Ready reference sheets

The Dungeons and Dragons adventure Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is truly an ambitious work. As D&D adventures go, it is big, thick and meaty.

DelversHelper_v1There is a lot of content here, packed with the briefest of descriptions. Even so, it is 320 pages long and sparsely illustrated. It needs to be digested in chunks. And the whole is, indeed, greater than any individual parts.

Largely, it is a dungeon crawl. And such adventures are the sort that often lead Dungeon Masters to think they can be run — to borrow an old phrase — “right out of the box.” In those games, the DM delivers a cold reading of the encounter entry to the players and off they go.

Your normal dungeon crawl experience goes like this: a) adventurers open door to the next chamber they find, b) DM describes the room, including any monsters and interesting items, c) adventurers fight the monsters and loot the contents.

The party then saunters down the hallway until they come to the next chamber and the experience repeats.

DMs can perform their expected duties in such a perfunctory fashion with little or no preparation. But Dungeon of the Mad Mage is so tersely written, DMs risk overlooking or failing to present some of the more compelling story threads that run through it.

These storylines are the payoff for running Dungeon of the Mad Mage with an eye toward these details, usually revealed through interaction with any of its NPC denizens.


Delver’s Helper

Yet, while I would advise a DM to make preparation a priority before running any session of this adventure, I would rather see a DM run it cold than not at all.

Time is a precious commodity, and for some DMs, real-world concerns don’t permit that activity. It’s enough to get the gang together and play.

That’s why I designed Delver’s Helper for the DM’s Guild.

Delver’s Helper provides ready-reference sheets that a DM can have on hand while the party adventures in the first four levels of the adventure, as well as the underground town of scoundrels that is Skullport on Level 3.

Mostly, it’s a list of named NPCs the adventurers might encounter on any given level. There is room for the DM to jot down notes on how they are going to portray any given NPC. These can be handy if the NPC appears again, but better yet, serve as a reminder to a DM so they vary how they describe and act out those NPCs.

For example, the NPC on Level 1 had a limp, so let’s not use that distinguishing feature again.

I also included name charts for the monstrous races that are encountered. Invariably the party will want to interrogate a bugbear or troglodyte. “What’s your name?” Now, the DM can have a ready answer with a quick roll of the d20.

I also included lists of wandering monsters found on each level and a list of the magic spells party members might find useful. Often a party might mind it needs a particular spell and no way of casting it. If a DM finds that the party is truly in need of help, the list is a good way to salt the dungeon with the appropriate scroll or wand.

It includes a few suggestions I included that a DM might find useful for enhancing the experience. These are ways to add depth to the experience or fun at the table, using the information provided in the encounters as a springboard to other things.

Lastly, it includes a blank template of the reference sheet, in the event a DM wants to prepare their own for deeper levels of the dungeon.


Never Bet Against the House

In Forgotten Realms lore, Durnan beat the odds, or so he’d like you to believe.

Long ago, he and Mirt delved deep into Undermountain. Their sacks full of treasure and their tales overflowing with daring, they returned triumphant. They became Waterdeep’s most famous adventurers, a pair who’d survived due to pluck and good fortune.

Durnan used his riches to knock down the remainder of Halaster’s tower and constructed the Yawning Portal over the hole. To this day, he has remained owner and operator of the inn — the best lid a dungeon could ask for.

Dungeon’s lasting hold

One way or another, Undermountain grabs hold of those who attempt to plumb its depths and doesn’t let go. Despite his riches and apparent success, Durnan was no exception.

He’s tied to the place, sunk his riches back into it, and served as de facto gatekeeper ever since. For a gold coin he’ll lower you into the pit, and for another, he haul you up. He’ll lay odds on the adventurers and their chances.

Durnan’s never been the most sympathetic of bartenders; life is rough and you have to take your chances. Be you brave or foolish, it’s no nevermind to him. His wagering on any and all that takes place in Undermountain is just another example of how he’s fettered to that sunken tower.

Messages in a Bottle

Bottle_coverWhen I was developing Undermountain: Messages In A Bottle for the DM’s Guild, I thought quite a bit about Durnan’s plight — and his reputation as a betting man.

