Design 05: Night Encounter

As it gets darker, the party will notice three small lanterns approaching them from the nearby woods.

The party has attracted the attention of three pixies (Monster Manual page 253), but more importantly the bag of gumdrops has attracted their pet Pixie Dragon:

Pixie Dragon, tiny dragon, neutral good

Armor Class 18    Hit Points 12 (4d4 + 4)   Speed 6 foot, fly 40 feet

STR 3 (-4)   DEX 16 (+3)   CON 15 (+2)   INT 12 (+1)   WIS 15 (+2)   CHA 20 (+5)

Skills Arcana +2, Perception +1, Stealth +3

Senses darkvision 60 feet, passive perception 11

Languages Draconic, Sylvan

Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Superior Invisibility. As a bonus action, a pixie dragon can turn invisible until its concentration ends (s if concentrating on a spell).

Limited Telepathy.  Using telepathy, a pixie dragon can communicate with any other pixie dragon or pixie within 60 feet.

Innate Spellcasting.  3/day: color spray

ACTIONS:    Bite.  Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 feet, one creature.  Hit: 3 piercing damage.

Breath Weapon. (Recharge 3-4)  The dragon exhales a cloud of small randomly colored sparks that is a 15 foot line that is 5 feet wide.  Anybody caught in the cloud must make a DC 14 CON save or be unable to see anything but bright colored sparks for 2D4 rounds.`

A pixie dragon is about 3 feet long, a very tiny dragon.  It’s leathery skin will be multicolored, with various colors merging and fading over its body and wings.  As it flies a trail of colored sparks will follow it and small tinkling sounds will be heard.

A pixie dragon will usually be found near one or more pixies.  The dragon will not usually take any aggressive actions unless one of its pixie friends is attacked.  In most cases it will use its breath weapon on any group that is attacking itself or nearby pixies, after which it will use its invisibility and fly off, returning after its breath weapon recharges only if any pixies are still in danger.

Pixie dragons are attracted to sugar and candy, which they can smell up to 40 feet away, and will usually urge any pixies in the are to help it obtain candy.

One of the pixies will use dancing lights to produce the lanterns as a distraction, after which the pixie dragon will fly around inside the trees, hiding behind the leaves and branches but leaving a trail of sparks that people will see.  Once most of the party seems distracted, one of the pixies will sneak in and grab the bag of gumdrops (untying it from a belt or pulling it out of a backpack as necessary.  Characters will get a chance to detect these actions, but the first thing they are likely to notice is the bag being dragged off out of sight (a fire should provide some light, but characters will have trouble seeing in the dark after staring at the lights).  As necessary, the other two pixies will mischievously cast spells to occupy and distract the party.

Once the pixie has gotten about 20 feet away from the party, they will open the bag and pop a green and yellow gumdrop into their mouth (a party member may get close enough to see this).  The pixie will get a huge smile on their face, but almost instantly they will grab their stomach and fall over, groaning.  They have eaten one of the gumdrops that provides a full meal for a normal humanoid, and will be stuffed and suffering from a huge stomach ache.  The poor pixie will be unable to concentrate well enough to go invisible or cast any spells.

If the pixie appears to be threatened the pixie dragon and the other two pixies will attempt to defend them.

On the other hand, if the party is friendly about things (but insistent on getting the gumdrop bag back) the pixies and the dragon will be friendly as well, offering to trade a Keoghtom’s Ointment for more gumdrops (but no more Green and Yellow gumdrops!)

Before Bruce Springsteen clawed out chart success, Manfred Mann covered one of his songs and had a major hit on their own that might tell where some of the party members are headed:

Design 04: Encounter on the Road

Other than passing a few adventurers and/or merchants, the party will not have any encounters on the main road.  Every half hour or so there will be another road or a well-used path heading off in one direction or another.  After about six hours the party will reach the path they need to follow.

Have the party roll perception rolls, and use the of the party member with the highest adjusted roll.

