Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Default Adventure Skeleton

The Default Adventure Skeleton

by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish

Original Article

We've talked about the importance of pacing but this is a hard concept to understand at a practical level. How can we worry about pacing when we have a pile of friends on their way over and need to keep them entertained for four hours?

Simple tools and checklists can give us a lot of leverage when running our RPGs and we can use such a checklist as a basic guide for maintaining an interesting pace during our next game.

This article contains one such checklist in the form of an adventure skeleton.

The adventure skeleton is a simple outline that can fill out a two- to four-hour gaming session. It builds in pacing throughout and maintains enough flexiblity to support a wide range of interesting adventures. It's a dangerous tool, though. Use it too much and all your games start to feel the same. Still, when nothing else is working quite right, this is a good way to build some solid pacing into your game before you begin.

In short, here is the adventure skeleton:

Start with a battle.
NPC interaction that sets the stage for the rest of the adventure.
Another fight.
More exploration or interaction.
The final battle.
A conclusion.
Step 1: Start with a Battle

We know how important it is to have a solid start and there are few more gripping starts than a good battle. D&D combat gets everybody rolling dice and focuses on the strongest pillar of the game—combat. This battle also serves as a good way to introduce the PCs to the problems they may face. This battle might even LEAD to their problems. Perhaps they killed the Wererat kingpin's only son or cut down the king's favorite mercenary lord. Sure, he was a jerk, but he was the king's jerk.

Step 2: NPC Interaction

Next jump into interesting NPCs and some useful conversation. After the battle is over it's time to bring in our helpful questgiver who steers the direction of the PCs. Maybe this is a good person or maybe it's a scumbag, but someone needs to help the PCs navigate the rest of the story and point out the interesting locations.

Step 3: Exploration

Next comes our scenes of exploration. This might be an investigation into some sort of crime. It might be the exploration of an ancient ruin. It might be a series of interviews with other NPCs to understand the full scope of the situation. However we play it, this is the scene where the players get to do LOTS of non-combat sorts of stuff. Uncovering clues, disarming traps, manipulating the corrupt town guard to learn of the criminal underpinnings, that sort of stuff.

Step 4: Another Fight

Time to bring the pace back up again with another good solid fight. This one shouldn't be too hard. Maybe slightly less diffcult than the first and certainly less difficult than the final fight. Keep in mind that most fights should give the PCs some clue about the overall storyline going on. Pepper in interesting clues all throughout the game. This fight could be less about monsters and more about an interesting environment. Are they hanging from the side of a cliff? Are they fighting on the remains of a crashing airship? What's the environmental hook in this fight?

Step 5: More Exploration or Interactions

Depending on the type of adventure going on, this is a great time for the PCs to tie up any loose ends. This is where the big reveal occurs. It might be the lowest level of a dungeon, a secret chamber in the castle, or finding out that the queen's attendant is really an ancient sorceress in disguise.

Step 6: Final Battle

Near the end of the adventure our heroes come face to face with the true villain. This should be a nice challenging fight with interesting terrain and other interesting variables that make it an exciting batle. This is your big set-piece fight if you're using cool maps or 3d terrain.

Step 7: Conclusion

We don't have to leave a lot of time at the end but we should leave some time to tie off the loose ends and give the PCs some closure. Usually, by the end of a big final fight, players are packing up their dice and starting to check their watches. A little extra time to describe the impact of their actions usually ties off the game right.

A Blunt Instrument

This outline isn't perfect and it shouldn't be used all the time. In particular it doesn't work for more standard serial adventures where, in many cases, stories will be broken up across multiple sessions. Still, a good balance of interaction, exploration, and combat helps keep the beats of pace going.

As a tool to get you started building a fun adventure, you could do a lot worse than an outline like this one. Like all of our tips, try it out and rebuild it into something useful for you.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Villains of Eberron

By Keith Baker

As I was writing about the daelkyr in my last Eberron post, it occurred to me that my emphasis on how alien and unknowable they are might make it hard for people to understand how to work them into a story. Eberron has a host of major villains ready to go, and sometimes it’s not always clear what differentiates them. So I figured I’d do a quick run-down of the big bad guys.

The Dreaming Dark seeks to take control of mortal civilization in order to preserve the current status quo in Dal Quor. Thus, its primary goal is conquest. However, the quori prefer to conquer in such a way that their subjects embrace their oppressors. If you look to Sarlonan history, they instigated a series of wars and political upheavals and then the Inspired emerged as the saviors who brought order to this shattered land. They are more likely to do the same thing in Khorvaire than to invade with a Riedran army. It’s entirely possible that they instigated the Last War as the first stage of this plan. The question is who they will use as their figurehead leaders. They don’t need to replicate the culture of Riedra in Khorvaire: they simply need a scenario in which mortals embrace a new, absolute ruler. Is Queen Aurala secretly a quori figurehead (which would explain her warlike ambitions)? Have they assumed control of one or more of the Dragonmarked houses? Whatever it is, the main role of the quori is to cause chaos and then to provide a seemingly perfect solution.

The Daelkyr are essentially alien scientists and artists, and their primary goal is change. When they first arrived, they engaged the Empire of Dhakaan with armies of aberrations. They took creatures of Eberron and twisted them to produce monstrosities. For the last seven thousand years they’ve been bound in Khyber, and many wonder why they haven’t been working harder to escape. The main point is that they aren’t interested in conquest: they are interested in transformation. Even from the depths they can work through their cults and their agents; read this blog post for information on why someone would be a part of a daelkyr cult. They may BE changing the world in ways people don’t even realize; one interesting idea is that the dragonmarks were actually created by the daelkyr. If you WANT a daelkyr to burst out of Khyber with a devastating army of aberrations, you can have that. Just bear in mind that they aren’t seeking to conquer or colonize Eberron: they simply want to change it. If you’re going to use a daelkyr as a major villain, think about how it seeks to change the world.

