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.


A compelling illustration inspires adventure

An earworm is a tune or song you just can’t get out of your head. Sometimes an illustration or painting can be like that.

For me, one such image was Brynn Metheney’s illustration of the Deep Scion from Volo’s Guide to Monsters.  The magical monster — a sort of aquatic changeling, though more Lovecraftian than fey in its origins — really resonated with me.

The creature occupies a similar thematic place in Dungeons and Dragons lore as the fishlike kuo-toa — humanoids captured from the shore that were taken into the depths and transformed by some unfathomable power into a piscine horror.  

But the Deep Scion, with its array of tentacles, its maw resembling a northern pike and fins extending from muscular forearms and calves, is an altogether modern take on the concept of a humanoid fish.

As soon as I saw it, I have to say — no pun intended — that I was hooked.

Once I read the creature’s descriptive text and examined its shapechanging powers, I knew I had to use it in an upcoming adventure.

But what kind of adventure?

KrakencoverThe answer didn’t come right away. It wasn’t until after I read Waterdeep Dragon Heist did a sequence of likely encounters come to mind. It would be a post-heist adventure, an expanded form of one of the faction missions detailed in Chapter 2. I intended to use the Deep Scions as minions of a Kraken Society priest who was trying to gain a foothold in Waterdeep’s underbelly.

Pairing the Deep Scions with the Kraken priest — an NPC whose illustration is by the aptly surnamed Chris Seaman — formed the heart of the my DM’s Guild adventure, Call of Kraken.  It also provided an opportunity to use another old favorite monster, the sahuagin, in an urban setting.

The adventure has some things that I really enjoy. It has a roleplay opportunity as the PCs encounter the strange occupants of the old trading house. It’s got exploration of challenging terrain as the underwater channels leading in from the harbor need investigating. And it’s got combat, the aforementioned sahuagin and Kraken priest, not to mention a shark or two.

Even after the adventure’s development and release, the image of the Deep Scion remains fixed in my mind. It’s my hope that player characters who go through the adventure are similarly affected.