Tag Archives: Orcs

Orc Campaign Companion for 5e

We very colloquially call it “The Orc Campaign.” I mention this from time to time – the most successful (and longest running) campaign I’ve ever DMed. It began as a one-shot to while away some summer boredom, and snowballed into my first stumbling attempt at a campaign that featured realm management and emphasized open (smallish) scale warfare and societal management. It wound up being the cornerstone achievement of my college-years gaming career.

Recently, one of my players from said campaign was kibitzing around Reddit (a worthwhile habit that I just never fell into) and noticed a request for information about running a similar kind of game. He asked if I had anything on hand I could send along to aid this DM. So I looked at my notes.


Three separate editions and at least two hiatuses left my “Campaign Bible” a somewhat invoherent disarray. There was no way I could post that monstrosity on the internet. It was incomplete, unreadable to anyone but me (how do people write books for dead authors using their notes? Those must be a jumble of half-thoughts and suggested ideas! It’s madness!)

But if I could take the time to re-write it all…this time with an audience in mind instead of simply being a repository for my hastily assembled session notes – If I could re-write the campaign companion with advice on running the game and thoughts on how it should work behind the scene…then I might be on to something.

So I’ve decided to ever so slowly but surely start compiling an “Orc Campaign Companion” for use with 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. I’ll be posting the bits and pieces (or whole chapters!) that I finish as articles here for comments and suggestions, to eventually bust out a more convenient and palatable PDF version. Potentially with new art and ideally some better formatting (yes, yes, I know, and iPad is not a replacement for a computer and doing PDF design in the Pages app makes me some kind of slack-jawed troglodyte). But between work, theatre, and running an active campaign it will be a slow process. Please bear with me – I think I uncovered some cool stuff in the seven some years of running this game on-and-off.

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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in Announcements, Editorial, Uncategorized


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In Defense of the Refugees (AKA: “Save the Ladies!”)

This encounter is intended for five PCs of 3rd or 6th level using the most recent D&D 5th Edition statistics as of July 2

I was really fond of the Lord of the Rings console games that popped up in the mid 00’s. I mean sure, these weren’t the best beat-um-ups on the market, but they hit home by leveraging a franchise that I was obsessed with at the time. Given that one of my earliest memories is of playing Golden Axe with my father while propped up on a stool in front of an arcade cabinet – loving a co-op beat-um-up is never hard for me to do. 

A particular gem from those games was the “Minas Tirith Courtyard” level. In essence, it was a siege scenario in which you had to hold off endless hordes of increasingly difficult opponents, while making way for a flood of civilians to escape. The level ended once two-hundred villagers (all women, as I recall. Hence why this level became “save the ladies!” In common parlance) escaped to the safety of an inner wall. It was a grueling task, and a perfect complement for the scenes of devastation and warfare it was meant to invoke.

This encounter attempts to capture the feel of that scenario with a satisfying set-piece battle.


The PCs have agreed to help defend a community (castle, city, fortress, whatever is appropriate) from an invading army. While regular troops man the walls, the party is overseeing an evacuation. Civilian refugees may be fleeing the city out of a postern gate, falling back to an inner defensive ring, or breaking for the harbor to board boats that will take them out of the conflict. Regardless of the particulars, citizens have no choice but to rush through a warzone to reach safety. When the scenario begins, enemies have breached the defenses and the PCs will need to earn their keep covering the refugee’s flight.

At your discretion, some of the soldiers defending the walls may come down to lend the PCs a hand. Assign no more than one soldier per player, and bump the number of monsters in each wave up by one to compensate.

The party will face endless waves of opponents in this encounter. Their goal is to hold out until all refugees have made it through the exit gate in the southern corner of the map, before themselves pulling back to safety. Depending on the difficulty you intend, the number of total civilians can be adjusted up or down. As an alternate way of working the scenario, the parties goal might be to stand their ground until a prescribed number of refugees makes it through the gate (in this case, consider deducting the EXP value of slain refugees from the party’s total EXP).

   •Each round, 1d4 refugees arrives at the eastern edge of the map (Labelled “Refugee Entry” with eligible squares shaded in blue).

  •Every refugee that successfully escapes through the gate grants its EXP value to the party in the same way a defeated enemy would.

  •Number of refugees: Easy – 10; Moderate – 20; Difficult – 30


When monsters enter the battle, roll 1d4: that monsters arrives in the corresponding entry point on the map (Labelled “Monster Entry”) and takes its turn. Monsters that arrive through entrance 4 will almost always make for the exit gate to cut off any refugees that get past their brethren.

Features of the Area

    Rubble: Walls broken by siege equipment, burning wagons, overturned market stalls, or even piles of corpses. Areas of rubble require 10 feet of movement to pass through.

     Barricade: These stacked barrells, crates, and debris grant half cover.

    Tower: This watchtower is positioned to overlook a great deal of the courtyard. The room is 25 feet up and features an arrow slit that grants Superior Cover, but does not allow the shooter to see anything east of the fountain. The advantage of being able to snipe from the safety of the tower are obvious, but not being on the ground to draw enemies away from the fleeing refugees is a serious disadvantage.