The Lords of Dust are driven to free their ancient Overlords. Thus they are driven by Prophecy. The release of an Overlord will likely shatter modern civilization. Thus the Lords of Dust have little interest in conquest… unless conquest is necessary to release the Overlord. Each Overlord has a sequence of events that must come to pass to release it – a combination to its lock. It’s up to you to decide what that combination is. So if you WANT the combination to involve the conquest of Aundair by the Carrion Tribes of the Demon Wastes, than the Lords of Dust will be working to conquer Aundair. You could have a Lord of the Ring plotline – they need to recover a lost artifact and return it to a specific location at a specific time – in which case the conflict would all be based around the artifact and those who possess it. Or their actions could be far more subtle: they need Queen Aurala to restore Galifar, and thus they are helping her conquer the other Five Nations, but they are acting behind the scenes and even she doesn’t know it. Another way to look at the Lords of Dust is The Terminator: They have a vision of the future, and they are taking the actions required to make that future come to pass. Their actions don’t always make sense to us because we don’t understand the dominoes they are lining up. Why are they helping Aurala? What’s that do for them? We’ll find out when she’s murdered on the day of her coronation and Sul Khatesh is released from her bonds.

The Aurum is an alliance of powerful and wealthy mortals, and they seek to increase their own power and influence; as such they are often driven by Greed and Ambition. In a sense, they are a cabal of Bond villains, and pretty much any James Bond plot could be laid at the feet of the Aurum. While they work together when it serves their purposes, their schemes are often the schemes of an individual Aurum concordian – thus, foiling a plot doesn’t necessarily make you the enemy of the entire Aurum. Likewise, their schemes are often on a smaller scale than those of the daelkyr or the Dreaming Dark. They want to acquire a particular thing, gain control of an organization or piece of land, eliminate a particular person. Where the daelkyr and the quori are cosmic threats, the Aurum are fundamentally human villains (even if they are dwarves or elves).

The Emerald Claw are driven by Erandis’ desire to restore her dragonmark and gain ultimate power. Like the Aurum, their actions are generally more straightforward and serve a specific purpose. Erandis is going to set off a necrotic generator that will turn everyone in Sharn into a zombie because she hopes that harnessing that power will unlock her mark. She’s going to send an army of undead against Arcanix because she needs a particular necromantic tome or artifact. The actions of her followers may be cloaked in political schemes – many agents of the Emerald Claw believe they are laying the groundwork for Karrnathi dominance – but ultimately, any large-scale Emerald Claw action is somehow about increasing Erandis’ power or furthering her personal goals.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

The Four Agreements 
by Don Miguel Ruiz

1. Be Impeccable with Your Word
    a. Speak with integrity.
    b. Say only what you mean.
    c. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or gossip about others.
    d. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love

2. Don't Take Anything Personally
    a. Nothing others do is because of you.
    b. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream.
    c. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others , you won't be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don't Make Assumptions
    a. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want.
    b. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.
    c. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

4. Always Do Your Best
    a. Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick.

    b. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mentor / Student Relationships in the SCA

Before delving into my personal views on Mentor/Student relationships in the Society for Creative Anachronism, I will give context for my views by presenting my research and personal history.


I was made a squire by Duke Albert Von Dreckenveldt on August 5th, 1985.  I served him for 10.759 days (29.5 years) and was knighted on January 17th, 2015.  His Grace, Albert was knighted in the Middle Kingdom in the year 1973 having never served as a squire.  He served as King of the Middle, and as King of Atenveldt, but has lived in the Outlands since 1978.  While he has spent most of his service as a Knight of the Society for Creative Anachronism as an Outlander, I always considered him a MIdrealm Knight, and followed their customs for squires.  The following is from the Middle Kingdom web site:

  • Midrealm Squire Customs
  • The Middle Kingdom has some unique customs among its squires. This page attempts to explain them, in case you are traveling through our fair lands, or are thinking of relocating here. Please note that these are customs only, and thus are not Society or Kingdom law. So, for example, you can wear a red belt if you like.  Be aware that the long custom of wearing a red belt and/or a silver chain is a powerful tradition. You may freely do so, just be prepared that you will be frequently asked who you are squired to.
  • The use of any of these customs are entirely dependent on the Knight/squire relationship. Some of these are used more in some regions of the Kingdom than others (e.g., blue belts for men-at-arms).
  • Squires typically wear a red belt, or if they are sworn to a Master, a red baldric. The color red is usually meant to show the blood they will shed in training for the accolade of Knighthood. An associated custom is for the red belt to be paired with another color. This second color usually bisects the red (for a two-tone belt). Occasionally you see a red belt with a thin border of color along the top or bottom. This second color is often the main color of their knight's blazon, or household. The wearing of the red belt is the most universal custom in our Kingdom and Society. It is very common for the squire to have their knight's device somewhere on their belt, usually at the very tip.
  • Midrealm squires also wear a neck chain of silver, to show that they are bound by their oath of fealty to serve their knight. It is unadorned. When traveling abroad, if a chain is worn at all, Midrealm squires often adorn them to better comply with the traditions of the host Kingdom.
  • Squires sometimes are allowed to wear spurs, as long as they are silver and not gold (since gold is the color Knights wear). Quite often, they are attached with red (most common) or black (second most common) colored straps to further differentiate them from Knights. Again, the wearing of spurs is entirely dependent upon the Knight/squire relationship.
  • Finally, squires are often allowed to have a defendant. This is meant to help train the squire in leadership and being publicly accountable for another, as they will be responsible for their squires should they become a Knight themselves. These defendants are most often called a man-at-arms, and wear a blue belt. A man-at-arms usually does not wear a silver chain or spurs. Sometimes a Knight will take a person on as a man-at-arms before making them a squire. This is usually done to see if the added public attention and duties will be a good fit between the two of them.
  • The best use of these symbols is to make the squire publicly accountable for their actions, to their Knight and the Kingdom. A Knight will usually take a squire at an event, and in a public ceremony place the red belt and silver chain upon them. The squire then swears an oath of fealty to the knight. At this time the squire is officially a part of the Knight's household (if they were not already).
  • Past tradition meant that the squire was in service to their Knight for the rest of their SCA life. In the past few years, a "year-and-a-day" custom has developed among some Knights, where the squire and the Knight review and renew their vows annually. This is done as a way to make sure that the relationship is still mutually beneficial, since life has a way of changing things. It is quite common for a squire to be released from his oath of fealty when he is about to be Knighted.

