Friday, March 13, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 5 - Sea Monster Statistics (Basic and 5th Edition)

Sea Encounter Details

Bishop Crab: Hog sized, muddy grey green crabs with bright blue human eyes. They are oddly communal creatures, building inexplicable edifices on their shells, along the beach and in their undersea gardens -- fragile, sometimes beautiful assemblages of detritus that look vaguely like many spired cathedrals. They are scavengers, but will defend their territory, sculpture and selves aggressively with their huge right claws, which can crush and tear through armor with ease. Thrown food or chum will convince Bishop Crabs to retreat unless their sculptures have been damaged.

Bishop Crab: HD: 2 (HP: 12), AC 3(17), ATK: 1*, DAM: 1d8(claw), MV: 40'/Swim 60', ML: 10, SV: F2
*Bishop Crabs treat all non-magical armor as leather (AC 7)

Bishop Crab 5E: HD 3D8+6 (HP: 21), AC 16, ATK: 1(melee)*, DAM: 1D8+2 (claw - penetrating), MV: 30’/Swim 40’, STAT: (S: 15, D: 15, C: 15, I: 7, W: 10, CH: 6)
* The crushing claw of the Bishop Crab treats all normal armors as a maximum of AC 13.

Blood Jelly: Hunting jellyfish of prodigious size that float at the surface to feed. Ponderous clear cushions, they drain blood with their paralyzing flesh and blistering, stinging tentacles, turning pink and then red as they feed. The jellies are far more dangerous to submerged or swimming prey, but can ram small boats to overturn them when aggravated. Jellies can be distracted with living prey or chum. Jellyfish venom loses its potency within an hour of the creature’s death, but with a fire, several hours and proper equipment, one skilled in alchemy or chemic sciences can distill the creatures to form 1D6/2 flasks of valuable regent and topical anesthetic: “pale viscera” worth 100GP per flask.

Blood Jelly: HD: 4 (HP: 25), AC 8(12), ATK: 1*, DAM: 1D6* (sting) or Special** (ram), MV: Swim 40’, ML: 8, SV: F1
* Jellies make one sting attack per round against any target in melee range and in the water with them, and successful attacks inflict damage as well as paralysis for 1D6/2 turns (beware of drowning) on a failed Save v. Paralysis
** If attacked or harassed from above the surface (on a very hostile reaction roll or if a small boat stays near for more than a few minutes), jellies can ram small boats. On an attack roll of 15 or better a jelly can capsize any boat under 20’ throwing its passengers into the sea.

Blood Jelly in 5E: HD: 6D12 (HP: 48), AC 10, ATK: Multi(reach - 10’)* or Special**, DAM: 1D6+3*** (sting - penetrating), MV: Swim 30’, STAT: (S: 17, D: 10, C: 12, I: 1, W: 6, CH: 4)
* The long tentacles of the Blood Jelly can reach anyone in the water within 10’ of the jelly and attack once per round at +3 to hit.
** If attacked or harassed from above the surface (on a very hostile reaction roll or if a small boat stays near for more than a few minutes), jellies can ram small boats. On an attack roll of 15 or better a jelly can capsize any boat under 20’ throwing its passengers into the sea.
*** The sting of the Blood Jelly is paralytic and any creature hit by them must make a DC 15 saving throw or suffer paralysis for a maximum of 1 minute, with a new save allowed each round. Terrestrial creatures will begin to sink and drown during this time unless pulled to the surface or shore.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 4 - Wilderness Random Encounters

Do not taunt the Sharktopus

Tilted observation spires and the deck castles of the wrecked fleet are visible above the mangrove canopy from ½ a day’s distance by sea or land, and approach is possible from either direction. No sane captain, familiar with the waters and legends of the Morass will approach closer and neither will Crouch swamp guides or polemen.

Seaward, modern wrecks begin to appear in the shallows about a mile out from the first ancient ships, grasped by claws of bright coral with the newest still awash or with masts above the surface. Anchoring or staying among the wrecks is sure doom for incautious vessels, as within hours wandering coral will surround the vessel, a jungle of poisonous varicolored life drawing a tighter and tighter circle until it reaches up to tear the bilges open with calcified spires.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 3 - Scope and Regional Map


Several days South East of Aurum Ferro, at a confused delta of the sluggish Green Flow, a serpentine twin of the Black Flow, Turpid Wake, and innumerable other streams draining into the Umber Havens from the snowy peaks of the Maiden Tombs to the West. Land and Water meet messily here: fresh, brackish and salt mingling in uneasy union spread over miles of marsh, mangrove, mudflat and cane forest.



The Pyre Coast - A desolate and rocky hinterland notable mainly for its internecine range warfare, deplorable poverty and lack of decent anchorages. Goats, heather and dry grass interrupted by the occasional ruin or scenic cliff.

