Between Realism & Fantasy: my dungeon design

As I was working on the Iron Mine dungeon for my own campaign, and reading various things online (including the AngryDMs articles on his MegaDungeon) I decided I wanted to write something about my high level dungeon design approach, and some pet peeves.

Obviously, every dungeon should have a story, and a history, which explains why it was built, what its function was and what has happened with it since it was built. Knowing these things will help you add the small details that makes the dungeon come alive.

Two Extremes

To me, there are two extremes of dungeon design – the realistic and the fantastic – and a

It is hard to explore the Death Star room by room. And all the random encounters with Storm Troopers would become quite boring. 


whole lot of variations in between. Another way to look at them are complete dungeons versus ‘just the cool bits’ dungeons. An example of a complete dungeon would be Temple of Elemental Evil, where every little corridor is described and the Death Star, where we just see a couple of important areas, would be a ‘cool bits’ dungeon.

Gary Gygax leaned towards the realistic and complete dungeon. His gaming and inspiration starting point was actual medieval castles, and therefore many of the early published dungeons look somewhat like something you could find in real life – an example would be the Moathouse in The Village of Hommlet module.

The catacombs beneath Paris has 2 km of tunnels (which isn’t counting the rest of the lime stone quarry) keeping the bones of 6 million dead. Good place for a lich…

The biggest problem, in my view, with many of the old school designs is that many of the dungeons are actually far smaller than the “dungeons” – in the broad sense – that you can find in real life, and Gary’s sources of inspiration are focused on medieval Europe, which limits the imagination. However, humans have built vast fortresses, palaces and constructions that dwarf what the early designers came up with for D&D. And until the Underdark became a thing, the natural caves in the real world were far more extensive than e.g. Keep on the Borderlands. Real world strongholds are also often very complex buildings with many complicated passageways and interconnecting rooms.

Furthermore, it is obviously not realistic to have 5 goblins living 20 yards and two doors away from a ferocious owl bear. Would you be living in an apartment if there was a wild bear living a couple of apartments away… even if you had a spear?

The influence of the real world architecture has also prevented many designers from actually thinking about how things would look in a high magic fantasy world. A castle is designed to take as many lives from the enemy as possible, while protecting the people inside from the attackers as much as possible for as long as possible. Therefore, you typically only have one or two access points from the ground level and towers from where you can better attack the enemy. But if you are a wizard who wishes to create a flying citadel using a castle seems to be a terrible design. Why would you want towers and battlements on your Citadel, when you might as well carve out a big rock with whatever you need. It would be much safer from dragons and armies of knights on griffons.

In my current campaign I’ve tried to think more about this for current and future dungeons.

The Published Designer’s Constraint: paper

The issue for designers who have to publish their stuff is that they are limited by the medium: for example, the paper size and the number of pages you can publish limits the designer. That seems to be one of the reasons why Gary G. cram so much stuff into each level of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Obviously it is also fun that every time you open a door to a room there is something interesting.

The designer also has to be able to communicate his vision with a map and text, which can be quite difficult. At home, you don’t need to explain to other people in text.

Your GM notes only needs to be understood by you. That’s a big advantage.

The beautiful Caerphilly Castle. A big dungeon, but I wouldn’t want to use it as a flying Citadel.

The realistic dungeon just doesn’t seem Fantasy-like to me, when you play a high fantasy game like D&D at least. With massive magocracies and enslaved giants, why would you build those tiny structures. As a lich, with endless amount of time, I would build something more imposing than Caerphilly castle in Wales – even though it is very grand in real life.

In your home game, if you want to make a big fantastic dungeon in a ruined city, you can make sections of the dungeon and cut out the boring parts. If your dungeon has a massive slave pit, make one big encounter against the slave masters and their pets, figure out how it connects with the rest of the dungeon, and then simply narrate the rest of the trip there.

The Iron Mine

Build it bigger! These are the Roman gates to Florence. Why make a lousy 20 foot gate, when you can make it 50 feet tall?


For the Iron Mine in my campaign I used the approach I’ve described. The site has a historical background and fits into the world, and it has a twist, that I can’t reveal here. But it relates to a couple of the greater narratives in my world. For example, last session they found the foreman, who had locked himself up in a room and killed himself. The question is why?