See this article for more interesting Midrealm Squire History.

While serving as a squire to His Grace, Albert I wore the red belt, adorned with an etched brass tip bearing his device, and a silver chain adorned with whatever was my current highest level fighting award.

I do not know where the customs for taking a Man-at-Arms, or the tradition of the blue belt originated.  I first encountered the Man-at-Arms in the early 1990s in the northern Outlands.  A knight, Sir Haroun— squired to Olaf, who was also squired to Albert— began taking gentles as a Man-at-Arms.  He explained that this was a way to get to know the people to see if the Knight/Squire relationship would be a good fit.  The practice has now become common in the northern region of The Kingdom of the Outlands.  Over time I noticed others within the SCA, not just knights, were taking students with blue belts, and styling them as Man-at-Arms.  On researching the subject, I discovered that there really are no rules governing this practice— only customs.

I am the Seneschal (local branch president) for the SCA Shire of Aarquelle.  It was established in 1983, and has had its ups and downs over the years.  When I took over as Seneschal in 2009, the membership was very low, and dissolution was being discussed— not by us— for this group.  The group has always been small, and it has never had an active resident who was a Peer of the Realm.  As the group grew and flourished, I tried to teach the new members about every aspect of life within the SCA, but with no Peers here, complete instruction lacked.  This is not to say that we do not have Peers who visit here quite regularly, but the feeling in the group was, "We don't have one of our own."  So, about a year before becoming a knight, I took on a student, Shield Maiden (Man-at-Arms).  I felt that this would be a great way to model the Mentor/Student relationship for the local group.  I made her a blue belt with a brass tip bearing my device, and a braided tiger strip.  I make a similar pattern for my squire's belts. (See the photos below)

Mentor/Student Relationships in the SCA

Many good gentles in the SCA take on a mentor relationship with another, younger (in terms of SCA experience) person for the purpose of instruction.  The mentor in this case has knowledge in some aspect of life in the SCA that is generally regarded by the student as expert.  The mentor and the student agree to enter into a relationship, and some sort of public or private ceremony, in which oaths are sworn, is customarily performed to mark its beginning.  In many cases there is an outward, visual accoutrement worn by the student as a symbol of this relationship.  Some examples of these relationships are:

  • Knight / squire: Heavy combat, chivalric arts (red belt)
  • Laurel / apprentice: Arts and sciences (green belt)
  • Pelican / protege: Service to the SCA (yellow belt)
  • Master of Defense / scholar: Rapier combat, cut & thrust combat (red collar)
  • White Scarf / cadet: Rapier combat (red scarf tied around arm)
  • ??? / Man-at-Arms: heavy combat (blue belt) (See above for some context)

None of the above listed relationships are as simple as their descriptions.  The knight / squire relationship, for example, is listed as a relationship for instruction in heavy combat and the chivalric arts, but it is much bigger than that.  A knight will teach squires about comportment, armor construction and maintenance, and much more.  All of the other mentors listed above teach their students about every aspect of the SCA in which the mentors are familiar.  It is the nature of the relationship.

Unless their agreement states otherwise, Mentor / Student relationships are not exclusive.  Mentors may take on additional students, and students may feel free to at least go out and learn from other mentors.  This is especially true if the student wishes to learn a skill that their mentor does not possess.  If one of my students were to ask me about blackwork, for example, I would quickly direct her/him to Duchess Selene.  A person may even be student to more than one mentor.  This tends to be an exception rather than the rule, but it does happen.  In House Dreckheim, there is a gentle lady who is protege to a Pelican, and apprentice to a Laurel.  Both Peers are within the same household, but I would not regard this as a requirement.

Do not think that the relationship is one sided either.  Simplistically, a student may have skills and talents to teach the mentor.  My squire has taught me a lot about art.  Mentors learn a lot more than just skills from their students.  It is said that you do not truly know a subject until you are forced to teach it.  I did not seriously examinee my beliefs of chivalry and the graces of comportment until I was faced with teaching them.

To me, the greatest part of the mentor / student relationship is the family that is created.  When a mentor takes on a student, that student becomes part of the mentor's SCA household in the very least.  To me the bond becomes even stronger.  House Dreckheim is a family— a family of people that have chosen to share their lives together.  It is a bond that transcends the SCA.  We don't just see each other at SCA events, we get together in the mundane world often for parties, holidays, dinners, movies, etc….  The relationships begin with the common interest that is the SCA, but it moves well beyond for our Household.


Oaths are an important part of medieval life.  They were absolutely binding verbal contracts between people.  I think they are important in the context of the SCA's game, and insist on their use.  It is through their swearing, and their keeping by which our honor is tested.  Below are the oaths that I use when taking on a student.  Their text illustrates what I think is important in my relationships, and adds atmosphere to the ceremonies and relationships.  The parts are memorized, but we have a herald standing by to feed lines when the nerves override the memory.  

Squire Oath

In ancient times, knights would take men of noble birth under their care so that they may learn chivalry, and prowess at arms.
The most important aspect of the knight-squire relationship is that it is a continuation of the chain of fealty. My squire swears an oath of Liege Fealty to me, as I do to the Crowns of the Outlands.  Liege Fealty is a pledge of absolute service, obedience, loyalty and fidelity without any specified limits.  In this way everyone has a place in the feudal order. I feel strongly that everyone should be responsible to someone. In taking on a squire, I am not just getting a fighting buddy. This relationship is just as important, and just as binding as the bond between my king and me. While I am directly preparing _____________________ to become a Knight, in the long run I am doing my part to preserve The Dream of the SCA.

Ask if it is still _____________________’s intent to swear fealty to me this day.  Please kneel before me on one knee, and support the sword girded on my by my liege lord, the King of the Outlands.

