Monday, July 20, 2015

Reader Mail Bag: July

Welcome to the next installment of answering your emails. First up a light one, then a good meaty one!

From Cat:

So, my girlfriend and I are playing D&D together. We both have two characters and change turns being DM. She is new to the game and I'm trying to keep her interested without being to pushy. I'm struggling with building a game she can enjoy. So far we've been playing adventures that are all wrapped up in one session and are about to try HotDQ. I was hoping you could give some ideas on how to keep her engaged.

My response:

I think it's great that you're trying to keep you're campaign going, but there's really no way to make someone stay interested in anything, let alone Dungeons & Dragons. You can try implementing some emotional hooks like I describe in Injecting Emotion into your Game. The best piece of advice I can give you though is to go online or your local gaming store and look for gaming groups you can join, preferably one with a dedicated Dungeon Master. This isn't to say that taking turns won't work, but I would venture to assume that the fact you're taking turns might mean neither of you really wants to be the Dungeon Master. Finding a group to game with will not only be more fun, but allow you both to focus on your own characters while the dedicated Dungeon Master can focus on what s/he loves best - worldbuilding and running the game. Also, finding a group will allow you to keep playing even if your girlfriend loses interest.

From Dagfinn:


I wanted to write you after reading your last blog entry about injecting emotion into your game. After reading through a few other blog posts and some of your recommended links, I tried to implement some of what I learned into my own game in which I am the DM.  My group consists of five people (a dragon sorc, a monk, two rogues, and a ranger). It isn’t the most optimized group. They don’t have any healing and their highest AC is a 16, but I’ve learned that between the ranger and the swashbuckler, they can really put out a serious burst of damage in a very short amount of time.

Regardless, I’ve been dropping a variety of story lines and hooks for them to follow. Not wanting to railroad them I presented them with a plethora of options. Some seeming important and serious, while others were clearly (in their minds) more of a sidequest. My players decided after exploring an abandoned mine, which they soon discovered was actually a front for an entrance into the underdark, that they wanted to go into the underdark. They knew that an npc they had a fairly unfriendly relationship was seeking a powerful artefact that they suspected was down there. Unfortunately the party practically zero research on the artefact so they didn’t really know what they were looking for. Regardless, they went down into the darkness in search of something that they believed resembles a magical stone.

My players quickly discovered that the Northern underdark is mostly controlled by a Skaven based race that we called “Skatri” in my setting. After going through the mine and exiting out into the cavernous underdark on the shoreline of a sparkling subterranean lake, they followed a sickly pale light in the distance to a large obsidian structure. The natural formation was long ago carved out and established as a temple to the Skatri Plague God, Mobeous, or the god of many gifts. They decided it was a good of place as any to explore and went inside. The ratmen inside seemed to complete ignore them, a few even were glad to talk with the party, assuming that they too had arrived to receive some of the wonderful gifts provided at the temple. Some quick thinking and a silver tongued sorcerer got them passed the fairly inept and clearly teenaged Skatri “altar boy” separating the main congregation area from the vestry.

This is where the emotion comes in. Past the vestry was a simple puzzle. The room contained six vats of plagued liquid. A sample of each plague could be found in one of six altars placed in the center of the room. On the opposite side of the room of the vats was a large crate containing strange mole like creatures that were kind of wallowing in their own filth. The players dug around the room a little and decided not to touch any of the liquids just yet and go into the next room which was a hall that split into three different tunnels. At the start of the tunnel was three canals carved into the ground that funneled into one of the three halls. At the end of the tunnel was a large obsidian door that the players determined was enchanted with some kind of magic. Opening the door was simple. Turning the valve under one of the vats would cause one of the aqueducts to fill with the corresponding plagued water. When the water flowed down the trench and came in contact with the door, the door would trigger and open, allowing the players to pass through. Now what was in the three rooms.

I guess we should start with the center room. The center room was shaped like an amphitheater with a pit in the middle. On a raised platform inside of the pit (but still below the level of the amphitheater floor) was a closed cage containing a single very sick drow. The canal that opened the door leads directly into the pit where the liquid pours in but does not rise enough to reach the drow. The players also discovered two other canals leading from the left and right wall that poured down into the pit, yet no stream of plague water was coming from the dry vents. Upon that was a door that lead to another area that could only be opened if the players filled the pit with the plagues from all three trenches. The players quickly learned that doing so would submerge the hopeless drow in the filth, and likely drown him. However, after talking to the drow, the players found that a ritual could free him. Some notes and journal entries written an incomprehensible language that they found in the vestry seemed to suggest that they were ritualistic via illustrations. The ritual to open the cage involved standing on five green blocks built into amphitheater floor and repeating some characters scrawled on one of the ritual scrolls from the vestry. However, the green brick only responds if the players are infected with a plague. All five of them.