The mine has been worked by the elves for perhaps centuries, so it wouldn’t make sense to have one page of graph paper with some 10×10 corridors and a few rooms. Therefore, I made several sections of the mine, connected with tunnels that were 30×30 feet, and hundreds of feet long, and explained to the players that there were numerous small side corridors, shafts and tunnels, which their characters would be looking into and checking out superficially along the way as part of the story, but that we would only go into full dungeoneering mode, when they arrive at significant parts of the dungeon.

Each section I made is sort of a mini-dungeon by itself, with typically 3-5 separate locations/rooms, and the sections function and history is incorporated into the overall backstory of the dungeon. And each section has its own map. The map connecting the sections is basically a flow-chart.

Some of the advantages with the approach are:

  • The mine seems like a more grand, fantastic and scary place, in my view.
  • The dungeon ecology becomes more realistic. The eco system comes more alive with more realistic space.
  • There is room for wandering monsters, as the players will never explore it all, and things can move around them, without the party noticing.
  • Time becomes more realistic. The characters have to move carefully hundreds of yards between points of interest, with resulting consequences for spells, light sources and resting.
  • Each section is easy to grasp by the players when they get there and I can explain and draw it quite easily.

When my players get deeper into the Iron Mine, I can write more about how I work with stories in my dungeons.

This is what I see as at the core of my design philosophy. Let me know if I’m off the rails, or what else should inspire me.

Flying castles against dragon armies seems to make very little sense. 


Goodberries and Mayonnaise

The group spent one month in the settlement, working on down-time tasks and talking to NPCs, while eating Goodberries drenched in mayonnaise.

To make the timeline move forward and to make sure that the characters have a more natural progress these interludes are important. Often, players have this sense of urgency, and think if they don’t spend every day adventuring, somehow they are going to miss something or become penalized in the story, for example by bad guys spending that time plotting against them and building their strength. I hope they will learn that that is not the case. As one of the goals of the campaign is for the characters to become older and the settlement to grow around them, spending down time, building a home, or a base of operations even, and gathering resources is important. It is also good from an overall pacing perspective. And lastly, I dislike characters going from 1st to 20th level over a few busy months. That just seems quite unrealistic – if such a word can be used for fantasy roleplaying.

A significant element of the 12th session was the practical issues when you are an adventurer in a small settlement, on a far off continent, with no trading partners and everyone being self-sufficient: How to get food, build a shelter and craft better armor and other stuff?

A liter of mayo is about 9000 calories, or 3 times the need of an adult male. 

The adventurers decided to solve the food issue with the Goodberries spell, which can sustain their entire group every day. The joke was that since the have the wonderful Alchemy Jug which can produce 2 gallons (8 liters) of mayonnaise every day they would be supplementing their diet of a single daily goodberry with a liter of mayo – each – which turned into jokes about offering presents of mayo and goodberries to the honoured elven guests and what the characters would look like when they started adventuring again after eating mayo non-stop for a month. Jokes aside, the Alchemy Jar continues to be a valuable item, as it can produce a lot of valuable liquids, when you are in an isolated settlement, such as honey, wine and vinegar.

There were a few key events and discoveries during the session:

  • It was a surprise to some that their gold and silver was worth very little in the settlement, but that everything had to be bartered for. I hope it provides a different perspective on what is valuable to them.
  • The group read the books they discovered in the hag lair, and the wizard, who wisely picked cartography as a proficiency, was able to determine the approximate location of some of the places named in one of the books, including the Colourless Bridge, which is inside the forest, and they learned the name of the ruined city nearby: Ivanith’laril. They could also see that the elves had made war against the Bones of Sarakhon and that they were undead.
  • The druid learned the local elven dialect, so now the risk of confusion is minimized when parlaying with the elves.
  • iron-ore-lump-333
    Iron ore: almost as valuable as gold at this stage in the campaign.

    They wanted to craft a full plate armour, but were horrified at the time it would take them to craft it themselves, so they made a deal with the dwarf family living in the settlement. The dwarves would help them craft 2 full plate armours during the coming year, and they would assist exploiting the iron ore deposit that the group had learned about from the elves, and in return, the dwarves would get 1500 gp. and their iron bars. The gold they could send back to their clan, who could use it to get more dwarves to migrate to the settlement.

