Everyone Takes a Chapter

Our Thursday night D&D group just finished the official D&D 5e campaign, Ghost of Saltmarsh. See my previous post on how we ran it and why we did it that way.

Overall, this experiment was a great success. We all had a lot of fun and even snuck in some extra stuff in there over the odd summer schedule. We had several nights of off module side quests and even got in some Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics when everyone couldn’t be there for Saltmarsh.

It was wonderful getting to play a character (actually a couple of them as my first one died in the 3rd chapter/module). It was also great seeing my other gamers run their own game their own way. Of the player turned DM:

  • One would get in twice as many combats in our limited 3 hour sessions than I could when I ran the game.
  • One ran a combat with 25 combatants that I never would have attempted … and it was fun!
  • One killed a PC (cool except it was mine) and the party had to reconcile a character death.
  • One dealt masterfully with a major party split. Even so much that half the group played one Thursday night and the other half played the other Thursday night before we were brought together.
  • One gave us the most nerve racking and near TPK battle I’ve ever been in. We heroically pulled it off but I thought for sure we were all going to die.
  • One took us on a great adventure of his character’s back story and gave us a good helping of skill challenges. It was all very flavorful.

I ended up playing two characters who I enjoyed making and running.

There were some bumps in the road.

  • We had switched from Zoom to Discord. Where the Discord side chat voice channels were nice, the overall quality and stability didn’t match Zoom. We are sticking with Discord because it supports a wide range of devices and no one has to use their corporate account to host our games.
  • Roll20 is awesome but from the DM point of view, it takes time to learn it. I mean lots of directed, purposeful energies into two areas. The player turned DMs fumbled some with Roll20:
    • How do I do this?
    • How does this work?
  • Encounter (Battle) Balance: This is both math and a talent to do this right.

The Dying Earth – Dungeon Crawl Classics

I am very excited about Goodman Games’ Boxed Set, setting, for Dungeon Crawl Classics set around Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. It is being sold as a Kickstarter.

This isn’t the first time we can dip our toes in the Scaum river. It has been offered as a complete system with a vast amount of source books by Pelgrane Press. It was a d6 based system if I remember what I read when I picked it up off of either Bundle of Holding or Humble Bundle so long ago. But it was true to the novels. I’m sure the system worked but I wasn’t hot on the d6 system which is way out of bounds for my game group that I don’t think will stray to far from Dungeons & Dragons d20 system at this point.

Goodman Games licensed The Dying Earth from the Jack Vance estate a few years ago and has been working on what is presented in the Kickstarter. I have no idea what is coming but I’m excited for it. Here are a few reasons why and why you should check it out.

  • DCC is basically a streamlined version of D&D 3.0/3.5 so it is a system that you players will feel comfortable with and possibly even enjoy.
  • Goodman Games has already produced (or advised/oversaw/consulted/blessed) several settings that work with DCC so they know how to make something work with their system but also make it unique. They have done this with at least the following:
    • Lankhmar – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser
    • Empires of the East – Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East
    • Mutant Crawl Classics – Post-apocalyptical Mutant Adventuring
    • Chained Coffin – The Appalachian-style fantasy setting of The Shudder Mountains, inspired by the works of Appendix N author Manly Wade Wellman
    • Purple Planet – Where tribes of man-beasts wage an endless war beneath a dying sun. Where mighty death worms rule the wastes, befouled winds whistle through ancient crypts, and forests of fungi flourish in the weirdling light. Where ancient technologies offer life … or a quick death. Bereft of patron, friend, or god, your survival depends on quick wits and a strong blade.
    • Weird Frontiers – Wild West meets H.P. Lovecraft
    • … and more that I have left off
  • A lot of what makes DCC great and unique is a combination of the core book and the modules and settings. This mixture of delight will happen again when we see DCC The Dying Earth.
  • DCC is playful and loose enough (by design) to be absorbed into a setting and let the setting and modules bring themselves alive.
  • I love any setting, module or expansion that gives us more of those wonderful spells and patrons. DCC Dying Earth is promising much of this area and will deliver.
  • There is a lot of Vecna … oh, sorry, I mean Vance in D&D and that will flow right into this DCC version very well. This should all fit like a fun glove.