 You have gotten so used to trees growing up near and sometimes over the road that you nearly missed your turnoff.  After passing a pair of red-leaf maple trees, notices that there is a path leading back almost in the direction you have traveled from.  They stop and look and notice that the path seems to curve back to the left almost immediately, with the heavy clump of trees preventing the rest of you from noticing the path at all.

The path is only one or two people wide most of the time, so the party should have a marching order at this point.  Seriously, you should be using miniatures or at least pieces of paper with character names on them, so place the marching order on the table to help with the encounters.

After travelling along the path for about an hour, the party will have its first actual combat.  The party travels around a bend that forces them back into single file, and you should adjust the marching order accordingly, drawing the path and a few large trees to show the limited movement available to them as the move to single file (roll randomly on each pair to determine which character goes first).  The last person in line will be attacked when the trees block the view of most of the party.

Pass a note to the person who is last in line telling them that they hear the beating of wings behind them, and ask them to write down their response without speaking out loud.  More than likely they’ll turn around; unless they also speak or yell at that point everybody else will continue to walk forward.  When they turn around they will see a strange creature that seems to have the body of a lizard, the head of a large bird, and the wings of a bat: it is a cockatrice (but do not tell them the name of the creature).

Cockatrice: Monster Manual page 42

The special attack of the cockatrice can temporarily turn somebody to stone; if this happens the party will have to spend the night at this location since it is difficult to move a stone body.  No other encounters will follow until all party members are no longer stoned.

If the party searches in the wooded area the cockatrice came out of, they will find a large nest in a fallen tree that is filled with grass and straw.  If somebody searching makes a perception roll they will find some treasure: a plain red gem worth 20 gp and a brilliant but small green gem worth 10 gp.

If nobody was stoned, the party can continue walking through the woods for about two more hours, at which time they will find a small clearing off to the side (if somebody was stoned, the party will have to spend 24 hours at the site of the attack, and will reach this clearing near nightfall the following day.  There is a spring pushing water out from between two large stones, and the water travels off to the east, leading to a pond that is about 30 feet across.  The party can fish in the pond if they have the proper equipment and can find some blueberry bushes and an apple tree near the pond, or they can simply make do with any rations they brought with them.

Here’s Ray Charles sending the party into combat!

Design 03: The Bag And The Package

The bag that was dropped on the table appears normal enough, just a small velvet, blue bag with a dark black leather drawstring that can be used to easily attach the bag to a belt (or the bag will easily fit into a backpack, or a sack, or almost anything – think about something the size of a small dice bag).  In fact, it is a magical item, Bartholomew’s Bag of Gumdrops.  The bag and its contents will not detect as magical except for spells cast by spellcasters of at least level 16.

Inside the bag are 18 gumdrops of various gumdrop colors.  If one or more gumdrops are taken out of the bag and eaten they taste delicious and apparently have no other effects.

If the bag is closed after one or more gumdrops are removed from the bag, they will be magically replaced.  One gumdrop will be replaced every 20 minutes.  The colors and flavors of the gumdrops will vary, and other than some occasional exotic flavors (such as lemon-watermelon or chocolate-coconut) the gumdrops are all normal.

There are two exceptions:

Rarely a deep-blue gumdrop will show up.  Eating one of these will allow water-breathing for a period of 20 minutes.

Rarely a green gumdrop with yellow dots will show up.  Eating one of these will be the equivalent of eating a full meal, and the person who eats it will be fully nourished and not need to eat or drink for at least six hours.

Non-magical items that are put into the bag will disappear when the bag is closed.  There is no way to recover items lost in this manner.

Magical items that are put into the bag (assuming they are small enough to fit in the bag!) will not disappear, but no gumdrops will be created until the magical item is removed from the bag, after which gumdrops will start regenerating every twenty minutes.

The package is a rectangular box inside the wrapping paper and ribbons.  If anybody attempts to unwrap the ribbons a blast will go off that affect anybody within a 30 foot radius who fails a savings throw against a ninth level spell.  The affects will be random for each affected creature in that radius:

1-5   Stunned for five rounds

6-10  Stunned for five minutes

11-15  Stunned and sound asleep for ten minutes

16-20 Stunned and sound asleep for an hour

The ribbon will not be removed, and the package will not be opened after the attempt to open the package fails.

