May 4, 2015

The Five Room Dungeon

Johnn Four's Five Room Dungeon design is pretty smart.  I'll let you navigate on over there and take a look at his original idea.  You can get his ebook for free, if you like.

The benefits of a five room dungeon:

  • It's a formula that's easy to follow, but generates a lot of unique adventures without seeming cookie-cutter. 
  • The dungeon can be explored in a single short session of play, making it a discrete story unit.  Use two or more for longer format games.  
  • You can build a larger dungeon out of multiple five-room dungeons; or use several isolated ones in a hex crawl.  
  • The curtailed design eliminates a lot of the filler encounters that you're tempted to include for larger dungeons or themed dungeons.
  • The formula requires you to include scenes that play to diverse strengths and fantasy character archetypes.  There's a scene for the brain, a scene for the face, a scene for the big guy, etc.
  • The diversity of scenes also gives you ample opportunity to insert any kind of character plot hooks you want.  Really, there is no excuse for not doing so.
  • It packs a whole three-act structure into a short time, so it has great pacing and a thrilling conclusion.
  • If you're running D&D or Pathfinder, the dungeon is a good amount of content for one adventuring day, containing 2-4 combat encounters and a 1-3 exploration and roleplay scenes.  There should be no reason for the PCs to camp to recover resources in the middle of the dungeon, and no need for time pressure.

And the drawbacks are limited.  Except for Johnn Four's contest, there's no reason you can't modify the five-room dungeon formula to suit your needs.  Do you want a lot of combat?  Add two combat scenes.  More roleplay?  Add some more NPCs.  Want to make it longer?  Stick two or three five room dungeons together, or add some scenes in the middle.  More exploration?  Add a maze with some puzzles, traps and wandering monsters in the middle.

Here's a summary of the technique:

1. The PCs are blocked from getting in by a guardian.  The dramatic question is "How can the heroes get into the dungeon?" The guardian could be in an antechamber or outside the dungeon; or the guardian could be a trap, puzzle, complex lock, etc.  Combat might help overcome the guardian, or it might be useless.

2. The PCs encounter a puzzle or social challenge.  This can be a locked door with a password and a riddle, or a complex trap, or a guardian.  It seems to me that rooms 1 and 2 are almost the same, except that room 2 should not be a combat scene; and room 1 might be a combat scene.  The reason Four uses these two scenes at the beginning is that he intends to ratchet up the pace later, and puzzles and roleplay don't have the thrilling, tense nature of a direct conflict.  Try to raise the stakes in room 2, though - the challenge in room 1 might be a sealed door with guards the PCs sneak past.  The challenge in room 2 might be a locked room filling with poison gas; or an angry NPC who escalates matters to a shouting argument that the PCs can't win by killing him.

3. A red herring.  This is the most confusing room.  The dramatic question of room 3 is "Does room 3 cost the PCs something?"  It's an opportunity for the players to choose between completeness and resource conservation.  Do we clear out the zombies in the crypt or move past it to deal with the main crypt?  Do we explore the dusty, half-collapsed passage or stay focused?  Do we have to fight the trained wolves guarding the supplies or can we sneak past them?  This room adds tension by forcing the players to give something up:  If you sneak past the wolves, you keep more spells and hit points, but lose out on searching the supply sacks.

The challenge of the red herring for the GM is that the players will ask, "can we just come back here after we get to the end?"  If the answer is "we're sure we can," there is no tension.  They'll ignore the crypt, skip the dusty passage, and sneak past the wolves.  The problem is that running a red herring challenge after the PCs have resolved the main reason they came here in the first place is anti-climactic (literally opposite of the climax, in this case).  Make sure you have an answer to the question "why can't we just come back here after we finish our main goal?" but don't make it so pressing that there is no real choice.  Often the reason is hidden in room 5, and applies time pressure:  The Sapphire has already been stolen?  There's no time to search that side passage!  We have to chase down the tiefling thief!  Sometimes the reason is part of room 3:  After the necromancer is slain, the zombies will be free to wander out into the countryside.  Finally, if you made room 3 a challenge already, you can hand-wave this part:  The wolves ran off after their master was slain.

4. The climax.  This room is the "boss fight," to use a video game term; and that's probably a better name for it.  The PCs have come to the dungeon to accomplish something.  This is the opponent standing in their way.  Did they come to the old crypt to kill the necromancer?  This is the necromancer's toughest undead monstrosity.  Did they explore the Lost Caves to get the Sapphire of Destiny?  This is the Archon that protects it.  Did they chase the killer of the Baron of Radua to this abandoned hunting lodge?  This is the cloaked assassin they discover in the basement.

5. The twist.  This room might not be an actual room at all, according to Four.  It's a plot twist that changes the nature of the story and lets you end the session on a cliffhanger; or causes the PCs a setback; or just serves as an unwelcome surprise.  The necromancer re-animates the undead monster, and now you have to fight the monster again, and it has the necromancer's aid!  The Sapphire of Destiny has already been stolen?  No!  But there's a clue here as to who stole it -- a tiefling hoofprint!  The assassin turns out to be just a lackey for a greater secret organization, but he takes poison before giving up his handler!  Sometimes the twist is just new plot information.  Say the PCs were breaking an infamous pirate out of prison because only the pirate knows how to navigate the reefs to get to the Isle of Dread.  When they get to the pirate, she explains that she was able to navigate the reefs because she had a deal with the sahuagin, but when the Commodore captured her and seized her ship, he took the ivory she owes them, so they won't help until they get the ivory that they want for some reason.

Three-Act Structure and Five Room Dungeons

Like I said above, five room dungeons are great because they come packaged with the elements of the three-act story structure.

Act 1:  You need to place your plot hooks outside the dungeon, to get the PCs interested in coming here and motivated to bypass the guardian.  The guardian could be the first act twist - where the protagonists commit to the adventure.

Act 2:  Room 2 and 3 are definitely rising action.  Room 2 is a non-combat challenge which can be deadly, but doesn't have the high tension of an active, lethal opponent.  Room 3 likely has a serious threat; and in addition, it forces the protagonists to make a hard choice.

Act 3:  How you use room 5 depends on the milieu that the five room dungeon is being designed for.  You might use it as the second act twist, darkest hour (which may last all of one combat round!), and climax all in one.  Or you may use it as a second act twist for your larger adventure.  That in turn helps you decide how to use room 4:

  • If your story structure spans only the five-room dungeon, the peak of the rising action is Room 4; the second act twist is Room 5; and the third act - the climax - is overcoming the new challenge.  In a one-shot, you have to wrap up the story at the end, so you have to let the PCs resolve the new problem in room 5.  The example of the necromancer reviving the undead monster so the PCs have to fight it again works well here, because they have a twist that's immediately resolved.
  • If you are using the five room dungeon as part of a greater story, you can end on a cliffhanger, with the second act twist coming in room 5.  The PCs then enter the "darkest hour" where they have another adventure (maybe another five room dungeon) where they scramble to resolve the twist before the climactic showdown against the antagonist (which might be yet another five room dungeon).
  • If you are using the five room dungeon as part of a greater story, but don't need to use this moment for a twist or cliffhanger, end it on a bang.  A "bang" is something exciting that happens in the story to raise the stakes.  Let's say you're using a series of five room dungeons in the rising action of an adventure where the PCs are taking down a villain's resources to make him vulnerable.  One such sub-adventure is freeing all the villain's slaves.  The twist doesn't have to be a big surprise or even a defeat:  It can be a horrific revelation that establishes the main villain's evil.  Imagine a "room 5" scene where the PCs open the slave pit where the villain kept the children to force the adults to work with threats to their families.  Describe how the PCs see the scarred, stone-faced slaves break into tears as they are reunited with their abused, malnourished children.  To make it personal, let each player take an action to heal a sick child who can't stand, or to help a panicked parent find their baby amid the confusion, et cetera.

A and B Plots and Five Room Dungeons

Previously, I showed how to build richness into a dungeon by layering an A plot and a B plot.  The A plot is the reason the PCs have come to the dungeon.  The B plot is the tale of the history of the people, place, and geography around the dungeon that has mysterious effects on the A plot.

