Dungeon Designs – The Living Vault, part 1

Recently I’ve been brainstorming a new concept for a dungeon. Not for any particular reason – I just think it sounds cool. But I wanted to discuss it here to show off my method for making dungeons, which should be informative, entertaining, and/or horrifying.

That last option is primarily for people who have played in my games, who will presumably come away from this thinking “what the hell man, that’s how you came up with this nonsense?” To which I say… sometimes.

Other times I’m just sort of winging it.

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DM Me – Changing Times

Today, we’ll be talking about change. Specifically the changes that WotC has been all about recently, which some have welcomed and others have criticized. Do I, personally, support the changes?

Here’s a whole post about that answer which boils down, ultimately, to “maybe.”

Speaking of change, I finally remembered how to do the “read more” link. So that’s new! And probably good.

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DM Me – Complexity

Welcome back! Today’s unasked question is “what’s the deal with complexity in games?”

Today’s unedited answer is, of course, very complex.

But seriously, let’s just talk about complexity a bit. It’s a tough topic that I feel is the sole differentiator between people who like different role-playing games.

And if that doesn’t sound complex at all, just you wait.

Necessary Complications

To start I just want to explain that I don’t hate complexity. In fact, the nature of rules in D&D is what allows the game to work as a storytelling device – if there were no rules we’d all just be sitting around chatting. The rules create the desire to make something more cohesive.

However I often see people complaining about a lack of complexity. The main difference between 5e people and Pathfinder people is exactly this, at least in my opinion. Pathfinder is complex and 5e is simple.

Even within those groups, however, there are those who want to add more complexity. And that, I feel, is foolish.

A certain level of complexity is required. We have to define what a character can and cannot do, of course, and we also have to define the methods by which the DM can affect the world. These definitions allow us to all understand the game on equal ground.

What these complex systems do wrong is assume that “more complexity = better game” with no regard for context. Adding in a realistic and deep asthma system to 5e doesn’t make it a better game – in fact it does quite the opposite.

At the end of the day, the question is about what content is worth the complexity.

Encumbered with Mechanics

Let’s take Encumbrance (or as Pathfinder calls it, Bulk) as an example. When I first started playing Pathfinder, I was incredibly impressed with Bulk. The 5e Encumbrance system had always been such a pain to track that we had never bothered with it. This new Bulk system seemed much more manageable.

We then proceeded to play Pathfinder and never use the Bulk system. It just hasn’t come up and we haven’t needed it. If someone tries to do something unreasonable our DM can just say “no way” and we’re good.

It wasn’t important in 5e to know exactly how much a cannon weighs, and it wasn’t important to know how much Bulk a cannon has in Pathfinder.

Because at the end of the day we all know that you can’t just carry a whole damn cannon.

Does this mean the Encumbrance and Bulk systems are bad? Not at all! I can see uses for both (even if Bulk is still likely better). But the point is that it isn’t a necessity.

You can also compare this to other stories. How many times did encumbrance come up as an issue in Lord of the Rings? Wheel of Time? Both series mentioned the concept of “there’s only so much you can carry” but in neither case were they central themes of the story.

Because ultimately we aren’t reading those books to hear about the inconveniences of carrying everything you might need. We’re reading for epic battles, dangerous adventures, and fantastic magic.

And that begs a question…

Is Anything In Need of More Complexity?

So are there places where D&D could use some added complexity? Personally my answer is no – say what you will about 5e’s many issues, but one thing they seem to usually have a good grasp on is the principle of “simple and playable above all else.” Something Pathfinder unfortunately doesn’t share.

But there are a few places where D&D just doesn’t have enough specificity. The clearest example of this is in crafting magic items, which as far as I’ve seen has never gotten any clarification. Some people make magic items somehow and that’s pretty much all you get.

So would 5e benefit from having rules on making magic items? Yes! Does 5e need those rules? No!

For one, crafting magical items is something that only spellcasters can do. Even more than that, you generally only find three classes behind magical item creation – wizards, artificers, and clerics. While a sorcerer or warlock could make a magic item, that isn’t as much in their fantasy (and most of the warlock’s magic item fantasy is fulfilled by the Book of Shadows and Pact Weapon).