    Porch: This adjoined patio area has a sturdy stone railing all around it that can grant half cover if someone inside crouches. Leaping over the railing is easy enough to do, but requires 10 feet of movement.

    Fountain: The fountain in the middle of this battlefield grants half cover, or full cover if the attacker is on the other side of the large statue in the middle. Enterprising or vicious PCs will find it deep enough to drown orcs in.

   Stone Structures: The low stone buildings might compirse homes, gatehouses, customs offices, or storage. Though their slate roves aren’t especially steep, a 15 foot climb is still required to get to the top, where a PC could enjoy an elevated vantage point. Some of these building have missing walls, destroyed by siege weaponry, creating a path for the city’s invaders to stream into the courtyard.


   —Level 3 encounter: One wave every other round

 Wave 1: 10 Goblins (Pg. 49)

Wave 2: 10 Hobgoblins (Pg. 55)

Wave 3: 1 Hobgoblin Leader (Pg. 55), 2 Hobgoblins

Wave 4: 1 Ogre (Pg. 69)

Continuous Waves: 1d4+1 Hobgoblins

—Level 6 encounter: One wave every other round

Wave 1: 10 Orcs (Pg. 70)

Wave 2: 7 Oorogs (Pg. 71)

Wave 3: 1 Orc Leader (Pg. 70), 2 Oorogs

Wave 4: 1 Hill Giant (Pg. 46)

Continuous Waves: 1d4+1 Oorogs


For the civilian refugees, use the stats for:  Human Commoner (Pg. 57) [And for the record, the civilians comprise both men, women, and children, not just ladies! All the same, don’t NOT save the ladies – that isn’t very feminist either.]

•For allied soldiers (if you choose to provide them), use the stats for:  Human Warrior (Pg. 58 – Replace armor with “Ringmail” and bump AC to 14)

Enemy/Ally Tactics

The attackers (be they orc or hobgoblin) are in the thick of city fighting now, and much of their discipline is fading in the chaos of battle. Use the following guidelines in determining an enemy’s targeting priorities:

1. If a PC is within 10 feet of an enemy, it will attempt to attack the PC

2. Enemies will otherwise attack the nearest opponent, whether they are a civilian, soldier, or PC

3. Enemies will switch targets to the last target that attacked them, thus allowing your players to “pull” the horde off of a civilian

4. Enemies who come out of entrance 4 will make for the exit gate, to block the passage of those fleeing

Though based on a video game, the best part of tabletop RPGs is their infinite mutability. These rules of engagement make for an interesting tactical encounter, but as always, use your judgement. Smart players will find ways to draw enemies away from the fleeing refugees. And likewise, a moment of dramatic ramping-up in which a foe purposefully ignores the players to slay the defenseless civilians might be just what the story needs.

Similarly you can follow a set of guidelines for the behavior of the fleeing refugees:

1. A refugee will always avoid provoking attacks of opportunity when possible (unless ordered by a PC)

2. Refugees always attempt to move toward the exit gate at best possible speed, allaying this only for reasons of safety

3. If within reach of an opponent, a refugee will use the Disengage action

4. If in reach of an opponent and unable to move closer to the gate, a refugee will use the Dodge action

5. Refugees consider PCs and soldier allies and can move through their space unhindered

If you opt to provide the players with back-up in the form of additional soldiers, consider letting the PCs give orders to the troops. They are in control of where the soldiers move to and how they form up, and can even order them to attack particular targets. If you wish to make this more complicated, perhaps an Easy Charisma roll is needed to clearly explain orders over the din and confusion of battle. In this case, PCs might only be able to give vague directions (“Stand left of the gate” or “form up on my right”) rather than letting the players choose which precise square for each soldier to stand in (the more tactical option).


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Infiltrating Zinnaatis’ Outpost

This encounter is intended for three players of 2nd level and uses the August D&D Next Playtest Rules

One of the difficulties of living in a subterranean hell-hole like the Underdark, is that you cannot make/grow all the things you desire to use in your various plans and plots. Thus, trade with the surface world is inevitable. For the Drow and other Underdark dwellers, this means dealing with the disreputable and cruel elements that lurk topside. To facilitate this, trade posts are often established within a few miles of an access point to the surface. Though not truly in the Underdark due to their proximity to more typical caves and caverns, these establishments are just as dangerous, and likely to be full of sinister humanoids (if you’re lucky!) from both above and below, each just as suspicious and contemptuous of the others.

This week’s encounter will take the PCs into one such outpost in search of a McGuffin (The ecounter will presume this is the stolen journal of a long dead wizard, but you can substitute and item appropriate for your campaign). The encounter is meant for a smaller group of PCs, and hinges on their use of stealth, deception, bribery, and diversion. If the whole camp is alerted, the PCs won’t stand a chance in open combat. But by being careful and clever, they can get in and out without ever being noticed.


A recent contact of the PCs with a magical background is piecing together the research of a long dead wizard in order to make sense of the old mage’s spell book. In trying to dig up his belongings, the contact found that most of them were stolen not long ago in a raid on a trade caravan. Some sleuthing anda little  divination   lead him to locate the dead wizard’s journal – a half mile below the surface in a Drow traders den called Zinnaatis’ Outpost. The book’s exact whereabouts weren’t precisely discovered, so the contact will need the PCs to investigate the outpost, and sneak out with the book.

Each area on the map has some activity going on that might help or hinder the PCs efforts to search for the book. The events and relevant stats are noted below. All creatures referenced are from the Bestiary document unless otherwise noted.

Zinnaatis’ Outpost

     Established by an overly ambitious Drow soldier, this forward camp is close to the surface world; making it an ideal trading post, and an even better place for spies to nest. It’s been around for a good ten years now, and its success is based largely on Zinnaatis hands-off approach to management. A wise businesswoman, if not a loyal soldier, she made sure that traders had privacy, a few creature comforts, and a heaping helping of her own religious zealotry.

     Guard duty is covered by various mercenaries hired from among the surface traders by Zinnaatis. She permits her various trade contacts to come and go as they please, so long as they pay the entry toll and shoulder the brunt of her unusually high taxes (much of which find their way into her personal coffers). Among them are hobgoblins, kobolds, orcs, and even some unsavory human bandits. 

I Prefer A Straight Fight to all this Sneaking Around…

     Ostensibly the PCs would not be welcome in a place like Zinnaatis’ Outpost. Thus they must take measures to conceal their identities and intentions. Anything from disguises, to a good cover story (slaves are traded through here regularly, and some treacherous humans, half-orcs, and half-elves serve as mercenaries down here, and are thus not unheard of) to some good old fashioned stealth would suffice. Make the players work for it through roleplaying and careful planning. A solid cover story or disguise should stand on its own, calling for rolls only if the PC’s behavior becomes suspicious.

     However, if the party insists on picking a fight, even the fractious creatures of the outpost know they have many common enemies on the surface – with the most likely foe being adventurers! Any monsters in the area who witness the PCs behaving suspiciously will most likely turn on them – and some will probably even slink off to the others sections of the cavern for reinforcements! Remind the PCs that this is a dangerous mission, and that discretion is the better part of valor.

A Blade in the Dark

     These kinds of infiltration narratives when presented in films like (any) James Bond, literature, or video games like Metal Gear Solid and Assassin’s Creed, feature protagonists getting the drop on their foes and dispatching them quickly and quietly. The D&D Next rules don’t provide any specific insight on this sort of situation (it doesn’t exactly fit the circumstances of a coup de grace), as the “one-shot kill/incapacitation” tends to be a rare situation and a cause for easy abuse of the rules. At the same time, this encounter presents circumstances where it would be perfectly logical for a PC to drop a foe with a single roll – and that’s likely how your players will be thinking! While game balance is always important, maintaining verisimilitude keeps players happy and makes your world consistent – and sometimes that requires a bit of fudging int he rules. Since not everyone is a rogue and benefits from sneak attack, here are a few suggested rules “hacks” when dealing with this very specific situation:

   •A foe that is caught completely unaware might be considered eligible for a “coup de grace.”

   •Otherwise you might allow such an attack to deal 2 or 3 weapon damage dice (giving the foe an unlikely chance to survive, while not ignoring the fact that rogues should be better at this kind of work than any other class.

   •Snapping the neck of a sentry could be represented as a simple STR vs. Opponents CON score as DC roll. This would require the assailant make a DEX roll to sneak up on his/her target first (thus ensuring that rogues remain superior at wetwork to other classes).

These sorts of ambushes rarely require the PCs to roll initiative(unless their victim spots them first, or survives the attack). After stealthily eliminating a foe, there is always the problem of what to do with the body, of course…



A full poster version of this map is included in Vaults of the Underdark. All sections of rubble and furniture count as difficult terrain.

It’s Never That Simple

     If your PCs were successfully subtle, consider having one of the patrols follow them as they attempt to reach the surface, and attack them en route. This will discourage them from lingering, and given any players feeling dejected by a lack of combat a chance to wet their blade.

Patrols – These patrols wander around and outside the outpost, looking for suspicious activity and on hand to quell any hostilities flaring up from a deal gone awry. Each patrol’s path is dictated on the map, and it will take them about 5 minutes to complete a circuit (they are searching the area, chatting with visitors, and taking their time). 

     Unlike some of the other occupants of the outpost, the patrols will know right away that the PCs do not fit in, and will accost them, attacking quickly if the PCs don’t have cover stories or disguises that hold up. If they see the PCs approaching or leaving the outpost (essentially in areas “off the map”) they will charge after them without questioning.

     Features of the Area – Patrol 1 (P1 on Map) – x1 Drow (pg. 39), and on a leash, x1 Guard Spider(As “Spider, Giant) but 10 HP and medium size); Patrol 2 (P2 on Map) – x2 Hobgoblins (pg. 55), x1 Hobgoblin leader (pg. 55) 

1. Statue of Lolth – This sixteen foot tall effigy occupies the high-ceilinged middle chamber of the outpost. Zinnaatis is an especially pious drow, and sings her Demon-Web Godess’ praises to all of her trade partners. Right now, however, a crowd is gathered round the statue. A tall human clad in black robes and wearing a skull-like mask is screaming an angry sermon from the base of the massive artifact. 