  • A trio of goblins scouts snuck into the settlement, but the characters captured one and killed the rest, and learned of some of the other goblin tribes and that their own tribe the Red Fangs, had an ettin ally and powerful goblin witches. And more importantly, that there is a town at the edge of the forest where the goblins trade with the hobgoblins of the plains.
  • The elves visited with an ‘official’ delegation, and they told them the location of the site with iron and that there is an ancient road leading there. They also learned that the edge of the forest was about 400 miles from the settlement, and that the area around the Colourless Bridge is haunted.
Roll initiative losers!


At the end of the session the group began their journey south through the forest along the ancient road, and during the first night Sir Jarn was jumped by a couple of Displacer Beasts – which means next session begins by rolling initiative.

I actually love starting a session with combat, and in one campaign had the rule, that all sessions started with an initiative roll, potentially as a flash forward scene, because the combat really gets the players focused right away.

Positive aspects

A couple of things worked really well this session:

  • Letting them research old books and speak to the locals and from that begin to fill in some blanks on the vast hex map is fun and tantalizing. The only down side is that every time I bring up a new location they haven’t visited, half the group immediately wants to go off and explore it right away… But that is also kind of the point of the campaign!
  • The moral and societal choices that happened when the Europeans came to the Americas are beginning to show themselves. For example, it is clear that the goblin tribe nearby will never let them farm and prosper in peace, so at some point they have to be destroyed, even though they are the natural inhabitants in this place – the situation is very similar to the one describe in this podcast  Apache Tears between the Apache and the Mexicans and U.S. settlers. Furthermore, the friendly elves certainly don’t mind some powerful allies against the hobgoblins, as the settlement has a minute impact on the forest, but what happens years down the road when more and more settlers arrive?

Negative aspects:

It isn’t negative as such, but the reality is that if you have a large group doing down time and NPC interaction in a settlement, the actual ‘screen time’ of each character is reduced significantly. As a change of pace the session was good, but we all prefer more action and adventure.

Session 11: A big signal fire

The game session became a sort of ’in-between game session’, where the group finished looting the dungeon, met the local elves and had a long talk with them for the first time, and got into another big fight with the undead, where the power of the Staff of the Woodlands was demonstrated.

I’ve also been looking at making a post about magic items, and how you can make the discovery of powers progressive, spurred by the comments in for the last post (here The last post), but I haven’t had enough time to finish it.

Events of the session:

At the end of the previous session, the group had killed the aberrant plant monster that lived in the ruin, and they commenced looting and exploring the final sections. They went outside a couple of times, but neither the ranger nor druid passed their wisdom check, so they failed to notice something important. They discovered a statue of an elf, which held out a stylized map with a mountain chain with the mark of the throne on it. They found a secret room with treasure, including 50 pounds of iron and finally a room where dark seeds of the abomination were grown. They decided to burn the seeds, but the group was low on resources and had no fire magic left, so Arak, the strong half-orc cleric and Jarn, the ranger and leader, goes into the forest to get firewood. That is when they see the column of smoke that rises from the pyramid from all the burn vines inside the dungeon. They drop all the collected firewood and race back to the pyramid (I must say I liked this moment, when it dawned on the players what their actions meant).

The wizard’s familiar, Steven the sea gull (pun intended), is sent out to scout and Arak stands guard on top of the pyramid. Steven spots a large-ish band of goblins heading towards the pyramid, and Arak actually notices one of the local nomadic elves hiding in a tree. As the group is low on HP and spells they decide to retreat. After a while they make a short rest, the druid gains access to ‘pass with out trace’ and they escape the goblins, who spent some time scouting the ruin (if the characters had decided to stay other interested parties would have shown up, which would have been all kinds of fun!).

dead undead
I’ve never regretted getting the undead army for Warhammer Fantasy Battle back in the mid 90s. Those minis have been used countless times! 

After escaping the goblins, on their way to the place where they met undead the first time, they are attacked again by a group of more than 20 undead, marching towards them. There is a 5th level spell caster and the equivalent of a boosted Wight among them. It turns out that even though skeletons aren’t that dangerous to 4th level characters, if enough attack, they become a problem…

This is where my concern from last time, concerning the Staff of the Woodlands, was partly laid to rest. The druid use the Wall of Thorns spell from the staff and kills 6 skeletons with it, and a further two are pushed into the wall with a Gust of Wind spell. It doesn’t break the encounter at all, but it takes it down to a more manageable level. They are still under a lot of pressure, but they survive. If he had used it on the two ‘bosses’, they would take significant damage, but wouldn’t be killed outright. Obviously, in open terrain it is less effective than in a dungeon, where you can seal off passage ways.