Additionally magic item creation is normally a higher-level activity. You could get some 1st levels making potions, and 5th levels may dabble in trinkets and scrolls, but you usually don’t expect significant magic item crafting until you hit like 10th level. And, no matter what people may actually want, the numbers consistently show that the majority of games never get past the mid levels.

So if we did add a magical item crafting system, it would only be usable by an extreme minority of characters. Now you might be thinking “that’s perfect then! it doesn’t matter if it’s complex if only a few people will use it!” And you’d be right in that.

But we’re still left with two issues. The first is bloat – even if a given mechanic is not intended to be used by 90% of players, it’s still on the books and thus taking up space. The second issue is that just because it’s intended for high-level play doesn’t mean it’ll stay there.

Another problem presented is the slippery slope issue. If we have a system for creating new magic items, shouldn’t wizards have the ability to create new spells? Should we add the ability to modify existing magic items?

I hate slippery slope arguments, but in this case my point is more that “these are all equally valid concerns” rather than “doing this one thing will inevitably cause all of these other problems.” We physically cannot perfectly simulate fantasy life (unfortunately) and so we have to be careful with what we spend effort on.

Sounds Awfully Complex

Ultimately my gist is that I always see these “a new ruleset gives 5e some much-needed complexity!” clickbait titles and immediately think “have you not played D&D?”

And this ties into a trend online in which simple systems are seen as insufficient. That if a game (of any kind) isn’t complex then it isn’t worth playing. But in reality it’s the simplest games that get the most success.

I know Minecraft is a typical example, but there are others as well. Early Hearthstone got its success from its simple mechanics (which are now dead somewhere in a ditch). Super Smash Bros is successful because of its “party game first, fighting game second” design. Look at all of these successful games and what you generally find is an inner simplicity that makes them so appealing.

And I know there’s a market for complexity. Many people get bored with these simplistic games and eventually move on to more complex ones. But those people, as far as I’ve seen, are in the minority. And the best games, the ones with the most success, are the ones that are exceedingly simple but still have sufficient depth to keep fans of complexity interested.

I feel that most tabletop RPGs fall into that latter category. Base 5e is simple to play and easy to learn (for the most part). Pathfinder 2e is more complex, but is ultimately still something you could pick up and play without only a moderate amount of prep time.

Both also have other options to add complexity. If you want to, you can multiclass in 5e in order to get a character that more closely matches your preferences. The absolute glut of feats available in Pathfinder 2e means that you can customize your character to be as simple or complex if you like.

And finally, due to TTRPGs’ nature as a collaborative experience, the games need to be simple so that everyone can play them. You need a group of people, and you need rules that a group of people can understand and agree on.

So if you want to add complexity, go right ahead. But the game doesn’t need it to be a good game.

Please. I already had to learn THAC0 once, I don’t want to have to do it again.

DM Me – A Big Cosmic Deal

Welcome to a new series of unasked questions and unedited responses! It’s a mindfulness exercise. As far as anyone can tell.

Anyway… cosmic plots. It’s a topic that’s been bouncing around my head recently. What are they and why do people love/hate them so much?

Let’s take a look together and figure it out. Maybe. The post-credits scene will throw a wrench in it all, but that’ll get solved sometime in Phase 37.

What Are You Even Talking About?

So, what is a “cosmic” plot? Simply put it’s a narrative whose scope encompasses the entire vastness of a reality – in other words, it’s an existential threat.

Examples of this kind of plot include Avengers: Infinity War, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands (I’m still mad), and the Wheel of Time series. In each of these stories, the ultimate goal of the villain is to irrevocably alter or even end reality itself. This isn’t the fate of the galaxy, like in Star Wars, and it isn’t a continental scale problem, like in Lord of the Rings.

On a grand scale of narratives, cosmic plots occupy the highest point.

