Playing Card Treasure Generator

I talked about why I started using playing cards as a random generator in the previous post. In short, as a young gamer I didn’t have the spare cash to pick up every new gaming aid that came out, so I improvised with what I had. And like any gamer, what I had were decks of regular playing cards. Thus was born an entire series of Game Master generators that I used for several years. Today I’m going to talk about my treasure generator. Note that I’ve adjusted it for use with 5e D&D, but it’s just as useful for Pathfinder and other fantasy systems. With a few adjustments you could also use it in a modern setting.

As with all these generators, the treasure generator gives you the framework of a treasure hoard (general value, types of items) and allows you to add the specific details that fit your campaign. So the generator can tell you the characters found jewelry, for instance, but you have to decide if it’s a Third Dynasty Dwarven necklace or a platinum Gnomish puzzle ring.  Or both.

To start, decide what type of treasure hoard you are generating. For a small, personal stash I’ll deal out a blackjack hand (two cards); if I’m going for the Big Boss’s treasure I’ll deal out a five- or seven-card stud hand (but keep all seven). For a dragon hoard or similar big treasure, I’ll do the full Texas Holdem of ten cards (five card hand, five card river). There are ways to adjust the values of these cards to better tune the amount of treasure as well, which we’ll touch on in a bit.

Once you’ve decided how many cards you’re drawing, draw them and look at the suits. The suits tell you the type of treasure present, as follows:

  • Diamonds: Money, Gems, or Jewelry (anything where the primary value comes from its gold-piece value)
  • Clubs: Mundane Items or Trade Goods (anything from the equipment section of the PHB, or bulk trade goods like bolts of fabric or barrels of pickles)
  • Hearts: Crafted Items or Objects of Art (chalices, paintings, tapestries, statues and so on)
  • Spades: Magic Items

Then look at the value of each card. The numbered cards give you a gold piece value based on the card’s number x10. The Jack is worth 150gp, Queen is 250gp, King is 500gp, and the Ace is 750gp. For Spades, the card value gives you the commonality of the magic item: 2-10 is Common, Jack and Queen is Uncommon, King is Rare, Ace is Very Rare.  I purposely left Legendary out of the generator, as I feel it’s the GM’s perogative to add those items to her campaign.

If you want to adjust the overall value of the treasure found, you can do that in one of two ways. Either change the multiplier up or down, anywhere between x2 (for very pitiful treasure) to x100 (stumbled into an efreeti’s vault). Alternatively, change the monetary base up or down. Gold is the standard, but you could change the values of everything to be in silver pieces or even copper if you want very small value treasures, or up to electrum or platimum to raise the overall value. I tend to adjust the multiplier only, but you can experiment to find the amount of fine-tuning that works for you.

That brings us to the Jokers. Drawing a Red Joker indicates the characters have found something of extreme benefit to them, whether they realize it or not. This could be a magical artifact, a signet which identifies them as allies to the right people, or a scroll with information or a spell they will need later. A Black Joker, on the other hand, means the characters have found something of detriment. This could be a cursed item, a signet which identifies them as allies to the wrong people, or information which leads them into a trap. Either way, the joker tells the GM it’s time to get creative and allows her to add in some plot specific items if she chooses.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Goblin Raiding Party: 4 of Hearts, 9 of Hearts, Jack of Spades. The raiding party was on it’s way home from robbing a small roadside chapel, and so is carrying candlesticks and other temple finery worth 130gp, plus the sacred waters of St. Fluvius (potion of Hill Giant Strength).
  • Ogre Lair: 9 of Diamonds, 4 of Clubs, Queen of Hearts, Ace of Spades, Black Joker. The ogre has been accosting travelers and merchants for a few weeks, but it wasn’t until it snatched the Baron’s son that the party was called in. After a hard-fought battle they’ve found the creature’s treasure, consisting of assorted coinage (90gp value), some barrels of cheap wine worth 40gp total, an assortment of gold filigree, silver wire and other artisan supplies worth 250gp, and the Baron’s son’s sword (a Dancing Sword). Sadly, they also find the body of the freshly deceased and partially eaten Baron’s son. Despite it not technically being their fault, the Baron is unlikely to ever forgive them for returning his son to him dead.

As you can see from the examples, while you get the bare bones of a treasure there is plenty of room for you to adjust the details to better fit your campaign. And much with the GPC generator, you could use the treasure generator ahead of time to have a stock list of treasures ready to go. You could even use it as a very rough method of generating some random encounters, by generating a treasure and then fitting a monster or monsters to that treasure.

