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Deadly Decisions: Should a GM Kill Off Player Characters?

No.

Ok, so I was once told that, when writing (specifically for school, but we’ll count it here), if your thesis asks a question that can be answered with only a yes or no, you shouldn’t bother writing it. So, with that in mind, I’m going to go into a bit more nuances than a straight no. But should, generally speaking, a GM kill of a player’s character?

No. Just… No.

I can hear the cry of RPG purists now. “The rules!” they yell. “If the dice say they die, then they should die!” I’ll remind those people of two things: (1) It’s a game; it’s supposed to be fun, and the rules of most modern editions of D&D and the like point that out; and (2) My blog has a running theme of fudging rules in order to make a game more enjoyable; if that’s a problem for you, you’re not going to much like anything that comes next.

Yes, in the rules of most RPGs (my experience is mainly in D&D and Pathfinder, so that’s what I’m going to refer to most), characters can die if things go badly for them. A bad decision, an unlucky roll of the dice, a particularly poorly-planned encounter… These things could kill you. And, yes, if you’re playing by the rules, characters will probably die, eventually.

But it’s a game, folks. It’s supposed to be fun. And do you know what’s not fun? Watching your roll to stop yourself from falling into a bottomless pit come up a one. Or, conversely, watching the GM roll a critical hit on you for the third time in a row. These things happen, it’s just probability. And probability can be a boring, vindictive, jerk sometimes. So there are times when it’s important to tell probability to go have a long walk in a dark, monster-infested woods, while wearing bright colors and beef-jerky flavored body spray.

In other words, lie. It’s sort of why those GM screens exist. That third critical? Aw shucks, it was actually only a 3. That bottomless pit? An illusion, tied to a reverse gravity trap that suspends your character helplessly in the air (real bottomless pits are expensive, after all). We’re all good. You don’t want to let your players get off completely free; you want it to feel like the game has risk, has consequences. But you can walk a line between making the game feel dangerous and actually making it deadly.

And again, the purists rail, “that’s not the point of the game!” Ok, if that’s how you like your game, fine. I have a friend who likes a quote that he heard… somewhere (neither of us know where; if you do, feel free to comment): In games like D&D, you treat a character like a car in Grand Theft Auto; ride it hard and, when you get bored, crash it into a wall. I disagree, not with the idea that you can play a character that way, but that you should. There’s no right way to play, really. If you want to play your character recklessly and to heck with the consequences, go for it. If your group wants to play hard ball with the rules and kill people, go for it.

But don’t force it on anyone.

If your players are attached to the characters (lots of people are) or otherwise don’t like them dying, don’t kill them. Even if you have to cheat, fudge dice, make nonsense up, don’t kill them. Threaten them. Hurt them. Make them think you’re going to kill them… But don’t kill them. And for the love of peanut-butter, as a player, don’t kill off your own character as a player by playing so recklessly you endanger everyone else. Your character diving headfirst into an unwinnable battle or making dumb choices can impact the rest of the party and, if they’re not ok with that style of reckless play and having to make new characters, there’s going to be resentment.

You want to drive your car into a brick wall? Don’t do it with the rest of your party in the back seat.

Again, I’m not saying you have to listen to me. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for player decisions or that you shouldn’t be somewhat beholden to what the dice say. But, if your players don’t like the idea of their characters dying, why put them through something that they don’t think is fun? It kind of ruins the whole “game” part of “role-playing games,” don’t you think?

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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Forbidden Island

The water is rising. The Earth Stone is safe in your backpack, and the Ocean’s Chalice is within grasp, if only you can make it to the Coral Palace before the marsh your wading through floods entirely. You’ll have to trust your team-mate’s to have succeeding in their tasks, getting the other treasure’s. You’re all due back at the helicopter soon, because the water is rising, and this island will soon be lost to the ocean… Along with anyone still on it.

Maybe you should invest in some scuba gear… Or maybe you’re playing Forbidden Island.