We’ll find out about the journal that is inside the box when it finally gets delivered.

The party should wander around town to pick up any gear they need, and decide whether to head out that night or the next morning.

Either way, there are gumdrops in their future:

Design 02: Leaving Town

Continuing the design of a D&D adventure.  This is the starting encounter, taking the players out of the city where they are starting out.  Feel free to drop them into any city, either one you create or one from any other adventure.

After the players all have their brand-new characters all created and equipped you can role-play a few of their attempts to find adventure – attempts that will all fail.  Ask the players where they go and what they’re looking for and allow them to visit several places in the city they are starting from.  At least twice they will get a glimpse of a man in his forties who is dressed in deep green and brown robes who will nod or smile at them as they enter or leave a building (you can give one or two of the more perceptive characters a roll to realize they have seen the man before that day).  Have them visit one more inn or tavern looking for work before they become too discouraged to search further.

It’s been a long, fruitless search today.  No matter where you look, people looking for help want adventurers with more experience than you have.  A few did seem interested in your help, but it quickly became clear that the help they wanted would probably be a one-way trip for you.  As you head down a main street, unsure of what to do next, a now-familiar man comes out of an alchemy shop and pauses when he sees you.  He chuckles to himself and approaches your group.  “Nobody looking for help from youngsters today?”  It’s the man dressed in deep green and brown robes that you’ve seen a few times today, now carrying some kind of package wrapped in brown paper and wrapped closed by some green ribbons.

The man is Twillington, a high level mage.  If the players are friendly enough he will invite them to a nearby tavern and buy them a round of drinks.  Twill talks with them about what they’re hoping to do, what (if any) experience they have already, and eventually offers to help them out with a simple job.

Twillington looks around at all of you, and taps his fingers on the small package he’s been carrying.  “I have an old friend who is currently staying in a small village named Asterview about a two day journey from here.  I was going to travel there to take him a package, but it may be uncomfortable for him to see me at the moment and he won’t be completely happy with me for delivering the package to him.  If you would deliver the package for me it would save us both some embarrassment, and Lefwynn may be able to help find you some work.  There’s no need to return to the city after you complete your trip, if you’re careful you will probably have an easier time adventuring away from the city until you’re a lot more experienced.”

Twillington reaches into the folds of his robe and pulls out some dust of some sort that he sprinkles onto the package, mumbles a few words, and his fingers dance over the ribbons until they briefly glow before returning to normal.

“There, that should help protect it a bit.  It would be a very bad idea for anybody but Lefwynn to unwrap the package.”

The party will probably ask how much they’ll get paid for the trip, which will totally amuse Twillington.  He will ask them how much they think it should be worth, and allow them to try and talk him into a price.  The most he will pay is 3 gold per character.  He will also stress that Lefwynn will probably be upset at first, but will eventually thank and reward the party as well.

Twillington will then draw them a rudimentary map that shows them following a main road out of town and turning off onto a smaller road that passes between two large maple trees that always have red leaves.  He insists that the trip should only take them two days, and suggest they have travelling gear (backpacks, sleeping bags, flint and steel, and a few days of rations).

Once the party agrees to the task he ask who will carry the package.

Twillington hands you the package.  “Any of you can carry this at any time, just don’t try to open it.”  That said, Twillington reaches into the folds of his robes and pulls out a small bag that he drops on the table.  “Here are a few treats for the road.  I always like to carry a few gumdrops for when my mouth gets dry.”  

Details on the bag will follow tomorrow.

Twill will stay his good-byes, bow to the party, wish them well, and head off.  The party is on their own from here:

Design 01 – The MacGuffin

Our party of intrepid adventurers is on a mission, heading to our small, as-yet unnamed village or town (more on that later).  A few hours before they reach the village they spot a large raven flying overhead.

As you watch, the raven circles about as if searching for something, flying around in small circles.  All at once the raven changes direction, having clearly spotted whatever it was searching for.  It flies down towards a large tree about thirty yards away, landing on one of the branches.