The Pyre Sea - Once the Inner or World Sea, the conflagration of the Old Empire gave the Pyre Sea its new name. Patrolled by Maritime Provence naval pirates, the Aurum Ferro privateer squadron and sea wyrms its islands and trade lanes are the scene of both robust trade and countless naval battles.

Green Hive - Breadbasket of the Successor Empire, and neighboring province of the Umber Havens. Neither the constant people stealing crusades from the Solar Papacy or the mismanagement of Syndicators: tax farming, debt peonage, land speculation, and proxy wars can drive enough refugees from the vineyards, fields and apiaries to reduce the Hives fecundity - though its greatest crop is now human misery.

Aurum Ferro - The Successor Empire’s great port on the Pyre Sea, an ancient metropolis of drowned towers, jaded, worldly and decadent even by the standards of a sybaritic nation. Home to the Imperial Naval Arsenal and a bustling focal point of international trade where exotic frivolities are traded for the Empire’s eons of stored wealth. It’s merchant magnets, privateer admirals and anesthetized nobility whine, demand and pay lavishly to have their whims catered to.

Crouch Villages - A race of arcane sports, spontaneously evolved in the magical sinks of the Umber Havens, the crouch are reviled for their waist high cockroach forms, acrid odor, chittering speech and diet of decaying matter. Mistreated in towns like Aurum Ferro, many Crouch live contentedly enough in the swamps and marsh. Oddly the Crouch welcome strangers into their mud and reed stilt villages, and many human outcast finds a new life of relative contentment among them - fishing, gathering and hunting.

The Maw of Snails - A magical sink and ancient mining catacomb know for the bright shelled snails that erupt from its shafts nightly, only to die in the sunlight leaving fields of slowly bleaching shell.

Drowned Mansions - In the high ancient days the marsh of the Umber Havens was reclaimed with levee and canal, a rich cropland home to elaborate manor houses, agricultural factors, and summer retreats for nobility and trade magnets. Neglect, saltwater intrusion, collapsed dams and magical corruption have left only decaying shells, looted parlous, and flooded cellars.

Angel Reef - The Southern twin of Aurum Ferro, a drowned Imperial metropolis -- levees and dams smashed by war. Inundated, and sunk beneath the hot doldrums of the Pyre Sea, home to sea wyrm kin of the dragon Zubrab the
Insatiable Wind and haunted by the dead.  Angel Reefl is a magnet to salvors and treasure hunters with an even grimmer reputation then the Plague Fleet.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 2 - Rumor Tables


Two sets of rumor table for characters who express an interest in discovering more about the Plague Fleet. Simply offer a rumor for ever 5GP the party is willing to spend asking about for information, or just provide a few rumors attached to a general description of the location.

Rumors available in the dives and salons of the grad, decaying port city nearest to the Green Flow Morass.

A tall tale … and its Teller.

  1. Wrecks? That’s underwater work usually - to breath you’ll want value stopped air bladders for that work. ... Longshoreman and regatta man of the Blue and Gold’s Demes. Leathers decorated with patches, badges and sailing medals.
  2. Imperial military ruins are rarely worth it for amateurs - the valuables are trapped ... Travelling Tomb Robber, uncommonly talkative, stone skull mask hanging loose.
  3. She is come again, she is waiting to be freed from the Morass, our Red Queen ... Naked drunk, prophetic on narcotic honey mead and shouting between seizures.
  4. At the delta of the Green Flow the seas are unwholesome, a shipkiller, haunted ... Leviathan Harpooner with hypnotic tattoos spending a year’s pay on an epic spree.
  5. To bring peace to ghosts they must be buried and shriven, at least the skulls ... The Tout’s ingratiating false smile suggests his goods will not live up to his promises.
  6. The worst arcane corruption is invisible and odorless - it leaves only death ...Wyrm Hunter from the Desolation of Zubrab - violent and mad eyed with arbalest primed.
  7. This? A green vampire monkey pelt from the Morass. There are apes also ... Perfumed, bedecked in lace and bodyguards, a Fop brags loudly to any willing to listen.
  8. The haints and raw bones of the Plague Fleet are still Imperial soldiers, a geas of command binds them to obey rank and insignia ... Grave meined Footman in the livery of a minor house, his quiet cultured speech mesmerizes a crowd of fellow servants and layabouts.

The rumors below are available only to characters with unsavory reputations and underworld connections.