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Forbidden Island is a co-operative adventure game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright. For 2 to 4 players, the game has players explore a constantly-flooding island through an action point allowance system, with the players trying to collect all four of the island’s treasures and escape before it is lost below the water. Through unique player powers and item cards, players can take some steps to slow the sinking of the island, but in the end they’re in a race against time for treasure… And survival.

Like many co-operative games, Forbidden Island has a single victory goal and several ways to lose. Tiles containing the treasure you need sink? You lose. The helicopter pad you need to escape sinks? You lose. Water gets to high? Lose. Player dies? Definitely lose.

You can only win if you and your team get all the treasure, then you all make it back to the helicopter pad, and you all escape with a helicopter lift card. With so many things that can go wrong, Forbidden Island can be a stressful game. Interestingly, though, I think it’s actually a lot harder to lose than it sounds. Yes, there’s lots of ways you can lose, but there’s also lots of steps you can take to mitigate those risks. In all the times I’ve played, I’ve only ever lost by the water level rising too high, which is the only thing you can’t directly prevent through abilities or cards… And even that I’ve only seen once or twice. So while it can be stressful, it’s not necessarily a hard game to win. And the adrenaline-fueled feeling when you push through the stress and reach victory is a rush.

I really like the board mechanics and physical parts of this game. The tiles comprising the island are sturdy, beautifully drawn, and seem like the kind of thing you’d find in adventure books like Treasure Island. The Crimson Forest, The Coral Palace, The Cliffs of Abandon… The tile names are just fun, and the way they are shuffled and laid out at the start of the game means the board is different every time you play. The inclusion of plastic figurines for each of the four treasures is also neat. Mechanically, “claiming” the treasures could have been accomplished with cards or even just a check list, but the three-dimensional figurines somehow make it seem more of an accomplishment.

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You need to claim all four treasures and escape alive to win.

The only complaints I have about Forbidden Island are small ones. As I said above, the game seems easier than some other co-operative games I’ve played, to the point where – as long as you don’t make any serious mistakes and don’t get very unlucky – it’s rare to lose. Now, the game does allow the difficulty to be adjusted by changing how high the water is at the start of the game, allowing it room to rise 9 times at the easiest, and only 6 at the hardest. Since, in my experience, the water rising is one of the most likely causes for defeat, and the higher it starts the faster it goes, this changes the game from fairly easy to quite difficult very quickly. The step from the “normal” setting to the next difficulty up can make the game harder and more stress-filled to the point of not being fun anymore for some players, so you’ll need to try it out to find what starting point is most fun for you. My other problem comes in the six unique character roles players are randomly assigned. Each role grants a unique ability… But some just seem more useful than others. More than once, I’ve heard (and given) sighs of disappointment at an assigned role.

Those small complaints aside, though, Forbidden Island is a fun game, and it’s co-operative nature makes it a nice break from more competitive games. The immanent threat of the rising water makes for an interesting sense of stress, of the need to win, without (usually) getting too frustrating. It’s also fairly quick to learn and easy to teach, which is good…

After all, it’s really a matter of sink or swim on the Forbidden Island.

 

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Dungeon Ideas: The Great Tree

A RPG adventure can take place just about anywhere you can think of. They can be social affairs, spanning the streets and back alleys of a metropolis. They can be sea-fairing escapades, rooted on the deck of a pirate’s ship. They can even cross the planes of existence, taking place in the depths of the abyss or in the realm of dreams. But the most common path adventurers take is probably though dungeons. Catacombs or caverns or underground labyrinths, dungeons are a frequent sight in RPGs. They didn’t name the game “Socializing and Dragons,” after all.

There a times when the standard dungeons, stone and gates and so on, just doesn’t cut it. It grows dull. Repetitive. Dare I say it, cliche? So every so often, you may want an adventure location to go beyond the dank and dingy underground.

Let’s look at some options for unusual dungeons, starting with…

The Great Tree

This massive landmark, centuries old, is more than 30 feet across at it’s base and stands some two- or three-hundred feet tall. It’s canopy spreads wide and thick enough that, standing beneath it, it seems as dark as night. Some say it was the world’s first tree. Some say it marked the spot where an ancient god, long forgotten, died. Still other’s say it was born of a rift between the very elemental planes, connecting this world to another.