I, _____________________, make this oath to you, Syr Gerwyn y’ Teigr: 
—That I shall study and faithfully apply myself to the development of my skills in combat, in the arts & sciences, in service, and in the courtly graces, and I will share that knowledge freely with all
—That I shall always act in a way that brings honor and fame to my lord and to House Dreckheim
—That I shall not forget my lord’s generosity, but will faithfully offer wise counsel to him as I may
—That when the war horn sounds I shall be in the forefront of fierce battle, forging ahead with my lord and friend, coming to the war-call carrying my weapons
—And though I would lay down my life than see harm come to my lord, still should the poisoned point or aged edge strike him down, then I shall not flee a single foot-length from the field, but rather shall advance into the enemy army, slaying as I might, to avenge him
—And by my vow, may my own edge twist and turn against me should I fail to keep the oath I make this day, before this assembled company

_____________________ , I, Gerwyn y’ Teigr have heard your oath, as has this assembled company. Hear then my oath to you: 
—I shall teach you, encourage you, listen to your counsel and needs, learn from you and support you in your quest for knowledge
—I and all of my kin shall stand as oath-helpers in all of these things
—And with treasure and with love shall I reward you, granting good gifts as you merit, round rings of gold rolling from my hand to yours
—And that from this day forward among your new kin in House Dreckheim shall you sit in the feast hall, with sweet mead filling your cup
—And finally, my sword shall stand between you and those who would treat you and yours unjustly, my strength and my war-kin beside you boldly, for bare is the brotherless back
—My fights are now your fights as your fights are now mine
—To all of this may this assembled company witness my words, and hold me faithful
—And by my vow, may my own edge twist and turn against me should I fail to keep the oath I make this day
—And long may Saga keep this day in memory



I will begin talking to the assembled company about the following:

-- The most important aspect of the knight-student relationship is that it is a continuation of the chain of fealty. 
-- My Man-at-Arms swears an oath of Simple Fealty to me.
--This is different from the oath of Liege Fealty I swear to the Crown. 
-- Liege Fealty is a pledge of absolute service, obedience, loyalty and fidelity without any specified limits.
-- Simple Fealty is a pledge of loyalty, obedience and service. The parameters of simple fealty are within set limits, pre-determined by the parties involved.

I will then call you forward, and ask you if it is still your intention to become my man-at-arms.  You will then make your oath, while standing and supporting my sword.  It should include the following points, and any others of your choosing.  Think about what is important to you, and also, think about your SCA persona's culture.

--I swear this day to study and faithfully apply myself to the development of skills in combat, in the arts & sciences, in service, and in the courtly graces, and to share that knowledge freely with all.
--To provide aid, service and assistance where it is needed.
-- And to always act in a way that brings honor and fame to myself, to my knight and to House Dreckheim.

Then I will make my oath to you.

After that, I'll put your belt onto you, and welcome you to your new "chosen" family.
--I shall teach you, encourage you, listen to your counsel and needs, learn from you and support you in your quest for knowledge.
--I and all of my kin shall stand as oath-helpers in all of these things
--And that for the next year and a day you shall sit in the feast hall among the kin of House Dreckheim, with sweet mead filling your cup
--To all of this may this assembled company witness my words, and hold me faithful
--And by my vow, may my own edge twist and turn against me should I fail to keep the oath I make this day
--And long may Saga keep this day in memory

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Educational Philosophy

1. Students need to learn.
Students want and need to learn as much as they need food, clothing, and shelter. An educator's primary job is to fill that primal need for learning by creating engaging and relevant learning experiences every day. The greatest gift a teacher can give students is motivating them to experience repeated learning success.

2. Students need to be active participants in learning.
Students learn best by doing, and active teaching encourages active learning. Teachers should treat students as active participants in the learning process, providing them with skills, such as:

How to study
How to take notes
How to memorize
How to express themselves effectively.
These skills will help them be part of a high-performance learning team. Also, students need to be encouraged to explore and research information beyond the confines of the classroom and textbook.

3. Learning is a physiological activity involving the whole body.
The best way to engage a student is to have a solid classroom management plan and a well-planned lesson that is grounded in relevant, purposeful activities designed to enhance that student's knowledge and skills and leave her or him wanting to learn more. Teachers should be strongly aligned with student-centered and student-directed learning that embraces exploration, discovery, experiential learning, and the production of academically rigorous products.

4. Students need timely feedback to improve.
Teachers gather data on student performance to adjust the learning environment and instruction so that they can target students' learning needs. Teachers administer pretests to find a starting point for learning and post-tests to determine the students' increase in performance level as well as the teachers' effectiveness.

5. Students need structure and repetition to learn.
A teacher should be able to organize a standards-based lesson sequence, successfully implement the plan, and then evaluate student learning. A teacher should be able to create an exciting learning environment that makes it difficult for students to not learn. A teacher should know how to include all students in learning at their own level, and a teacher should be able to inspire the students to push themselves to the next level.

6. Students need information, knowledge, and skills.
Having access to knowledge resources is as important to a child's education as the actual curriculum content. Relevant and current information must be at the teachers' and students' fingertips to provide answers when the questions are still fresh. Information "on demand" is more valuable than information "just in case."

7. Students need tools and resources.

Students should know how their taxon and locale memory systems work. Students should have skills and strategies to be able to work effectively in the different levels of the cognitive domain as defined by Benjamin Bloom. Students should be aware of their own learning preferences, and teachers should assist with creating a plan to develop other learning skills. Educational tools are a means to an end. For example, technology used appropriately can greatly magnify the students' capacity to learn and the teachers' capacity to teach, inspire, and motivate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

High Level Swarms in D&D 5e

Original Article by Sly Flourish

Even with the fast combat of the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, we might still need some tricks up our sleeves for running large piles of monsters against a number of PCs. Luckily, 5e D&D has already given us an idea about how these swarms of monsters might work by giving us lower level critter swarms such as the Swarms of Bats, Swarms of Rats, and Swarms of Quippers (yeah, I had to google that one too).

But what if we want swarms of goblins, swarms of zombies, or swarms of ghouls? What if we want to challenge our high level PCs with dozens of monsters? Yes, the flat math of 5e makes that possible but who wants to roll fifty attack rolls? What if, instead, we treat swarms of skeletons the same way we treat swarms of bats?