Room 1, A Plot:  The antagonists placed a guardian here to keep meddling adventurers out.
Room 1, B Plot:  The antagonists used this place because of its pre-existing defenses.  They know the trick to getting in and out - can the PCs figure it out?

Room 2, A Plot:  There is an NPC or trap here that the antagonists left.  This NPC is not immediately hostile to the PCs - and they may want to offer the PCs an alternative way to resolve the A Plot.  If it is a trap, it stands out as different from the older architecture.
Room 2, B Plot:  If you use an NPC, it's likely to be a creature native to the dungeon or the area around it, connected to the B Plot's story, such as a ghost or an intelligent monster.  This NPC will give exposition as well as present a roleplaying challenge.  B Plot in Room 2 could be an ancient puzzle that the A plot antagonists know how to bypass.  Or maybe they don't - and the puzzle merely opens up Room 3 (there are lots of different ways to structure a five room dungeon).

Room 3, A Plot:  The obvious A Plot for room 3 is a guard that the PCs need to sneak past.  Other opportunities include A Plot treasure guarded by a trap.
Room 3, B Plot:  If you've developed a B Plot that can be resolved, Room 3 could be a red herring for the A Plot, but also the climax for the B Plot.  Let's say that 2B was a ghost who, after being persuaded that the PCs were reverential, offered to aid the PCs if they would bury her body.  Room 3 may have the ghost's bones, but the carrion crawler in there isn't likely to give them up.

Room 4, A Plot:  Typically room 4 is going to be the centerpiece of your A Plot.
Room 4, B Plot:  Because room 4 is usually an A Plot climax scene, you may not use B Plot.  If you do, it's often to show the effect of the B Plot on the A Plot.  Here's where your ghost either comes in and attacks everyone for disturbing its rest, or comes in to help the PCs defeat their A Plot antagonist as part of their bargain.

Room 5, A Plot:  If you're doing a one-shot, the twist likely relates to whatever you did in room 4.  If you're using the dungeon as your second act twist in a larger adventure, it definitely involves the A Plot.
Room 5, B Plot:  If you're using the five room dungeon in the middle of a larger adventure, you can make the twist part of the B Plot.  The room 5 twist is a great place to resolve the B Plot.  This is where you can introduce a twist or bang related to the history of the people and place around the dungeon.  This is where the volcano starts to erupt or ancient crypt opens, the ghost gets her revenge, etc.  These developments can often be surprising and exciting.  Ask yourself "What would Michael Bay do?"

Hex Crawling for Five Room Dungeons

Five room dungeons are amazing points of interest (POIs) for a hex crawl adventure.  POIs usually don't need to be long mega-dungeons.  They should be short one-session nuggets of story that the PCs encounter and investigate as they explore the map.

That's about all I have to say on five room dungeons.  May the Fourth be With You!

April 27, 2015


I have seen a lot of twitter and facebook conversations with GMs about players cheating.  There was a time when I was concerned about it, too.  I want to share with you how I came to not care about it at all.  It's not that I've disciplined my players not to cheat or anything.  I don't even know if they're cheating; and it does not bother me.  Here's all I had to say to them:

Cheating Only Hurts You
I expect you not to cheat, but I will not police you or accuse you; and I don't want you policing each other, either.

If you don't like what the rules or dice say, just ask to change them.  Ask to change the die result or ask to ignore the rule for the moment.  I'll almost always agree; and I think the other players will agree, too.  Sometimes you'll forget a rule or misinterpret a die roll; and sometimes I will or another player will.  That's OK, too -- just "play through."  You can bring it up after the scene is over if you really want.

Cheating is when you ignore a rule or change a die roll intentionally and in secret; and it only hurts you.  It doesn't hurt me if you cheat.  I'm on your side -- I want your characters to face tough odds and win.  For that to be a fun experience for me, you have to stay in character and have fun at the table.  That's all.

But for the game to be a fun experience for you, it needs to generate excitement.  Excitement comes from tension.  Tension comes from the possibility of defeat.  If you start cheating, you'll always know you can avoid defeat by cheating.  Defeat becomes impossible.  So don't start, or you'll take away the possibility of defeat, which reduces your own feeling of dramatic tension, which takes away the excitement you get out of the game, which means you'll have less fun.

Cheating is generally a concern with tactical combat RPGs like D&D or Pathfinder, so I'm going to tag this post for them; but it really applies to any game.  The thing about cheating is that even ethical folks can be drawn into it.  After all, we all know that this is a collaborative game designed as a fun thing to do with friends around the table.  There's no money at stake, and nobody gets hurt if you cheat.  The pressure to "shine" or "contribute" motivates people to cheat; and then once they start, they lose respect for the game and are more likely to do it again.  But it's not the game that's hurt.  It's not the GM, or even the other players.  It's the cheating player that suffers.  Cheating doesn't help you -- it saps the excitement from the game for you.

Failing with Panache 

As a player, there are two situations where there's a temptation to cheat:  First, when the dice aren't going your way.  Second, when the rules are in your way.  You and your GM should work to make those situations more fun and less humiliating.

When the problem is bad luck the solution is easy:  Fail in a dramatic way.  Missing attacks and failing saving throws can often be narrated as humiliating:  "You almost drop your sword in your haste."  or  "The fireball DC was 17." "Ah crap, I'm at -2."

But it's a lot more fun to narrate it as a dramatic moment instead of a humiliating pratfall:  "I swing!  Eight.  Bah.  I lock blades with the bearded devil, my sword against its glaive, and I glare defiance into it eyes.  We're struggling there, neither of us getting the upper hand." or "The fireball DC was 17."  "I leap in front of Roguely, shouting 'GET DOWN!' and shielding him from the fireball with my body.  When the smoke clears, I'm lying unconscious over him, having chosen sacrifice over glory."

Solving the Problem Together

When a single die roll is so bad you want to change it, rather than just avoid disappointment, ask the GM to change it and explain why the game would be more fun with the change.  The GM can make the change to add excitement rather than take it away.

GM:  You fall in the spiked pit trap and take... ouch!  32 damage.

Cleric:  That's enough to outright kill me.  I don't want to die in a random pit trap.  Can we make it 30 damage?  That would mean I'm dying, but not quite dead. 

GM:  I can work with that.  OK everyone!  With a crack and rumble, the floor gives way under your loyal cleric.  He falls twenty feet into three-foot-long rusty spikes.  You see he's gushing blood from razor-sharp spikes through his body.  He's clearly unconscious and he could die in a matter of seconds.  You have one round before he almost definitely dies.  What do you do?

The cleric's player resisted the temptation to fudge some hit points and "accidentally" only subtract 30 by just bringing it up with the GM.

When the problem is the rules getting in the way you can ask the GM for help.  The GM is the rules referee, and the goal of the referee in these sorts of games is to make sure everyone is having fun using the rules.

Let's say you're an archer character and the dungeon is full of skeletons.  You can cheat and add some blunt arrows to your character sheet, or you can ask for help from the GM:  Hey, sorry, I wasn't prepared for an all-skeleton dungeon.  This isn't going to be any fun since I can't hurt them with my shortbow.  What can I do?  There are several ways the GM can help make the rules work for you:

  • Make a temporary rules call to help you out: OK, let's ignore the skeleton's DR this time, but go back to town to buy blunt arrows or try to Craft some before the next encounter.
  • Give you some advice to help you use the rules better to your advantage:  I know your arrows can't do anything to the skeletons, but until you can get some blunt arrows, you can use Aid Another to help protect the cleric.  With 2 more AC, the skeletons can only hit him on a natural 20, so it's a huge help.  It's probably better to protect the cleric than to do 1d6 damage anyway.
  • Change the nature of the problem so that the odious rule doesn't apply:  Three more skel... er...  a single ghoul comes creeping out of the shadows!  Roll initiative!
  • Change your character sheet for you:  If you can narrate a flashback where your character encountered skeletons in the past and suffered a story loss for lack of blunt arrows, you can add 20 blunt arrows to your sheet right now. 