The leader, who seems to be an undead orc with a magical scale mail, has a message crystal (like a simple recording device) with the following message:

“Deploy your companies north west of the city, and keep our lines of communication open with Fort 25. Commander Osandros will deploy to the south towards the Colorless Bridge. Reinforcements will be allotted as they arrive. This is the order of Belsokh Six Fingers. For Sarakhon!”


The characters who have been studying the books they found in the hag lair, recognizes Sarakhon from the name of the enemy an elf led an army against – they were called The Bones of Sarakhon.

The next day they locate the cave where the undead came from, and where they had been lying for several centuries. They also find a copper sheet, with an etched map showing the location of both Fort 25 and Fort 26 and the ruined city they’ve passed by earlier. They speculate that the undead were making war on the elves in the area long ago.

When they emerge from the cave, an arrow with a flower attached to it, is shot at the feet of Jarn. He shoots the arrow back, and a small group of elves emerge. They proceed with a trade, and then they begin talking. The elves clearly find their settlement unwise.

The group learns some important information though:

  • Hobgoblins live on the plains beyond the forest, and come into the forest to capture slaves. At some point, if they wish to live in peace, they have to deal with that threat.
  • There are many goblin tribes and they are sure to end up fighting them.
  • To the south lives Osganithmoth Suneater, an old green dragon, which fortunately sleeps right now, but its offspring infests the forest.
  • They watch over the ruined city, to guard against the creatures coming out of it. The demons that dwell within cannot get out though for some reason. Inside there are many monsters, among others a group of giants that wandered in from the hills to the south west.
  • They don’t have access to metal and are interested in trading.
  • They know of a source of iron, but it is a dangerous place.
  • The location where Fort 25 is supposed to be is a dangerous ashen wasteland.

When they were done speaking with the elves, we ended the session.

Perhaps Osganithmoth looks something like this… Scale seems pretty accurate! Art by Mike Azevedo. Check out more of his very cool stuff here: Link to Mike Azevedo’s art


Next time:

We will finally have an extended period of down time, and they can use some of the time to get to know more of the local inhabitants. It should strengthen their connection to the community and make them feel more a part of the settlement.

The campaign also opens up, and they discussed what should be their next target: the iron mine, fort 25 or the ruined city. They decided upon the iron mine, as it would be an important resource for the settlement.

Perhaps this will be our first session without an initiative roll…? But then again, maybe not…


D&D Session 6: Random Encounters (or is it?)

Wednesday we had one of the best sessions of the campaign so far. The characters have to make their way back to the settlement with the seven survivors of the wrecked ship. It is a week-long trip (at least), and here is where my extensive list of random encounters, locations and events comes into play.

It is a topic I’ve been reading about on the excellent DM David blog (for example: and I’ve used the same approach without fully realizing all the advantages. One advantage is that the random encounters create a real sense of threat when travelling, but they can also be a reward for exploring, by adding wondrous and strange locations with potential treasure and lore.

I’ve decided to post the random encounter table  below, where my players can also see it.

Knowing the rules and being able to make decisions based on rules is already a core part

wilderness survival
I want wilderness exploration to be fun, rewarding and to drive the plot forward.

of D&D. Having a mechanical understanding of the encounter system can add a level of tension and excitement in my view. It should add depth and interesting discussions when the players understand the dangers and potential rewards of travel into lands where they don’t know what awaits over the next hill.  It is certainly much more interesting than players with meta-knowledge of the monsters, which is why I alter monsters in almost all encounters in a meaningful way.

Session 6:

The game started after their hard encounter with kuo-toa. The half-orc Arak buried their casualty, while their aspiring leader, Jarn, tries to instill some confidence in the surviving NPCs without much luck (his character is only 16 years old, so that seemed very reasonable). They move their camp away from the carnage and successfully gain a full nights rest while scavengers of the forest fight over the kuo-toa corpses. In the morning they decide to split up (I don’t know how they dare…?). The ranger and druid will try to follow the trail of the final survivor of the ship wreck – a bodyguard of the royal envoy –  a little longer, and return to the group before nightfall, as they travel much quicker in the forest. The rest of the group with the NPC survivors travel south.