Reskinning a Hill Giant into a Swarm of Bullywugs
Say our 12th level band of adventurers gets attacked by swarms of bullywugs. Instead of actually counting out dozens of bullywugs, we can take the stat block for a hill giant as our base statistics for a swarm of ten bullywugs. Four hill giants would turn into four swarms of ten bullywugs each. All of the attacks and defenses would stay the same. As far as the player knows, the two attacks of a hill giant were actually the aggregate of a number of different attacks from the bullywugs. The size of the swarm is actually huge instead of the large size of a hill giant to accomidate all of the bullywugs.
This swarm of bullywugs likewise gains the effects of other typical swarms. Here's a list of the swarm traits:
  • Swarm. The swarm can occupy another creatures space and vice versa. The swarm can't regain hit points or gain temporary hit points.
  • The swarm inflicts half damage when reduced to half its hit points or fewer.
  • Condition Immunities charmed, frightened, paralyzed, petrified, prone, restrained, stunned.
Smaller swarms also have one additional trait:
  • Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, slashing.
You might decide to not add this swarm effect since medium-sized creatures in a swarm would be just as suseptable to that as they would individually.

Normalize around Hit Points
How many monsters are actually in a swarm? You can figure that out by dividing the hit points of the creature you reskinned by the number of hit points in the original monster. If a normal bullywug has 11 hit points and a hill giant has 105, that's about ten bullywugs in a single swarm (105 divided by 11).
You can create larger or smaller swarms by picking higher or lower CR monsters to reskin. When reskinning a monster into a swarm, pick as generic a monster as you can find. Instead of using the effects of the base monster, use the effects that the smaller monster would use. Giants, in particular, are great monsters to reskin into swarms because they're so straight forward in their mechanics.
It works best if you use two or three monsters rather than just one big swarm. Three swarms of ten bullywugs (actually three reskinned hill giants) is better than one huge storm-giant-sized swarm.

Ruling On Additional Effects
There are a lot of things players what to do with high-level swarms. What if a clerics casts turn undead on a swarm of skeletons? In general, single target spells won't have much of an effect on a swarm. Things like Turn Undead are best ruled on as they happen. What about a fireball? Shouldn't it do a lot more damage against a horde of bullywugs? You could rule they are vulnerable if you want but generally speaking you can describe how some of the bullywugs got the brunt force of the attack while the rest managed to escape. The full force of the fireball will still take off a bunch of hit points.
In general, go with whatever sounds cool.

Alternative Approach: The Hit Point Pool
There's another technique for running tons of lower CR monsters that goes back many years and is even codified in the 13th Age game system. Rather than track separate hit points for a pile of monsters, you pool all their hit points together into a big pool. Ten bullywugs would have 110 hit points in a pool. Every 11 damage, another bullywug is killed.
When they attack, they would still attack with a bunch of d20 attack rolls but you could do them with a handful of dice and just use the average damage in the Monster Manual if they hit. If these monsters get hit with an area attack, apply the full damage to the pool and count off that many kills.
For some groups this might be a lot more realistic than a horde of bullywugs that actually feel like a hill giant.

However you run them, these techniques for running swarms of monsters are great ways to get that feeling of many-on-few battles without spending a ton of time on bookkeeping. Give them a try, see if they work, and, if they do, use it as another tool for running fun and fantastic 5e battles.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How to Create Non-Combat Encounters

How to Create Great Non-Combat Encounters

by Tony Medeiros

Struggling to create great non-combat scenes in your game? Non-combat encounters can be just as memorable and dramatic as a good, meaty fight. The best non-combat encounters are inspired by the bigger story of the adventure, and create excitement and dramatic tension in the scene.

One of the best ways to create great non-combat encounters is to start with campaign or story seeds, choose one or two types of classic non-combat encounter types, and connect them together. You're about to learn how to do this and then practice your newfound storytelling talents.

Identify Story Seeds

Campaign Seeds by Robert Ferency-Viars and Johnn Four tells us there are four key ingredients to creating a memorable, immersive campaign. The same advice holds true for all the mini-stories – adventures and encounters – within the grand arc of a campaign.

To create a great non-combat encounter, let's first identify the adventure components you will draw inspiration from. From Campaign Seeds, here are four of the best story elements to identify:

Villain: Rat Bastard with a goal.
Milieu: Interesting setting with a cool name, a great concept for adventure, and 2-3 notable NPCs who will stir the plot.
Stakes: PC goals and what happens if they fail? Make it personal.
Left Hook: Knock'em off their chairs.


First, identify and understand your adventure's villain. What are his personality traits, goals, connections, strengths, and weaknesses?

Make a note of each characteristic in clear, one-sentence summaries.

For example, Rayne speaks plainly, if not sarcastically. Rayne's goal is to become leader of the thieves' guild. She knows almost every arms and magic dealer in the city, and is an especially talented burglar with a weakness for high-profile art.


Next, identify the adventure's setting. What is the iconic theme, flavor, or feel of your adventure? Similar to last month's Puzzles as Story feature, skim the adventure for clues. General or specific, one or multiple, pick as many as you'd like to work from to create non-combat encounters in the next section. Basic themes are easier to work with, as they're usually just one word.

For example:

Or you might want to describe your adventure's theme with slightly more layers from the start. As with villain qualities, stick to a one or two-sentence summary.

Focus on a Problem => Action => Factions.

For example, "Fighting crime and corruption in a lycan-infested port city." Or, "Fighting back the undead plague while avoiding or preventing the Church's extremist response."


Next, what are the stakes of the adventure? What must they accomplish? What happens if they fail? If the party is killed or captured in the adventure, who is harmed most and who benefits most? How exactly? What specific tragedies, losses, wins, or advances do the key people of your adventure experience?

Think about the NPCs, places, and things the party cares about, and their connections. Think beyond death or destruction. Think change in quality of life. This makes it personal. Do the same for your adventure's villain.

For example, a plague sickens the workers of the party's benefactor, who can no longer safely keep his shelter for the poor open. The villain uses this distraction as an opportunity to send his best burglars to the benefactor's home to steal his latest delivery of precious paintings.

Left Hooks

Finally, in Faster Combat, we show you how twists are vital to great encounters. Think of the left hook as a surprise story punch. What secret knowledge or major event significantly changes how the party views the rest of the adventure – its villain, milieu and stakes? For example, the NPC helping the party fight the corrupt officials of the city is secretly the scorned child of the Lord Mayor, after vengeance and power far more than justice.