How (and Why) we are running the Ghost of Saltmarsh

An interesting thing happened in October (2020). I had a free Sunday evening and decided I wanted to be a player in a D&D game. Roll20, being flush with games and the tools to find one, is where I thought my best chances were to jump into a pick-up game.

Each free one-shot had 20-30 applicants and I never heard back from any of them. So, I found one that was pay-to-play. It was not expensive for a one-shot ($10-$15 for the night). I submitted what was requested but that one had scheduling problems and never materialized. No game for me that weekend.
Also around this time, work has started to pick up and put some pressure around the prep that I do.
As I was mulling all this over (including my regular D&D groups weekly adventures into first Phandelver and then Avernus), I came to land on some important facts:

  • I have the best damn D&D RPG group already collected.
  • Most of them have been playing D&D 5e for 2 years now. Many of them all have even longer time with the game in previous forms. Some of them have experience with other systems.
  • Wizards of the Coast official Campaign Modules are exceptionally entertaining.
  • Running a game isn’t difficult. It does take extra time to prepare but game night, with this group, is a pleasure to DM for.
  • Half of us have done this already and the other half is more than capable.
  • We need more people that can run, and enjoy running, a game for others. It is too good of a pastime to keep bottled up in the hands of only 1 out of every 8 that can get together and partake.

For 2021, We are going to tackle the Wizards of the Coast official Module, The Ghost of Saltmarsh. We are each going to take a Chapter (what we used to call a module) that is somewhere around the size of The Forge of Fury (a Roll20 test game) that we played and run the game for the rest of the group. Why?

  • Mainly, it spreads out the load of preparing and running a game to about one month each. Everyone will get to show up and enjoy Thursday night most of the year with just a quick review of their current PC’s abilities.
  • Everyone gets to be a player.
  • Everyone can do this.
  • We need more game masters in this world.