April 20, 2015

5e Table Initiative Hack

Here's a quick 5e house rule you might want to try:  Table Initiative.  Table initiative is just "go around clockwise" initiative.  The question of "who goes next" is obvious in most board games.  If the player to your right is finishing up, it's almost your turn.  You can quickly count how many players until your turn and how many until the bad guys go.

That's a huge advantage.  You don't have to ask who goes next.  You don't even have to look at an initiative tracker or initiative tents.  There's no deciding who goes next, like in side initiative or popcorn initiative.  Board games move fast because they go around the table (most of the time).  When turns go around the table, you get a sense of how long it is until your turn, and you can literally see and hear it coming in an intuitive way.

In 5th edition D&D, initiative order doesn't change; so you can use around the table initiative!  It's super easy.  You don't need to write anything down, or remember anything from round to round, and getting started is just "roll initiative" like you're used to; but with a tiny twist.  Here's how it works:
Create an "initiative DC."  You can use 11 plus the monsters' leader's initiative modifier, if you want.  Or you can just set the DC at 15.  If you want a slightly more carefully selected DC, see the table below.  15 is pretty good for most parties unless you only have one PC for whatever reason.

Starting with the player to your left, each player makes an Initiative check against that DC, in clockwise order around the table.  Players can expend Inspiration for Advantage on these Initiative checks.

The first PC to succeed at the Initiative check goes first.  If all of the PCs fail the Initiative check, the GM goes first.

Then the order of turns proceeds clockwise around the table.  

When it gets to the GM's turn, all of the monsters act, in whatever order the GM thinks is most appropriate in the situation (e.g. the fastest monster, the highest level monster, or the monster in front might be first).

Seating Order

Seating order really matters for Table Initiative.  The first time you use it, don't worry about this part.  The players will discover a few facts pretty quickly:

  • The PCs will always clump up, like in Side Initiative.  They will always go in order from the first PC to the GM's left clockwise.  It's a big circle -- half PCs, half opposition.  The initiative check only determines where in the big circle the combat begins.
  • The player to the GM's right will always act right before the opposition.  The player to the GM's left will always act right after the opposition.
  • The player to the GM's right will rarely go first on the first round, but will also rarely go after the opposition on the first round.  The player to the GM's left will frequently go first in the first round, but will also frequently go after the opposition on the first round.

Imagine a typical "Basic Rules" party of four PCs:  A Healer, a Champion, a Thief, and an Evoker.  The best seating order would be Evoker, Champion, Healer, Thief.  First, you want to let the wizard put a fireball into the opposition.  Then you want the champion to engage with the toughest opponent.  Then you want the healer to move in as well, and engage or use buff spells.  Then you want the thief to move in to move in and attack an engaged enemy.

If this were 4e or Pathfinder, it might matter more.  But in 5e, it's not that big a deal.

Ultimately, the PCs' best strategy is to sit in initiative order from fastest (on the GM's left) to slowest (on the GM's right), giving them the highest chance of the most PCs acting before the opposition as possible,

More Careful Initiative DCs

The number of player characters in the encounter strongly influences whether the monsters will all go first.  You should set a higher DC for larger groups, and a lower DC for smaller groups.  If you want a simulationist explanation for this, remember that smaller units act quicker than larger units.

Here's a little math to help decide how hard an Initiative check to set.  Assuming an average of +2 initiative for the PCs, I calculated the chances that all of the monsters would go first.  An "Easy" initiative check DC gives the monsters just a 10% chance to go first.  A "Hard" initiative check DC gives the monsters about a 50% chance to go first.  The suggested DC of 15 mentioned above works well for any party size except 1.

Number of PCs
4 or 5
6 or 7

April 17, 2015

How GMs Use RPG Books

It's been a busy week!  I have two half-finished full posts, but I figured I owed it to myself to put something up this week.

So today I'm going to talk about the approaches GMs use when we use an RPG's rulebook.  I've written a broad strokes post on this topic before, but it was limited to GNS theory; this post will focus on how a GM uses the rulebook.

If you're a game designer, keep up!  I'm talking about how your work affects us - your GMs.  I'm basically writing this to you.

Every GM uses each of these approaches sometimes.  Some GMs use some approaches more than others.  Some systems support some approaches more than others; and some even force GMs to use some approaches more than others.

Consider Dungeon World's principles and moves, for instance.  They explicitly require the GM to use the system in a particular way.  13th Age's lack of tables of modifiers prevents Detail Focused approaches to using the game book.  Vampire: the Masquerade supports the Learned Master approach to setting, while Fate supports the What do YOU think? approach.


  • Magical Tea Party:  The GM just decides what happens.  With a fair, empathetic, positive, collaborative GM, this can be fun.  Some GMs do this all the time -- but they have groups that love it.  Other GMs revert to MTP when your system bogs down, and the GM just tosses it out.
  • Off the Cuff:  The GM just takes a guess as to what to plan, and tries to stick close to what the rules say without getting bogged down.  Speed of resolution is more important than accuracy using your rules.  During the climax of a run, when a PC is thrown from a helicopter into the Puget Sound, a GM of Shadowrun 4th edition is not going to stop the action to open up the half-page of tables on swimming conditions and modifiers that those designers thought was appropriate.  She's just going to call for a roll with a penalty and move on, because the action is more important than some designer's insistence that all buoyancy factors be accounted for.
  • Detail Focused:  The opposite of off-the-cuff, these GMs not only use every single modifier you accounted for; they carefully consider and apply others to attempt to model the physics of the world the PCs are in.  If you're up on GNS theory, this is the GM with a "simulationist" creative agenda.
  • The Devil's Bargain:  I've posted on a game design blog about risk before.  A GM with a "gamist" creative agenda looks for devil's bargains in your system.  These are risk/reward tradeoffs presented as simple "multiple choice" questions.  Third edition D&D's weapon table was built out of devil's bargains:  "Do you use a sword with a 19-20 crit range and x2 damage on a critical or an axe with a 20 crit range and x3 damage on a critical?"  Such a GM -- or any GM in "gamist" mode -- will make table rulings using these options as well.  Despite its avowedly heavy Narrative focus, Fate gives PCs a Devil's Bargain at almost every opportunity - fight on or concede; spend a Fate point or take a Consequence; Create an Advantage or try to Overcome/Attack.
  • Drama or Bust:  In this mode, a GM will look at what's in your book, and if it does not raise the stakes, add excitement, or push the story forward, the GM will abandon it.  The GM might modify your rule or use it part-way it if it seems immediately obvious how to do so.  For instance, the Shadowrun situation, above could be resolved with "Drama or Bust":  The GM flips to the swimming rules, discovers a daunting table, sees the "choppy seas" penalty, and adds a dramatic detail - totally ignoring all the rest of the swimming modifier tables - "Good news:  you hit the water instead of the deck of the cargo ship passing by; bad news, you fall in the ship's tumultuous wake and are swamped under, make a roll at -4."
  • Story Solves System:  Sometimes GMs find that the system causes a problem.  Say your D&D PCs suffer total defeat at the hands of some goblins.  Instead of rolling up new characters, the GM can ignore the "death and dying" system without changing the rules by saying that the goblins staunch their wounds and drag them to captivity, where they awake several hours later, tied up in a cave.  In Cyberpunk 2020, a Netrunner would go hack a computer system, leaving the rest of the players with nothing to do for at least a half hour.  A story solution was to have a NPC who did all that for every run -- either an ally of the PCs, a competent hireling, or an NPC assigned by the PCs' employer.
  • System Solves Story:  Sometimes GMs have no idea where to go next, so they turn to your rulebook, looking for a mechanic to give the game direction.  D&D has random monster tables; Night's Black Agents has the Vampyramid; etc.  Sometimes the GM just uses the regular system to generate some excitement.  In Pathfinder, the GM might say "well, you guys are carrying a lot of gems and gold in a bad area of town; make a Perception check..."  The key here is using the system to generate the seed of the next story moment, then growing that seed into an interesting event that ties into the ongoing narrative.  In the Pathfinder example, the PCs spot a pickpocket making off with some of their gems.  The pickpocket will lead them to the thieves' guild and the next plot clue either by fleeing, if they're captured and interrogated, or if they're treated kindly.