The best part of identifying the left hook of your adventure? Non-combat encounters are the perfect way to deliver epic story punches.

Choose Classic Non-combat Encounters Types

To create great non-combat encounters, focus on exploration and interaction sequences in your adventure. Consider this your go-to short list of memorable and engaging non-combat scenes:

Exploration - Search for Information - Find Clues or Evidence
Interaction - Influence NPCs - Interrogate, Negotiate, or Threaten
When exploring in an adventure, what is the best information to look for? The kind that solves an important story question or mystery. Whether the party searches for clues as to who constructed a solid gold sarcophagus hidden behind the Church's smallest city temple, or is looking through a ledger to find inconsistencies to implicate a politician in a human trafficking ring, solving these questions or mysteries are game-changers. The party learns something critical, something important to key people or factions in the adventure. This leads to more burning questions and meaningful actions based on this new information.

For example, now that the party has determined the golden sarcophagus was crafted by the stone giants to the north, will the party question the clerics about the stone giants' involvement in the sarcophagus' creation? Or does the party decide they don't trust the Church to speak the truth on this and head for the mountains to confront the giants themselves?

When socially interacting in an adventure, there are three major ways to deal with NPCs: interrogate, negotiate, threaten.

Think of interrogation or asking questions as a neutral approach, where the party still searches for information (see example above).

Negotiations and threats are best when the party already has a specific or damning goal in mind. They've learned enough or feel strongly enough to influence an NPC's response. The party wants something and will make a reasonable deal with the NPC for it. Or, the party has learned a vulnerability of the NPC and threatens what the NPC values.

For example, the party questions the stone giants and manages to convince them to help the investigation. The party learns Astinus Cane, the Plaguebringer, cannot be killed due to some miracle – or curse – from the gods. But, centuries ago the last Plaguebringer was successfully sealed away in the Golden Tomb. The party also learns the current Plaguebringer is heading into the mountains to bring plague to the giants next. The party decides to make a deal with the giants. The giants agree to let the party borrow the sarcophagus' keystone, which defeats its wards and releases it from its magical anchor. In exchange, the party agrees to distract and prevent the Plaguebringer from heading into the mountains to spread the plague to the giants.

If Then

Finally, a great way to get comfortable with your first search and influence non-combat encounters is to use if-then statements to summarize them. Create story branches, paths, twists, or turns – think Choose Your Own Adventure books.

For example, if the party questions the stone giants, then the party learns Astinus can't be killed, but he can be sealed away in a golden sarcophagus hidden near one of the city's temples.

Match Seeds to Scenes

With your story seeds identified and your non-combat encounter type selected, it's time to match them up and create specific non-combat encounters. Much like Puzzles as Story, create logical, thematic associations. Your goal is to bake or reinforce story elements inside the framework of your non-combat encounter.

Here are example lists of seeds and non-combat encounter types and how they might connect, inspired by Dead Men Walking in the Campaign Seeds book.

Story Seeds

Villain: Astinus Cane the Plaguebringer.
Milieu: A war-torn, plague-infested world of undead soldiers and the extremist Church.
Stakes: The party must survive the plague, undead, and the Church's attacks. They must get the cure from Astinus Cane's Book of Dreams before the plague kills more crops, animals, and people, or worse, brings the fallen back as undead.
Left Hook: The Church hires a special agent known as The Accountant to deal with Cane and the undead horde. The Accountant sometimes cooperates with the PCs, and unintentionally complicates their efforts at other times. Ultimately, he betrays the party and the Church, as he is secretly employed by Cane's master, Golganth, arch necromancer and the original owner of the Book of Dreams.

Sample Story Seeds and Non-Combat Encounter Types

Interaction: If the party questions the acolytes of the most run-down Church temple in the city, they learn that years before he became the Plaguebringer, Cane used to visit a grave behind the temple.

Exploration: If the party explores the small graveyard behind Temple Dawn, they discover a gilded sarcophagus buried underneath the gravestones of the Cane family. If the giants directed the party to the sarcophagus, then the party can use the keystone to release it and search it. If the party doesn't yet have the keystone, then by studying the gilded sarcophagus they identify it as stone giant crafted.

This is how you create and connected story seeds and non-combat encounter types. Also note how exploration and interaction sequences can flow smoothly in and out of the same encounter or lead to related encounters.

Activity: Rewrite 1 Seed, Create 2 Encounters

It's time to practice this approach. Let's continue to work with Dead Men Walking from Campaign Seeds.

Review the following two questions, read the full seed excerpt below them, and then post your responses here for comments and feedback.

1) Review the four classic story seed ingredients in the Match Seeds to Scenes section above. Choose one (villain, milieu, stakes or left hook) to rewrite. What changes did you make and why?

2) Create one new Exploration encounter and one new Interaction encounter. Refer to the information in the Match Seeds to Scenes section and the full Dead Man Walking seed below. If you get stuck, use more if-then statements.

Dead Men Walking

Astinus Cane, apprentice to the arch-necromancer Golganth, has stolen one of his master's grimoires, The Book of Dreams. He intends to raise his own undead army and set up a power-base on the northern coast.

The PCs, serving in the military, have just engaged in a battle between two kingdoms. Having been incapacitated during the fray, they wake to see the field littered with thousands of dead. A black-robed figure moves among the dead, chanting, as corpses rise to serve their new master.

The PCs are infected with a deadly plague, a side effect of Cane's dark magic playing over the battlefield. Those who succumb to it will rise as undead. The only cure lies within The Book of Dreams.

The Church activates a renowned witch-hunter, The Accountant, to deal with the mess. Golganth sends the Unholy Five to kill Cane and retrieve his book.

More Non-Combat Missions

There are many other opportunities to create exciting encounters with zero combat. Once you get comfortable with the classics, here's a sample of non-combat-friendly mission options from Faster Combat you can experiment with.

Note the common threads of exploration and interaction throughout.