The druid and ranger follows the trail, find a goblin trap the bodyguard walked into. A little later they find a pink giant mushroom that glows (random encounter), and avoid it out of fear. Finally, they find a place where he rested and were set upon by a goblin hunting party who followed his blood trail. He managed to defeat them, but retreated further into the woods. The two characters decide to turn back and catch up with the rest.

The main group reaches a wide gorge (random encounter), which is basically a skill challenge, which they can decide to forego and spend an extra day travelling, or attempt, where failure means a longer delay. They attempt the skill challenge and manages easily (natural 20), to get all the people across the gorge.

They camp and the ranger and druid catches up with them.

The next day I decide that the next time I roll a random encounter, I will introduce a significant random encounter that has a plot relevance. That happens the second night. They camp on a large cliff, and during the night the wizard is haunted by nightmares. He awakes with the sound of claws on rock and seeing empty eye sockets. He immediately casts a spell, and the two characters on guard notice that something is coming up the cliff.

The undead had many game features which interacted well with player abilities.

Combat begins with 15 skeletons and two undead spell casters (5ht level sorcerers) arriving a round later. The plot hook is that they are after an item which the wizard has brought to the new lands (or more accurately, fled…). The two sorcerers are have cast fly, and are only interested in that item, and attacks the wizard. When they defeat him, one of them lands and grabs his backpack. The rest of the combat the undead tries to get away with the item, the fly spell fails however, and the gnome arcane trickster (who helped “procure” the item in the first place), manages to get the item out of the pack. Ultimately, the group defeats the undead, and that is the end of the session.

Next session will feature some pertinent questions for the wizard, and perhaps exploration of where the undead came from. And more travelling and random encounters!

Thoughts on the session:

Several things worked well. The random encounters, and the combat situation were fun and added a lot of flavor. The players were challenged and surprised by the dispel magic and other spells the undead cast. The combat was quite dynamic and tactically interesting, with various spells such as darkness and fog cloud used to protect the NPCs and characters. It worked almost as a game of ‘tag!’ and everyone played an important role.

I also use a bunch of notes with written questions to the characters, which players draw at random, typically when they’ve camped. Questions like: Who do you know who’ve been killed in the war? And: What is your fondest childhood memory? The first question came up in the session, and was great characterization for Jarn Ashford III.

The fact that there had been random encounters meant that the players seemed initially unaware that there was a plot reason for the combat. I really like that. Keeping players uncertain of what is planned and what is random I think will create a very interesting campaign. The players won’t feel the same inclination to go with what the DM presents, because they assume that it is where the plot is leading them, but will go with what their characters desires and thinks (I hope).

The random encounters also add fun for both me and the players, as I won’t know how the session and story will turn out either. I need to add a few things though: more lore connected to the world in the encounters, either via minor sites of interest or NPCs. I should also add actual random events/encounters with deeper plot hooks.

I also need to introduce rules for disengaging/fleeing from combat, as D&Ds movement rules are not useful for that. As there are overwhelming encounters on the list, there has to be a way to also withdraw or flee.

I need to add encountering NPCs to the list, to add variety to the list.

I have to keep being patient and let each session play out at the pace the dice dictates.

The Current Encounter Table:

This is the current encounter table I use. I’ve removed specific names from the list to avoid spoilers for my players. I try to include the distance of the encounter in the encounter description instead of having a separate random table. There is also another list with random monsters for the area they are in, when I roll 7, 10 or 13.

Encounter chance per day is 1 in 6 if in stealth mode or 2 in 6 if travelling normally. Roll twice if forced marching.