The Great Tree has an ecology as unique as it is. Itself a living thing, it’s roots crawling through the land for acres, the Tree supports life around and within it. Burrowing insects leave tunnels through it’s core big enough for a man to walk through. Fey, and other spirits of nature, inhabit its wood. Its crown supports the nest of giant owls, who hunt anything, animal or man, fool enough to walk beneath the tree’s shadow at night.

Adventuring through a tree creates some unique areas for player exploration. Maybe the tunnels left by the bugs work as a series of caves (just hope the creatures that made them aren’t hungry). Maybe the branches are thick and tangled enough to create platforms players can walk across (but watch your step – it’s a long way down). How can players climb the tree to reach their goal at the top? Or maybe their problem is the opposite; stranded in the nest of a great bird of prey, how can they descend the tree before the bird’s chicks wake hungry?

Even if things like bug tunnels and animal bolt-holes end up being treated the same as underground tunnels and caverns, exploring a giant tree can allow for unique flavour and experiences. Consider the risk of weather-worn branches, or the amount of sticky sap a tree that size might produce. What happens when leaves or acorns begin falling? What sort of problems or opportunities does being entirely surrounded by wood and living matter create for players used to impassible walls of stone?

I’d be amiss not to point out that, if you’d rather, you don’t need to make a tree particularly large to achieve this kind of “dungeon.” You could always make your players very small. Small enough, perhaps, that the mice that live among the roots of the tree, the wasps that have a nest in its branches, become far more dangerous than the usual pests.

***

And that’s The Great Tree as dungeon idea. What do you guys think? If you like the idea of me posting the occasional notion for unusual dungeons, let me know.  Of course, if you’d like me to focus more on either the story of these dungeons or more mechanical ideas and aspects, let me know that, too, and I’ll focus more in that direction in the future. The comments are always open for any thoughts you might like to share.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Sheriff of Nottingham

The law is after you… again. What else is new? Others might be willing to live under the thumb of the law, clawing out a profit with what little goods the law allows them, cheese and apples, bread and roosters… But not you. The things you plan on selling may be illegal to bring in without paying the exorbitant taxes the Sheriff has put on them, but hey, business is risk, right? You’re sure you can smuggle in the best merchandise. And, even if the Sheriff does get suspicious, it’s nothing that a gold coin or two can’t fix.

Maybe you’re a criminal smuggler, trying to make a quick buck under the eye of corrupt law… Or maybe you’re playing Sheriff of Nottingham.

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Sheriff of Nottingham– no, you know what, I’m going to just call it Sheriff from now on and save myself some typing. Sheriff is a bluffing and negotiation game with a solid sprinkling of card drafting and set collecting. Originally designed by Sergio Halaban and Andre Zatz, the game plays 3-5 players. In it, players are merchants trying to make the most money by secretly bringing in goods to the town. Players also take turns, however, taking on the role of the titular Sheriff, who can confiscate any illegal goods they catch other player’s bringing in under their watch. As no one can see what a player is bringing in until they are allowed to proceed, the game revolves around the Sheriff trying to guess when someone is bringing in something illegal and the merchants trying to bluff their way past the Sheriff. Of course, when bluffing doesn’t work, bribes and deal-making is allowed, too.

The rules are a bit complex to explain, but prove a bit simpler than they sound in play. On a turn, players:

  1. Go to market (exchanging a number of cards from their hands for fresh ones).
  2. Load their merchant bags (putting a number of cards they want to bring into town, or to score, into their bags).
  3. Declare their goods (tell the Sheriff what is in their bags; this may or may not be the truth).
  4. Inspect the bags (the Sheriff may, but does not have to, look for contraband in any of the merchant bags; finding contraband is good for the Sheriff, accusing someone of having contraband and being wrong is bad for the Sheriff. And of course, the Sheriff can be bribed or negotiated with, to affect his decision).
  5. Bring in goods (any legal goods and any contraband that the Sheriff did not find is placed in the player’s merchant stand; everyone draws back up to a full hand of goods, and the Sheriff position is passed).
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Who says that corruption doesn’t pay? Being the Sheriff means you can get a cut of the profits.