Setting the Stage

While looking through RPG forums to answer some D20 Modern/Gamma World (6e) questions, I came across a 2013 post by a user named RobShanti that contains something pretty amazing that I just had to share.
His answer is perfect for the question of, “As a Game Master, how do I create a game that obviously exhibits a particular look & feel?”  As I am looking to define my particular post-apocalyptic world and then deliver it with game sessions, how do I go about ensuring that it feels like we are adventuring in a mutant crawling wasteland?  RobShanti doesn’t go mutant but does describe his process to bring a 1970s Cop Show to his crew.
RobShanti starts us out with an overview of the project:
But of those games, far and away, my favorite was the 70s Game, or the “D20 Mod” game, as we called it, was told in the style of a 70s cop t.v. show, using as many of the conventions of that genre and medium as I could think of, including evil drug lords, informant pimps, car chases, a Christmas episode, a 70s music soundtrack and — the most important part — an opening montage-credit-roll to open each session! It was, by far, one of the most fun games I ever ran.
He goes on to talk about doing the research to trim down the D20 Modern equipment list a little.  This is necessary in his case because the genre/setting is a kind of the point.
Finally, we get to the good stuff.  The core of his process:
Step 1: Absorb the “Historical Documents”
So, I set upon the Herculean task of studying the conventions of 70s television shows. Using the internet as my research resource, I found lots of websites, such as http://www.tvtome.com, which contain surprisingly detailed synopses of many television shows from the medium’s history. I cut-and-pasted into a Word document *all* of the internet episode synopses for 70s action hero t.v. shows and movies, including The Mod Squad, Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, CHiPs, Hawaii Five-O, Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, and so on. I read them carefully, getting a sense of what was topical and what kinds of plots were characteristic of the genre. Then, I rented as many 70s movies as possible, like Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, Sheba Baby, Friday Foster, Saturday Night Fever. On top of this, I had, to guide me, my own fond memories of burning out my retinas and soaking in radiation as a child from sitting too close to the gigantic t.v. console in my own living room.
Step 2: Write out the outlines of plots you would like to run and rank them.
Then I started making outlines of plots I’d like to run, such as “Capture a serial killer who drugs, abducts & murders disco divas who refuse to dance with him”. I ranked them from favorite to least favorite. Some that I never got to create games around included: “Hippie student activists take over college campus administration building w/PC & elderly teacher as hostage.”
Step 3: Make a list of all genre defining items and keep that handy while running the game.
On top of that, I made a list of ALL the atmospheric things about the 70s that I could remember, such as lava lamps, flower children, plaid leisure suits, orange and lime green pleather furniture, etc., and (in a fitting homage to 1st ed. D&D) made a “Random 70s Table,” which I hung on my GM’s shield. Whenever I got the sense that we might be loosing the pervasiveness of the 70s feel, I’d roll d100 and see what random element I needed to work in the scene. (e.g., “The bad guy takes cover behind a beanbag chair and fires at you.”)
Step 4: Collect additional Media (music & art)
Then I set off on the task of creating a soundtrack. I researched the Top 40 lists of each year from 1970 through 1979, and selected the songs that (1) we all remember and (2) we don’t hear on the radio anymore. For example, Jethro Tull’s “Bungle in the Jungle” *didn’t* make the list, because although we all remember it, you can still hear it ad nausea on any classic rock station today. On the flip side, Maria Muldaur’s “I’m A Woman” didn’t make the list either, because although it was in the Top 40 in 1975, who the hell remembers how it goes? So the tracks that *did* make the cut were songs like: “Spirit in the Sky,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “That’s the Way (uh-huh, uh-huh!) I Like It,” and so on. I then compiled the pop songs onto a 4 disk set…well…a 3 disk set, actually. The FOURTH disk was strictly instrumental theme songs to 70s cop shows. That disk included the theme songs to Baretta, S.W.A.T., Hawaii Five-0, Shaft, Cleopatra Jones and so on…but the *real* trick was finding a unique song that could be strictly associated with our own show, “They Fight Crime!” After much searching, I finally found it in Billy Preston’s instrumental “Outta Space,” and that became the FIRST track on the instrumental theme- song CD.
Step 5: Use it
RobShanti secret ingredient in all this sounds like the montage scene he played out at the beginning of every session.
Each session, I’d pop my four 70s-music-mix CDs into the CD player, and play Billy Preston’s funky instrumental “Outta Space,” which sounds like it was *written* for a 70s cop show t.v. series. Then, at the point in the music where you’d imagine the title of the show flashing across the t.v. screen in huge letters, I’d narrate.
He would go to each of his players and ask what his character is doing in the opening of the show and let them describe how the audience first sees their character.  This had no effect on the game or story but it did get the players into character and into the feel of the genre.
I love this process.  Get immersed, make a few notes, add something extra and then hit the players with all of it at the beginning of each session.
Now I just need some post-apocalyptic mutant music.

Cugel’s Tube of Blue Concentrate

In my new podcast on Goodman Game’s upcoming role-playing game, Mutant Crawl Classics, we have a section called Mutagenesis where we take something from media and turn it into an item for use in the game.  Here is my first entry.  Should be compatible for use with Dungeon Crawl Classics as well.

Tube of Blue Concentrate

Source: Jack Vance, Cugel the Clever stories
Delivered: Glowburn, Episode 001

Tech Level: 1 Complexity Level: 1
Range: 120’ (about 50 paces)
Damage: None
Special: All targets must make a DC 12 Fortitude save or be unconscious for 1d8 minutes.
Power: None (1 usage per tube)

A solution of blue concentrate can spray out into about a 45° arc reaching up to 120’ away.  All targets without cover must make a DC 12 Fortitude save or be unconscious for 1d8 minutes.  

This does not work underwater and washing off the blue concentrate with water will terminate the effects and the target will be revived.

The user must make a DC 5 luck check to fire this weapon.  Failure indicates that this tube might have a fault (roll on “What can go wrong”).

Theoretical History: This weapon was probably a tool of an ancient police force and is meant to be used against humanoids.  Given that, it might be totally ineffective against larger creatures. This is up to the Judge.

Literal/Actual Description:  This is a white tube about an inch in a half in diameter and about 8 inches long with a white button on the top.  One end of the tube is solid blue (indicating that this is the end that the blue concentrate will be ejected.)

What can go wrong (d6):

  1. Active Ingredient has degraded – The “knock-out” effect just isn’t there any more.  It just makes the targets blue.
  2. Expellent has expired – Range is significantly reduced to 5 feet or may just drip out of the tube like honey.
  3. Trigger Jams – doesn’t go off right now but once the trigger is pressed it will go off in 1d100 minutes.
  4. Active Ingredient has mutated – It now doesn’t “Knock” anyone out but all that fail the DC 12 Fortitude save rages like a barbarian (extra turn this round and use +1D larger than normal for their actions.)
  5. Explosion – The device explodes and its “Knock-out” effects cover all targets in a full 360° up to 10 feet away.  Those directly behind the caster get a +5 on their saving throw.
  6. Back-fire – the blue concentrate fires out the rear and effects the user.  They are coated with the entire contents and must make the DC 12 Fortitude save with a -5 penalty or suffer double the effects.

Shadow of the Demon Lord – Observances

Five total strangers got together and played Shadow of the Demon Lord for Roll20CON. Only one player was experienced with this system. Including me, the game master, It was a first run for all others. Now we all have traveled down the RPG road many times and our Roll20 skills and equipment were satisfactory but there is always that wondering on how this is going to go.

The session was a total success and here, from actual experience, is a GM lessons learned about this game and its material.

Easy to Learn – Before I run an RPG system, I will read through the core manual about 3 times and then I still have some doubt. I didn’t this time. I checked on some things that are usually gotchas to me and they were as I expected. It was a very easy system to pick up for player and GM alike.

Deep Level-0 Characters – Players get to pick the important stuff. Still get to roll for some randomness. Come out with a very personal and interesting Level-0 character. All without the hubbub of an ability generation scheme discussion & decisions or “GM over the shoulder rolls”. This was a hidden gem that I didn’t know how much I liked until we flew past that point that is usually a pain in the butt.

Boons and Banes and Beat a 10 – I now underestimated what a slick tool this really is. I think I underestimated it at first. We used it. It made sense. There were no arguments about it. I learned quickly that it was so adjustable and simple that we could use it for soft moves as well. At one point, a character wanted to slide across the table and jab his dagger at the monster for his attack at the end. “Make an agility check to see if you get a boon or a bane on your attack roll.” BAM! A soft move (using a Dungeon World term here). No game balance was (or could have been) thrown off. It made sense for the fiction. It pleased the player that their character had more input into their own more complex move. It was then that I understood an elegance in this system.

Initiative System – In only a 2.5 hour session, we got in four combats. That is on the high end with my other games. I am pleased with that. My lesson learned here is that I need to do a better job of tracking it with Roll20. This is something that we just need to be more comfortable with. We understood it. We did it. It just wasn’t as smooth our first session. All on us. When I say “us” I mean me.

Level Up – “Wait, I told you to level up and walked away from the keyboard for like five minutes. What do you all mean you are ready to go?” – Nuff said!

Creature Diversity – Even the 4-5 different low levels monsters we fought put up for very different challenges. The zombies were hard to kill but could be taken out with head shots (high attack roles). The large spider had a mechanic that let it skitter away when approached. That felt very spidery. The creature catalog is where I like things to be very different and they are.

Modules are packed with more than you think – If you have ever gotten your hands on a SotDL module, you will find yourself looking at about four pages of text. Don’t be deceived, there is a lot of stuff here. In the Kickstarter exclusive module, In Need of Killing, I ran it for 2.5 hours. I added only a couple of things inspired by the module but because this was a one-shot, I skimmed some other items. The group just got to their second room in the main section. These four pages, if done right could easily cover 3 short or two long game sessions. Much is easily expanded on.

I have a good feel for this system now and would enjoy running it some more. I always suspected this to be a good system but now I know it is.

Praise for Ethan Gilsdorf

Just the other day, Ethan Gilsdorf shared the video of his TED Talk, Why Dungeons & Dragons is Good For You (In Real Life).  I have watched it several times and and applaud every time.  He has spoken to the world what I want to tell all around me.  Especially those that shun it and those that don’t know me because I’m too “in the closet” about this wonderful thing in my life.

Right after I read his book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, I posted my 2010 blog post about the game that I relayed here again in 2015.

I’m glad his message was short enough so that most will watch to the conclusion but deep in my heart, I know there is at least another 40 minutes more that he could have expanded on.

I do love what Acquisitions Inc, Critical Role (although I have only watched a small amount) and many podcasts (Critical Hit, The Adventure Zone, Board with Life and others) are doing for the game.

I praise Ethan because he has risen to the top and shouted to the world what is good and wholesome about this misunderstood tool of understanding.

What Should a DM ask Himself/Herself after a Session with New Players?

A user named Visimicus asked a good question over on Reddit that I wanted to make a blog article.

What questions should I ask myself after a night of playing as a DM? 

Every group is different so look back on your sessions and ask the following questions.

  1. How was the role-play:combat mix? – some groups
    like more combat and less role-play others a just the
    opposite. My group still likes 4e style skill
    challenges so I moved them forward to our 5e games.
    Some groups hate puzzles, some like them. Keep your
    pulse on the mix.
  2. How was the DM exposition:inter-PC role play mix?
    – I found at first my players will just interact with me
    so I do things to put them in situations to encourage
    them to discuss, in character, things with each other.
    Good DM moments are when you realize you have been
    playing for 20 minutes and haven’t said a word.
  3. What was going on when it seemed like the players
    were having the most fun? – Yea, do more of that. One
    player who is always quiet ended up getting challenged
    in a one on one fight and ended up with excellent roles
    killing his opponent before taking a single hit. I have
    never seen the player smile so much. Bingo!
  4. What slugged the game down and what can be done to
    speed that part up? – I sometimes create one page
    cheat sheets and hand them out that contain info that
    they struggle with like combat actions or skills
    explanations or rules of the skills challenge if they
    different from my standard rules. If I am expecting
    mounted or underwater combat or there is a map with
    special terrain rules then I will have those printed out
    so we aren’t delving into the PHB.
  5. What did they say after the game (and even before
    the game)? – The DM is always playing. In between
    games, before the game, at the break, after the game.
    Ears always open.
  6. Who had their day-in-the-sun? Who needs their
    moment to shine? How can you provide that? – Make sure
    you spread the love around. Who hasn’t seen it for a
    while. Yea, Aivel got his 1v1 and Dax the Bard stole
    the RP scene and Willow found a shiny trinket but Curnan
    got left out this session so lets make sure there is
    something for him next session. How has “treasure” been
    spread out?
  7. What parts did you struggle with? – not a session
    has ended where I didn’t have something I did well and
    something I did not do well and need to improve upon.
  8. What can you do in your prep to mitigate this
    during the next session? – Struggled with NPC names,
    have a list of some next time. Struggled in
    description, update your room/setting notes to include
    sights, sounds and smells. Struggled with managing your
    NPC in a battle, how can you included them as a special
    boon instead that you give to the players (On Dyntas
    round, he will immobilize one enemy each turn for one
    turn, players track this)
  9. What can you surprise them with in the next session
    that they haven’t seen before?

    1. Battle map with special terrain
    2. Battle map with a fair escape
    3. Combo Combat/Skills Challenge encounter
    4. In game gambling game
    5. Something super silly/funny – attack by goblins who
      think they are immortal who have built a seige engine
      out of bamboo and an uncooperative cow.
    6. Switch from encounter built adventure to a classic
      dungeon crawl
    7. Try a mystery
    8. Puzzle
    9. Riddle

Keep on the Borderlands: Introducing the Delving Wayfarers

We have our first glance at the party I have taken the liberty of naming, the Delving Wayfarers.

  • Piotr, Priest of Lon (Male Human Cleric)
  • Harlan, Locksmith (Male Halfling Thief)
    • Bond: Weasel it out of Priest Piotr on what really is his purpose
  • Mereina, Sorceress (Female Elven Wizard)
    • Alias: Hexwrought
  • Marl, Guard (Male Human Fighter)
    • Looks: Salt & Pepper Beard
    • Signature Weapon: Flail

Follow & Play:

  • If you want to follow the adventure then search Twitter for the hashtag #kotbdw.
  • If you want to participate in this Unlimited Players adventure entitled The Keep on the Borderlands, then tweet something about the player to the tag #kotbplayer.  This is an excellent tag/channel to follow to see what table talk is going on as well.

“What can I tweet about?” – Anything you might do at the tabletop

  • Initial stat distribution
  • Moves
  • Bonds
  • Thoughts
  • What a character might say
  • The worlds pantheon
  • Initial Spells
  • Prepared Spells
  • Direction when there is a choice
  • Looks
  • Art/Sketches of the characters, npc, lands or creatures
  • Battle instincts
  • World building

Story thus far:

The Delving Wayfarers have traveled from the capitol to the Keep on the Borderlands and was questioned by the guards at the main gate.  The Priest Piotr introduced his companions and requested to avail themselves of the protection the keep promises.  The guard has agreed and is ushering them inside to meet with the corporal.

B2 – Keep on the Borderlands


This is an experiment.  I have decided to run the classic module, B2: Keep on the Borderlands over twitter with Dungeon World rules.  This will be a slow, long running adventure as it has to fit into tweets and I don’t want to spam any of those that follow me (although at this time that wouldn’t be too many people, maybe fewer as time goes on).

How am I going to do this?  I will post what the DM would say over my D&D twitter account (@DnDBill) with the hashtag #KotBdw which stands for Keep on the Borderlands Dungeon World.  Here is a search link for #KotBdw.

At times, I will post recaps here so that other’s can get a feel of what has happened so far and pick up, if interested, on this collective story.

I don’t want to flood anyone with this so I will try to keep it to 1d4 posts per day with the understanding that it might now be an everyday thing at all anyway.

But what about players?  The party is made up of exactly one fighter, one rogue, one wizard and one cleric.  I will eventually have Dungeon World sheets for these that I will post here in case any is interested and as they are fleshed out.  They will be “played” by any collective suggestions from the twitter world at large that tweet back to me with #KotBplayer in their tweet.  Basically

  • #KotBdw: Adventure Canon
  • #KotBplayer: Player Suggestions – incoming channel

If it comes to a point where multiple people are suggesting conflicting actions of a character then I will pick the most popular or go with the most plausible.  I’m sure if this goes long enough then these characters should develop personalities of their own and I will use that collective persona to guide the actions.

What if nobody plays?  I will make logical choices and keep (no pun intended) this going as long as it is interesting.  Remember it is just an experiment.

How long will it take to get through the module this way? The idea here is to enjoy the Journey, not the destination.  The real answer is, I don’t know.  Months?  Years?

How can you play along? Tweet back to me.  Guide these characters.  Send in suggestions.  Send in feedback.  Send in character builds or art I can post.  Participate however you think would be fun for all.

The art is from the cover of the module by the artist Jim Roslof and I post here giving him full credit and my gratitude as he gave me my first visuals into this wonderful hobby.  Jim, you are missed.