     He asserts that his God (pick whichever evil deity you deem appropriate) is far superior to he lowly bug-witch of the drow. The statue has angered him, and threatens that his cultists will refuse to trade with the outpost if they are not given equal religious representation. For all his unscrupulousness, the priest knows his audience, and is managing to work the crowd into an uproar. Many of the creatures in this are are packed together to listen, two or three at a time occupying the same five foot space.

     It would not be difficult to begin a riot in this crowd which might provide convenient cover to the PC’s actions. However, getting caught in the rioting is its own danger. Moving through a rioting crowd can be accomplished with a STR DC 10 check at Half Speed. For every round stuck in the crowd, a PC must make a CON DC 10 save. Failure results in 1d6 bludgeoning damage and the PC is knocked prone, save for half damage.

     Features of the Area – Creatures here have Disadvantage on WIS checks due to their distraction with the oration. This chamber is brightly lit by torches.

     Creatures – x1 Skull-Masked Priest (Dark Adept pg. 11) and his x4 Dark Adepts (pg. 10), x10 Kobolds (pg. 59), x12 Goblins, x3 Orcs, x4 Hobgoblins, x2 Drow

2. Trading Floors – These rooms are crammed with merchants and shoppers. Those trading offer all kinds of mundane wares at or below book price (since they are primarily stolen). Magical items are traded in the “library.” It is not entirely unusual for violence to break out on the trade floors and is acceptable so long as it is brief and contained. The traders are from al walks of the Underdark and the surface, and they all keep a close eye out for thieves. Guards patrol the cramped crowds, but have Disadvantage on WIS checks to notice any foul dealings due to the size of the crowd (this is not true for merchants keeping an eye on their goods). The punishment for stealing here is the summary removal of both hands. If asked about a book, anyone here will recommend checking with the magical item vendors in the library.

     Features of the Area – Creatures here have Disadvantage on WIS checks due to their distraction with the bustle. This chamber is brightly lit by torches.

     Creatures – The guards consist of x2 Hobgoblins, x3 Goblins

3. Latrines – This room is perforated by holes in the ground full of stinking biological waste. It is the unfortunate duty for some kobold or goblin to clean the pits as punishment once a day. There is little for PCs to find here save disease. If they are using a light source, grant them a WIS DC 10 check with Disadvantage to Spot. A succeeding PC notices a glint coming out of one of the pits. One of the hobgoblins concealed a gem worth 100 gp that he pinched from the latest cache of loot. Good luck retrieving it.

     Features of the Area – This room is unlit.

4. Sealed Storage – Inside this chamber are all of the large and expensive trade items that merchants would prefer a little extra security for (at a cost, of course). The door to this room is made of heavy steel, and shut with a lock (DC 15 to pick). There are always two sentries on the landing outside (choose from the creature near the Statue of Lolth above). Within the room are four well armed and disciplined hobgoblins. They imedietly question anyone entering the chamber and are very suspicious of anyone not accompanied by one of the Drow (Disadvantage on checks to Bluff or Intimidate).

     Most of the supplies are piled up in crates and boxes in the center of the room, leaving only 5 feet ofclearance  along each edge. Hobbling over the supplies counts as difficult terrain.

     Features of the Area – Dimly lit by a single lantern hanging above the door. The heavy door and noise outside mean that it is very difficult to hear anything in this room past the stoop outside. sentries who might hear yelling or the din of battle make their WIS checks with Disadvantage. At the back of the room are armor stands with 5 medium and 1 small (a gift for a particularly loyal goblin!) suit of Drow Chainmail. In addition there are various traders crated here (DM discretion). The warehouse floor is always attended by a goblin known as “His Majesty the Count” who does Zinnaatis’ counting and sums – he is easily recognized for his smudged apron and tiny leather visor, as well as the oversized ledger book he constantly lugs around.

Drow Chainmail – AC 16 (Otherwise as “Mithril Chain”)
These shirts of extremelly light, shimmery black mail are prized by the vicious dark elves. Drow Chain is infused with the magical contamination Of the Underdark and as such, cannot survive long outside such environs. It breaks down into a black dust after exposure to sunlight in 2d6 days.

     Creatures – x5 Hobgoblins, x1 goblin

5. The “Orb and Weaver” Tavern – Cramped, hot, and reeking of cheap grog and sweat, the sign of the Orb and Weaver refreshes the surly raiders and bodyguards that service the Underdark merchants. Hanging above the bars entrance and well lit by phosphorescent lichen is a wooden sign, painted in purple and featuring the image of a spider hanging over a loom, its abdomen appearing to be a crystal ball. The echoing of the chamber means that even on a sparse night the bar is booming with a cacophony of voices. 