The whispered admonitions … of cautious Whisperers

  1. The “Lost Lambs”, roughest lot mob in the marshes aid travelers ... A group of three Crouch hunters, wild on snake squeezins’ and eager to please.
  2. The corals of the Green Flow Morass hunt for flesh and take ships ... Smuggler, scarred upper face wrapped in sigil painted rags, unerring with her knife tricks.
  3. The machines of ancient wrecks hide gems and gold inside the works ... Crouch mudlarks bubbling excitedly in sing-song chorus.
  4. No sleeping in the Morass, everything there drinks blood - it'll eat you at night ... Crouch river pirate of the notorious Hook Gang, chitin lacquered with clotted blood.
  5. Beware old naval ordinance, it leaks magic esters, and worse explodes ... Legless wrecker living on charity, the bitter & haunted survivor of a dead expedition.
  6. Morass Plague kills fast - buboes and delirium - cured with salt water and rest ... Exiled gaucho from the Pyre Coast, weary enough of endless war to rot in the swamps.
  7. A malign intelligence that controls all things in the Morass - but it sleeps ... Snake eating cultist, hair bound with shed skins and hissing with a split tongue.
  8. The Fleet's dead are peaceable, until you loot the wrecks, then you join them ... Sweating Hellsman, still reeking of pine sap and snow, wanted for heretical singing.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 1 - Plague Ships Intro and Hooks

Below is the first of a series of  shorter posts discussing my personal design process and rationales for design decisions through the example of keying a location - the wrecks of high fantasy arcane warships in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting.  I intend to key it for both the 1981 Moldvay Basic edition and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, but that may prove to be impossible.  A lot of decisions and elements of the project may prove to be impossible ... but even in the likely event of failure, I hope readers will find some ideas to discuss and mull over about the nature of classic adventure.

These posts will be structured to include elements of the project - "Plague Ships" and a notes on one or more design element of the content.


Polyandrium of Imperial ambition, Green Flow Morass stinks in the hot Southern sun. Bluish mud flats teem with giant blue shrimp below a shallow green tide. Grey mangroves garlanded in moss echo with the screech of sickle-fanged monkeys and the constant drumming drip as the fecund growth sweats in the humid heat. Above it tower the imperishable remains of the Grande Fleet of the Successor Empire, immured in an inconclusive settlement to an inconclusive war and scuttled to prevent the ancient stone war vessels from being parcelled out by the squabbling victors... the Plague Fleet.

The unwholesome airs of the Morass, untrustworthy currents and offshore reefs of wandering predatory coral have limited recovery and salvage to the schemes of crackpots, dreamers, confidence men. That the wrecks are haunted, trapped, and cursed makes them too dangerous for all but the most desperate and foolish freebooters.

The Morass is at the delta of the Green Flow, one of the many rivers that wind through the swamps of the Umber Havens. While both Morass and Flow are landmarks, they have grim reputation as plagued and dangerous even in a land of endemic mosquito and waterborne illness. The general location is all that’s necessary to find the wrecks, but in lotus dens, pleasure arks and gaming pits along the Alien’s Wharf of old Auram Ferro there are stories of the Morass to chill the soul. Likewise, in the swamp villages of crouch and human outcasts the cockroach people bubble and hiss strange tales of the wrecked Fleet.

If hints of wealth and strange adventure or desperate circumstances fail to intrigue your players the following opportunities may draw them to the Plague Fleet.

d6  The Largesse of Aurum Ferro’s Golden Thrones Smile on the Brave.

  1. The spring ball season has found its fad - the calculating spheres from the bombardment ordinators of stone ships worn on the corsage or as a wig borne fascinator.
  2. A dispute among gentlefolk will end in a duel, and civil unrest if proof of the battle honors and identity of 1st Officer of the quadrireme Risen Empire aren’t recovered soon.
  3. The popular Rag Priest of the 19th “Indigent” Emperor, Maximo the Obliging disappeared months ago, a holy vision demanded he succor the the Plague Fleet’s dead.
  4. The Arsenal will pay handsomely for ancient weaponry, or even parts - the fleet needs lightning casters, falconets, sakers and the sights and motive chambers of basilisks.
  5. The decrepit, wealthy Margrave is fixated on Imperial pride. He’s offering commissions to mount an expedition scourging Crouch and foreigners from the war graves of the Fleet.
  6. The Hemolina Cruelty was a storied raider, and her concealed strongroom hides the mummy of a Maratime Heresiarch Emperor/Admirals - returning it would bring trade.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Descent into Avernus - Dungeon Keying

In the last post All Dead Generations looked at the general design principles in Wizard’s of the Coast’s new campaign tome Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, and compared them to the classic style of open world, location based dungeon crawls. Descent into Avernus is not a classic adventure, it is not meant to be played as an open world and even its locations which have some of the trappings of dungeons, or are named dungeons, aren’t in any mechanical sense. Rather the majority of Descent’s dungeons appear to either be small lairs, arenas to facilitate a specific encounter, or a series of linear scenes sometimes laid atop a map but largely unconnected during play.