Roll (1d6+1d8) Encounter
2 An XX is devouring its prey, but might become more interested in the characters.
3 They run into a webbed area of the forest. There are X hiding among their webs.
4 The weather suddenly takes a turn: 1: heavy rain, 2 high winds, 3 fog 4 storm 5 roll twice 6: storm. Survival check DC 15 to maintain travel speed. Failure they have to make camp and loose 1 day.
5 The group finds a major random adventure site.
6 The camp is attacked or approached at night
7 The Group finds a site of interest
8 A party member encounters a goblin trap (Dex DC 15 pit trap with spikes 3d6+3 damage)
9 The group encounters an unanticipated obstacle, such as a fast flowing stream, a deep gorge or an area of marshlands. Moving through it requires a survival check DC 15. A success keeps up their speed, failure costs them 2 days of lost time. Moving around it takes 1 additional day.
10 The group is found by a hostile monster during the day.
11 An X approaches (plot relevant)
12 The Group encounters a group of elves, if they can spot them
13 The group is ambushed by goblins or hostile monsters
14 (Something extremely dangerous) approaches.


D&D Session 5: Prison Break!

Last week we returned to D&D after the holidays. It was an interesting session to me, as I felt it demonstrated some of the strengths in the campaign decisions I recently made, and perhaps showed a couple of places where I need to adjust. I will insert a couple of observations below.

The session was attended by 5 players. The druid and wizard were not present.

The Session
The game started inside the caves of the kuo-toa. They had not yet found prisoners, but had also seemingly avoided discovery. However a guard further down a tunnel had heard the final battle in the last

The Kuo-toa caves had a permanently dry section, a section flooded at high tide and a permanently flooded section, which the characters couldn’t access (right now).

session and gone to the nearby priest (known as Whips in the kuo-toa culture). They sent the gnome rogue to scout ahead, who spotted the posse coming at them. He retreated and they made an ambush and relatively easily defeated the kuo-toa, but a couple of them escaped (and ran back to their mama).

However, the gnome who was sent down the tunnel to investigate failed to see the tracks going into an underwater tunnel, where the prisoners had been led. Therefore they moved quickly on, and found beyond some barricades a spawning pool for tad-pool-like kuo-toa. The mama-kuo toa and some friends came and attacked them as soon as they disturbed the pool. She was pretty tough with 3 attacks and high damage and poison. Luck was with the players though, and no-one were knocked to zero. They did expend a couple of the potions they found. After the mama-boss the group retreated, as they were pretty low on resources. As they had not found the prisoners, they decided to go back in, to see if they couldn’t locate them.
They actively investigate the water logged tunnel, the ranger saw the trail and found prisoners in a stockade beyond 10 meters of flooded tunnel. There were 8 or 9 prisoners, some of whom were wounded, and some who were combat able. They gave them weapons and fled from the loot the kuo-toa took from the wrecked ship, and went back to the forest. Here they decided to do a short rest and then take the prisoners along the trail of another survivor for a couple of hours, before they made camp.

murloc Xr9nxAo
Hard not to say like a World of Warcraft murloc when DMing Kuo-toa!

The kuo-toa sent out a strong patrol to catch their escaped prisoners, and caught up with the group shortly after they made camp. The kuo-toa attacked with numbers in their favour, and with a couple of crits by them, the group was quickly reduced to the Warlock, who used a Darkness spell to conceal himself in, while being able to fire Eldritch blast out of it, and the half-orc fighter/cleric. However, when only the Warlock remained, the kuo-toa had taken heavy losses and had no counter to the darkness, they fled. Leaving the group with one prisoner dead, and a missing finger on the ranger/paladin.

I have stopped thinking about balance, and award less xp for fighting monsters. It works very positively in many ways.

– I spend much less time trying to make encounters and monsters and figuring out CR and xp awards. With 5-7 PCs its nearly impossible anyway…
– I worry less that the group easily defeats or are hard pressed by an encounter, and let the dice fall where they may. I’m simply not invested
– It encourages the players to think, and get scared and worried, because they know I haven’t ‘balanced it’ for their sake.

For the big final encounter, I looked at the number of kuo-toa left in the lair, and sent out a good strong group that felt realistic. I counted out a few regular kuo-toa, who would be fighting the NPC prisoners, but 12 kuo-toa, 2 whips and a monitor were a problem for five 3rd level characters.

The Warlock was highly effective the entire session with his darkness/spell sniper/eldritch blast combo. That was good from my point of view. He has built something effective, and he and the group should be rewarded for it. Of course, it could turn into a problem if the entire group feels outshined by it, or if it just becomes a default strategy. At slightly higher levels the opposition can have various counter moves, such as area spells, blind sense, dispel etc., so I’m not overly worried.