By necessity, cosmic narratives require cosmic characters. This isn’t a tale about the dark wizard Voldemort – we’re dealing with the Dark One, the ultimate evil of reality. Simultaneously the heroes must also be on a cosmic level. Our Chosen One can’t be a kid with a scar, it has to be the Dragon Reborn, a figure of massive power and dread importance.

There’s also an effect on setting, but that varies a bit more. Cosmic narratives tend to take place in outer space or in metaphysical space. You don’t fight Thanos just in Africa, you have to go to a blasted ruin of a planet to do it. But again, that varies.

So now we know what a cosmic plot is. The question that remains is why do I even care.

A Problem of Scale

Narrative depends on creating a connection between the viewer and the characters. Cosmic narratives run into issues because the problems these characters face are incomprehensible and the stakes unimaginable.

What does it mean to “rewrite reality” like the Jailer in WoW wants to? What does “eliminating half of all life” look like in practice? What happens if the Dark One breaks free?

In the latter two examples, we get concrete examples. Thanos has been pulling his balancing act on various planets for a while now – we can see what his “solution” looks like through the eyes of people who suffered, like Gamora. The Dark One breaking free is an unknown, but we are shown the effects of him almost breaking free – the Age of Legends came to such a disastrous end that the world still hasn’t healed.

But even so a problem remains. In a longer narratives (IE not a movie) what emotion does this cause? How do people feel? In Wheel of Time we get to see a wide variety of reactions, from despair to wild determination. It’s the end of the universe and everyone has their own way of coping.

More importantly, the reactions of various characters are usually tied to concrete, visible things. Rand fears losing people he loves. And we see him lose people. I won’t say who for the benefit of people who haven’t read the books, but the point is that we get to see what the end of the world means for Rand al’Thor. Or for Mat, or Moraine, or Lan.

When we’re told that the Dark One plans to unmake reality, we know what that means to each character and what hurts them the most.

Okay, But Isn’t This Supposed to be a D&D Blog?

When it comes to D&D, cosmic narratives are very common. Most official adventures are stories of preventing Tiamat from destroying the world, or saving the world from Elemental Evil, or stopping a strange death curse. A few focus on smaller things (can someone please kick this magical hobo out of the basement of Waterdeep?), but they tend to be the exception.

The best of these adventures handle the cosmic scale of the story by introducing connections. Likable NPCs threatened by the villain, or welcoming townships that turn into another home for the party. In effect, they make things smaller so you can properly appreciate the vastness of the danger.

My favorite moment in all the campaigns I’ve run was one of cosmic importance that exemplified this concept. In it, the party faces off against a megalomaniac warlord seeking to gain control over all the planes of reality. But the memorable moment is when one of the PCs, a former hero fallen on hard times, shatters their family sword to kill the villain. It was a perfect end to their arc, and it was the most memorable part of the whole encounter.

No matter how I could draw out that fight, taking place at the heart of creation between a desperate party and an all-powerful villain, nothing could compare to the simple breaking of a sword. Galaxies could be colliding in the background, Latin chanting in the air and multicolored flames surrounding the party… but the moment of connection was a character silently breaking their most precious possession.

There are other ways to do it, of course. And in that campaign I did try to give my own reasons for why players should care. There was the young, awkward couple they had met at the beginning of their trip. There was the stranger they had met along the way, whose fate was tragically tied to the villain’s scheme. There was the city they had come to call home hanging on the edge of destruction.

The key is that when it comes to playable narratives, whether that’s D&D or video games, you have to give the player a concrete connection to the plot and the characters. The villain can rewrite reality all he wants – what I need to know is who gets hurt by this?

Infinite Cosmic Power, Tiny Narrative Space

So how do you write a cosmic narrative? My advice is to play Hades for starters – its unique blending of deific conflict and family strife is a perfect example. Your hero, Zagreus, is dealing with ancient forces of Chaos and a potential war between the gods of Olympus and the cthonic forces of the Underworld.

But in the end, he’s just a guy who wants his family to work. And we can all understand that one.

The most important thing is to give your players something to care about as well as concrete expectations of what failure entails. I failed at that latter part in my own campaign and was luckily saved by my players’ incredible performance in investing in the story.