So how would they know this? Well, several other puzzles in the temple involved the same material. Touching the substance while not infected with a plague resulted in the player feeling violently ill, but doing so while infected with a disease made them feel contentment and happiness. One of my players had been infected with a disease just a session or two before, so I had him react a little differently when touching the brick. To him, the brick felt right. He didn’t feel sick, but rather, comfort. He was quick to surmise it had something to do with the disease he had previously been infected with.

The left and right rooms contained some puzzles/fights that were blocking the streams from reaching their final destination, in the central chamber. The players quickly began testing the “gifts” in the vat chamber on the test moles (though the sorc knocked the mole tank over in an attempt to free his hairless friends). They decided which of the plagues they thought were least dangerous and began letting them flow through the chambers.

Now here is where the interesting part happened. I made the npc in the pit a drow on purpose. Drow are known for being dicks and natural inhabitants of the underdark, so it felt natural putting him there. In my setting they are also natural enemies of the Skatri as they contest for the same territory. Now one of my players, the half drow ranger, made his backstory so that he completely despises drow. I knew that he would be inclined to drown the drow. I had hinted that the drow had been infected with strange mutagens. If the players decided to drown him, he would in fact mutate and break out of the cage leading to a fight. My idea was simple. The different plagues would change what his abilities and statistics would look like should they infect him. They could either free him, and as a result all suffer from a disease before the next encounter in the following chamber, or end up fighting him and be disease free but have fewer resources.

My players however spent somewhere between 30-45 minutes actually arguing over what to do. They had solved the puzzle in the left chamber, and finished the fight in the right chamber, but decided to wait on switching the triggers to complete the stream. Instead, it became a heated discussion over morality. I was half expecting the drow ranger to flip the valves and drown the drow regardless of the other players’ opinions. The life loving sorcerer and one of the rogues were against drowning the drow as it felt morally reprehensible, and they felt they would be completing some dark ritual that the plagued ratmen were setting up (which they technically were). The ranger and the monk (who worships the settings god of intelligence and learning) felt it would be wiser to simply drown the potentially treacherous drow and be on their way, disease free. They had not figured out that doing so would result in a difficult fight. The other rogue, the swashbuckler, was indifferent and willing to pick either side if they could convince her. The drow was practically begging for his life at this point as the party sat around the cage discussing if they should drown him or let him go. Eventually they came to the conclusion that if they let him out that he could map the area out for him since it was established he had been scouting the area for his mistress.

The players went back to the vat chamber and each drank from one of the pedestals. They returned to the ritual chamber, finished the spell, and released the drow. Not trusting the drow to keep his word the party had him pen the map of the area out before continuing on. However, while this was happening, the swashbuckler and ranger conspired to have the drow drink one of the diseases anyway. Their logic was that they suffered to free him, they would make him do the same. The ranger must likely just figured it would kill him, as he was well aware the drow was exhausted, sick, and malnourished. As soon as he finished penning the map, they forced a disease on to him, forcing the mutagen to react and turning the drow into a vicious beast.

The party had completely surprised me. It wasn’t out of the question that the ranger would just plug the drow with a bunch of arrows, but I wasn’t expecting something this cruel. It was almost like karma that their deplorable behavior resulted in a rough encounter after they had all already been suffering from debilitating diseases. The best part was watching the party actually argue over a moral decision, and then watching two of the players same fuck it and do what they wanted after the party had thought they reached an agreement. I provided a npc that I knew would split the party and watched the fireworks fly. I didn’t put a ton of work into making him. He had a name and a simple backstory, but he still elicited an emotional response from the players because of the precarious situation he was in, and the options that they had.

Now my party is diseased, injured, and lacking some resources, ensuring that the next encounter is going to be an interesting one.

I’ve included the six diseases below for those that are interested. Three of them drank rat rot, one drank glacial chills, and one drank the rupture spine disease.

Rat Rot: A brown liquid that closely resembles stagnant water. Individuals afflicted with rat rot must take a constitution saving throw (dc10) or become diseased. While under the effects of rat rot, the afflicted individual instantly loses 1d4 hit dice. At the end of each long rest the target must take another constitution saving throw or lose an additional hit die. While plagued the individual receives half healing from all sources. The disease fades after succeeding on three consecutive constitution saving throws, or from a lesser restoration spell or equivalent. The disease can be passed from individual to individual via mucus contact.