All of the characters got to use their special abilities, and getting those into play is important to me as a DM.

I did love that they overcome a very difficult encounter. With only 25% xp given, I felt it was a bit low. That kind of success should perhaps be separately rewarded.

A couple of things could have gone better.
– I would have liked to have had the tidal dynamics in the dungeon more in play.

– The paladin/ranger player felt bored some of the time, partly because he was hit by a couple of crits in the final encounter, and was down in round 2. I really hate when a player is bored.

– Based upon my descriptions the players made some more or less mistaken assumptions. Obviously my descriptions aren’t perfect, and a solution would be to tip our play style a bit more towards how Chris Perkins does it with his Acquisitions Incorporated. The players ask more clarifying questions, if they want information about a feature that is mentioned in the description. I like that a lot, as it lends itself better to improvisation, and the players potentially makes less faulty assumptions.

An Example of Chris Perkins DMing

For next time:
– Encourage players to ask more clarifying questions, instead of making false assumptions.

– Be mindful of the warlocks powerful combo and group dynamics.

– Make a separate xp award for victory against all odds.

*The featured image is a kuo-toa whip and from the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.

Gaming 2015 in Retrospect and looking forward

Looking back at my 2015 gaming year, the grand event was the end of my long Warhammer Fantasy Role-play campaign. It ended magnificently. We tied up many lose ends. The characters saved their home town from a chaos horde as commanders of a large army, and they brought their long standing rival, Baron Pleskai von Wallenstein to justice, after he sired a child on a demon-worshipping witch.

This is what my 6 years of notes look like. I was also awarded a Purity Seal by my players for my efforts. It is one of the best gifts ever. 

The satisfaction of ending the campaign is immense. My players have enjoyed it a lot, and we’ve really explored the game world and the system. At the end, they were among the most powerful individuals in the Warhammer world, and even those with more individual strength hesitated to tangle with them. At the same time we retained the low-fantasy mood in their day-to-day lives, and by playing some of the NPCs.

It was, intentionally, a relatively rail-roaded campaign with a set ending – the consequences along the way were not cut in stone though. When people meet on a Wednesday night every other week after work, many with kids and family at home, I think there is a lot of merit in playing an action-packed campaign, where the amount of intrigue and investigation is relatively limited. My players really need to roll some initiative and have some memorable moments in order to stay focused and entertained. I will bring that to my D&D campaign.

In 2015 we also had 9 sessions playing the original Temple of Elemental Evil module with D&D 5ed rules. It was more popular than I anticipated and often we were 6-8 people around the table. It is very much a ‘kick in the door’ style of play, and we add a few beers and lots of minis to the mix. It is well suited for Friday night! I think we will continue with more sessions throughout 2016.

Looking at 2016
I started my D&D campaign in 2015, before my Warhammer game was done, because I thought a core player from my Warhammer group was supposed to be in Asia for a couple of months. But as that didn’t happen (due to a snapped collar bone), we got it started, but then reverted to Warhammer to finish it. I would have liked to have kept the focus on one and then the other campaign, but for 2016 I can keep my mind on this D&D homebrew and really get cracking. I do love world building, but it is a lot of work! And as we are expecting our first child in a month’s time, I will have to figure out how to manage it in the best way. Less video gaming will probably be a component!

My D&D homebrew is much less railroaded than my Warhammer game. I have to improvise more and run with it, and try to be a little less detailed in my planning. To do that, I’ve decided to work with the 5×5 Campaign Design method [Read more on 5×5 Campaign Design]. In essence, you have a matrix of 25 adventures, where you know the basic plot for each one, but the characters can shift from one to the other more or less as they see fit. It should help me always have a plot thread ready, so my players experience freedom, but never are in doubt about what they could spend their time on.

In 2016 we also have to play many new board games. And replay some of the old ones. Hmm. Maybe another bout of Twilight Imperium – a favourite in my gaming group?

Awesome game. But don’t believe Fantasy Flight Game’s claim that you can play it in 3-4 hours. That is silly. Twilight Imperium home page

Thanks to the all the people who I had the pleasure of gaming with during 2015! I really look forward to 2016.