Break or Destroy Item
Commandeer a Vehicle
Escape Destruction
Establish Truce
Force Surrender
Reach Before Enemy
Seal Away
Seal Off
Stop an Event
Need more encounter design help? Check out the 12 Design lessons in the Faster Combat course or ebook.

No Time for Fighting

You're now ready to create story encounters in your game! You've learned how to identify and connect story elements and classic non-combat encounter types to create engaging encounters in your adventures.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Fechtschule in the 16th Century

A fencing-master who wanted to give a "fencing school" first had to demonstrate his qualification as master of the sword with the municipal council of the city in question and apply to be granted the use of an open space for the purpose.

If permission was granted and the day and hour set, then he could proclaim his intentions at the city’s Rathaus by posting a notice.

On this notice the letter of privilege of the Marxbrüder was generally printed–if the fencing-master belonged to that society–and the Free Fencers of the Feder1 were invited to appear in force to measure themselves against the Marxbrüder.

Although the Federfechter obtained their first letter of privilege from Rudolph II in 1607, this society had been acknowledged as of equal standing long ago, and their masters of the sword could also obtain permission from the city authorities, even though the Marxbrüderschaft did everything in its power to make their fencing schools impossible, because they encroached upon their privileges.

Under the notice of the master of the sword whose school we are going to describe was written:
"Whoever wants to see this art should come up to the Golden Star, About two hours before noon, and he will find as much room as he wants."

It is spring, the sap has risen in the trees, blossoming branches hang down into the streets. And as the gnarled branches feel that it is time to stretch, to expand and to grow, so too the young people are driven outdoors by a feeling of strength; they want to measure themselves against one another in combat. The birds sing their spring greeting from the branches into the blue air, the girls walk up and down in threes in front of the houses, giggling and waiting for their friends and neighbors. Everyone, everyone is lingering in the streets, for soon the players are to come by as the head of the procession of fencers which the onlookers will join. But anyone who wants to have a good place has to go on ahead.

Finally, the familiar melody of the city cornet players rings out from the Rathaus tower, and immediately drumbeats and piping are heard. There they are already! The boys greet them with yells of delight. First, the constable of the council, and the groundsmen with leather Dussacken, then the players and a troop of fencers, then a young boy with the parade sword, then a grey-bearded servant with a red velvet bag, heavy and well-filled, which a patron of the one holding the fencing school, a count living nearby, has sent so that prizes of two gulden can be given to the victors for inflicting a wound.

Behind him, the fencing-master paces proudly, the image of strength and agility. Then, another procession of fencers and finally the servants who are carrying the fencing weapons. All find themselves in the midst of a swarm of boys who run ahead of the procession and then allow it to pass by them again–now imitating the powerful steps of the greybeard, now mocking their acquaintances who are passing by so solemnly, teasing one, pulling another by the doublet, singing mocking verses about those who hesitate, overflowing with youthful high spirits.

The groundsmen had already had to intervene a few times because the procession was being held up by the boys, i.e. they had taken their leather Dussacken in their hands and made as if to strike out with them–but where were the boys now? Far ahead!

A festive mood everywhere, lifted by the colorful garments of the holiday and the clear blue sky, and in no way clouded by the fact that three surgeons with the tools of their trade have joined the procession and hope to earn good money today.

Meanwhile the procession has reached the appointed place. A large courtyard strewn with sand, surrounded on three sides by spacious buildings and closed off on the fourth by a board fence, behind which the boys’ heads can be seen; they have already taken possession of their ancestral free seats. They peer over curiously; sometimes one of the tow-headed lads vanishes–he had to give way to a stronger who now occupies the empty space.

The city council, a few exalted personages and "all womanhood" sit on chairs and benches which have been set up in the broad curves of the pathways, while the populace, who paid little or nothing, takes up a position behind stretched-out ropes.

The city constables stand alongside. A drum roll resounds, the servants carry the weapons into the space and spread them out on the ground according to the master’s directions, and he takes up an ornately decorated staff, the sign of his standing.

He swings the staff around his head and walks all around the space, passing by the council members; he bows deeply, then when he reaches the middle he stretches out his sinewy form, leaps back and forth, threatens with the staff and shows the agility of his body.
The players play a piece while he catches his breath. When it is over, he strikes the staff against the ground three times, the drummer plays–then silence falls. And now the master opens the Fechtschule with a loud, penetrating voice:

"Through the power and might of the Imperial Majesty of our all-gracious lord, whose privileges and freedom have been graciously granted and ceded to me, Peter Hauer, Master of the Long Sword, with the permission of the high council of this city, to set up a free public Fechtschule, with all knightly weapons present here in this place:

"So then, let all good fellows who are here present and have learned the knightly art of fence and are experienced in it, and who intend to bring joy and entertainment with due submission to the high-born gentlemen, the honorable company of knights and all the ladies with their skill, come forward unhindered to fight for the established prize, to keep the fitting passages of arms according to the honorable ancient custom of fencing. And I am minded and determined to keep myself unprejudiced towards all such good fellows, as befits an honor-loving master of the longsword, and to guard and protect them against and in opposition to arrogance and impropriety."

"Yet all men should know what is to be forbidden in this fencing school, such as Ort, button, point, Einlauff,2 breaking of an arm, violent push, reaching for the eyes, stone-throwing and all dishonorable devices which many no doubt know how to use, but I cannot mention them all, and have never learned them; and let no one strike either above or below the staves.3 Guard and protection is to be extended to each, as well as to all the rest, and likewise I wish to request that if two of you bear hatred and envy towards one another you will not fight it out in this school, but where it has power and might.

"And if one or more good fellows are present (excluding the noble order of knights, which I have no intention of dishonoring) who might desire that the combat be for money or something worth money (regardless of the fact that I have not much money), or for a good blow, dry or wet,4 that they should come forward in good heart and spirits following the custom of the justice of the sword, and set to freely, do not spare their swords, but their own fingers, and strike between the ears where the hair is thickest, and strike me too, seeing that I am also a good man."

This long opening was supported by drumbeats during the important sections. Thereafter, at the repeated urging of the fencing master, young apprentices and also men of more advanced years come onto the field, put aside their cloaks, hats and weapons, and some also the outer doublet, and pick up some fencing weapon5 from the ground as they await an opponent.