The setting that comes with an RPG runs the gamut from none to too much.  What counts as too little or too much depends on the GM.  And GM styles in using setting vary between GMs, between games with the same GM, and even moment-to-moment in a session.

Some games come without any setting at all (GURPS).  Others come with only a vague hint of an intended genre (Fate).  Others come with a strong genre focus (D&D); others come with a complete and detailed setting (Ars Magica); some use the real world, with additional overlaid setting details (Call of Cthulhu); and some come with a heavily fleshed out setting atlas and gazetteer (Forgotten Realms, Vampire: the Masquerade).  
  • Genre Only:  No matter what the book provides, the GM adheres only to the genre assumptions, throwing out any published "facts" that get in their way.  For instance, an Eberron GM might invent an entire nation, or ignore the existence of Kalashtar and Dal Quor; but stick to the fantasy-punk high-flying adventure genre.
  • Seed Facts:  The GM might look for interesting inspiration in the setting provided, but once they find inspiration, they go where their imagination takes them, ignoring your published work.  For instance, a Vampire: the Masqureade GM might learn about the Sabbat Vaulderie, but totally ignore the entirety of the Sabbat, instead using this practice as something neonate coteries do in the Camarilla to drive a story with a strong theme of generational change and resistance from the older generation.
  • Learned Master:  Some GMs revel in learning more about the setting than the players, and being the expert.  Some players love it when their GM does this, so that their experience in the game feels like discovering a rich and detailed world.  This was one of the selling points of the old World of Darkness; and also a limiting factor.  The best WoD storytellers were the ones who could pull this off; but it took quite a lot of investment.  When they revised their game lines, they largely removed this "metaplot" and published supplements with different and contradictory takes on the same core settings to try to encourage more of the "seed facts" setting approach from their GMs, which has a lower barrier to entry.
  • Reference Library:  The GM uses the setting like the Learned Master, but without the mastery.  The GM looks setting facts up if there's time, or delays long enough to find time.  This is common with modern-day real-world games.  If the PCs want to find a biker bar in New Jersey, the GM can google "biker bar in new jersey."  Wikipedia and Google earth are the best game supplements you can have for a modern day game.  But what about a fictional world?  Games set in the Star Wars universe can access Wookiepedia, and there are similar sites for popular published game systems from Vampire and to just about every D&D campaign world.  And there are low-tech solutions, too: GMs often find themselves flipping through campaign setting manuals and sourcebooks.  Designers!  It's important to have a good index for your sourcebook, whether that's a solid print index or a hyperlinked table of contents in a PDF.
  • What do YOU Think?  Story games and RPGs that give the players a lot of agency encourage the GM to let the players add setting details.  Some GMs who've experienced these games carry this technique over to more traditional RPGs with a lot of success.  You may find a Pathfinder GM answering a player's question this way.  "I listen at the door - what do I hear?"  "There are four orc warriors in there.  What do you suppose they sound like?"  Or even "I don't know -- what do you think would be cool?"  In this mode, the GM is expecting the players to use as much of the provided setting detail as they want.  The GM usually rejects any suggestions that are too far out of genre for the scenario.

What do you think, readers?  Is there some way GMs use RPG books that I haven't mentioned?  

Postscript:  I've seen GMs use rulebooks as improvised weapons, decoupage, art books, and doorstops.  Have you seen GMs using their rulebooks for hilarious or unusual purposes?

April 6, 2015

How to Write a Character Background

Today Run a Game becomes Play a Game.

Hello, GMs.  Today's post is going to be a tool to give to your players to help them invent their characters.  It's "system agnostic" -- meaning you can use it for any tabletop RPG, or even adventure-style LARP.  Some tabletop RPGs like the Dresden Files RPG and Hillfolk have additional character development mechanics you will need to read and incorporate into this process, so consider using a modified version.

If you're a "hand stuff out at the table" sort of GM, or if you feel like keeping it short and sweet, here's one page of instructions for you to give your players.


Hello, players.  Run a Game is a GM blog, but today I'm talking to you.  I'm going to give you a process to write a character backstory that GMs can't resist.  It will help your GM to pull your character into the story of the game, or even design major plots and villains around your character.  Most importantly, it will let you dictate the terms of your character's motives.


Your character is more than a description, a history, and stats.  Your character is a protagonist in a story.  A story is defined by its conflict.  What truly defines a character in a story is why the character is in the conflict to begin with.  Your GM will take care of what the conflict is, but a good background should be filled with strong character hooks about why you would engage with the conflict.

Anyone can pick up a spear and go try to stop the necromancer from raising the dead near some innocent hamlet.  Anyone can learn a few spells and take a job from a mysterious wizard in a tavern.

But the veteran soldier feels responsible for the deeds of the necromancer because he saved her life during the war, back when she was just a child.  He has a soft spot for her, and might try to talk her into surrendering without bloodhsed.  And the young mage is desperate to put on a disguise and take the job offered by the mysterious wizard.  Why?  Because that wizard was her cruel master, and she wants to learn what he's up to and hopefully foil his sinister plans.

The key elements of a character background are the character hooks.  The rest is just narrative that links them together.  That narrative serves an artistic purpose, but it's entirely retrospective.  The events to come will hinge on the character hooks you built the story around, not the linking narrative.  Character hooks are people, places, things, careers, and goals your character has; why your character cares about them; and what places them in a state of unresolved tension.

Elements of Character Hooks

Your goal is not to write a piece of short fiction, but to give the GM a collection of Character Hooks.  Like adventure hooks or story hooks, character hooks connect ("hook") your character's motivations to the objective of the adventure the GM designs.  Good character hooks have emotional elements and practical elements.

The emotional elements of a character hook are pathos and unresolved tension:

  • Why do you care about this? (pathos)
  • What makes its future uncertain? (unresolved tension)

The practical elements of a character hook are:
  • People
  • Places
  • Things
  • Social Status
  • Goals

The best character background starts with just a handfull of bullet points on a single sheet of paper.  You can write a narrative to describe them, or you can leave some "white space" to fill in later.  That's up to you.

Here's what you do when writing a Story Hook bullet point:

  1. Invent or select a person, place, object, social status, or goal that sounds cool (to you) and sounds like it might have something to do with the GM's campaign pitch.  Don't be too pressed about aligning with the campaign pitch.  Just go with the general theme.  The GM will take care of the rest.
  2. Decide what strong feelings your character has about it.  Write down a few emotion words.  If you're having trouble with this, just write "positive" or "negative" and move on.  Look at the examples below for inspiration.
  3. Explain why your character feels this way.  Use one or two sentences to clarify those emotion words.
  4. Describe this thing's current status in a way that its future is uncertain.  Other good words for "uncertain" are tenuous, imperiled, ambitious, hopeful, mysterious, or bleak.
  5. Turn the uncertainty and pathos into hooks that would give your character motivation.  How does this uncertainty affect your motivation to engage with the campaign premise?  In other words, suggest a few ways that can the GM use this to draw you into the adventures in the campaign.  You might even invent new adventures around it, but if you do, leave a lot of blank space here for the GM to fill in.  You don't have to fill this section in if you don't want to, but it serves as a check:  If you're inspired with dozens of good adventure ideas, it's probably a good hook.  If you can't think of any, you might want to re-write parts 2-4.

Make between three and ten hooks for your character.  That's one to four pages worth of character background (single sided, 12-point font, with generous margins for the GM to taken notes in).

You'll find that every time you craft a character hook, you create yet more people, places and things.  You don't need a bullet point for them all - just the ones you want to play through as plot in the campaign.  You may find yourself writing a plot.  That's OK.  Feel free to write a very general overview of an adventure in the future for your character.  The GM will probably use it, or else take one of the adventures she already had planned and adapt it to fit your adventure pitch.  But don't flesh it out too much -- that's the GM's job.

Examples of Character Hooks

I'm using D&D's Eberron campaign setting as an example because its dungeonpunk victorian feel, pulp style, and shify intrigues are almost universally applicable across settings and RPGs.  You could imagine these examples in anything from a world-spanning '20s Call of Cthulhu pulp horror game to a gritty, urban Vampire: the Masqureade chronicle to a free-wheeling, high-action Feng Shui campaign.

