuated and rescued the patrons of the theatre, but chose not to destroy their magical actors. Neither ever succeeded in finding a way to capture or correct the deranged Figments.

To this day the illusive monsters lie dormant, the enchanted masks laying haphazardly on the stones of the abandoned theatre – few brave enough to chance getting near. Local legend says that if a living being takes a seat in the theatre, the creatures manifest and begin the play they set out to perform so many years ago.

None who have stayed until Act 4 ever live to tell about it.

Ideally, the PCs will walk into the amphitheater. The Figment’s masks are laying haphazardly on the stage section, and an Easy Arcana check would reveal that they are enchanted. When the PCs get within 20 squares of the masks, they corporate, and begin going through the play they were programmed to perform. A Hard Insight check reveals that something is “off” about the spectral actors – they break character staring threateningly into the audience, or silently mouth threats to PCs.

If the PCs make a threatening move, the Figments attack. Otherwise, they break their cover at the beginning of Act 4 and leap into the audience, taking a surprise round to attack any PC who fails a Moderate Insight check.

The content of the play the Figments are performing is at your discretion. It should, however be meaningful. Bits of historical information, cryptic foreshadowing or paralleling of events occurring in the campaign world or hints of future adventure are all marvelous bits of information that can give the scene even more weight.

The principal Figments begin this encounter on stage, with the chorus possibly surrounding the top level behind the theatre’s seating or below or to the side of the stage.

Il Capitano seeks to engage the PC’s strongest melee combatant, fleeing to attack any ranged attackers once he is bloodied. The lovers will pick whatever target is most convenient for the both of them to attack in unison. Arlecchino dances throughout the battle striking targets of opportunity, ideally seeking a position with which to gain combat advantage, or else striking and then dancing away using his “Acrobatic” trait. The chorus will simply mob the PCs, doing their best to clog up the battlefield while making room for their own allies to zip in and out of advantageous positions.

Being illusionary creatures, they have no real sense of self preservation, and will fight on until destroyed.

It’s a vexing proposition! I want to encourage you to support Paizo’s GameMastery line as it is typically great – but the “Ruins” Map Pack is absolute crap! My recommendation is to use their sample of the actual tile as a guideline for your own battlemat, and instead invest in one of their awesome Flip-mats

Features of the Area
Marble Wall: The wall behind the stage is blocking terrain
Marble Pillars: Both pillars are blocking terrain
Stairs: These worn, crumbling steps are rough terrain
Seating: Squares that contain rounded benches are easy enough to move through with care, however they slope and dip in places. PCs may not shift into these squares, but can otherwise move normally. Adept at navigating the amphitheater, the Figments have no such troubles.

To represent the monsters as “Figments” you’ll need to make some alterations – though this will mostly be a matter of “re-skinning” the creatures. To make each one fit the characteristics of its associated mask a few power swap-outs are detailed in each monster’s entry.

•Each monster becomes a Medium Humanoid Construct (Keyword •Illusion) and gains Resist 5 Fire and Cold damage, Vulnerability 5 Force damage
•Each is capable of discorporeating when there is no audience present. When doing so, the Figment can neither effect nor be effected by the world. They can corporeate or discorporeate At-Will.
•Destroying a Figment’s mask (1HP 12 All Defenses) destroys the Figment itself. This can only be accomplished if the Figment is discorporeated. If a figment drops to 0 HP while corporeated, its mask shatters automatically.

x1 Arlecchino – Gremlin Deceiver (Monster Manual 3 pg. 106) – Arlecchino, or harlequin, is a trickster and acrobat, wearing a dark mask and a colorful patchwork costume
Replace “Sabotaging Presence” with the following traits:

Acrobat: Arlecchino may shift up to three squares before and/or after making a basic attack. Describe this as a series of cartwheels, tumbles, and tricks.
Lazzi of Flashing Blades: As a standard action, Arlecchino grants all non-minion Figments a single standard action that they use immediately. This is an encounter power.

x1 Il Capitano – Elf Noble Guard (Monster Vault pg. 113) – Il Captiano is a boisterous and rude braggart and foreigner. His mask is flesh toned with a big nose and bristly mustache.
Replace “Elven Accuracy” and “Wild Step” with the following:

Bravado: When not bloodied, Il Capitano deals an additional 1d10 damage with melee attacks
Better Part of Valor: When Il Capitano takes damage, as an Immediate Reaction he knocks the attacking creature prone and Capitano is pushed 2 squares.

x2 The Lovers – Dread Marauder (Monster Manual 3 pg. 75) – Always unmasked, the innamorati are the young lovers who play the principal roles in many Commedia plays. They wish to fall in love and be married; a goal that is opposed by master characters like Il Capitano and facilitated (and/or complicated) by comedic servants, Zanni like Arlecchino. They are young, beautiful, and prone to extremes of emotion.
Replace “Eyes of Undeath” and “In the Master’s Defense” with the following:

True Love: A lover gains combat advantage against enemy adjacent to the other lover.
Miserable Without You: When not within 4 squares of the other lover, they are considered Weakened.

x8 Chorus – Human Goon (Monster Vault pg. 170) – Though not a part of Commedia, the tradition of the chorus is both long and varied in theatre, having its roots in greek drama. Fantasy settings tend to have anachronistic elements, so the presence of a chorus in this Commedia play isn’t completely off base. The chorus all wear uniform masks, but each with a different color. Otherwise each wears a bland costume so as not to upstage the actors.

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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Combat Encounter, Playtested


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