Like I said, some of the finer points of what is and is not allowed can seem a bit intimidating in explanation. In what order are cards drawn from the discard pile or deck? How many cards can be drawn or loaded into the bag in a turn? How are penalties are if contraband is caught or if a false accusation is made? I think, in particular, the rules that govern the bluffing can be tricky for new players. You can lie, but only in very specific ways: you must declare an accurate number of goods, you must only declare one type of good, you must only declare legal goods. Once people become familiar with the rules, though, they’re easy enough to follow.

I’m a big fan of the physical parts of this game. The cards are all well made and good looking. The merchant bags add a nice touch to the act of bringing items in; realistically, it would be just as effective to play cards face down, but having the bags allows people to handle them without risk of peeking, and that’s somehow more fun.

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What’s in bag? What’s in the bag?

Of course, the real fun of this game is in the social aspect of it. Merchants bringing in goods can bluff about what is in their sacks, or can try to negotiate a deal or a bribe with the Sheriff to make sure they don’t inspect the sacks. Of course, since it benefits the player for the Sheriff to inspect their sack when they don’t have contraband, sometimes players will try to double bluff their way into getting inspected. The whole situation can range anywhere from intense to downright silly.

Of course, having such loose rules about what is allowed and not allowed when it comes to negotiation can lead to a slowed down game. If your Sheriff has a bad case of analysis paralysis, the inspection phase can take a looooong time. If you are finding that’s the case, you may want to house-rule a time limit for this phase.

The other odd thing I found in this game is the fact that, for a game that seems to focus on bluffing and contraband, it is often seems a better plan not to use any contraband at all. Yes, the contraband is worth more points than legal goods at the end of the game. But, because there are large amounts of bonus points for bringing in the most of each legal good, you can often make up the difference by focusing on those. There is no end-game bonus for amount of contraband snuck in. Not to mention bringing in only legal goods avoids any risk of penalties on your part and gets you a bonus if the Sheriff inspects. All in all, in the games I have played, I tended to end up with a far better score at the end of it when I played legal as much as I could.

Of course, maybe I’m just a bad bluffer. Could that be it?

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…Nahhh.

In any case, Sheriff of Nottingham is good, social fun. Just remember that the backbone of the game is lying, so maybe make sure you play it with people who aren’t likely to hold a grudge. They’ll get their turn as Sheriff, too, after all. And we all know that, in truth, there is no honor among thieves.

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Remember That Guy?: Making Memorable NPCs

Some time ago, I ran a campaign that introduced early trains to a Pathfinder world. Though they ran more or less on steam, the villain of the piece found a rare, magical material that worked even better than coal for his engines, and would stop at nothing to harvest and refine it, in order to take over the country’s economy thanks to his rail lines.

The villain’s name was Chauncy.

About thirty seconds after meeting this railway mogul – before the extent of his villainy was even revealed – one member of the party took to calling him “Choo-choo Chauncy.” It stuck. And, a couple years later, it’s one of the only villain’s my player’s remember the name of.

That got me to thinking: I like making non-player characters (allies, enemies, randoms, whoever) that my players remember. If nothing else, it makes using them again later in the campaign that much easier and more interesting. But how can you make sure your players remember NPCs?

I’m glad you asked.

10 Quick Ways to Make a Memorable NPC

  1. Give them an interesting name (or a name players can make interesting, a la Choo-choo Chauncy.)
  2. Make them an interesting species (I once had a sentient cat work as a wise ally.)
  3. Give them a distinct physical feature (hook hand, prosthetic nose, multiple chins, etc.)
  4. Give them a distinct personality (afraid of one member of the party, paranoid of being overheard by spies, fascinated by a player’s injuries, etc.)
  5. Give them a distinct quirk (stutter, pick their nose, sneeze constantly, etc.)
  6. Make them hard to pin down (give them powers or abilities that don’t quite line up with a class the players know, make it hard to figure out what race they are, make their age impossible to guess, etc.)
  7. Make them important (player’s relative, mentor, best friend, etc.)
  8. Make them extra likable (everyone loves a cute kid that tries to imitate the cool players.)
  9. Make them extra dislikable (players will remember the first villain who kicks a kitten in front of them forever.)
  10. Make them active (NPCs can talk, not just respond with straight answers when spoken to; they can have personalities, desires for – or from – the party, and needs of their own; they can exist for more than just the time it takes the players to talk to them.)