Character hooks should always connect to the GM's campaign pitch or premise.  So here's the pitch for these examples:

The PCs are adventurers from Khorvaire, seeking their fortune and glory by exploring ancient ruins on the mysterious continent of Xen'Drik.  They came into possession of a map that supposedly leads to four ruins from the age of giants, filled with valuable and powerful relics, but some dark elves got a copy of the map as well.  Can our adventurers claim the treasure there before the dark elves do?  What shady purpose will the dark elves use the ancient magic of the giants' ruins for, and who else might want to seize it?  

The examples here are not all for the same character.  You can see how even one good hook could provide an entire campaign of story; so a character with three should be thick with ties campaign's plot.  Ten is a lot for a GM, even for a long campaign.  The GM might never use all ten, but ten hooks gives the GM a lot to choose from.

Wife (Person)
  • Feelings - Love, Protection
  • Reason - I formed a strong romantic bond with her in the two years since our parents arranged our marriage
  • Uncertain Future - She and her family expected me to inherit a fortune, but I was cheated out of it; and now her family has taken her back in and is seeking to annul our marriage. I am not sure how she feels about it.
  • Motivation - I swore to get rich or die trying, so that I could impress my in-laws and preserve my marriage.  I'm going to Xen'Drik to make my fortune.  News from home about my wife and her family would also pull me into adventures.

Red Dragon Egg (Thing)
  • Feelings - Hatred
  • Reason - My mentor in Aerenal was an abusive and cruel master.  When I could, I fled his tutelage and stole his most prized possession: The egg of a red dragon.  I keep it cool, so as to delay its hatching.  My mentor, a powerful wizard, wants it back and will kill to get it.  
  • Uncertain Future - I'm not sure what to do with it, now.  I can't sell it, because he would find out and just buy it back.  
  • Motivation - Until I figure out what to do with it, I'm going to get as far away from Aerenal and my mentor as possible.  The next boat to Xen'Drik sounded like a great idea.  My wizardly mentor and his minions (other apprentices, summoned creatures, hired goons) will probably come after me.  And if I can find ways to get back at him in Xen'Drik, say by foiling his henchmen who are on expeditions here, I will do so.

Knighthood (Social Status)
  • Feelings - Ambition, Pride, Caution
  • Reason - As an orphaned youth, I had no opportunity; but in a chance encounter, I impressed Lord Marin ir'Kade and he promised me a knighthood and a mighty reward if I could go to Xen'drik on a letter of marque and bring him back a relic of the giants for the Kingdom of Breland.  There is nothing I could want more!
  • Uncertain Future - On reflection, it seems fishy that a Lord of Breland would secure a letter of marque for an orphan beggar.  He has skilled knights and explorers under his command.  It seems like there may be a stick hiding behind this carrot.  
  • Motivation - This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and likely my only shot at glory.  I'm going to take the letter and explore Xen'Drik anyway.  If Marin has some trap set for me, or is using me as a fall guy, I'll have to find some way to avoid it and outfox him.  Likely he has some tricks up his sleeve.  Any opportunity I can get to learn about Brelish nobility and House ir'Kade, I will take.  And any political influence or favors I can earn will be very valuable to me.

Bartender (Social Status)
  • Feelings - Pride, Comfort
  • Reason - I spent five years working in a working class bar in the Cogs of Sharn, and I take pride in my job
  • Uncertain Future - I've been motivated to hang up the towel and go adventuring, but there is a tension - I will always long for the life of a bartender or innkeeper.
  • Motivation - The best part about tavern life for me was always the stories and songs.  I got swept up in this opportunity with a treasure map and a journey to an uncharted continent to seek treasure and glory like the heroes in the legends.  The reality of adventuring and the daily dangers hasn't dawned on me yet.  I may be able to resolve the tension by using adventuring to get enough coin to build an inn; but money has an effect on people.  Once I can afford a humble tavern, I'll want a humble inn.  Then a moderate inn.  Then a big country inn.  Then a big, fancy hotel and restaurant in Sharn; and so forth.  Villains may tempt me by offering me a country inn, or when things go bad, I may doubt whether I'm cut out to be an adventurer.  Also, I'll be more sympathetic to innkeepers and bartenders, and would go out of my way to help them.

Revenge against the Quori (Goal)
  • Feelings - Blind Hatred
  • Reason - As a Kalashtar, the Quori are persecuting me, and they killed my parents
  • Uncertain Future - What my character doesn't know is that the Kalashtar invented and also depend on the ovoid monoliths; so her plan is doomed (see below).  My goal is to use this motivation to cause her to steal the relics the party collects and flee to Riedra, making her an NPC for some time.  Then when the rest of the party chases her down, they can learn this unfortunate fact and use it to confront her.  She will rejoin the party, having lost her will to fight the Quori.  But maybe some other developments in the campaign will give her a new and actually effective way to oppose them.
  • Motivation - When I learned about the history of Xen'Drik, I decided I would learn how to use the ancient relics there to destroy the ovoid monoliths on Riedra, the hanbalani altas, and cut Dal Quor off from Eberron entirely once more.

Stormreach (Place)
  • Feelings - Death Wish, Cocky, Reckless
  • Reason - I joined a pirate ship off the Xen'Drik coast, but the ship was taken by the Lyrandar Storm Lord, and the captain, quarterdeck, and warrant officers were hanged.  The hands (like me) were pressed into service on the Storm Lord's vessels, but I deserted when one put to port in Sharn.  So I'm a wanted man in Stormreach.
  • Uncertain Future - Though I go under an assumed name and conceal my appearance, someone might discover me and either blackmail me or try to take me up and hang me for desertion.
  • Motivation - I have a bit of a death wish - a devil-may-care attitude about this situation.  I'm eager to get back into the life of a freewheeling adventurer seeking loot and glory, and Stormreach is the place to do it.  This treasure map we found shows one of the dungeons is actually under the city.  I can't wait to strike it rich right under the nose of that stuck-up Stormlord!

Being Proactive

One last note.  We GMs are not perfect.  Sometimes we're busy or forget to work in the players' character hooks; and sometimes we just don't notice a good opportunity to work your hooks in.  It happens all the time.

When that happens, if you see an opportunity to write your character's hooks into the story, please tell your GM!  We GMs usually love to work your hooks in on the fly!

Here's how you and the GM can do it:

GM:  "A necromancer that they call The Mistress has been raising the dead near the hamlet of Quiet Ford.  The graveyards are being desecrated.  Nothing has attacked the town yet, but someone is raising an army of skeletons, and it's only a matter of time!"

You:  "Oh, hey, could that be the 'wayward youth' from my character, Jorei's, background?"

GM:  "Hold on, no actions yet - let me finish giving you the setup."

You: "No, this isn't an action: I want to work in something from my character background.  Can we do that?"

GM:  "OK, let me see."

You pass the GM your background and point at a hook:

A Wayward Youth
  • Feelings - Soft Spot, Charity, Responsibility, Regret
  • Reason - During the war, I saved the life of a wayward teenage girl named Nore during the sacking of a city.  She turned out to be violent and rebellious; but I feel responsible for the life I saved.
  • Uncertain Future - After the sacking, I found her a job as a weaver's apprentice, but she ran away, and I regret not taking her under my wing and providing a stable and loving home for her.  It's been years.  She's grown up now.  I wonder what she's up to.
  • Motivation - She's the sort of person with a chip on her shoulder and a violent streak who bad guys love recruit as henchmen.  Maybe I'll cross blades with her and try to save her from the choices she's made.
The GM looks at his notes and sees a necromancer he initially described as an old man in a black robe, not tied to any other villains.  He makes a quick change so now it says "young woman" and "doing a job for the dracolich because she owes it for teaching her the secrets of magic; will die before going to jail, but won't die for the dracolich.  Will play on Jorei's 'Soft Spot' to let her escape."  The GM also makes a note for future prep: "Who's the dracolich and what does it want?  Nore doesn't know and frankly neither do I - but it sounds cool."