     The bartender, Luhrg the Mugbreaker (Use the “Oorog” stat block) has been working this tavern for a year now and is a surprisingly quick study for an orc – he stays friendly with everyone and is happy to sell rumors and information for a price (typically between 5-15 gp). Luhrg hears about everything eventually, and knows every face that passes through; meaning that he knows where to find whatever you want. It also means he’ll be extremely nosey about the PCs presence, battering them with friendly questions in order to loose the details from them. If the PCs play along and their cover story holds up, Luhrg will be amiable and helpful. Close lipped PCs will find themselves being overcharged, ahrassed by the customers, and eventually tossed out.

     The PCs will needs be on their best behavior here. The patrons are all drunk and spoiling for a fight. So long as no weapons are drawn, it would be acceptable for a barroom scuffle to occur, though that will likely mean the end of the PCs stay for causing trouble. A fistfight with one table of ruffians might cause the whole bar to erupt in flying fists, or only attract the cheers of other tables (at the DM’s discretion). Given the cruelty and grudging nature of the inhabitants, a bar fight would likely mean the patrons attacking one another just as soon as the PCs! To keep the peace, Luhrg has hired on a Drow waitress who is fully armed beneath her revealing bustier (use the Drow stats with AC 12).

     Luhrg serves he normal fare for a low quality tavern, grog, moonshine, watered down ale, as well as more exclusive local drinks with vile names like “Mushroom Musk” and “Umberhulk Sweat.” The tavern’s most expensive drink, the “Mindflayer Mucous Shot” has an unusual effect on those that can resist it. Any PC who downs the shot makes a CON DC 12 Save. They instantly fall unconscious for 2d10 minutes on a failed save. A successful save grants Advantage on any lore roll for the next 1d4 days.

    Features of the Area – Well lit by candles, lanterns, and lambent lichens. Moving anywhere in the cramped bar requires double movement.

     Creatures – x1 Orog (pg. 71), x1 Drow, x1 Orc, x3 Goblins, x2 Hobgoblins, x2 Gnolls, x4 kobolds (at the bar, on booster seats)

6. The Library – Not dissimilar to the trading floors, this oddly cozy nook houses several bookshelves as well as magical oddities strewn about on carpets. There is a sales counter in this room, attended by a rather grubby looking human hedge-wizard who eyes everyone entering as though they are a potential meal. He grumbles to himself at odd intervals. At the moment, most of the sellers are not on hand, just a fewgoblin assistants   attending to their master’s wares. 

     The book the PCs seek is sitting plainly upon the largest shelf, and the attending wizard will explain that it is worth 550 gp or the equivalent in barter. 

     The open space outside the Library consists of a crowd of gathered villains. They talk and mill quietly amongst themselves, trading gossip and making impromptu deals. The crowd can easily be used as cover for sneaking PCs, or a source of information.

     Blocking the northward entrance into the gallery where the Statue of Lolth looms is a blockade consisting of gnoll ruffians. They will not allow the PCs to pass by, snarling something about the magical sundries beyond are only for privileged shoppers approved of by Zinnaatis herself (albeit much less eloquently). Though the sentries are very adamant, a CHA DC 20 check to intimidate might convince them to let a PC by (any demonstration of magic prior to this grants the roll advantage). What they don’t realize is that any such sentries guarding the rear entrance are incapacitated.

     At the intersection The alley west of the Library are a pile of drunk goblins. Though mostly unaware of their surroundings, the leader is an angry drunk, and will get belligerent and combative if the PCs are too loud or try to talk to him. The PCs might be able to get away with fighting these goblins (the crowd nearby has little concern for the wretched creatures) though efforts would needs be taken to make it appear as one of the expected brawls that occasionally crop up in the outpost.

     Features of the Area – This chamber is brightly lit by torches.

     Creatures – x1 Human Witch Doctor (pg. 58), x1 Drow, x2 Goblins; The blockade in the alley consists of – x3 Gnolls (pg. 48); The crowd outside the Library is made up of – x1 Green Hag (pg. 53), x2 Drow, x2 Doppelgangers (pg. 32), x3 Dark Adepts, x1 Cultist of Asmodeus (pg. 9); In the west alley – x3 Goblins, x1 Goblin Leader (pg. 49)

7. Zinnaatis’ Mansion – Calling this underground holdfast a “mansion” is generous. It is little more than a barracks. The first floor contains kitchen, storage, bunks, armory, and a few offices. The second floor is reserved as Zinnaatis’ private apartments. From here the Drow officer tends to the business matters of the trading post, keeping her collected taxes (and bribes) locked in a magical safe containing a “Bag of Holding” within which is her horde. The mansion is not included in the scope of this adventure. The divinations used to scry out the McGuffin mark it being in the trade floor, not within the walls of this complex. However, players being players, you may wish to pull out some appropriate map in case they decide to investigate. Stats for Zinnaatis are given below, though a scrape with her would be a suicidal fight for a small number of PCs at this level.


     The D&D Next Playtest gives relatively good guidelines for rewarding players for non-combat situations. Given that this encounter involved a great deal of guile and problem solving, it would be a shame to overlook experience rewards merely because the PCs avoided open confrontation. That said, their accomplishments would not equate tot he same value as all the monsters who appear in this encounter, many of whom serve as intimidating set dressing and a reminder that the PCs are in over their heads and vastly outnumbered. 