If you give it a whir, let me know what you think. Do you have some tweaks or suggestions to make it better? Drop me a line in the comments.

Playing Card GPC Generator

I didn’t always have the budget for gaming that I have now. I’m certainly not complaining, it’s nice to be able to pick up a supplement if I want to, without having to decide to go without groceries or maybe hold off paying the phone bill for a bit. But I did have to get creative with my gamemastering supplements. Most of the time I resorted to using items I already had laying around from other games. And more often than not that meant a deck of cards.

Back then I was also a much more improvisational GM than I am now. It was for the best of reasons; I was running many more games than I am now. So many, in fact, that it ate into my prep time. So I adapted a simple deck of cards to cover a multitude of sins, serving as a random generator for many campaign needs. I used playing cards to generate GPCs on the fly, generate treasure as needed, figure out random monster encounters, and even help build and stock dungeons quickly. I’m going to outline the first below, saving the other uses for future posts.

These generators give you a framework to build on, as opposed to detailing everything for you. That suits my style of GMing, as I prefer to modify and customize NPCs and treasure to fit the campaign. Your mileage may vary but I hope you’ll find these at least somewhat useful. For each, I use a standard deck of playing cards with the Jokers left in, giving me 54 cards. I refer to the red and black Jokers, as the decks I have make that distinction. If your’s does not, simply mark one Joker so you can tell it from the other.

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Gamemaster Character Generation

It happens to every GM at some point. Your players have ignored the careful trail you’ve laid for them and strayed into an area you haven’t prepped. Now they want to talk to that innkeeper or wainwright you haven’t fleshed out. This generator allows you to give that GPC a quick bit of personality to hold you in the moment, and a framework to build on if the characters are likely to keep interacting with those GPCs down the line. Combine this with a list of character names and you’ll be able to generate GPCs on the fly whenever you need them. Alternatively, you can sit down for an hour and generate a list of 27 generic GPCs to slot in without needing the cards during play.

Take a deck of playing cards with the Jokers still in. Draw two cards for each GPC. The first card signifies the dominant trait of that GPC, based on the suit of that card:

Diamonds – Appearance (facial features, dress, overall demeanor)

Clubs – Physical (height, weight, body shapes)

Hearts – Personality (first impressions of the GPC’s attitude)

Spades – Secrets (the GPC is wrapped up in keeping a secret. Note this, then draw another card ignoring

The second card gives you an approximate rating for that trait, from 2 to Ace. Roughly, numbered cards describe a range of below average to average, Jack to King is above average, and Ace is exceptional in some fashion.

If you draw a Joker as the first card, that denotes either a potential ally to the party (Red Joker) or a staunch enemy (Black Joker). Draw a second card to get the actual trait and a third card for the intensity. If you draw a Joker as your second card, ignore and draw another card. Some examples:

  • Jack of Hearts (personality), 5 of Diamonds: GPC is annoyingly friendly, to the point of unwanted familiarity and contact.
  • Ace of Spades (Secret), Queen of Diamonds (appearance), Queen of Clubs – The GPC is immaculately handsome and finely dressed, and gives the impression of some sort of nobility. It is all a sham, however. All the GPC has is the (mostly faux) finery on their back and is desperate to keep anyone from finding that out.
  • Black Joker (Enemy), King of Clubs (Physical), 3 of Clubs – The GPC was painfully crippled during some altercation the party was involved in. Now the GPC is doing all they can to make the character’s lives miserable and working towards their ultimate revenge.

As you can see, the method still requires you to interpret the results, but I’ve found it to be a great way of generating quick GPCs. Slap a name on them and it’s enough to play them for a session, before fleshing them out later.
Do you use playing cards to aid your game-mastering? Have you taken this GPC generator for a spin, and did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.

Encounter Locations – Part 2

Last time we talked about what inspires encounter location design, and how to start the cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgprocess. Inspiration for an encounter location can really come from anywhere, so when you have an idea make sure to record it. You may not get to it right away, but it’s great to have a list of ideas on hand. If you’ve ever been faced with needing to run something for your players on the fly, you’ll find such a list invaluable.

But that’s not you right now. Right now you have your brilliant encounter locale idea, and you want to flesh it out. So let’s look at next steps. These steps don’t have to be followed in any particular order. And in fact, you will likely find yourself tweaking and adjusting each area as you go, based on something you come up with in another step. That’s good. Nothing is set in stone until the players get there, and even then it’s less stone and more a really solid but malleable clay.