GM: "Sure, yeah.  When people describe the necromancer, they talk about a young raven-haired woman with intense blue eyes and a burn scar on her right cheek.  You remember pulling her out of that fire like it was yesterday.  Yeah...  It couldn't be anyone else."


GM (as Nore):  "You know I'll die before I wear irons, Jorei.  I'm going to walk out now.  If you want to stop me, you have to kill me."

You (IC):  "At least swear to me you won't work for the Dracolich anymore."

GM (as Nore):  "It's not that simple, but now I know you're here for me, and I know I can trust you.  I'm leaving now.  I hope you trust me, too."

GM:  She turns her back and begins to walk up the stairs.  Do you let her leave?

A good GM won't let the hook end here -- especially since he has to create this new Dracolich plot, and he needs NPCs and hooks for it.  If Jorei lets Norre go, she'll be trapped in the Dracolich's network, but working against it.  If Jorei kills her or lets his allies kill her now, she will haunt him, and her shade will serve the Dracolich, reminding him of his cold heart every time he hears about her.

Now, sometimes the GM might say no.  If you run a game, you should only reject a character's request to work in a character hook if you already have one.  Imagine if the GM had placed this old man necromancer in the plot because another character had the "Red Dragon Egg" hook.  The old man was the simulacrum of another PC's abusive wizard mentor from Aerenal, come to Xen'Drik to raise an undead army to capture the port of Stormreach.

The GM might say "No, I have other plans for this necromancer."  But the GM has heard you, and will try to insert your hook at the next opportunity.  Maybe at the end of the adventure, there might be an exchange like this:

GM:  "As the simulacrum dies, it turns into packed snow, and the snow begins to melt in the tropical heat of the Xen'Drik jungle.  Its clothing and equipment remain, though."

Andy (who plays the character with the Red Dragon Egg):  "Oh, man.  I kneel in the melting snow and pack it around the dragon egg to keep it cool.  How thematic!"

You: "While he's doing that, I search the clothes and stuff."

GM:  "In the simulacrum's pouch, you find  1,250gp worth of onyx, which he must have been using to make the skeletons, and a note that says 'Once you have 200 skeletons, summon an imp.  Place 50 of them under the imp's command and have it take them East to the second ruin to support Captain Norre's expedition, and march the rest South to capture Stormreach.' You get a bad feeling about this."

Andy:  "Crap!  They're already exploring the East ruin?"

You:  "At least...  At least I know Norre.  I hope I can talk her into stepping aside..."

Andy: "And if you can't..?"

March 30, 2015

Mundane Items Table

There you are writing your Pathfinder encounters for your weekly campaign, and you've got to come up with 1,070gp worth of treasure.  You could just give the PCs 21 pounds of gold, but you want the treasure to be interesting, connected to the story, and varied.

So you turn to the Designing Encounters chapter.  There's some guidance for what to give out for treasure, but it keeps giving general categories like "Jewelry, Minor" and "Mundane Gear."  You find yourself looking for more inspiration.  And a list that has all the different nonmagical items ranked by value.

Well, look no further!  Below is a list of selected, inspiring items across a lot of different categories.  None of it is magic, though spell components and alchemy items certainly show up.

How to Use This List

First, find the value of the treasure for your encounter.  A series of encounters tends to concentrate the loot from all the encounters in the series in one or two places.  For instance, a tribe of goblins might have a cave where they keep looted trade goods (half the treasure) and a tribal chieftain wearing valuable jewels and carrying a magic item (the other half).  The other rooms and encounters might have very little if any treasure.

Second, “spend” the amount set aside for non-magical treasure on the most expensive mundane items possible from this list.  Never “buy” more than ten mundane items for a single set of treasure.  The fewer the better, to keep the players intrigued. Try to give the items a little story as you go "shopping" down the list.  Look for themes, and pick items across themes.

This list is designed for inspiration, not to be exhaustive.  It's long enough as it is!  Don't confine yourself to it.

After the list is an example of how to use it to liven up your adventure's treasure.  The example shows how being thoughtful about mundane items can add a lot of depth and entire subplots to even the simplest adventure.

If you can think of inspiring items for me to add, tweet them at me @RunAGame or type them in comments below!



10gp:  Ten empty glass vials, 20 days of trail rations, 5 days elven trail rations, 5 sunrods, 5 daggers, 2 common musical instruments, 2 sets of cleric’s vestments, a hooded lantern and miner’s pick; portable ram; 50’ of silk rope; a tent; an explorer’s outfit; a short sword; a lance; average loaded dice; map-maker’s kit; ten javelins; 100 crossbow bolts

15gp: Blank wizard's spellbook; manacles; a longsword; a small buckler; 3 bolas; cutlass; scimitar; trident

25gp:  Silver holy symbol; hourglass; Two bullseye lanterns with ten one-pints flasks of oil


10gp: Fancy cloth dye (enough for 20 yd); one pound of chocolate; two pounds of salt; 20lb of copper, garlic, mint, mustard, oregano, or tobacco; 10lb of allspice, basil, cinnamon, cloves, dill, honey, maple syrup, nutmeg, or rosemary;

25gp: One large common animal pelt;


10gp: Two pounds of silver (small silver figurine; small silver box; silver ewer), or 100sp in a small chest.


10gp: A bottle of fine wine; 2 bottles of good quality applejack; a book of 20 songs; a book of fairy tales; a silver serving tray; 5 gallon barrel of mead

15gp: A common music box; a false eye; a book of recipes;

25gp: A locking diary (blank or with plot in it); a book of legends; set of finely carved dominoes; tea ceremony set; a bottle of absinthe; keg of ale


10gp: Flask of acid; a tindertwig; buoyant balloon; 2 doses of vermin repellant; 50 whistling arrows

25gp: Flask of holy water; alchemy crafting kit; can of 5 applications of alchemical grease; one dose of smelling salts; jar of good quality invisible ink; smoke pellet; a trip arrow


10gp: 2 pack saddles, a small animal cage, a riding saddle; a small cage with a rare songbird in it;


10gp: Agates; azurite; blue quartz; hematite; lapis lazuli; malachite; obsidian; rhodochrosite; tigereye; turquoise; freshwater (irregular) pearl


25gp:  Gold dust worth 25gp (component for Arcane Lock or Fire Trap); Onyx worth 25gp (Animate Dead requires one such stone for every hit die of undead to be animated); fleece and jade dust worth 25gp worth 25gp (component for Programmed Image);



Masterwork manacles; a healer's kit; a disguise kit; a heavy crossbow; a steel vanity mirror; superior loaded dice; studded leather armor; parade armor; a heavy mace and a warhammer; 250 arrows


Five cows; 25lb of chilles, cardamom, cumin, fennel, ginger, pepper, saffron or vanilla; flash powder; caviar


One pound of gold (pair of gold dice, golden holy symbol, golden key, gold nugget) or 50gp in a sack


A fancy false eye; a grand book of songs; a brass face mask; a mahogany bracelet inlaid with silver in geometric patterns; simple ebony hoop earrings; an ivory bracelet carved with banyan trees studded with a peridot gems; a fine copper ring that looks like knotted rope; a brass chain necklace


Vial of antitoxin; a tanglefoot bag; flask of anointing oil; linen cloth containing five star candle fireworks; 100 incendiary bolts or arrows


Pony with saddle, saddlebags, bit and bridle; rowboat with oars; trained falcon with hood and perch; tame parrot on a perch;


Bloodstone; carnelian; chalcedony; chrysoprase; citrine; jasper; moonstone; onyx; peridot; rock crystal (clear quartz); sard; sardonyx; rose, smoky, or star rose quartz; zircon


50gp of ruby dust (component for Continual Flame); 50gp of diamond dust (component for Nondetection); 50gp of gold dust (component for Wall of Iron); onyx gem worth at least 50gp (one per hit die of undead created is needed for Create Undead);



100gp: A magnifying glass; a masterwork instrument; masterwork thieves' tools; a greatsword; antidote kit; two bladed sword; chain shirt;

200-400gp: Darkwood buckler (203gp); Breastplate (200gp); splint mail (200gp); Masterwork dagger (302gp), masterwork greatsword (350gp), greataxe (320gp) or falchion (375gp); masterwork composite (+0) longbow (400gp); five adamantine arrows (300gp); masterwork hand crossbow (400gp); masterwork breastplate (350gp)


100gp: A large exotic pelt or hide; ten square yards of silk; ten pounds of darkwood planks

300gp: 50 square yards of sailcloth


100gp: Twenty pounds of silver (two silver bars, silver dinner service for four, solid life-sized silver statue of a cat or eagle, solid ornamental silver greatsword, solid silver coat of arms) or 1,000sp in a large chest; or two pounds of gold (100gp in a small chest)

300gp: 1lb cylinder of adamantine


100gp: A deck of beautifully painted playing or divining cards; empty puzzle box of moderate (DC 15) complexity; a case of fine wine (worth 100gp altogether); four books on ancient religions (25gp each); folio of rare lost poems; a never before heard musical score; heart-wrenching tragedy play; small landscape painting; large portrait of the second emperor; 25lb marble bust of a great composer; a silver armband studded with onyx; a silver ring with a smooth jade stone and “joy” engraved in elvish; a necklace with a large rose quartz; a silver brooch of a butterfly with amethyst stones; a gold brooch shaped like a leaf; a silver brooch shaped like a skull with moonstone eyes; a gold chain necklace; a copper necklace hung with four citrines; a silver beer stein


100gp: An everburning torch; five flasks of alchemist's fire; one dose of bloodroot poison; two doses of troll oil; jar of 5 applications of alchemical glue; jar of 5 applications of alchemical solvent; 5 smokesticks;

200-400gp:  Seven skyrocket fireworks (350gp); one dozen thunderstones (360) 3 doses of arsenic (360); 3 doses of black adder venom (360gp); jug (12 doses) of defoliant (360gp); one dose of shadow essence poison (250gp); one dose of giant wasp poison (210gp)


100gp: Light horse with riding saddle, saddlebags, and 2 weeks of feed in a feedbag; one ox and a medium wagon; cage with four tiny hunting spiders in it; studded leather barding for a horse; Chariot or Carriage, or note/map showing where to find a hidden one for the taking; light horse with saddle, saddlebags, bit and bridle; light horse, cart, and harness

200-400gp: Heavy horse with bit and bridle only; riding dog with exotic saddle, saddlebags, and feedbag with kibble for 2 weeks; heavy wagon with a team of four oxen; tame lion; ten sheep; Heavy warhorse with military saddle, leather barding, saddlebags, bit and bridle (400gp);


100gp: Amber; amethyst; chrysoberyl; coral; red or brown-green garnet; jade; jet; white, golden, pink, or silver pearl; red, red-brown, or deep green spinel; tourmaline


100gp: Diamond dust worth 100gp (component for Restoration); Granite and diamond dust worth 250gp (component for Stoneskin); eye ointment worth 250gp (component for True Seeing); incense worth 250gp (component for Legend Lore);



Half-plate (600gp); four sets of chainmail (600gp); two darkwood shields (514gp)


Ten pounds of gold (one gold bar, diminutive solid gold idol, tiny hollow gold idol) or a ten pound rod of cold iron; One pound of platinum (big platinum key, diminutive platinum box, four inch platinum tablet, platinum chalice); one pound rod of Mithral; 500gp in a medium sized chest, or 50pp in a small felt bag


Gold earrings with large red garnets; historic antique map of a well known city by a famous cartographer; large still life of a poisoner’s bench; large tapestry of a famous battle; 100lb marble statue of a famous Halfling; 100lb carved wood statue of an enraged mohrg; rare book of a mariner’s travels; platinum brooch shaped like a cat; gold pin of a long-lost family crest with a small topaz in it; necklace of freshwater pearls; hat pin with a beautiful blue spinel; platinum coat buttons; gold belt buckle with an alexandrite gem; fine elf-made gold boot buckles; delicate mithral jacket buttons; gold earrings with and black pearls carved to look like skulls; necklace with a smooth violet garnet with the ancient dwarvish word-rune for “loyalty” carved into it; a shelf of ten rare books worth 50gp each


Five doses of greenblood oil poison; one dose of wolfsbane poison; 100lb carboy (10 doses) of embalming fluid;


Five light horses with saddles, saddlebags, bits and bridles, and 2 weeks feed in a feedbag, each; heavy warhorse with heavy chariot and harness


Alexandrite; aquamarine; violet garnet; black pearl; deep blue spinel; golden yellow topaz


Black pearl worth 500gp (to be crushed as a component for Circle of Death); Ruby dust worth 500gp (component for Forcecage);



Spyglass (1000gp); water clock (1000gp); full plate armor (1500gp); mithral buckler (1155gp); mithral tower shield (1180gp); masterwork full plate armor (1650gp); 20 adamantine arrows (1200gp)


1,000gp: Two hundred pounds of silver (twenty silver bars, life-sized hollow silver statue of a humanoid, silver dinner service for a banquet of forty) or twenty pounds of gold (small idol, gold sphere); or 1,000gp in a medium-sized chest; or 100pp in a small chest


1,000gp: Intricate (DC 20, three layers) puzzle box containing a gold ring set with a deep blue spinel worth 500gp; a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with a small library of fifty books (thirty worth 10gp, ten worth 20gp, and ten worth 50gp); mithral cincture with dwarven runes; heavy gold chain with an emerald pendant; solid gold face mask of a wolf or skull; platinum armbands studded with red spinel gems; small ruby pendant on gold chain; necklace of jade; platinum belt; gold moon medallion set with a blue sapphire;


1,000gp:  10 doses of belladonna poison; 5 doses of large scorpion venom;

1,500gp: dragon bile poison; deathblade poison (1800gp); 20 doses of drow poison (75gp each); 10 doses of medium scorpion venom; glass bottle of insanity mist (1 dose)


1,000gp:  banded barding for a horse; tame elephant;

1,500gp: Two heavy warhorses with chain shirt barding, military saddles, lances, saddlebags, bit, bridle, and feedbags with 2 weeks of food each


1,000gp: Emerald; white, black, or fire opal; blue sapphire; fiery yellow or rich purple corundum; blue or black star sapphire


1,000gp: Diamond dust worth 1000gp (component of Restoration); sapphire worth 1000gp (component for Instant Summons); 1000 gp jacinth (component for Astral Projection);

1,500gp:  Diamond worth 1500gp (component for Limited Wish);



Mithral masterwork breastplate (4350gp); Adamantine chain shirt (5250gp); adamantine warhammer (3,312gp), adamantine greatsword (3350gp), adamantine dagger (3302gp),


5,000gp: One hundred pounds of gold (ten gold bars, solid gold statue of a cat or eagle, solid gold coat of arms, solid gold staff, small solid gold chest); or one hundred pounds of cold iron plates; or 500pp in a medium-sized chest


5,000gp: A full library of 6 shelves with 240 books (150 worth 10gp; 50 worth 20gp; 35 worth 50gp; and 5 worth 150gp); a dead king’s missing last will and testament; a heavy gold scepter with a fist-sized violet garnet gem; a platinum crown studded with sapphires; an adamantine armband etched against all probability with celestial poetry honoring a long lost god; a gold crown set with diamonds; a darkwood scepter that seems to have been grown holding a ruby eye; a platinum tablet of holy prayers; a solid gold lance; darkwood throne set with glittering yellow topaz; ebony throne carved with skulls with eyes of shifting fire opal; astral diamond pendant; periapt of a mouse-sized black star sapphire; masterwork longsword in a platinum scabbard set decked with two hundred eyes (cat’s eye chrysoberyls)


Seven doses of purple worm poison (700gp each; 4900gp total)


Giant owl (6,000gp); full plate barding for a horse (6,000gp); heavy young stallion warhorse of a rare champion breed with full plate barding, military saddle, masterwork lance, saddlebag, bit, bridle, and feedbags with 2 weeks of food (7.000gp); Combat trained riding hippogriff with exotic saddle and tack (5,000gp)


5000gp: clearest bright green emerald; diamond; jacinth; ruby; huge versions of lower-tier gems (e.g. “largest sapphire you’ve ever seen”); unique fantasy-world gems (e.g. astral diamond, haunted jade, balor’s eye)