Those are 10 quick, simple ways to make NPCs a bit more memorable. Of course, there are some caveats to all of this, too…

Remember: A lot of these suggestions are meant to make the NPC more unique and, as such, memorable. So they don’t work if you do it for everyone the party meets. Similarly, you don’t need to do every one of these things for a single NPC; there is most definitely such a thing as too much. And, of course, you don’t want to do so much that you overshadow your player’s. The game is supposed to be starring them, after all.

Finally, remember that these things don’t help if they exist only in your head. If your NPC has a unique look, mention it. If they have a unique quirk, employ it. A unique flaw, expose it. At least once in a while, that is. Again, a little can go a long way.

So what do you think… Can you add to my list? See any problems with it? Have any examples of NPC/PC interactions or relationships that went really well for you (or really poorly)? Let us know in the comments.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Game Review: Tsuro

The wind caressing your face, greeting you like an old friend as you glide through it. You’ve been soaring the pathways of these skies for millennia, you know them as you know your own home. You are not in them alone, though. Others have come. Others fly your skies. You allow it, peacefully. There is no conflict between you and the others, so long as your paths do not collide. For if they do, if you meet another in your flight, neither can survive.

It’s time to take to the skies, to soar as a dragon. It’s time to play Tsuro.

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Tsuro is a tile-laying game for 2 to 8 players, designed by Tom McMurchie and published by Calliope Games. I’ve played a fair amount of games, and yet Tsuro may be the most peaceful board game I’ve ever come across. In it, players take on the roles of dragons in flight. They take turns laying tiles, each with a unique set of paths on them, and following the path they are on. If they encounter an already placed tile, they continue along it’s path as well. If a player is forced to follow a path off of the game board, they are eliminated. If two players follow paths that make them collide, both are eliminated. That last dragon still in flight is the winner.

The game is simple. A turn has you draw a tile and place a tile, then move your dragon stone along the path you’ve laid (and move any other dragon your tile has affected along the path, as well). Every one of the 35 tiles are unique, and can be placed in any orientation, so it benefits players to think a few moves ahead, to make sure you don’t end up cornering yourself. Since you have to lay a tile that connects to the path your dragon is already on, it’s rare that your tiles directly affect another player (though it is possible, if you are close enough to one another); because of this, you don’t really conflict with others. You’re trying to share the board with them, not really force them off of it. That adds to the peaceful, almost meditative, play style.

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The game may start off with some clear paths…

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…only to get pretty crowded by the end.

The game is beautiful. The tiles are well made, the dragon tokens solid and almost smooth in your hand like a worry stone. Even the instructions are artistic, made to look painted onto thin rice paper. The whole thing seems as much an artistic pursuit as a game.

I mentioned the game simplicity, and I do think it cannot be overstated. It’s a very basic game, with little to no player conflict, only the smallest touches of strategy, and relying mainly on luck. Unlike some other games I’ve played (and reviewed), though, I don’t think the simplicity of this one hurts its replayability. Don’t get me wrong, I think you need to be in a very particular mood to enjoy Tsuro to it’s full extent; if you’re looking for an active, strategic game, this one might fall a bit flat. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something calm, something somewhat soothing, then Tsuro could provide hours of peaceful enjoyment.

The skies over the board might not be endless, but your enjoyment of Tsuro may just be.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2017 in Board Games

 

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Puzzle This Out v.2: Large Scale Puzzles in RPGs

In a previous post, I mentioned liking puzzles in my role-playing game. Sometimes, though, throwing a quick puzzle into combat- or social-based dungeon isn’t satisfying enough… Or worse, comes off as forced or cliched. So sometimes, instead of putting puzzles in a dungeon, I like puzzles that are the dungeon.