     As a general rule, for every chamber the PCs successfully navigate without starting a fight, grant them 100 EXP (grant combat experience as normal). If their plan is especially clever, dramatic, amusing, or effective, feel free to throw another 50 EXP in as a bonus. Completing the entire encounter successfully is worth an additional 100 EXP. 


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Adventure Site – Dhunraven, City on the Wildlands

As you know, I use this blog as a repository for my old, forgotten, unused, untested, or well loved DMing materials. I always thought it was a shame that most DMs let all their hard work vanish into obscurity – so I decided to share my notes publically.

On a whim, I figured I would compile the map and notes I had left over for a previous 4th ed. game I was running with friends who have long since moved to various corners of the world. An easy addition tot he blog – I’ll just compile and reformat some notes, touch up the grammar, add a few stat blocks and that will be that.

Oh, and I’ll provide stats for those using the D&D Next playtest too.

And, you know, a few more NPCs while I’m at it.

Turns out it became a major project that I just couldn’t relent on until it was in decent shape. Maybe a waste of time, maybe some good exercise in writing adventure sites. Maybe I’ll come back to it. Hopefully you’ll get some use out of it! The document covers Dhunraven as an adventure site (think of it as a mini campaign setting that can be slotted into a much larger overall game).

Dhunraven is inspired by one of my oft mentioned favorite low-level generic D&D adventures: The Dead of Winter. Since it was locked away on the Character Builder disc that came with the ORIGINAL 3rd edition PHB it isn’t easy to come by, but I just might have a little link to help you out, in case you are interested in the source material.

File Download —> Castle Dhunraven – City on the Wildlands


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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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D&D NEXT/5th ed Playtest Experience (Points)


Many apologies for the intermittent and off schedule posts. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m rather involved in Cleveland theatre, and am currently part of a cast devising an original play. That involves acting, rehearsing, writing lines, memorizing those lines, revising those lines…you get the idea. Thus the brunt of my writing time has gone to that, and poor Save vs. Weekend has become second banana. But fear not! I have neither lost interest nor resolve to keep this blog afloat. That said for the next few weeks posts will be at zany times, and likely only once a week.

Due to my time constraints and in the interest of contributing to the D&D community, I thought I’d sidestep the expected weekly encounter write-up (insert obligatory chiding of my breaking from the Blog’s intention) to instead discuss a bit about how things have been going with the sporadic D&D 5th/Next playtest games I’ve been running.

The last game was run with 5 total players, using a self written adventure (2 combats, a puzzle, a potential hazard, and lots of random tables) all while the old school Dungeons and Dragons cartoon played in the background and DMDJ set the mood.

So, my bullet-point observations about 5th Edition / D&D Next:

Easy to Pick Up – My last session included three (THREE!) players who were completely alien to the tabletop roleplaying experience. So new to it, that I had to remind myself to explain the “little things” to them – like what 2d8 means in terms of those little plastic dice. Even then, among the two experienced players at the table, only one had played using the 5th Edition rules and not at all extensively. Given that lack of knowledge base, I found that character creation went very smoothly. Focusing the game more on the attributes gave new players a very easy, understandable touchstone to work from. They knew what things their characters were best at, and what things they should leave to other party members if possible.

Backgrounds and Specialties were extremely helpful for this process. I didn’t need to explain an exhaustive list of abilities and skills – the names were all the players need to know what they wanted to be. “Artisan? Oh yeah, that sounds cool. Can I be a painter?” “Archer is an option? Yeah, I definitely want to use a bow since my strength is, like, nothing.” Quick, simple, and easy to understand and roleplay.

That all said: I’d ultimately like to see a list of feat for those who feel a little too confined by the Specialties and want a little more flexibility in describing their character.

Less Stringent Spells = More Fun – I think the new spell formatting really got to shine in this session. You all know I love 4th Edition with a grandmotherly warmth, but power descriptions are very precise and focused – which isn’t a bad thing. The problem is that it tends to force your mind to think solely in terms of what the spell can do statistically, and ignore its implications and interactions with the world.

To new players, having a paragraph that described the spell, and a paragraph that explained the nitty gritty was invaluable. Combat spells were easy for them to learn “Oh, so this text at the bottom says, I roll these dice and that’s fire damage and I get everyone in a 15 foot cone, cool.” The descriptive paragraphs got them thinking of their spells in precisely the right way – trying to come up with clever, out-of-the-box applications. I admit that I hand-waved some rules to make their ideas work*, but isn’t that the point?

I think an inherent and hard to pin down problem in 4th Edition is the accidental psychological paralysis it puts on DMs and players. Seeing all those neat, clean, precise rules makes you think they need to be followed to the letter or else you are “doing it wrong.” Of course that’s false, but our brains work in funny ways. I’ve run into that problem less and less while running 5th ed games.

*[I suppose using Command and saying “Reveal” was not intended to force Orc Warlords to admit useful or embarrassing secrets, but the players loved it. I also maybe give Mage Hand to much credit; but when a players uses it to pour out flammable liquid onto burning opponents or shove its spectral fingers into the mouth of an arguing party member to end a discussion – only a monster would let rules nay-say!]