Diamond worth 5000gp (component for Raise Dead); 5000gp of diamond dust (component of Greater Restoration);



Mithral full plate (10,650gp); adamantine breastplate (10,350gp); Adamantine full plate (16,650gp)


One ton of silver (a king's treasury with ten large chests of 10,000sp each, a life-sized solid silver statue of a man on horseback; an elaborate solid silver throne; a solid silver idol of a dragon or god); or 200lb of gold (twenty ten-pound ingots, a chest full of gold nuggets); or 10,000gp in a large treasure chest; or 1,000pp in a medium-sized treasure chest


Small chest of 100 medium-quality gemstones


2 doses of black lotus extract (9,000gp); 3 doses of wyvern poison (9,000gp);


Sailing Ship, Longship, Galley, or map to a hidden ship or galley nearby


Diamond worth 10,000gp (component for Resurrection); 10,000gp in rare incense and offerings (component for calling a creature with Gate, in addition to other offerings needed to secure its services);



Fifty pounds of platinum (five platinum bars, small solid platinum idol, small solid platinum altar); quarter ton of gold (man-sized hollow gold statue, golden anvil); or 2,500pp in a medium-sized treasure chest; or five medium treasure chests each containing 5,000 gold pieces


Five combat-trained hippogriffs with exotic saddles and tack; Warship or map to a hidden ship nearby


Diamond worth 25000gp (component for True Resurrection, Miracle, or Wish);



A half-ton of gold (a man-sized statue of gold, solid gold altar, hollow gold idol of a Balor or dragon; solid gold sarcophagus); 5,000pp in a large treasure chest; or five large treasure chests containing 10,000 gold pieces each; a 10x10 space covered with 50,000 gold piece coins; or a huge (15x15) pile of half a million silver piece coins.


Airship or map to a hidden ship nearby


Your adventure hook for tonight's game is that a small town offered to pay the PCs 50gp to wipe out the goblins that have been killing and robbing merchants on the road.  They can keep any loot they find, too.  You draw a small dungeon for the goblin hideout.  Your rough encounter design is this:

  • Three goblin sentries at the cave entrance (CR 1)
  • Three more goblins guarding stolen trade goods in a big side room (CR 1)
  • An empty room with a trash heap with no threats or treasure
  • The goblin chieftain (max HP goblin) and his five best skirmishers planning the next raid (CR 2) in his secure chamber.

Two CR 1 and one CR 2 encounter have 260+260+550=1,070gp of loot.  You decide that there are four Potions of Cure Light Wounds – 50gp each, 200gp total – with the Chieftain.  That leaves 870gp of treasure.  You want to apportion 325gp for a cave full of looted trade goods and 475gp to give out for a goblin chieftain’s non-magical treasure.  The PCs will get 50gp from the townsfolk.  That leaves 20gp, which you use for your sentries.

You go "shopping" on this list and pick out stuff for your treasure piles.  Then you go back and forth, making changes as the items you select as they inspire you to give them stories:

  • 50gp for the Reward:  The town will give the PCs 50gp for clearing out the goblins.
  • 20gp for the Goblin Sentry Encounter (3 goblins):  You select a set of average loaded dice (10gp).  You start thinking about the goblins gambling, and so you fill the rest out in low-value coins that they're gambling with:  85sp, 150cp, 
  • 325gp of Looted Trade Goods (3 goblin warriors, 12 goblin civilians): You pick the ox and cart, since that makes sense for goblins robbing a trade route.  So you have one ox.  What happened to the other oxen?  Maybe the goblins ate them.  Now you have one grief-stricken ox, three inexpertly butchered ox carcasses (that the goblins have been eating), and a medium wagon containing four bear skins (25gp each, 100gp total), a silver holy symbol (25gp), and a bolt of 10 square yards of silk (100gp).  So maybe the goblins killed a clothier and a cleric.  That's something to consider.  Now, if this is where the goblins slaughter and eat their meat, there might be goblin civilians here.  You consider that they're not worth XP, and slaughtering them would be a Chaotic and Evil act.  So the trade off is maybe the PCs, if they act evil, can cut the right ears off the goblins and act like bigger heroes in town for saying they killed 24 goblins instead of 12.
  • 475gp of Treasure and 200gp of Expendable Restorative Items found on the Goblin Chieftain (6 goblin warriors): You decide to give the chieftain a set of small breastplate (200gp) which is a popular armor choice that level 1 PCs usually want to find in a dungeon; plus it beefs up the chief without adding any hard work on your part.  You select some jewelry and clothes for him:  A silver armband studded with onyx (100gp), ebony hoop earrings (50gp), two sets of cleric’s vestments worn to look important (we had a cleric theme going); a purse containing a dose of bloodroot poison (100gp), 2gp, 27sp, and 30cp; and a belt pouch containing the four Potions of Cure Light Wounds you had decided to give him.  Now you've got a story for your potions, too:  Signs point to the goblins having killed a cleric.

As you can see, deciding what the mundane treasure is helps you refine your encounters.  Watch what happens when we re-write the encounters, taking into account all the details we added while "shopping" for treasure!

We got the idea that the goblins have hijacked a clothier’s supply wagon (and eaten three of the oxen) and murdered a cleric (who had some healing potions).  Maybe the leather armor the other goblins are wearing is just crude stuff hacked together from the clothier’s furs and pelts (there were certainly more than four on that wagon to begin with!).

So now we can go back and write a murdered cleric and a waylaid clothier into the story.  Maybe the clothier’s client is the one who hired the PCs instead of some generic villager.  The clothier’s client might own a silk orchard, which defines the town with its primary export.

Now the cleric...  Maybe the town has a church now missing a cleric, or a shrine that pilgrims of the cleric’s religion visit.  What religion was that cleric?  Could it have been a good cleric, leading the PCs to visit the shrine to bring news of his death?  In that case, you can put more story hooks at the church or shrine.

Could it have been an evil cleric on some business related to another plot in your adventure or campaign?  That sounds good.  You have a plot involving Asmodeus trying to corrupt the king of this land.  You add a journal with clues to advance the other plot, and put her corpse and the clue in the trash-heap room.

  • The hook is a wealthy silk grower in the village has asked the PCs to head down the road to find the goblins who have been waylaying the merchants visiting town.  He'll give the PCs 50gp if they kill the goblins.
  • The first encounter has three goblin sentries playing dice (CR 1).  Two of the goblins are getting angry because the third keeps winning (because he’s brought loaded dice!).  The PCs can sneak past while they argue or ambush them while they’re distracted (+5 to Stealth checks to ambush or sneak past them).  If the PCs get the drop on the sentries, they can capture them instead of fighting them.  
  • A goblin cook making ox-flesh stew seasoned with tanned hides, 12 goblin civilians (elderly goblins and children), and 3 goblin warriors guarding some stolen trade goods (CR 1).  The civilians will flee if the PCs let them.  Slaughtering them is a chaotic and evil act, but it would let the PCs brag about killing two dozen goblins.  Back in town, when they claim their reward, the silk grower will ask them if they killed "all the goblins."  If the PCs explain that they killed half and let the other half run off, he won't be nearly as impressed as if they say they slaughtered them all.  But he'll still pay.  If they prove that they slaughtered 24 goblins single-handedly, such as by showing severed ears or something, he might give them an extra 10gp, but they will have committed a chaotic and evil act.
  • The goblin chieftain and his five best skirmishers planning the next raid (CR 2) in his secure chamber.  The chieftain is wearing that breastplate, so his AC is increased to 20, but his speed is reduced to 20’.  He also has 11hp (the max roll for his hit die) instead of the usual 6.  Finally, he carries four Potions of Cure Light Wounds, which he will use each time he is wounded, until his skirmishers are killed, at which point he will surrender.  The PCs will want to put a stop to this, of course, so they can keep those potions for themselves!
  • The trash heap room now has a clue to another plot.  The goblins killed a cleric of Asmodeus on her way to town on some shady business.  The PCs have her journal, and if they can figure out who the unnamed contact in town she was visiting was, they can find out exactly how corrupt this town has become.