Castle Ravenloft – The Metroidvania Megadungeon

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Two weeks ago, Castlevania premiered on Netflix. This animated series is based on the classic video game franchise of the same name, specifically Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.  I’ve already watched it fives times, so I think it’s safe to say I enjoyed it. The voice acting is solid, the animation good, the action entertaining, and the handling of Dracula is rather intriguing. I just wish it was longer than four episodes.

The Castlevania franchise has always held a special place in my horror-loving heart, especially that iconic theme. I find myself quietly humming it to myself whenever I’m exploring a dungeon. I can remember the hours I’d spend sitting in front of the television, my chubby hands wrapped tightly around a NES controller, slaying monsters while traversing Dracula’s enormous castle, trying to not get too angry when I died for the millionth time.

While watching Castlevania, I had a spark of inspiration. How cool would it be to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign based on the franchise. The players would enter an ancient castle under the dominion of a vampiric lord, a castle that is gigantic in size, encountering various different monsters along the way.

Why not take the material presented in Curse of Strahd and turn his castle into a Metroidvania-style megadungeon?

First, I’d probably do away with a majority of the story elements presented within the module. Don’t get me wrong, the story’s good, but wouldn’t be the best fit for what I have in mind. I’d mostly be using the maps, the information on Barovia so the players could have a home base to retreat to in times of crisis, and the stats for Strahd himself.

The biggest addition I’d have to make is increasing the size of the castle itself. The castle would become the center point  of the campaign, and I’d want to elevate it to a true megadungeon, one that gives the players a great deal of freedom to explore at their own pace. I’d use the material that already exists for Castle Ravenloft as a solid foundation, expanding upon it, making it something utterly massive. Something that would feel right at home in a Castlevania game.

I’d also borrow a lot of the creatures from the games because it would be absolutely criminal not to do so. I would be a piss-poor DM if I didn’t take this opportunity to use something as awesomely creepy as the Granfalloon, or not include at least one encounter with the Grim Reaper. Plus a flying Medusa head or two for good measure.

I’d probably take a few of the story elements from Curse of Strahd, mostly the stuff with his reincarnating lover, and the aspect from Castlevania about Dracula returning every 100 years. Probably keep it simple, with the gates to Castle Ravenloft mysteriously opening every century as Strahd awakens from his deep slumber to hopefully find his beloved once again, sending his minions out into the countryside to search for her.

This gives me a number of hooks to lead the players to the castle, from the altruistic in slaying a dangerous vampire to save Barovia to the greedy wishing to simply claim the treasures that must surely be hidden within that big castle.

This idea is still pretty rough, mostly because I’m still without a regular group, giving me all the time I need to flesh this out further. Feel free to take this idea for yourself & run with it. I think it’d be a blast to play/run.

Taking the Initiative

Last week in Unearthed Arcana, an alternate method for handling initiative was introduced. This new system requires every participant to decide what they want to do before each round of combat, then roll various related to those actions. The character with the lowest result goes first, then everyone else going in ascending order.

These variant rules are intriguing to me. On one hand, I like how they make combat less predictable. The fact that you are required to roll initiative each round means you can’t rely on a prescribed pattern, keeping you on your toes. Furthermore, I enjoy that it requires you to plan what you are going to do before the dice are rolled.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’m a fan of the additional complexity this system adds. The idea of rolling different dice for different kind of actions is interesting, but might just be a tad bit too fiddly for my tastes. It kind of reminds me of Weapon Speed in older edition. Theoretically nice, not so much in actual execution.

I’d definitely be willing to give “Greyhawk Initiative” a try, but I doubt it would become a permanent feature in my games. That being said, this new system did inspire me to think about alternate ways to handle initiative.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I think the default method presented in the Player’s Handbook is a solid system. It’s relatively easy to grok and very rarely gets in the way when you’re playing the game. There’s a reason why it’s the default.

However, I think I might adopt at least one aspect of the Greyhawk Initiative: rolling every round instead of just at the beginning of combat. I really dig the unpredictability it adds to each round. This would also allow me to test a house rule I’ve been tinkering around with that’d let characters who roll a Natural 20 to take their turn at any time during the round. This rule can work using the default method, but I think rolling each round would help it really shine.

The biggest issue with implementing this will be the extra step that will be added at the start of each round, which will obviously add more time to each encounter. I’ll be able to cut down on some of the additional time by utilizing Initiative Cards, which can be made by taking a couple of 3×5 index cards, folding them in half, writing down all the names of the characters upon them, and draping them over the top of your screen in the proper order. Each time the order changes, I just quickly move the cards.

Hell, I suggest everyone adopt the use of initiative cards. They generally speed up the process of establishing initiative order, plus create a useful visual for everyone at the table. Forget who goes next? Take a quick look at the DM’s screen to find out!

Before I end this post, which I should do to prevent myself from rambling, I want to leave you all with a question: How do you handle initiative in your game? Do you use the default method, or something else? Leave your answers in the comments below.

Into the Unknown – How to Include Exploration at the Table

originalzelda20This past Friday, Wizards of the Coast revealed the title for their next big adventure: Tomb of Annihilation. This adventure will still take place within the Forgotten Realms, but not the Sword Coast like the previous ones. Instead, Tomb of Annihilation will be set in Chult, a land dominated by uncharted jungles, the ruins of ancient civilizations, and filled to the brim with dangerous threats (whether they be living or not).

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Chult is easily one of my favorite areas of the Realms, mostly because I have an affinity for the Indiana Jones-style of pulp fiction with a heavy dose of dinosaur awesomeness.

The other aspect of this announcement that got me excited was the designers saying they wanted to focus upon one of the Three Pillars they’ve admittedly neglected recently: Exploration. On pg. 8 of the Player’s Handbook, the writers list what they consider to be the “Three Pillars of Adventure”: ExplorationSocial Interaction, & Combat. The latter two have definitely been in the spotlight in previous adventures, with Exploration taking something of a backseat. Don’t get me wrong, it has been there, but nowhere near as much as the other Pillars.

Because Wizards hopes to bring this neglected Pillar more to the forefront with Tomb of Annihilation, I thought I’d take some time to discuss ways one might foster more exploration within their campaigns, inspiring their players to gather their gear, open up their maps, and venture forth into the uncharted wilderness.

The first piece of advice will hearken back to my post on running sandbox campaigns, which this can be seen as a companion piece to this one. Seed your setting with legends or rumors that will inspire your players to investigate them. Sprinkle interesting locales throughout your setting, hidden away within the shadows of the natural world. There could be an abandoned dwarven fortress tucked away within the mountains to the north, rumored to be filled with mountains of treasure. These rumors will not, and probably should not, be 100% accurate. They’re rumors after all. They should be intriguing enough to hook a group of curious adventures, encouraging them to set out to figure the truth out for themselves.

Next, make sure the journey is just as interesting as the destination. The key to making exploration entertaining is the journey being an eventful one. Trips that are nothing more than a series of camping montages will be boring beyond belief. Make sure to spice up the trip. You can do this by including random encounters, or purposefully seeding encounters along the way. The journey is also how you can include the other two Pillars.

One day the players might be ambushed by a band of centaurs while taking a shortcut through a nearby forest, while the next day could have them negotiating with a reclusive hedge witch for some healing potions in exchange for clearing out a family of pesky mites that have infested her garden. Just make sure to make these encounters varied. Throwing combat encounter after combat encounter at your players will cause the journey to become monotonous.

Third, limit the character’s resources. I know this might be a hard sell for some people. Tracking resources can be a real pain, especially if you do it as written. That being said, making sure resources remain a limited element will add depth to the exploration process. Players will be forced to think about their actions when they realize they might be be low on rations or ammunition. It might also get them to do things they might not normally do when resource tracking isn’t a thing, such as hunting or fishing. These can also give you openings to include an encounter. For example, maybe the group’s ranger decides to do some early morning hunting to restock the party’s food supply, but happens to stumble upon a pair of goblins attempting to kill a unicorn. That could lead to an interesting side quest.

Finally, and most importantly, let your players get lost & be surprised. The true joy of exploration is the chance at discovery, finding something you didn’t expect along the way. Let your players venture off course, whether they realize it or not. Let them investigate the little points of intrigue you toss out. Let them feel like they’ve discovered something, as if they found a secret they were not supposed to see. Let them get in over their heads, and let them run away so they can survive to fight another day.

This can easily be done by having published material that you can readily drop into the environment to represent hidden locations. You can also print out a very simplistic version of the setting’s map, maybe one that only notes the most commonly known locations, letting the players add to it as the venture out, noting down new spots or paths, letting them make it their own. Like sandbox campaigns, exploration is all about the player’s agency, letting them make their own choices, and reacting to them.

Exploration has earned its place among the Three Pillars for a reason. It is one of the core foundations of Dungeons & Dragons, enriching almost any campaign. I hope this post has inspired you to include more of it in your campaigns.

Getting the Band Back Together

dndgroupTell me if you’ve heard something similar to this before:

You have been summoned to the Wayward Knave, the seedy tavern on the outskirts of town. You arrive at the establishment and find yourself ushered towards a large table near the back of the lively taproom, meeting several other adventurers who received a similar invitation. You are soon joined by a mysterious figure, shrouded by a dark cloak, hoping to hire you all for a peculiar quest.”

This is seen by most as the stereotypical introduction for your generic Dungeons & Dragons adventure. It even has a page on TV Tropes dedicated to it. The trope is incredibly old, having been the subject of countless jokes and parodies over the years. That being said, the trope keeps coming back due to the fact that it allows you to jump right into the beginning of an adventure with little to no effort from either side of the screen.

Personally, I prefer for my parties to have some awareness of each other before they set forth on their first adventure together. This can be handled in a multitude of ways, but the method that I prefer is loosely based upon Fiasco‘s Set-Up.

The process works like this. During Session Zero, after everyone has created their characters, they will take turns defining the relationships they have with their fellow adventurers. On each turn, a player can perform one of the two following actions:

  1. Define the basic relationship their character has with the character on either side of them.
  2. Specify the exact nature of an already defined relationship their character has with another character.

This continues until every character has two specific relationships with two other characters within the party. The relationships can be just about anything the players can possibly imagine. The characters could be siblings, lovers, business associates, or even rivals. The goal is to have a group who has some knowledge of each other, have some reason to band together, and give the GM some possible hooks for future adventures.

You don’t have to be this structured with your approach to creating a party with pre-existing relationships. I just enjoy making a small mini-game out of the process. The biggest piece of advice I can give you about establishing these relationships, whether you use the method detailed above or one your more comfortable with, is to make sure the relationships actually have some meat to them, presenting some interesting elements for future stories in the campaign. Don’t be afraid to toss in a little bit of conflict, whether it be between the two characters, or from how the world reacts to the relationship.

I would also suggest having one shared element between all the characters. This could be something as simple as them all being from the same village, having a common acquaintance, or being present for a strange event. This shared event will most likely be tied to the first adventure of the campaign, giving them a reason to participate that relates to them personally.

How do you like to get your adventuring bands together? Do you like them to have pre-existing relationships, or be strangers? Tell me in the comments below.

Splintered Shields

Shields in Dungeons & Dragons have always felt somewhat lackluster. I can appreciate that little boost they grant to my character’s Armor Class, but there’s always a part of me wants to cast the old board aside so I can irk out a little bit more damage with that trusty greatsword.

Nine years ago, Trollsmyth decided to give the shield some love with a little house rule called “Shields Shall be Splintered“. The rule is pretty simple: whenever you take damage, you can have your shield absorb the force of the blow. The shield is destroyed, but you ignore the damage.

The rule has gained a great deal of traction, specifically within the OSR side of the hobby. I’ve always been intrigued by the rule, so I thought I’d take a crack at adapting it to 5e. Here’s what I have.

SPLINTERED SHIELDS

When a character who is wielding a shield is hit by a successful attack roll, they can allow said shield to take the blunt of the damage. This grants the character resistance against this attack roll, but the shield is destroyed and the wielder loses the benefit it provides to their Armor Class. 

Characters who are wielding magical shields can use them in this way several times before they are destroyed. The number is equal to the magical shields’ additional bonus. Once they have exceeded this amount, the shield is destroyed. For example, a character with a +2 shield can perform the above action two times before it is destroyed. 

The biggest change I made to the rule is that it now offers resistance to the wielder instead of negating the damage. This feels a little bit more thematic to me, and I feel would work better with 5e. That being said, one can easily convert it back to a complete negation if they wish.

I also decided tried to create a simple solution for the magical shield situation. I figured allowing them to be more resilient would be an easy way to handle it, and keeping the number tied to their bonus meant it was straightforward to determine. I admit I haven’t figured out what to do for magical shields that don’t grant an additional bonus to Armor Class, but I can tackle that later down the road.

Therapeutic Role-Playing

Earlier this week, Kotaku released an article putting the spotlight on several therapy groups across the country that use Dungeons & Dragons to help children with social issues. The piece is a short, but interesting read. I highly recommend you give it a read by clicking the above link.

This article managed to inspire some thoughts of my own. Thoughts about how role-playing games have been a therapeutic outlet for myself, helping me deal with the troubles of everyday life. They’ve helped me come out of my own socially awkward shell, learn how to cooperate better with others, and become a better person.

I can’t count the times where I’ve used a session or made a character for a campaign to help myself work through an issue I was having in the real world, having no other outlet. They gave me a space to express myself, getting the problems that were causing me stress off my chest, and have fun while I was at it.

Furthermore, I think role-playing games have helped me be more empathetic towards others. Being able to take on a role that is vastly different than oneself, seeing what it feels like to live in another person’s shoes for a few hours every week, and deal with the struggles they are subject to can help expand your own views while also helping you learn a little more about yourself.

It’s also just nice to be able to exit reality for a evening every week, getting to put the hardships of life on the sidelines so you can enter another world, one where you get to have adventures with friends, and possibly become a hero in the process.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced the therapeutic elements of role-playing games. How have they helped you emotionally in the past?

Making Monstrous Items

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In the Myth of Perseus, the titular hero killed the monstrous gorgon named Medusa, bringing her snake-covered head back to King Polydectes as a gift for a large banquet. Eventually, Perseus used the powers of the decapitated head to kill Polydectes once he learned about the man’s violent advances towards his mother Danae.

Similar situations occur within other myths. Tales depicting great heroes slaying various beasts, taking a part of said beast as a trophy or a gift for someone, then use that morbid item as a weapon (usually with mystical properties). Heck, there’s an entire video game franchise based around the concept: Monster Hunter.

Taking that into account, I think we can incorporate the idea into Dungeons & Dragons, allowing for the creation of a new kind of magic item: MONSTROUS ITEMS.

Unlike other magic items, monstrous items can take just about any form. They can be potions, wondrous items, weapons, etc. The only defining feature of a monstrous item is that it was made from the body parts (or fluids) of a particular creature. The item usually grants the wielder access to one of the base creature’s key abilities, but in a more limited fashion.

The key to creating a memorable monstrous item is similar to creating a memorable magic item: make sure the item is cool, yet thematic. For example, let’s continue to use Medusa’s Head as an example. The item allows you to utilize the creature’s petrification abilities, most likely by thrusting the head towards a creature, forcing them to look at it. Not only is the ability to possibly turn an enemy to stone cool, but it fits the flavor of the item.

I also suggest making monstrous items a rare sight within your campaign world. This will make acquiring one more special. It will also make encountering certain creatures more intriguing as well. You can explain the rarity away pretty easily due to the practice of turning the body part of a dead monster into an item could be seen as a little morbid, plus the magic needed to preserve the creature’s ability might be less common than other arcane skills.

Finally, I would also give these kind of items a weird cost or drawback. This might be my own preferences coming into play, but I find magic items that have a distinct quirk more interesting because they can lead to some cool moments within the story of the game. They also can make players think twice about using an item, possibly leading them to think of more inventive solutions to problems.

I’ll use the aforementioned Medusa’s Head as an example of what a monstrous item might look like mechanically:

MEDUSA’S HEAD (Monstrous Item, Rare; Requires Attunement) ~ This item appears to be the decapitated head of a maiden with a nest of vicious snakes as hair. The eyes and mouth upon the head seem to be shut tightly. You may use an action and point the head towards a creature within 30 feet that can see it. The eyes upon the head open wide, unleashing its cursed gaze, forcing the creature to make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw.

Creatures that fail the saving throw by 5 or more are instantly petrified. Otherwise, creatures that fail the save begin to turn to stone and are restrained. The restrained creature must repeat the saving throw at the end of its next turn, becoming petrified on a failure or ending the effect on a success. The petrification lasts until the creature is freed by the greater restoration spell or other magic.

You must be careful when wielding this item because if you are ever made to look at it while the head’s eyes are open, such as using it before a reflective surface, you will have to make the DC 15 Constitution saving throw as well. You can spend a bonus action to quickly advert your eyes, allowing you to avoid the saving throw, but suffer disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks until the beginning of your next turn.