Have the party members make rolls to spot something (Perception rolls are a likely choice).  Pass a note to the party member who makes the highest adjusted roll to let them notice that the raven has dropped something sparkly into a nest near the end of the branch.  Pass notes to the next two highest rolls telling the players that the raven landed close to a nest near the end of the branch.  The other players should get a note that the raven appears at first to be solid black, but they notice a slight purple hue on the wings.  The party should role-play dealing with what they noticed (and it’s totally up to each player if they tell the rest of the party anything).

The raven then spreads its wings, looks around furtively, caws out loudly, and flies off in the direction it came from, moving quickly out of sight.

If the party heads in the direction of the raven’s tree, they will find a large oak tree that is about four feet wide and thirty feet tall.  Closer to the tree it is easy for everybody to spot the nest.  The branch with the nest is about twenty feet off the ground, and the branch that it is on looks sturdy, but not necessarily sturdy enough to support the weight of any of the larger characters.  All the branches of the tree are at least 10 feet off the ground.

There are two squirrels (or maybe chipmunks; up to you!) that have been storing acorns in a hole just above the branch the nest is on. If a player tries to climb up the tree the critters will come out on the branch and squawk at them; if any harm is done to the tree (such as hammering or cutting footholds) they will start making a lot of noise and try dropping acorns on the offender.  Their noise will attract a woodland creature or collection of creatures that will not take kindly to the invaders of their forest.  Combat and/or merriment will ensue.

If the party manages to reach the nest, inside they will find a small green gem.  If the gem is held up to the sunlight there appears to be a small, three dimensional caricature of a bear inside the gem.  The gem will detect as magical if players have some way to test it, but they will not be able to determine exactly what it can do.  The nest also contains two copper coins, one silver coin, an amber-colored piece of glass with the letters E-E-R etched into it, a small tin belt-buckle, and a torn piece of parchment that has some smeared silver ink and a small piece of sealing wax on it.

The party can continue on its way.  The gem is one of six gems that fit onto a broach that they will encounter in town.  More on that after they get to town.  For now, it’s enough for the GM to know that the raven was actually an NPC dropping the gem where the party will  see it so that the party will get involved in finding four more gems that the NPC does not have!

If the party chooses to ignore the raven and the tree they can simply continue off to town; later on they will have need to return to the tree.  They will be able to find that tree again, but only after a great deal of searching and an encounter with a creature that is probably looking for a quick meal (our adventure will have a selection of random encounters at the end for the GM to refer to as needed).

Writing a Dungeons and Dragons Adventure – Design

Over the next few weeks I’ll start from scratch and design a D&D adventure for Fifth Edition.  I’ve never even looked at Fifth, and haven’t written anything since I did some Living Greyhawk adventures for 3.5, so this should be a good way to learn about the newest version of D&D as well.

I would like to write an introductory adventure that can be played by new players, incorporating pieces and parts of the rules as the adventure goes along.  Rather than using any existing setting, I want to also build a small village to use as a central area the adventurers are based in.  Ideally I would end up with an adventure that would run in about 3-4 hours, with an easy way to extend a campaign to include multiple adventures from the village.  Players would bring or build their own new characters, but I’ll also create a set of adventurers that could be used to both play test the adventure and allow new players to pick up existing characters and start playing as quickly as possible.

I’ll have to develop the following:

[1] A big bad that’s behind the problems the players face; this might not be the final encounter, but should initially be someone that they don’t even know they are struggling against.

[2] A MacGuffin.  Alfred Hitchcock was responsible for making audiences aware of the term and how a MacGuffin is used to advance the plot of a movie (although it can also be applied to any form of storytelling).   Wikipedia relates the story Hitchcock seems to have told multiple times about what a MacGuffin is:

‘It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.’

[3] A total of six to ten encounters for the major adventure.  These encounters should include both combat-oriented and non-combat encounters.  The players should be able to  deal with some of these encounters in any order while making progress to a final goal.

[4] At least one new monster that isn’t in the Monster Manual.  Always a good idea to confront players with the unexpected.

[6] A final encounter of sorts that ties up a number of the encounters and resolves the adventure.