Solving Not Just Rolling – A thought related to that aside: The new mechanics seem to encourage a “problem solving” route just as much as they encourage a “gameplay” route. And yes, that narration oriented approach is a thing very subject to the DM’s handling of the game (Ahem! DMG pg. 42!!), and it can certainly exist in 4th ed (I try to steer my games in that direction as much as possible.) But the emphasis on skills/skill challenges and feats can sometimes get in the way of that free-form problem solving approach to complications – making mechanical choices more appealing than a clever or logical idea.

Monsters and Low Hit Points: Feast or Famine – Maybe it was my fault for throwing orcs in as the primary combat antagonist. To be fair, the PCs were 2nd level (due to my concerns about PC fragility), so it wasn’t an unreasonable monster choice, but the orcs sit in a strange place of high damage, and not quite high enough Hit Points. Nearly all the orcs went down with a single blow. Having the “Relentless” trait kept them hanging around a bit longer, so they fit their role better in this iteration of the playtest than the previous, but they still seemed oddly fragile. On the other hand, the inclusion of the great axe as their main weapon made them incredibly potent – especially against weaker PCs. I think this is meant well; a single d# of damage should be threatening, but not overwhelming if the DM lands a single lucky roll. At this point in the game’s life I think there’s an imbalance somewhere. Mind you, I haven’t played with that wide a range of the monsters to choose from.

Still it seemed I was either dropping players or they were dropping monsters all at once, with rarely anything in between. While my goal wasn’t to replicate the feel of 4th ed combat, I think 5th ed’s battle and gameplay in general is speedy enough due to action-economy that having a lot super-low HP monsters isn’t always necessary.

I agree with the logic in lowering Hit Points across the board (to improve the significance of magical healing), but I think this move made 1st level PCs too fragile. One thing I loved about our current edition of D&D is that 1st level wasn’t a terrified rush to earn experience points enough that you could snag that extra Hit Die and survive the lucky crit you would occasionally absorb. Of course, you want plenty of room to grow, but starting between 10-25 Hit Points gives some good breathing room for characters and encourages them to take risks right off the bat, without anticipating total and utter failure.

The Fighter is Awesome – I had two players each playing very different Fighters: a “Dwarven Defender” type, and a staff wielding, light armor clad amazon huntress. Both were effective and unique and made good use of combat maneuvers to both set their characters apart and contribute to the “game” aspects of play. I was very happy with how the Fighter is shaping up.

Follow My Lead – I saw fit to give the PCs a couple followers during an appropriate moment of the game. I think the way monster stat blocks are laid out, and the system itself, less dependent on the troublesome effects of level creep, makes integrating a handful of followers and easy and not too unbalancing prospect.

Magic Items are Special and Interesting – The document covering magic items was still pretty hot off the PDF presses when we played, and I hadn’t had too much time to look it over before tossing some of its contents in. I’m pleased to see that many items have peculiar quirks (the demands of the “Oathbow” made sure our archer held off on its devastating power until she was sure she could take down her target) and value outside of their obvious applications in combat. I know it’s early yet, but this is the way to go. I enjoyed that 4th edition offered a wide range of magic items, but so few of them had any real appeal – I think giving items a lot of character and “extracurricular” capabilities can make even statistically sub-par treasures worth having.

3D Terrain Fosters Creative Thinking – This isn’t strictly a 5th edition related note, but it’s worth mentioning since I’m giving an after action report. This was one of the first times I busted out my 3D terrain pieces provided in the Harrowing Halls map tile pack. I found my players using the tables and stairs in thoughtful ways, and I think having those pieces there – rather than just an image of a table on a tile or the mention of one in a description – really fostered that kind of thinking. Sure, you might think of using a table as cover even if there wasn’t a table miniature, but it’s easier to overlook that possibility if the environment isn’t emphasized. 3D terrain is just one way to do this, of course. A very descriptive and thorough DM can do just as well, but I’ll make the case for my silly props enhancing play and inspiring characters (Ha! Take that you graph-paper loving grognards!)

In general my comments are positive but bear in mind this is just the results of a single session, and it went well, meaning we had fun, and that my impression of any flaws in the system are probably negated by that. Also, our pizza was late, and thus free…who can be in a bad mood when THAT happens!


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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Announcements


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Ashpeak Ascent

“The McGuffin sits atop this peak” – like you would have it any other way…

This encounter is intended for five players of 6th level

This week’s encounter (which I have been toying with in my head for a while and in bits and pieces since April) is brought to you by a stew of collaborative neuroses.

Every D&D nerd does it. Be it in film, video games or literature. You see something cool and say “What are the stats for it.” I distinctly remember watching Legolas fire arrows in quick succession on screen during Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” saying to myself – “Oh yeah, the ‘Rapid Shot’ feat!” So I do this just as bad and as often as anyone else.

Confession: I am an unabashed “Bioware” fanboy. I know that being a fanboy is wrong – but it feels so right! After all, these are the folks who made “Baldur’s Gate!” Who is going to fault me for loving that with zeal and fanaticism?