The Environment

Think about the details of the setting’s environment. How is it going to impact the characters? Is interacting in the environment difficult, or is the locale outright hostile to people? Many of these details will have a mechanical impact on the characters, either damaging, debilitating, or in some cases even enhancing them. For instance, if your locale is an underground magma flow you may have to look up your game’s rules for high-temperature environments.

Not everything in your setting will have, or needs to have, a mechanical effect. Sometimes it’s just as useful for the setting to evoke a particular feeling or mood. I’ve definitely tailored my abandoned crossroads station around a particular mood, dread. The area around the crossroads is very open and bare, so the man-made features, like the gallows and the tower, stand out. But while those might be the most noticeable things from a distance, there are also features revealed as the characters draw closer. If you look at the map from the previous article you’ll see what appears to be an empty field in the northern corner of the crossroads. That field is anything but empty, but the players won’t know that until their characters get closer. Then it will become apparent that the empty, grassy field is packed with a series of small mounds, not unlike unmarked graves. None of them look like they’ve been disturbed (for now). But imagine describing this field of mounds, the wind rustling through the grass (almost sounds like whispering…), and across the field, ropes dancing in the wind, stands a gallows. Yep, can’t wait for my group to go there.

What Lives There?

Once you’ve filled out some of the details of your location’s environment, it’s time to think about what might live there. Looking at the magma cavern example again, fire elementals and fire giants would be really obvious ones (nothing wrong with obvious, by the way, as long as your players have fun). But there could also be creatures that just enjoy being warm, that have taken advantage of the magma flow to take up residence in side caverns close by. Duergar (or even just a group of regular dwarves) could have set up shop, taking advantage of the flow to aid in smithing or ore processing. Maybe the local goblins use the location for ceremonies, and the rare occasions they want to cook meat quickly.

Also take a moment to consider whether what lives in your location might have predators. I don’t know what might hunt fire elementals regularly, but if there was something, they’d likely be keeping an eye on local magma flows. If dwarves are using the location maybe orcs want to take it from them; the characters could arrive in the middle of such an attack. Conflict is always exciting, so think of ways such conflict might exist at your location.

Conversely, who is allied with the creatures in your encounter? If Duergar have set up shop at the magma flow, can drow seeking trade be far behind? Any number of subterranean races could trade with the grey dwarves in this situation, and it might be the perfect way to introduce your players to some creature they might not encounter without weeks of underground travel. Or if goblins are using the location for ceremonies, maybe there is a fire elemental smart enough to pretend to be a god, demanding tribute from the goblins in return for favours.

The more layers of creatures you can add to the environment, the more “lived-in” it will feel. That doesn’t mean you have to force something to be there if it doesn’t fit. And sometimes the environment is so hostile that your creature pool is limited. But do give some thought to the creatures you place in your locale beyond their stats and treasure.

Speaking of Treasure…

You’ve created a location interesting enough for the players to send their characters to investigate. You’ve given them cool creatures and challenges to overcome when they arrive. Now what do they get out of it? Sure, sometimes killing monsters is its own reward, but is doesn’t buy you a round back at the inn.

The most obvious sources of treasure are, of course, the creatures you’ve placed there. Duergar or dwarves will have items they’ve created, as well as the raw materials for making those items. Heck, the smithy itself is treasure, when looked at from a certain point of view. The goblins will have whatever they’ve been giving to their fire elemental god, as well as whatever they’ve been holding back from their fire elemental god. If creatures have lived in the location long enough, they’ll have likely collected a number of interesting and potentially valuable items.

Maybe your group of adventurers weren’t the first to find and explore the location, they’re just the first to do it casualty-free. Bodies of previous explorers are a time-honoured way to get loot into the hands of the next generation of adventurers (especially if that loot is cursed, or has a mind of its own). Who knows, somewhere down the line your player’s characters might continue that tradition.

This is a good time to think about what might have been in the location before the current creatures. Maybe there are items hidden away by the previous inhabitants, as yet undiscovered. May the current inhabitants have only just recently discovered hidden items or treasures, and the adventurers arrive just in time to take them away. Maybe the hidden item is why the characters journeyed there in the first place, only to find your creatures in the way. Hilarity ensues.

Is the location itself a treasure? Does, the burbling fountain in the corner, once part of an ancient temple, bestow some type of benefit if drank from? Is the magma actually the molten form of a very rare metal, and can it be harvested? If you spend the night in the haunted mansion, do you actually get to make a wish like the local rumours say? Never be afraid to make your location, or even just a part of it, something wonderful and precious. Then make the players work to earn the benefit.

That’s it for this post. Next time we’ll look in a bit more detail at how I’ve combined some of these elements in my abandoned crossroads station. And I may even have a nicer map to show you! Until then, feel free to leave a comment below and share your encounter thoughts and ideas.

Encounter Locations – Part 1

One of the things I’m enjoying about running a D&D 5e campaign is a return to setting creation. I talked a bit in an earlier post about the world I created for the campaign, and what a welcome change that was after years of pre-written material. As a busy GM I’m not knocking published material by any means; I’m not certain I could have run as much Pathfinder as I did without it. But to use Paizo as an example, their material is of such good quality that, except for adjustments I made to better suit my party and their specific narrative, I didn’t have to change the much of anything. So I was getting to check the box on the performer side of GMing, but I wasn’t getting to create much of anything.

Enter D&D 5e, and my creator itch is getting soundly scratched. Not only world creation, but locations in that world, and monsters, and magic items, and…let’s just say my group is in for some excitement in the weeks and months to come.

Today I wanted to focus a bit on encounter location creation, some of the steps I took (and take) when creating an adventure locale, and give a real example from my campaign. The example I’m going to use is an abandoned crossroads watchtower, something the group will come across as they explore the lands around the town they are currently in. I’ll be talking about this location over several posts, so I’m going to save the “big reveal” about what’s really there until after the group has explored the location. I know at least one of my players reads my blog so I don’t want to spoil anything (hi, Crystal et al!).

Getting Started

Location design can start in many different ways. Maybe you have a cool idea for a trap, and you build the location around that. Or you’ve designed a monster or NPC, and now you’re building its lair. In my case, I was doodling a map on some graph paper, just a tower at a crossroads, when I started to get ideas about what was going to live there. The ideas took further shape when I drew in a gallows on one corner of the crossroads. That little addition pretty much set the tone for what my players will encounter.

Abandoned Crossroads Tower

The map that started it all. Eventually I’ll fill in terrain details, but I usually start with a simple line map. The gallows (built for four) are on the eastern corner of the crossroads.

Try to figure out early on the defining feature of your encounter location. Usually that will be whatever inspired your location choice in the first place, but that may also evolve as you flesh-out the details. But there should ideally be one dramatic feature which sets the tone for the site. Is your location near magma? Maybe the cave is near deafening with the sound of ocean surf constantly crashing through the tunnels. Or your villain could lair in an abandoned knackery (slaughterhouse), and the smell is the first thing the characters notice. Pick one memorable detail to set the location in the players’ minds. In my case, one of the first things the characters will see is a lonely gallows set on a crossroad, drawing the eye even though there is a 50’ tall watchtower on another corner. Despite the wear and obvious age of the tower and outbuildings, the gallows seems oddly well-preserved in comparison…

As the examples above show, don’t be afraid to engage other senses besides sight. Yes, we want to tell our players what they’re seeing. But throw in details about notable sounds and smells, or describe the temperature. Though technically a visual description, give them an idea of texture as well. Is the wood worn and cracked, or new and freshly varnished? Is the stonework freshly fitted, or crumbling with age? Clean or dusty? Did the character get a face full of cobwebs when they walked in the door? If so, better get ready for possible vermin, hefty size or not. Don’t be afraid to use real world examples to help the players understand the environment you’ve created. In the case of the knackery example above, ask the players if they’ve ever smelled spoiled food, especially meat. Smell is one of our strongest sense memories, so if even one of them has you’ve just made that encounter a little more vivid for that player.

One note: Be careful in describing particularly gory scenes in your games. Not everyone has the same tolerance for gore, or descriptions of disease and so on. Be mindful, and check with your players ahead of time if you aren’t sure of their tolerances.

Next post, we’ll look at filling in the details around your initial idea to bring your new location to life. Meanwhile, feel free to share any tips or ideas you have in the comments.

Getting Back in the GM’s Chair

cropped-chibi-brent.jpgTonight my Thursday Knights convene after our annual summer hiatus. We’re diving back in to the Jade Regent Adventure Path, just a smidge of the way into the first book. It can be tough coming back to your regular game after some time away, so I thought I’d share three tips to make the transition from unsightly mob of civilians to crack team of tabletop pros easier.

1) Manage Your Expectations – The first session back, you aren’t going to get as much of the story done as you would during a regular session. Hopefully you’re friends as well as gamers, so there will be more than the usual bit of socializing and catching up, since you’ve all been apart for so long. Go with the flow on this. Gaming is a social event, after all, and you want your group to enjoy their time together. Don’t ruin the fun by cracking down too hard on first-session kibitzing. But…

2) Start as You Mean to Go On – …do start getting the group back in the table habits and house rules you’ve used. After a break some of those habits will have been lost, so be gentle. But if you had specific ways of doing things (working out initiative, how each player’s round works, and so on) or house rules you were following, make sure you draw your player’s attention back to those things. And of course, if you had habits or house rules that weren’t working for you, now is the perfect time to let them fall by the wayside.

3) Hang That Sucker! – If it is at all possible, end the session on a cliffhanger. Your first session back after a break, you want to get your players excited about coming back for session two. And three, and four…you get the idea. So I trick I’ve used is to end the first session on a cliffhanger. It’s great if that can be a big story moment for the players, because that will really grab their attention. But I have, when a good story point wasn’t in sight, just stopped the game with, “Okay [insert character name], the [insert suitably horrific creature] swings at you with its [flaming tentacle/acid-spewing greatclub/halfling corpse]…and that’s where we’ll end it for tonight.” At the very least, you have one player extremely interested in what’s happening next week.

What tips do you have for getting the band back together? Share them in the comments below!

RPGaDay, Day 2: First RPG GMed

Since Dungeons & Dragons was my first game played, you might think it was the first game I game mastered. But that ‘honour’ goes to another TSR product, Gamma World. For those not in the know, Gamma World was set in a grim, post-apocalyptic world full of strange technology and irradiated mutant creatures. Some of those last included the player characters, who could be normal humans (rarely), mutants, or anthropomorphic animals and/or plants. You were explorers in a landscape that was familiar and horribly broken.

Now, I say it was grim, but I don’t remember any session being particularly serious. The only real context any of us had for the setting was what we saw in film and TV at the time, so our games were laden with every cliché we could find. One guy played nothing but variations on Mad Max. Another insisted on playing the post-apocalyptic version of Ewoks at every opportunity, making them way more cannibalistic than I remember from Return of the Jedi. We basically did everything that any campaign creation or game mastering resource will tell you not to do. Which was okay because, a) we were in junior high, and b) we had metric butt-loads of fun.

In fact, I sort of feel sorry for the current generation of young minds entering the hobby. There is such a wealth of well-meaning and sophisticated advice and instruction on how to game master and play RPGs, that I think many new young players miss out on the, in my opinion, crucial phase of gaming: the ‘As Long As You’re Having Fun You’re Doing It Right’ phase. It’s the phase where your Big Bad isn’t inspired by Ash, it is Ash down to his S-Mart boomstick. Where you unapologetically play a post-apocalyptic Wolverine, because hey, if anyone was going to survive a nuclear holocaust it would be him, right? I think we sometimes cut that phase of unrestricted play short, and we do young players and GMs a disservice.

What was the first game you GMed? Leave it in the comments!

GM Resources: One Page Dungeon Contest

There is such a wealth of Game Master resources on-line, I often find something extremely useful and then lose track of it. The One Page Dungeon contest is one of those resources, and I’m indescribably happy to have found it again.

The contest idea makes it cool enough: design an interesting dungeon (including map) which fits on a single side of a standard sheet of paper. This limitation forces the entrants to strip away any extraneous elements and focus on the essentials of their dungeon design. You might think this would lead to a lot of 1 or 2 room , simple dungeon sites. And luckily you’d be wrong. Every year the contest draws page upon page of amazing and imaginative designs, both in the content of the dungeon and the design of the page layout. Many of the entries, while great encounters, are also stunning to look at; fitting the maximum amount of dungeon on a single page leads to some incredible examples of cunning art and design. If you’d like to challenge yourself as a designer, I highly recommend entering the contest. This year it ends on April 30 and complete rules can be found here.

Now it sounds fun and worth a look. But what makes this a particularly good resource for GMs is the contest has been running since 2009, and all entries in the contest must publish themselves under the Creative Commons license. These two things make this site a veritable toy box for the busy Game Master. There are literally hundreds of excellent dungeon sites available, all of them perfect to print and play. Many of the entries are system neutral, or are at least rules/setting light, so time spent adapting to your game will be minimal. I’ve already grabbed a few to use in one of my current Pathfinder campaigns, and my total time spent working them up was 10 minutes, including print time.

A great contest and a great resource. If you have time I highly recommend just scrolling through the gallery. For me the tour was worth it just to come across a one-page dungeon set inside a certain demon idol familiar to 1st Ed. D&D players. I’ll be running that one soon…

Give and Take

As I mentioned in my New Year’s resolution post, I want to branch out and take on some guest blogging in the coming year. Writing for my blog is all well and good, and I obviously love it or I wouldn’t keep doing it. I love writing about any gamerly topic that pops into my head, and I especially like making up words like gamerly. Hey, my blog, I decide what’s proper language, thank-you very much.

But sometimes one can have too much freedom. I discovered during the 30 Days of GMing Challenge that I enjoy writing to task, committing myself to a topic I might not have chosen and seeing what develops. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes challenging, but it was always interesting. And interesting gets me out of bed in the morning.

To keep that alive, I’m making an open offer to anyone with a gaming blog: I’ll write a guest post for you. If you’ve looked around here you have a pretty good idea of my style. You pick the topic and give me a deadline, I’ll deliver a print-ready post. A few stipulations:

1) Deadline must be at least 2 weeks from date of initial request; I need time to fit your post into my schedule.

2) I’m credited for the post, with a link back to my blog.

3) I’ll write on any gaming related topic you’d like, but I’d like to keep the post in the 500-1000 word range. If I think the subject is too broad I reserve the right to narrow the scope or write multiple posts. Which I chose is dependant on my schedule and how you’d like to post.

4) I don’t write attack or smear pieces. I stay positive on my blog and if I’m visiting yours I’m going to bring that with me.

That’s it. If you’re interested in having me as a guest on your blog, please send your inquiry to: brent.jans (at) gmail.com. Please use the subject line “Guest Post” so I can pick it out of the chatter.

At the same time, I’d love to have guests here on Renaissance Gamer. If you’d be interested in writing a guest post for my blog, drop me a line at the same address. I’ll make sure you are credited and linked, and you can write something that interests you or about a topic I provide. Otherwise, the rules from above apply, just in reverse.

Tomorrow we get back to our long-dormant Campaign Creation with a closer look at our main NPCs. Until then, keep playing!

Campaign Creation: In the Depths

Last time, we talked about all the nasties awaiting our brave adventurers above ground. Now I want to look at what (or who) might be lurking underground.

Giving it some thought, I want to split the Depths, as I’ll call them, into three main areas. The first area will be just below the surface, at roughly the depth of all the cellars, basements, and underground crypts in the city. In addition to these there will be a network of ancient passages and newer, rough-hewn tunnels connecting these older spaces. Whether pre-existing, formed by accident from whatever cataclysm befell the city, or formed by generations of the current inhabitants, the areas in this level will teem with a variety of challenges for our party. Some monsters can come from above, perhaps lairing in or exploring ancient cellars and caverns. But these spaces can also be the home to nocturnal or cavern-dwelling creatures (oozes, myconids, scorpions, spiders and so forth) and serve to give the party their first taste of the world that awaits them deeper underground. Throw in the occasional discovery of some construct or magical beast, leftover and trapped in a secret lab for centuries, just to add some spice and variety.

Depth-wise, this first layer isn’t going to extend much more than 80′ or so below the surface. The majority of the creatures in this area, being natural flora and fauna (albeit monstrous and horrible), should replenish themselves or be replaced by other creatures moving in. This level should never be entirely safe, unless the party takes extreme measures to eradicate dangers.

The middle layer of the Depths is going to be a combination of natural caverns and built-up areas (underground temples, small settlements, and so on). This area will be the group’s first real introduction to an alien environment, lightless and cool but teaming with denizens suited to the environs. While there are other creatures the characters will encounter, I’m making this largely the domain of the troglodytes. I don’t really see them enough in adventures except as random underground or sewer encounters, so I’m going to take this opportunity to have some fun with them and really flesh them out. I think a couple or three tribes, all fighting back and forth through the caverns and ancient chambers, will make things suitably challenging for my party. Of course there are other dangers for the party: cave fishers, stray elementals, ancient and intelligent undead…all of these and more could be waiting in the dark.

One of the things to keep in mind when running adventures underground: the environment is as much an adversary as any of the monsters. Natural caverns don’t always have level passageways (or passageways at all); there can be sudden drops or unstable areas; rocks or plants can be toxic. The darkness itself is a challenge that must be overcome. Do you carry light sources that allow you at least some limited range of sight, but pinpoint you (and your light dependency) for everyone to see? Gaining the ability to see in darkness could become a fairly important side-quest for the party. And while you don’t want travelling underground to become so onerous the party won’t do it, never let them forget they are in an alien place.

The last layer, the true Depths, is going to contain the biggest surprise for our party: another vast city, similar in size and scope to the Ruins above, even down to the architecture (excepting adaptations made for subterranean construction, of course). But while whatever befell the Ruins also happened here, it didn’t happen to as great an extent. This city is still largely intact. And occupied.

While it is tempting to trot out the drow at this point, I’m going to instead turn to another old favourite, the duergar. Perfectly suited to life in the Depths, and tenacious enough to rebuild after whatever ancient tragedy befell their city, the duergar have over time rebuilt much of what was theirs. Later I’ll determine exactly what the connection between the Ruins and the City in the Depths is or was, but for now it is enough to know the duergar blame the surface city for what happened. And their memories are long.

And because I can’t let anything be simple, I’m adding a fun little twist to the mix: intellect devourers. They are the perfect, behind-the-scenes schemers, literally living in and amongst their victims. They are particularly insidious, because it’s entirely possible that people known to the party from the very beginning, could simply be the host disguise of a devourer. Maybe even one of those main NPCs we developed earlier…

So there we go. We’ve sketched in the general outline of encounters for our party, and as you can see we have plenty to work on. Remember, though, we’re only going to start detailing the things the party is likely to encounter first. Details for the Depths will remain largely untouched for a while, as the party will tend to adventure above ground at first. But knowing what’s waiting down there allows us to start laying in hints and seeds for future adventures early. Not a lot, we don’t want to give too much away. But if the occasional troglodyte or duergar artefact surfaces, well, that’s perfectly natural. And if someone the characters have known begins acting strange, that’s certainly worth investigating.

Next time in Campaign Creation we’ll talk maps! In the meantime, what are your favourite underground encounters? Share them in comments.

Campaign Creation: Beginnings and Broad Strokes, Part 2

In the first Campaign Creation post, we laid in a basic foundation for our campaign setting. Today we’ll expand that a little bit, focusing on the people around our characters.

At this stage of the game I’m not looking to build fully detailed non-player characters. In fact, I usually avoid statting out NPCs until I’m forced to do so by the needs of the session. That allows me some flexibility with my NPCs, and the ability to morph them into what I need at any particular moment. While that’s useful, beware turning your NPCs into “swiss army characters”; that is, no single NPC should be the solution to every problem. Once you’ve assigned certain abilities or details to a supporting character, those abilities should be fixed (although they can improve, just like any abilities can over time).

With that in mind, I’m going to drop in some supporting characters that will likely be the characters’ first contacts in the town. Normally I’d let the players tell me which NPCs to develop by seeing who pops up in their character back-stories. But since I’m building without a party in place, I’m going to develop the NPCs I think the characters will need right away. When I actually start the campaign I can still develop extra NPCs based on character history, or modify the ones I’ve already begun.

Last note, I’m going to use the same, “Good, Bad, Ugly” as I did for the campaign location, sketching in one NPC in each category for each of my four imaginary players. At this broad stage of creation it is still a great method for developing the basics of NPC relationships. Also, I think game masters can tend to focus only on NPCs beneficial to the characters, so this method pushes me to think a bit about conflicts that may be present before the characters even leave the village. None of these NPCs are my major villains (maybe), but they come into conflict with one or more of the characters in the course of their day to day.

The Good

Cynria is the mother of one of the characters, and also a member of the town guard. A caravan guard for many years, she married her partner (now deceased) and settled in the village to raise a family. While a supportive parent, she can tend to be over-protective and strict, even severe if she feels the situation warrants. Of late she has requested patrol routes that take her to the very border of the village and The Ruin, though she won’t say why. A good NPC for martial training, and an information contact for rumours and tidings from both the village and merchants.

Beorn, a dwarf, maintains one of the small chapels in the village (we’ll talk about those later), serving as a simple brother of the order. While fearless in the face of violence, no one has ever seen Brother Beorn raise a hand in anger himself. He can be found anywhere in the village, collecting stories from those that have braved The Ruin for a history he is compiling. An obvious NPC contact for any divine oriented characters, and could serve to provide historical information as required.

In addition to the basics carried by any general store, Vidan’s Mercantile carries an eclectic mix of odd items found in The Ruin. An energetic and friendly halfling, Vidan is happy to purchase any truly strange object adventurers bring her. She is even happier to sell these oddities, ascribing them a host of fascinating (and sometimes real) qualities. Brother Beorn and Vidan continually wage a war of words regarding the artefacts Vidan sells, Beorn maintaining they should be made available for study and Vidan agreeing…for a price, of course.

Rahjaq, a long-time ex-patriot from warmer climes, maintains both a local tavern and an apothecary.  While some find it worrisome the two share the same kitchen, there have been no serious mishaps, and most everyone come’s to the tavern to try Rahjaq’s special drink blends. And to see if there will be a repeat of the gaseous form incident.  Cynria seems to have a personal grudge against Rahjaq, and while there is speculation no one knows why. Despite this public antagonism, they have been seen talking together on several occasions, sometimes even amiably.

The Bad

Wenred serves as acolyte to one of the village’s less well attended churches. His tireless proselytizing has become tiresome, and he fails to see that he is part of the reason people worship elsewhere. If one of the characters shares Wenred’s faith, that character is never good enough in Wenred’s opinion. Any time they are together, Wenred will make his disapproval clear. If a character follows another deity, Wenred will insist on debating doctrine in an effort to show why his faith is superior.

Beomond can usually be found in the market, alternately looking for work loading and offloading various caravans or begging for alms. While many look down their nose at him as just another lazy, drunken beggar, the observant note that he never has the smell of liquor about him and never seems intoxicated. Unknown to most everyone, Beomond actually works for an organization intent on securing the best Ruin artefacts for themselves.  His somewhat innocuous presence in the market allows him to gather information on groups set to explore The Ruin (so they can be watched and targeted if necessary), or on caravans carrying artefacts away from the village (so they can be robbed as necessary). He will always be very interested in what the characters are doing, even going so far as to offer to be a bearer during one of their explorations, if his organization deems it necessary.

Too lazy to be an effective guard, but just clever enough to keep his job, Menforth uses his position with the town watch to collect “protection” fees.  These fees, of course, really only protect someone from him, and then only for a short time. Menforth has a knack for ferreting out merchants and adventurers who don’t want their business known, and extorting “reasonable” fees to keep their secrets. His twin knack of only choosing targets too weak or compromised to complain has so far kept him out of trouble, but someday that might fail him and he’ll be caught with his hand too far out.

Anrich can be found in any of the village’s taverns, swapping tall tales for cheap wine. No one believes any of his stories of a life spent adventuring, but none can deny he spins a great story; the drunker he gets, the greater they become. In truth, folks are right not to believe anything Anrich says. The drunken lush persona is just one more mask he has worn pursuing his greatest love: murder. Unknown to any in the village, many of the disappearances attributed to monsters or misfortune are the result of unfortunate meetings with Anrich on the hunt. Someday soon the village might discover his secret, or the special location where he keeps his trophies. But for now he enjoys making the rounds of the taverns and selecting his next target.

The Ugly

For this category, I’m sort of breaking my “no swiss army NPC” rule a little bit. But I’ve already thought ahead to who and what I want in the major villain of the campaign, and so I want an NPC to serve as the major foil to that villain. Because this NPC is going to be a major player, I’m just creating the one, but he/she will come in contact with each party member in a different way. Not martially powerful, this NPC will have to use cunning and guile to oppose the actions of my main villain, and will not be known to my player characters right from the beginning.

Aldmuel has resided in the village since its founding, though he was a local even before that event. One of the original mage-architects of the city (now The Ruin), Aldmuel’s power waned as the city crumbled; while still fairly powerful by mortal standards, his/her power is a fraction of what it once was. Aldmuel has remained, both to discover what laid his beloved city low millennia ago, and to oppose the darkness he has sensed beneath The Ruins. Aldmuel never appears as his/herself, instead adopting any number of guises to suit the situation. The player characters may well encounter Aldmuel early and often in their adventuring career: as the stable boy looking after their mounts, the tavern girl serving their drinks, the wealthy merchant or inquisitive sage commissioning a delve into The Ruin. In what he sees as a war fought in the shadows, Aldmuel will not hesitate to use the characters as he sees fit. Eventually, he may even resort to the truth as a tactic, and reveal him/herself to the party.

Okay, that’s it for NPCs for now. This gives a good mix to start with, and as you can see, developing NPCs leads to fleshing out more bits of the setting. For instance, we now know there is a town guard, a general store, multiple taverns, at least two chapels or shrines, a blackmarket, and at least one criminal organization. Those details will be the first to get fleshed out when we turn our attention back to the setting later. But next time we’re going to turn our focus to The Ruin, and decide what creatures make it a dangerous place to spend time.

It also occurs to me, it’s about time to give this village a name. If you have an idea of what to call our little town perched on the edge of The Ruin, drop it in the comments. I’ll go through and pick the one I like the best, and the name giver may even win a prize, because I’m swell like that.