[7] Enough buildings, townspeople, and shops that the players can spend a great deal of time simply wandering and meeting people.  This will also make it easier to expand the campaign after the initial adventure ends.

[8] A map of the village as well as some information about the area that surrounds the village.  I don’t anticipate the players travelling too far from the village until after they gain a few levels (D&D usually is the most fun to play at levels 4-6 since it typically takes that long for all the players to build up the ability to survive more complex situations).

From time to time (until I’m finished!) I should be able to flesh out pieces of this plan, giving you a chance to follow the process.  Readers are welcome to post comments, questions and suggestions (we’ll see how well that process works).

To find the pieces that make up the story, simply page up a search on Design

Here’s the Fortunes singing about places you might find a good MacGuffin: Books and Films:

Writing D&D Modules, Part Four

At Gen Con in 1985 they ran Gary Gygax’s Isel of the Ape, an event that I had playtested before GenCon.  I became familiar enough with the event that for the eventual module release I, um, insisted that a connecting encounter be added to get the players to the final event.  I also wrote a parody event, “Loot the Castle IV: Isle of the Monkees” that was a lot of fun.  That Fall at Contact we ran Misfits and Terrible Trouble at Trigador which was written by a talented GM who had helped out at a few conventions (Jean Rabe!)

In 1986 I write a few more tournaments; I had finally gotten a better feel for how that was done, and turned out another Masters event, Goon Squad, as well as a few one round AD&D events. In the next few years I started pushing the boundaries of what could be done with an AD&D event.  I had been playing the original Ultima games (not the online version), and got Richard Garriott to tell me how an upcoming adventure (Ultima VI) was going to start out.  I created a prequel to the computer game that was set in the Ultima world, using the Ultima characters, and had a multi-round adventure that ended where the computer game started.  That went so well that I followed it up with Star Trek V: The Quest For Power, an adventure where six Star Trek characters were forced to search for “twin crystals” (Dilithium Crystals) after adapting to be a cleric, a bard, a rogue, etc.  My favorite line of all the adventures I ever ran came when one of the players asked Bones to heal him and that player responded, “Damn it, I’m a cleric, not a doctor!”

Based on a campaign I had written and run in Texas I produced an adventure named Charleston Academy; that was well-received enough that it was published in Polyhedron in 1988.

In 1989 a new type of RPGA event was introduced that (sadly) would kick the Classic events to the side of the road, leaving them in the dust with all the other forgotten toys.  The Living City campaign allowed players to create their own first level character and then play them in various events literally all over the world, building up experience, going up levels, and obtaining rewards (certificates, or certs, that gave their character armor, weapons, or other useful items).  Instead of writing adventures that were fitted with characters, players were expected to role play the character they were building over time.  This could result in interesting tables…or boring tables where players simply ran through the encounters as rapidly as possible to get the goodies at the end.  The events were often written to encourage role-playing, and the RPGA encouraged authors to include non-combat encounters try to keep the events from becoming too much combat.  I wrote Rats, an introductory adventure that introduced players to parts of Raven’s Bluff and got included in one of the early modules for the city.

When Unearthed Arcana came out it included bonuses for Comeliness that mostly affected interactions with NPCs, and the Living City campaign was based on players taking a fixed number of points and distributing them among the various characteristics.  Seriously, how many players were putting points into Charisma and Comeliness when those points could go someplace useful like Strength, Intelligence, or Agility?  Not many.  In fact, almost none.  I was so distressed by the cookie-cutter stats that players were using that I wrote Ugly Stick, a Living City adventure where players had to interact with people at a posh resort where they were hardly welcome (and the big bad was an anti-cleric with high Comeliness who used her bonuses against the party).  Ugly Stick was also published in Polyhedron, with some nice artwork and some kick butt maps.

All told I wrote over thirty rounds of events that were used in tournaments, a number that pales in comparison to the high numbers accumulated by some of the other authors, but both my event designs and writing grew much stronger through the years.  Coming up: some suggestions on what I’ve learned about designing a role-playing adventure.

Here’s a video where the Rolling Stones look like they may have spent some time dressed for AD&D: