RPG Corner: Changing Difficulty

Say your player’s characters keep dying? Do you make the encounters easier? Do you relocate the PC’s? Do you keep running them through the gauntlet until a set of characters rises to the top?

In the most recent (at the time of writing) episode of Nevre: Yeodiax (which is set in a future of the setting for Fractured Mountains) I had to decide whether to send the group back to the wilderness, where they keep dying, or keep them in the city, where they have a chance to level up some before heading back out?

My solution was to keep them in the city and send them on a short filler quest to deliver a chest that turned out to be [spoilers]. (If you wish to watch the episode it’s on my YouTube channel linked at the end of this post.)

My solution was to send them somewhere I knew they were more likely to survive. I also toned down the encounters a little, but forgot to take into account that we had an extra player for the session. Survival rates increase greatly with just one more character.

There are many places and times that just pulling the characters out of the fire isn’t an option that allows the players to keep their buy-in. I had the only survivor captured and dragged to the goblin caves near the city, but that’s not always an option.

If I didn’t have somewhere close by to send the characters I probably would have started to tone down the encounters a little. I had already started doing this at the beginning of the campaign. I removed the ability for kobolds to use pack tactics because I had instituted flanking. Getting the characters thinking about optimal placement to both activate flanking and avoid being flanked goes out the window when enemies don’t have to position for advantage.

An easy way to tone down encounters is to have the enemies use bad tactics. Instead of flanking at the start of the battle they just spread out and try to take on characters one to one. The players are then free to disengage and position for advantage if they wish. The only exception to this is that the caster should not be targeted and the monsters that would target them should go after the fighter/barbarian/monk/etc.

So, when it comes to combat, to make it easier for your players either get them to move somewhere that has less difficult encounters or use less optimal tactics against them. There’s also the chance that your players aren’t tactically minded and using less optimal tactics doesn’t change anything. In that case I recommend lowering the CR of future encounters, little by little until you reach a sweet spot. Finding the CR sweet spot is difficult and CR is more of a guideline than a ruler.

Likewise, you can increase the combat difficulty, if the characters are breezing through things that you want to slow them down, by doing the opposite. Start using better tactics. If that doesn’t work then slightly increase the CR.

But what about if they keep failing your skill-based challenges? This is maybe an easier question. There are recommended difficulties for skills in the 5e DMG. Do not scale these up based on level unless someone is proficient in that skill, and then only by one or two. It may seem like the characters are failing a lot, but remember that their ideas on how to handle the situation should give modifiers to the roll.

For example, there’s three doors in front of the characters. Two lead to traps and one leads forward. There is a riddle in front of them which, when solved, tells them which door is the correct one. If the group’s survivalist wants to make the check easier by finding which door has the most air flow coming from beneath it, let him roll and if he succeeds give them a +2 modifier for solving the riddle (or a hint if you don’t want them to roll to solve the riddle).

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RPG Corner: World Maps

There are a lot of programs and resources out there for creating world maps for D&D and other role-playing games, but all of my maps start before opening a program with one of two things. (1) An idea of what kind of setting I want or (2) a scrap piece of paper, a pencil, and some free time.

When you have an idea about your world the map is going to fall into a specific category. For example one of my realms in the South Reaches and Nevre setting is an island nation. Making a map for that is fairly simple in that it’s a series of islands in separate parts of the ocean. For this map, I went straight into Worldographer, which I have the free version of.

Yerkir Northern Isles

For my map of Nevre, I had some paper, a pencil, and some free time. I just scribbled out the map, labeled the continent, and named the countries. After that, I scanned the map into my computer and using Paint I sketched the map. It would have been better to do this in Gimp, a free image manipulation program, but I didn’t have it at the time. After doing that I decided what regions had what features within the countries and color-coded them.

The Continent of Yeodiax

After doing that the map stayed in this state for a long time. I was using it as a reference for a book and didn’t need anything different for it. Recently, however, I started running a game that is in Nevre so I made a version of the map using Hexographer (because the free version supports map overlay) then imported that into Worldographer.

The Continent of Yeodiax, Hex

If you look closely on both versions of the map you’ll see a continent to the east and to the south. I haven’t drawn those out yet, but because of the way I built the original map I will probably sketch them out and scan them in.

Whichever way I make a map, it’s always a fun experience. While some people love to make their own maps from scratch, like me, not everyone does. Thankfully, Worldographer has the option to generate a map within parameters. I haven’t messed with those setting very much, but the few times I have the maps have turned out nice. I don’t have any maps I use that were generated this way, but I may use some in the future.

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RPG Corner: Joke Magic Items

Happy April Fools! Have I got some great magic items for you! They never break! *bangs item against table* It broke…

These are all auto-attune cursed items built for D&D 5e. When you attempt to identify these items they become attuned to you!

First up on the list, Quarterstaff of Smells!
When attuned to this quarterstaff you smell like cow manure no matter how hard you scrub. Once the attunement is broken the smell dissipates in 1d4 days. You feel compelled to never remove the quarterstaff from your person while attuned.

Now, Torch of Neverlight!
When attuned to this torch you see bright light as dim light and dim light as…dim light. Both before and after attuning the torch cannot be lit by any means short of being on the plane of fire. You feel compelled to never remove the torch from your person while attuned.

Next, Mask of Forget
When attuned to this mask you feel compelled to wear it, DC 15 Wisdom save to resist every dawn. When you don the mask you forget who you are, but you still retain your ability scores and proficiencies. DC 15 Wisdom save to remove the mask, also at dawn. You feel compelled to never remove the mask from your person while attuned.

Another! *breaks coffee mug on floor* Amulet of Never Drunk
When attuned to this amulet you cannot get drunk, no matter how hard you try! You can still get alcohol poisoning, so watch out! You feel compelled to never remove the amulet from your person while attuned. (I recommend giving this to the party’s drunken dwarf.)

Finally, Deaf’s Embrace
When attuned to this cloak you feel compelled to wear it and call yourself Deaf Himself. While wearing the cloak you are deafened. You feel compelled to never remove the cloak from your person while attuned.

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RPG Corner: Thoughts on Dungeons

First, let’s talk about dungeon maps.

A floor of a dungeon is usually represented as a floor plan for a floor of a house. The dungeon map evokes the thought of a level floor with little to no variation. This makes sense because most dungeon maps are built on two-dimensional planes, like a sheet of paper, or a computer screen.

If the dungeon is a building that is in good repair this makes complete sense and the preconception stands. However, when in a cave system this preconception is far from the truth. The floors of caves are rarely level, and if they are it should evoke suspicion from your players.

DM: “The floor is completely flat and smooth.”
Player: “The cave floor is flat and smooth? That’s unusual. I toss a heavy rock onto the smooth section. Does anything happen?”
DM: “The place where the stone hit breaks and the stone goes straight through. After a few seconds, you hear the clang of stone hitting metal.”
Player: “Oh, no! A pit trap with spikes at the bottom!”

Keep this in mind when creating your dungeon. The floor may well be level and smooth throughout the dungeon, depending on where and what your dungeon is.

Next, Geometry.

When making a dungeon map it is difficult, again because we draw in two-dimensions, to show passages going under or over other sections of the map.

You might say: “But wait, Josh, that would be another floor of the dungeon, wouldn’t it?”

Not necessarily. A sloping passage may lead to another level of the dungeon, but if it leads to a room that is on this level of the dungeon, and it must overlap other areas to do so, it can instead be a passage that goes over or under another section. Usually, you would do this to connect two rooms that you want characters to be able to return to without going through all the rooms and corridors between.

If going under or over feels too strange just don’t do it or find another way to link the rooms. In fantasy or sci-fi, a teleporter can link two rooms instead.

Now, non-Euclidian geometry

When using a magic-infused dungeon you can use non-Euclidian geometry. There is no way that the room over there has a door that leads directly to this room here, but for some reason it does.

In a setting where you can mess with gravity (such as with the reverse gravity spell or gravity generators), a circular corridor may use a Mobius strip to allow people to visit two floors without using stairs or other classic ways of changing floors. This allows characters to walk from a point and eventually end up where they started, facing the same direction. Let this confuse the players. Don’t tell them that this is a Mobius strip, let them try to piece it together for themselves.

Next, let’s talk a little about getting from floor to floor.

In the Dungeons and Dragons 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide in the random dungeons appendix the list of things it has for “stairs” include stairs, chimneys, and elevators (or empty elevator shafts). Chimneys can be reskinned for your dungeon of course. Underground this may be a tunnel, for example. Elevators don’t have to be a room that rises and falls from floor to floor, it could be a basket for one medium sized character at a time.
Here are a few things that are dungeon features for getting from floor to floor that aren’t listed in this appendix in the 5e DMG.

One option, as mentioned earlier, is teleporters. This can be a pair of linked two-way teleporters, a one-way teleporter, a teleporter system that works in sequence (teleporter A takes you to teleporter B, B takes you to C, C takes you to A), or even a random teleporter with multiple teleporters linked together. These can be fun and confusing to your party.

Sloping floors are another interesting way to get from floor to floor. Maybe the corridor slopes so slowly that the characters believe they are on the same level by the time they get to a room or the slopes are obvious, and the characters know they have changed floors.

A combination of shafts and sloping floors can be a chute that a character can go down but can’t get back up. This allows for one-way movement or even separating the party if the chute is under a trap door.

Living elevators. A living elevator is a creature that moves you from one level to another. This can be a mount that only moves you between floors, but it can also be something more…unusual. In a magic dungeon, this could akin to being swallowed by a living elevator shaft to go down. Going down could be strange but going back up would be…vomitus.

Ladders. I mentioned chutes earlier, and I would be remiss not to mention ladders. Like stairs, these are a more mundane way of getting between floors, but they require you to go one at a time. Or if the ladder isn’t bolted close to a wall you could manage two at a time. Being attacked while going up or down ladders is a great way to get the players separated while they are physically right next to each other. The wizard is right there, but he has to get to the end of the ladder, so his hands are free to cast his spell.

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RPG Corner, Homebrew – D&D 5e: The Underdark

RPG Corner

I’ve made a few creatures to be used in the Under Dark for South Reaches. These are creatures that I created for The Fractured Mountains originally. The ones here are the Ankyloslime and the Strange Salamander. These have not been playtested so the listed CR may be incorrect. The links lead to their D&D Beyond page. Continue reading

RPG Corner, Homebrew: D&D 5e – Teblats

[RPG Corner is a monthly post where I talk about something related to Role-Playing Games.]

Teblats appear in a part of Rebuilding Brangmar, and they will probably show up again.

Teblats can take the form of any tiny creature. The creature itself isn’t the teblat, instead the teblat is a parasite that gives the animal protection but also causes the animal to be more aggressive and appear to have a blue aura. This aura grows stronger when they have more temporary hit points and is very dim when they have none.

Sentient creatures cannot be affected by a teblat infestation. Continue reading

RPG Corner, Character Creation – FFG Star Wars: Zala the Gungan Jedi

[RPG Corner is a monthly post where I talk about something related to Role-Playing Games.]

I decided that I wanted a recurring nemesis for a Star Wars campaign and then I thought, why not a Gungan?

I built Zala using the Inquisitor rules in Force and Destiny and I did not give her any Darkside powers as the campaign is an evil one. Unfortunately, the campaign ended up being a one-shot so she never appeared. Continue reading