Treant Wart: A viscous pearly white liquid that smells faintly of damp bark. Coming in contact with the liquid causes the individual to take a constitution saving throw (dc12) or become afflicted with treant wart. While afflicted with treat wart the individual skin erupts with rugged warts that make patches of their skin closely resemble bark. The warts are excruciatingly painful and tender despite being tough and hard to the touch. Targets afflicted with treant wart gain +2 to their AC if they are wearing light armor or have no armor on. However, they suffer from disadvantage on concentration checks, charisma checks, and have their movement reduced by 1/4th rounded down. Treant Wart can only be cured by rubbing the warts with an expensive herbal remedy created from spring water, life root, briarthorn, and jade lichen daily for a week straight. The effects fade after one application but return if the treatment is not completed.

Sanguine Fever: A cloudy red liquid that has similar properties to syrup. It has a strong metallic smell. Consuming the liquid forces the individual to take a constitution saving throw (dc16) or become ill with sanguine fever. Targets sick with sanguine fever immediately suffer from a single level of exhaustion as their muscles ache, the joints hurt, and they become light headed. Individuals afflicted with sanguine fever must take a wisdom saving throw at the DMs discretion (dc11) or become taken by the fever. For 1d4 minutes, the target enters an uncontrollable rage (see rage special rules under barbarian), and attack the closest living thing, or anything visibly endangering their well being or freedom. While under the rage they ignore the effect of exhaustion. Sanguine fever fades after three days.

Cystic Discharge: A soupy yellow mixture that smells strongly of garbage and vomit. Targets that come in contact with cystic discharge must pass a dc13 constitution saving throw or become violently ill. They immediately spend one 1d4 round vomiting uncontrollably. Shortly after this a number of painful cysts begin forming along their back, chest, and arms. While suffering from cystic discharge, the individual has disadvantage on constitution checks and they emit a foul smell that is fairly distinguishable. If the individual takes more than 10 damage from a single attack, the cysts rupture and anyone within five feet must take a similar save or also become infected. The disease comes and goes, usually striking once every several months. Each outbreak lasts anywhere from one day to two weeks. The disease has no known standard cure, but can be removed with a lesser restoration spell or equivalent.

Rupture Spines: A clear white liquid that looks like water. Exposure to the liquid forces a constitution saving throw (dc14) or become ill with Rupture Spines. A number of painful bone like growths erupt from the individuals flesh instantly causing them to take 1d10 piercing damage. While suffering from the growths unarmed attacks deal two additional damage. Unfortunately the growths are extremely painful and arduous, making dexterous activities much more difficult. The individual has disadvantage on all dexterity checks and using objects or items that require fine motor skills. When the target drops below half health a number of spines are considered broken and the individual must pass a constitution saving throw (dc20) or be stunned for a turn from the extreme pain. Rupture spines need to be cut from the body and the wounds filled with a medical serum composed of lime dust, cockatrice wattle, serpent frond.

Glacial Chills: A minty smelling blue and white liquid that has the consistency of used toothpaste. Coming in contact with the liquid forces the individual to take a constitution saving throw (dc11), or become inflicted with glacial chills. While sick with glacial chills the individual shivers uncontrollably and constantly feels cold. Their core body temperature drops and they take double damage from cold attacks. Additionally, the target suffers from a powerful headache, reducing their intelligence 1d4 until the disease is defeated. Glacial chills is a fairly simple disease to cure. A weekend in bed with a warm cup of tea and a hot bowl of soup usually does the trick. Regardless, the constitution saving throw can be repeated at the end of each long rest (dc15 once infected). Passing it causes the disease to fade.


My response:

Excellent! Sounds like you did a great job of not only giving the players some emotional hooks, but player agency in the form of clues they researched/ignored and (semi) informed choices. Not only was there the drama of figuring out the moral implications of their actions, but now there's going to be the drama in the party where each of the player characters need to make decisions on how they feel about their compatriots' morality. I'd advise that the ranger and swashbuckler's alignments should move one step towards evil for what they did - if they're not evil already - or at least warning them that doing something so cruel again will cause such a shift.

You mentioned that characters suffering from a disease feel comfort when encountering new diseases. This sounds like a great opportunity for a secret! It could be the first clue towards something profoundly game changing for the campaign, or at least a satisfying arc. Each of your diseases (which are quite awesomely nasty!) could have an interesting backstory about their origin, and the full extent of each disease's backstory could provide a clue toward that greater campaign secret! If you couldn't tell, the Second Rule of Dungeoncraft is my favorite.

It's so true that if you give the players options A, B, and C, they'll choose option D. Ultimately, you can never predict what the players will do and it makes for some of the most memorable moments of a campaign. Thanks for sharing!


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