There’s nothing wrong with a cosmic narrative as long as you’re aware that we, ourselves, are not cosmic beings. We need to interact with things on our own level in order for it to resonate with us.

Outside of D&D, though, I think there’s something to be said about the irrelevance of epicness. We all love epic fantasy of course, but it doesn’t have to be epic. Sometimes you can just write a story about someone getting over a personal tragedy and it can end up just as dramatic and satisfying as a story about taking down the ultimate evil of the universe.

Not everything has to be the end of the world. And not every “end of the world” involves the world literally ending. Sometimes, to certain characters, “the world” is just another word for their loved ones, or the experience of living. Watching someone you love die is the end of the world, to you anyway. The challenge of a writer is to make the viewer feel that desperation too.

And there we have it! I should also point out that just because I’m not editing this doesn’t mean I’m just throwing it out into the world – so please, let me know what you think!

Oh, and if you have any questions… DM me (or comment).

Late Review – Lords of Darkness (2e)

Welcome to yet another very late review – today we’ll be looking at Lords of Darkness, a compilation set of undead-themed content introduced by Ed Greenwood. Some may recognize him as the original creator of the Forgotten Realms setting that now serves as D&D’s “default” world, while others probably just recognize his name from the absurd number of old D&D products that bear it.

Prolific doesn’t even begin to cut it.

However, that star-studded title can be a bit misleading… after all, Greenwood only “introduces” the book – an introduction that forms one of the book’s two real high points. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Click below to get grave-robbing!

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Pathfinder 2e and an Uncharacteristic Review

Recently my regular group has been playing in a Pathfinder game (when we get time and schedules line up, which is notoriously difficult). In any case, this is my first real foray into Pathfinder – something that isn’t at all surprising to those who know me.

Nevertheless I decided to give this updated edition a shot to see how it was. And it is actually, genuinely much better! So far I’ve been left with two things: a sense of surprise that I’m actually enjoying my time with the system, and a deep conviction that I will never in my life attempt to get a new player into it.

So let’s talk Pathfinder, shall we?

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Ravenloft Review – The Most Dangerous Game and Train

Happy Halloween! Stay safe and be aware that plague doctor outfits may have become annoying to your neighbors if you’ve been wearing them since early 2020 like I definitely haven’t been.

Anyway, welcome to the Lightning Round! Today we’ll be looking at Valachan, Cyre 1313, and nearly half a dozen other minor Domains. These last few are great for one-shots by the way, if you’re looking for last-minute Halloween game ideas (though I’d personally recommend just running Tomb of Horrors – great time for a Halloween game).

Click through for the Hunt and the rest of the Lightning Rail Round!

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Ravenloft Review – Roll for Initiative, Scooby Doo!

More Domains, more Darklords, we’re back for another segment on Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft! Halloween is frighteningly (hah) close now, though the real fear yet lies in wait… Christmas music. It’s already started where I live, at least a little bit. Soon enough I’ll be begging to be taken by the mists.

Anyway, today we’ll be covering what I call “the Scooby Doo Duo (and Richemulot)!” Though any true Ravenloft Scooby Doo adaptation would likely be better served by replacing Richemulot with Kartakass, but alas the alphabet is a cruel mistress. Anyway, on with the show in Mordent, Richemulot, and Tepest!

Click through to unmask the “monster” (and find something worse underneath)!

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Ravenloft Review – Tiger Insurgents, Werewolf Bards, and Flesh Golems, Oh My!

Welcome back once again to an extended review of all the various Domains and Darklords of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Happy Halloween is growing steadily closer to being actually relevant!

Today we’ll be looking at the Domains of Kalakeri, Kartakass, and Lamordia – which is almost as weird a trio as last week.

Click through for Frankenstein’s monster and more!

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Ravenloft Review – How Do You Even Pronounce I’Cath?

Welcome back to an extended review of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, going Domain by Domain. Happy Halloween again!

Today we’ll be looking at the Domains of Har’Akir, Hazlan, and I’Cath, which are pretty much only similar in that I have pithy one-liners already prepped for all three.

Click through for more horror and/or horrible jokes!

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