Let’s add to that the fact that I am one of those guys who gets way too excited about trailers and you are lead to today’s encounter.

So when I saw the opening cinematic for Dragon Age: Origins – that is to say, the “Sacred Ashes” trailer – I knew the day would come when I wrote it up as an encounter.

Today is that day.

Outside my self-gratifying desire to needlessly pin numbers onto story elements – I also wanted to take a crack at an encounter that lasted longer and came in small, distinct chunks with fewer monsters (or weaker monsters) in each. It’s a method I’ve seen used to recall the quick fights/many rooms feel of some old school dungeons (A feeling closer in step with the current 5th ed/D&D Next design ethos) and I felt like it would adequately represent the action of the video.

Our Hurlocks will be played by orcs today (surprise surprise!) Now if you’re looking for a Dragon Age RPG, then Green Ronin has you covered; my goal is to tool around with an encounter based on the video, not give you a full conversion for all the monsters and magic of Ferelden and her neighbors. That being said, if you’d like your orcs to feel a bit more like darkspawn, might I suggest adding the following monster power:

Darkspawn Blood (Poison)
No Action – Close burst 1
Trigger: The Darkspawn is first bloodied or drops to 0HP
Target: Attacking Creature

Effect: The target takes ongoing 5 poison damage (save ends)

This encounter works well as the “front door” to a dungeon you were already planning on running. Whether the darkspawn/orcs are simply camped in the ruins or actively looking for the McGuffin the players are after is up to you.

The players will have to fight their way up the mountain slope, through the outlying ruins, and finally be confronted by a lesser dragon at the entrance to the dungeon. A straight-forward running melee.

NOTE: Not all of the Darkspwan/Orcs are accounted for on the map to prevent clutter. Precise starting location can be a little fast and loose. Stick to the descriptions of each phase and use what works best for you.

Map Features
Flat Topped Pillars – These pillars (rectangular shaped pillars on the map) can be climbed with an Athletics Moderate check and require an entire move action to reach the top. They otherwise provide cover and are blocking terrain.

Broken Pillars – These pillars (represented by circles on the map) can be used as cover and count as blocking terrain, but are crumbling and unsteady.

Ruins – Squares containing ruins count as rough terrain and provide cover from ranged and area attacks

Cliff – Don’t fall off the cliff or it’s game over, man

Ice – The sheet of ice on the western side of the map is dangerously slick. For every square entered, make an attack +7 vs. REF. on hit, the creature takes 2 damage, is knocked prone, and their movement ends.

Encounter Phases
Phase 1: Ascent – 10 Orc Savages, 1 Battletested Orc
As the encounter begins, allow PCs to establish their marching order at the westernmost end of the incline. The front two PCs will use their passive perception to detect the orcs ambush in the mists up ahead (Perception DC 17). If they succeed then the orcs do not gain surprise when they attack, and initiative is rolled normally. The mist lingers for the first two rounds, granting the orcs light concealment. Make certain that the Battletested Orc is in the second row of attackers, letting the players cut down the first few orcs easily. This is a rough bottleneck, so you might consider letting push effects function like Sten’s charge in the video, knocking back an extra rank of orcs when their front row is shoved back. When the PCs clear this ramp, they’ll have a moment of calm until they round the corner and come in full view of the ruins.

Phase 2: Hit the Deck! – 10 Orc Savages, 1 Orc Shaman
Once the players come into view of the shaman the next phase begins. The PCs can now see the Savages as well, who are in mid jog forward to engage the interlopers. The Shaman makes sure to use fireball (see the entry for the shaman below) as soon as at least 2 PCs are in range, not worrying much about scorching a few of his own men (though he won’t endanger many or them lest he risk his own hide). The Shaman will flee from melee but won’t maneuver too far away.

Phase 3: Ruins – 15 Orc Savages, 2 Battletested Orcs Ideally the players will have their initiatives staggered with the orcs in order to draw them into the varied terrain of the ruins. Regardless the orcs will charge in at best possible speed. Let the Battletested orcs swarm the first opponent in (likely your defender) giving that character a hard fight. The minions can chase after softer targets. Two of the Savages will have short bows (same damage as hand axes, range of 20) and fire from relative safety behind the ice sheet.

Phase 4: The Dragon Arrives – 1 Young Earthquake Dragon The dragon will first attempt to keep the advantage of its reach and flight by hovering over any ranged attackers and biting them. Once its aura grows strong, it will land in the midst of its foes to subject them all to the earthquakes effects.

x35 Orc Savages/Hurlock Grunts (Pg. 226 Monster Vault)
x3 Battletested Orcs/Hurlock Alphas (Pg. 225 Monster Vault)
x1 Orc Shaman/Hurlock Emissary (Pg. 229 Monster Vault) – replace the Vengeful Whirlwind power with the Wizard’s Fireball spell (Player’s Handbook pg. 161) Use the Shaman’s attack bonus and damage from Vengeful Whirlwind. Add an “Effect: Target is knocked prone” line.
x1 Young Earthquake Dragon (Pg. 69 Monster Manual III)


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