It was then that I hit upon the idea of the Yawning Portal’s message bottle. It’s a wondrous item, one of many curios that decorate the tavern,  that captures the dying pleas of Undermountain’s inhabitants. If that isn’t grisly enough, the message bottle is just one more of Durnan’s amusements: taverngoers use it to bet on which gods will be invoked by the dying person’s message.

It was the closest thing I could think of that approaches a macabre modern-day practice — celebrity death betting pools — and solidify the link between Durnan and Undermountain.

Other goodies

The real thrust of Messages in a Bottle are the 48 “messages” that DMs can use to salt their version of Dungeon of the Mad Mage, clues to entice adventurers ever deeper into the Undermountain.  And if my selections aren’t a match for your game, I provided instructions on how any DM can use the tool to develop their own “messages in a bottle.”

A harsh lesson

But the product’s real gem, as far as I’m concerned, is Durnan’s little toy. Using it the way Durnan does paints him a little darker, a little grimmer. But when you’re talking about Undermountain, maybe a fatalistic approach is to be expected.

After all, Durnan knows it best.

Undermountain belongs to Halaster.

And the house always wins.


All the leaves are gone …

I count myself fortunate that I get to contribute material for roleplaying games, but especially for Dungeons and Dragons. The late summer and autumn have seen the publication of a lot of material that I developed.

And what better day to say thanks than today!

So, here’s a round up of what I’ve been up to:

DM’s Guild: A new strategy

Since September, this has been one of my most productive periods on the DM’s Guild. I’ve released five products, all tied into the Waterdeep Dragon Heist storyline.  

I took a different approach from last year, when the Chult-based Tomb of Annihilation was released. For that hardcover adventure, I produced a single 90-page supplement, Chult: Adversaries and Allies.  It sold well enough to earn a copper badge. But the high-price point and hefty size led me to believe it didn’t have legs. After the initial release, it has sold only sporadically.

For Waterdeep Dragon Heist I produced about the same amount of written material as the Chult book. But instead of tossing it all in one, I broke it up into a series of supplements, all under 30 pages.  I am more pleased with this approach.

In looking ahead to possible offerings on the DM’s Guild in 2019, I’m not sure if I’ll stick with the format. Certainly, I have more adventures planned than the two I did in 2018. I’m looking to place the adventures beyond the Sword Coast, however.

Gnome Stew

I took part in my first podcast, Gnomecast 47, which looked at gaming in the great outdoors. Angela Murray interviewed Taylor LaBresh and myself about our experiences.  It released on Aug. 23. I’m far more comfortable writing than I am talking into a microphone. For his part, Taylor really picked up the ball and ran with it. He’s got a lot of interesting experiences with microgames in the outdoor space.

On the writing side, I’ve had two posts this autumn. (For personal reasons, I skipped my October post). My September article was on two pages in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide that assists DMs in creating engaging and challenging villains for their games.  For November, I wrote about the roleplaying fun that can happen at the gaming table when, as a player character, you continually roll 1 on your d20 rolls.

Lastly, I chipped in a segment for Gnomecast 53, the things we gnomes are all thankful for. For my part, I limited myself to listing the names of people who’ve been great allies and sounding boards in the rpg space.  My delivery, even in a taped segment, might be awkward, but the meaning was heartfelt.

Kobold Press

The biggest surprise of the autumn was the announcement last week that a convention adventure I wrote in 2017, “Raiders of the Chamber of Tomorrows,” was being included in an anthology Midgard Sagas for Fifth Edition.  While I would be flattered if people bought Midgard Sagas for my contribution, I can speak from playing experience when I say that the gem of the collection is “Madman at the Bridge,” originally written by Wolfgang Baur and converted to Fifth Edition by Ben McFarland.  It alone is worth the $24.99 price.

An adventure I wrote, “Guardians of the Trifles” appeared in Warlock 7 “Fey Courts,” the Patreon-supported zine-styled magazine focused on the Midgard setting. It came out Sept. 12.

My contributions to the Dungeons of Midgard series continued on the blog site. Academiae Caustiz, a look at a Hogwarts-style boarding school, albeit one run in the vampire lands of Krakovar, released on Aug. 24. Venture into the giant realm of the Wasted West for Vault of the Vermilion Star, which came out on Sept. 28.  On tippy-toes, I danced lightly into the territory of the ghouls and dark elves with Excavation of the River Dragon on Nov. 14.