But none of them wants to start; it is not hesitation or lack of courage–only that no one wants to be first.
Around the holder of the Fechtschule, who is a master of the longsword of the brotherhood of St. Mark, twenty Marxbrüder have gathered from the town and its surroundings, who wish to "offer their points" to the free fencers of the Feder; but since twenty-six Federfechter are present, so that they would have an advantage over the twenty Marxbrüder, after a short conference three Federfechter go over to the Marxbrüder to make the numbers equal.

Since no one has yet come forward, they "freshen" themselves for the combat with taunting rhymes, either sung or spoken. These taunting rhymes, as far as their content is concerned, understandably move within narrow confines; with almost identical expressions one’s own brotherhood is exalted to the skies and the opposing company is damned, or general remarks on swordsmanship, courage and other topics are repeated in bad verses.

After this, a beginning had to be made; the honor of the two fencing societies required it, and two stepped forward with longswords, just in front of the place where the council members were sitting: the Federfechter a young man with curly blond hair, tall and slender, and the Marxbruder, an older, powerful fellow with dark hair and a stocky figure, the former nimble and swift, the latter reflective, but not slow.

Scarcely had the Marxbruder taken up his stance in the rechter Ochs when the Federfechter struck a blow from the rechter Zorn, which the former countered with a Zwirch. But the Federfechter follows up swiftly from the Tag, while the sturdy Marxbruder drives up at the fists of his opponent with the heart of his blade, thereby weakening the stroke, pushing the man back and adding a long stroke which the blond fencer eludes by a powerful leap backwards.

There is clamorous applause after this bout, which is fought with great rapidity. Encouraged by this, the Federfechter presses his counterpart with the "defensive stroke." The other takes up the stroke on the long blade and simultaneously strikes with the short blade with a Zutritt, so that the point hits the head and the first bloody cut can be "confirmed" by the fencing master, who immediately stretches out his staff between the two. The blond man, for whom the first rote plume has blossomed, leaves the Fechtschule area through a small side door, accompanied by a boy, and enters a spacious room where the surgeons have already made all necessary preparations to meet the challenges which will confront their skill.

(There were no antiseptics in those days. People were satisfied with cleaning the wound, bringing the edges together as well as possible and bandaging up the victim, and the healing proceeded per primam.)

While the Federfechter meditated on his misfortune in the surgeons’ room and regretted his over-hasty ardor, the Marxbruder outside had received shouts of acclamation, the ladies had thrown a small wreath down to him, and the greybeard with the red silk bag had approached him solemnly and handed him the first four silver gulden, which he tucked away in his belt after a brief expression of thanks as money well-earned.

After the first pair, who fought alone, several pairs stepped forward simultaneously, this time with different weapons.

Two with long staves excited general attention by the skill with which they handled these long weapons, sometimes laying them on the left shoulder, sometimes letting them sink to the ground, striking swift blows, skillfully directing those which bore powerfully down on them to the forte and deflecting them.

Finally, one of them was careless and suffered a bump and a small bleeding cut just over the right eye, which earned his opponent two gulden; he followed the path which the first loser had taken.

The fights with Dussacken were lively, long-lasting and the most numerous, largely because there was no immediate danger of death. For the opposite reason, sword fights were rarer.

The fencing master and some Vorfechter,6 also equipped with staves, had their hands full separating heated fencers, who immediately stopped fighting when the staff was stretched between them.

Even if it sometimes may have happened that the fencing master held out his staff to favor someone when it was not strictly necessary to protect him, but only to prevent the other from seizing the advantage, yet the proceedings seem always to have been conducted with great exactness and justice.

The surgeons’ room was full by now. Fencers wounded by the sword had their heads bandaged and were sitting on a bench against the long wall, while the Dussack fencers "had great rising stripes on their faces and heads, so that at times they looked unrecognizable," covered their lumps with damp cloths and thronged together in a corner. Two of the latter were already prepared to reenter the lists, and were just discussing how they planned to be victorious this time. "Was sehrt, das lehrt,"7 as the proverb so rightly says.

A continual change in fencers kept the onlookers in a state of perpetual tension. There was particular applause for two Dussack fencers who made twelve passes without either of them being beaten, which of course did not cause the red bag to open in sympathy. But it had to pay out the promised prize without any battle to a giant, as tall as a tree, who stood there with his halberd and found no opponents.8

Suddenly there was a commotion. A furrier’s apprentice had offended against a prohibition by recklessly thrusting the pommel of his sword into his opponent’s face.

The fencing master took the sword from his hand and by throwing it down at his feet forbade him from taking up any weapon at all. The one who was publicly branded in this way crept away and was "soundly thrashed" in the gateway by some Federfechter and their relatives who had followed him [note: word for word according to the fencing-school rhymes of 1579], which of course was used by the furrier’s friends as an excuse to join in. The fist fight might have drawn even more people in if the groundsmen had not completely cleared the space with their leather Dussacken in a few seconds.

They struck out without mercy wherever they could find a mark, and people naturally withdrew from these blows, which were painful but not dangerous, inflicting only disgrace and mockery, with suitable rapidity. Finally, after the graybeard's bag has been emptied, the fencing master steps forward, in order to execute some bouts with one or two who might wish to do so, as he had already mentioned at the opening of the school.

He takes up a sword and gives his staff to one of the champions. A counterpart steps forward and faces the master, who initially tempts him forward by weak counterstrokes and hesitant attack and would certainly have done him some harm if the champion had not "brought down" the staff and ended the fight. A second and third opponent fare no better in Dussack fighting, and only the fourth gained the advantage over him in the rapier, because he was already overly tired.

The fencing arena has been cleared, the guests are departing, and the wounded, who have waited for the end, also creep towards their homes by side streets. But the victors and those who are not too badly wounded gather around a table set up in the courtyard to recover from the exertions of the day and to refresh their thirsty throats.

"The one who is lucky will sing in the evening," so says one of the Fechtschul rhymes, and indeed cheerful song rings out, given a higher blessing by the innkeeper’s message that the exalted patron has donated a keg of beer.