The Dungeon of the Dead Three is the last of these: a selection of encounters partitioned off from the location largely as a means of introducing or ending them each with filmic or novelistic flair - to create a predesigned “moment” of gameplay. This is obviously a very different play style then the classic dungeon crawl, and it seeks to produce predictable narrative moments at every opportunity - willingly sacrificing many aspects that define the classic dungeon crawl to do so. Still, The Dungeon of the Dead Three and Descent into Avernus in general show care and creativity, and the contents of the individual keyed areas within it can be evocative enough that even a reader who doesn’t like the encounter based playstyle must recognize that Descent’s design choices are intentional.

The Dungeon of the Dead Three in particular deserves a closer look, because of anything within Descent it is most like a classic dungeon crawl, and seems to want to evoke the feeling of one - even if it pays no attention to the exploration elements of timekeeping, supply or risk management. Yet, despite disfavoring an exploration playstyle (which is hard not to with the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons mechanics) Dungeon of the Dead Three includes many aspects that superficially make it appear to be a classic dungeon: a looping map that includes empty or nonessential rooms, traps and secret doors as well as a traditional feeling of the dungeon crawl - the infiltration or exploration of close corridors in an alien underworld. Here of course that’s focused on a sewer, which unfortunately is also a popular video game cliche, but at least it avoids including wererats. Because of these inclusions, it’s easier to conceive of the The Dungeon of the Dead Three as a classic dungeon, and despite its designers clear intent for it to play very differently, one can interrogate it in the context of running a resources, risk v. reward dungeon crawl.

Beyond modifying or including rules that better encourage exploration play (e.g. random encounters, timekeeping, meaningful encumbrance, and lighting) the question of “how does one design a dungeon that facilitates exploration play” remains. With the larger elements of the adventure: map, concept and basic structure in place, or at least not actively working against the dungeon crawl playstyle, the core of the design process is in the individual location keys.

Keys are the basic building block of adventure design, information that the designer believes most important to understanding the location, provided in a way to allow the reader to run the adventure.


There's a variety of techniques to keying locations, from the ultra minimalism found in some of the first published adventures, to boxed text designed originally for tournament adventures and bullet points or other, mixed types of formalism. The style used in Descent is mixed one: short boxed text, sometimes preceded by and always followed by GM directed text about room contents. Areas without encounters (combat in Descent) lack boxed text and have only short paragraphs. The writing itself is serviceable, but it doesn’t appear to have been intended as writing for a location based adventure, and it’s not well focused on usability. The organization that exists is a haphazard use of bolding to set off paragraphs about treasure or traps in some of the locations. This sort of effort is good, but without consistency it doesn’t help a GM run the location or to highlight the most important information in the key so that it stands out. Descent does make laudable effort to limit the length of its locations, but because of uninspired writing may do so at the cost of dulling down the play experience of the dungeon as a whole.

Boxed text is always a concern, it exists to regularize play experience, an understandable goal in the tournament modules that pioneered it, but unnecessary for players and GMs that aren’t in a tournament. Like all design choices, it has a cost as well as an advantage and that cost is generally a risk of confusion for both players and GM. There’s a lot of potential sins for a designer writing boxed text (or simple keys without read aloud text), and below is a list of some of the most obvious with notes on how well Descent’s Dungeon of Dead Three manages them.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Descent into Avernus - From a Dungeon Crawl Perspective

Cover of Descent Into Avernus
With the basic ideas behind dungeon crawl style play covered, I'll be taking a look at the current state of contemporary Dungeons & Dragons adventure design and how it succeeds or fails to deliver a Dungeon Crawl or Classic Play experience.  Specifically I'll be looking at the recently published Wizards of the Coast ("WotC") campaign book "Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus" ("Descent"). My goal isn't to attack or denigrate Descent or the play style it supports, but to discuss where and how it follows design principles that support classic play, where it departs from them and to what effect.  I may also be able to offer some ideas that will help others run the adventure in a more classic way emphasizing: dungeon crawling, player choice, and open worldbuilding.

Fairly typical of WotC's contemporary adventures Descent is a 200 plus page series of adventures that make up a campaign that will take characters from 1st to approximately 14th level.  It's designed for many sessions of play and an epic scope. The campaign is the product of a large team of authors, designers and artists including D&D's current creative leads Mike Mearls and Chris Perkins. It's also nice to see that much of the cartography within is the work of Dyson Logos, a blogger and map maker who I consider to be broadly part of the same community as All Dead Generations and whose distinctive cross hatching style is inspired by classic map design.

Descent is an epic story, and this is it's first goal, and the first way it departs from classic sensibilities.  Organized (as are the vast majority of contemporary WotC adventures) into Chapters Descent is a linear narrative where the players follow and unfolding danger, overcoming challenges and gaining power as they go. It's writers don't countenance players deviating significantly from the chapters, their order and the consequences or events of each.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...