Rather than plopping a puzzle in the middle of a dungeon crawl, consider making the dungeon itself run as a puzzle. In each room or area, you can have your combat encounters or social encounters or what not, but the overall dungeon can be a puzzle, too. This can be done with how players travel through the dungeon, reoccurring challenges throughout the adventure, or making the whole adventure take place in a location or setting outside what players take for typical.

The advantage of this kind of large scale puzzle is simple: it’s different. It’s a change from the riddle-doors and puzzle-chests that could otherwise become common sights in dungeon. They make for a memorable dungeon, filled with unique puzzle challenges.

Of course, this kind of idea can backfire, too. If your players don’t enjoy the puzzle that you design your dungeon around, then they have a long, long time to slog through it. Worse still, if they can’t figure it out, the entire dungeon becomes nothing but one frustrating stumbling block after another. So, perhaps more so than with stand-alone puzzles, you need to ensure large scale puzzles aren’t too hard or abstract, or you need to give the players an out if they get stuck.

That’s all well and good for the idea of a large-scale puzzle, but what about the details? What do I mean, really? Well, here’s some examples of large scale puzzles in dungeons and adventures.

The Sliding Dungeon: This dungeons is composed of a number of square rooms, each identical in size. In certain rooms, there are controls that give a bird’s eye view of the dungeon layout. The dungeon controls work like those 3×3 (or bigger, if you want more of a challenge) sliding puzzles, where pieces are moved into blank spaces without any being lifted or turned. Doors only open when lined up with other doors, rooms that are inaccessible can become accessible by moving them, etc. If the players want to explore every room (or get to a specific one), they need to figure out how to arrange the puzzle to make a path.

The Spinning Dungeon: This is similar to the sliding dungeon, only rather than square rooms, the dungeon is built on concentric rings. Again, by accessing controls, the players can rearrange the dungeon, this time by spinning the rings to line up passages or change the layout of rooms.

The Living Dungeon: Remember the time you had to go into Jabu-Jabu’s belly in Legend of Zelda? (And if you don’t know Ocarina of Time, I’m sorry you had such a sad childhood.) Anyways, this is like that. Whether it’s in the belly of some massive beast, or in a building with living walls of eldritch horror, having the dungeon be a living entity (whether good, evil, or benign) can open up some unique hurdles players have to overcome, and perhaps even more interesting (or unexpected) solutions. What happens if you attack living walls? Or make the creature sneeze or swallow when you’re stuck at an impassable sphincter? (Any circular muscle is a sphincter, get your mind out of the gutter.) Once the players figure out some of their options that living dungeons allow, they can tackle obstacles in ways that they never could in a standard one.

Two-Worlds: Imagine a dungeon that exists in two (or more) states: this could be past and future, for instance, or different planes of existences. If the players have a way of traversing these two states, then obstacles can be encountered that can only be overcome in one of the multiple states. Impassable door in the past? Jump to the future, where it has rusted and rotted to the point of falling down. Ancient dragon guarding the treasure in the future? Hop to the past, where it’s a mere baby. I once ran a dungeon that jumped between the real world and the world of dreams; the goals were in the real world, but players could do things in the world of dreams that they couldn’t awake. Bottomless chasm that you have to get across? You can fly in dreams. Tiny doorway? Dream that you’re shrinking. All it takes is some consideration of how you want the mechanics of traveling back and forth between the multiple versions of the dungeon to work.

Portable Doors: What happens if you put a portable hole on a wall? Or the ceiling? Ok, so if you are following the rules, probably nothing interesting. But that’s boring, so make up your own portable hole. Think of all the fun that could be had with a door frame that creates a passage wherever it’s placed, or a hole that can be used to climb between floors and then moved. This kind of trick needs a bit more planning, I think (so the players don’t just carve themselves a path straight through whatever they’re going through), but with a few mechanical limitations to the tool, it could make for a unique type of exploration.

Those are just 5 examples of large scale puzzles or reoccurring challenges that you can shape a dungeon around. Can you think of more? Share some of your own ideas in the comments, or let me know what you think about using large scale puzzles to change up your adventures.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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