Books that Inspired my Campaigns – Part II

Song of Ice and Fire

This series made me step out of the traditional mold when it came to world-design. Before I read the first novels of the series, my campaign worlds had been pretty standard “European” or it had been Earthdawn (which as a game itself also inspired me a lot). Westeros was not what I found most inspiring, but the decadent and old lands of the east are very cool with places such as Astapor and Mereen. I made a campaign called the Far Seas, a maritime campaign with a lot of islands, where I put in big Jade pyramids, nomadic Halfling armadas, lost gods, fantastic cities with ancient monuments and strange magical effects. Looking at many published campaigns today, Far Seas isn’t exceptional, but it was a good step for me, and it was so popular that when I moved to another town, a frieSOIFnd of mine ran a campaign in that world. That is a pretty big compliment.

“Aggo was back next. The southwest was barren and burnt, he swore. He had found the ruins of two more cities, smaller than Vaes Tolorro but otherwise the same. One was warded by a ring of skills mounted on iron spears, so he dared not enter, but he had explored the second one as long as he could. He showed Dany an iron bracelet he had found, set with uncut fire opal the size of her thumb.”
– A Song of Ice and Fire


Dark Souls

The fantastic video game Dark Souls is a masterpiece of game design. I’m intensely inspired by the level design. The way the world seamlessly flows together and slowly reveals new secrets and connections has to be experienced. The story of the world, its mythos, and the NPC’s stories and motives are extremely opaque and are only revealed by examining all objects and if certain specific steps are taken in the right order. And in Dark Souls outcomes and decisions are permanent, so if you attacked that NPC or he died in a battle, you will have to start a new game to try a different path. This is an exploration element that I really like as well, and is an approach I’m attempting in my current D&D campaign.

Watch the show ‘Extra Play’ on Youtube play and deconstruct Dark Souls game design.

They way that you avatar’s experience mirrors your experience as a player is masterful design. The setup of many of the monster encounters is also very interesting and can easily be used in D&D.

Dark Souls II has less interesting level design (it is still great), but it is also visually very inspiring for my current campaign.

When it comes to video role-playing games, it is – in my experience – when it comes to mechanics and exploration the closest you can come to a pen & paper game. The reason is that you can approach enemies and problems in many ways, which is close to your experience in a pen & paper game.

Approaching the Red Drake. The staircase on the right is a wise move.


For my current D&D campaign I’ve not fully taken the plunge into making my own version of a coherent world where the campaign basically all takes within a dungeon. I’ve more tried to let myself be inspired by the design philosophy behind it. If I were to go all the way, D&D would not necessarily be a great system, as many of the spells would need to be modified. But any system would probably need to be modified, in order for the system to emphasize the way the world and campaign should work.

 Playing at the World
This book is about the history of D&D and the games that led to this revolution. It led me deeper into the ideas in the original D&D and made me want to go back to basics – although without going back to some of the OD&D versions of the game, as I have a preference for the smooth mechanics of 5th edition. It is a massive book (600+ pages), and you will learn something you didn’t know.

playing at the worldOne thing that I’ve taken directly to heart in both my home brew campaign and in our Temple of Elemental Evil game is that D&D originally had three core aspects: combat, exploration and logistics. Exploration is of course a cornerstone of my new homebrew. The last part I also find very interesting. I think it is quite apparent that among my players there are different preferences for these elements. Logistics is about how much ammunition to bring, what spells to select and dividing treasure. I have previously skipped this somewhat, but I will try to have it as a more intentional element, for example by using the construction rules from Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign.

It led me to buy many vintage modules online, and there are some great ideas in them as well.

“Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much needed banality: after the suspense of exploring and the adrenaline of bloodshed, the chore of logistics, even when they border on tedium, serve as an important counterweight to adventures.” (In Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson)

The Scramble for Africa

Africa is a vast and extremely varied continent, and both its nature and

scramble for africa
Amazon naturally has all the books: if you’re interested

history is an inspiration to me. Recently I read this history of how the European Powers explored and carved up between them the many independent kingdoms and more or less inhabited wilderness of Africa. The exploration element is as always interesting to me – the hardship in traversing deep jungle and the couple of years that Stanley spent traversing the continent East to West. The brutality of the conflicts and of the rule of some of the African kings can also be used in D&D, as can the power play between the nations trying to grab as much land as possible.

“Stanley looked at the majestic brown river flowing past the tall square houses and the baobab trees. Its calmness seemed to him a kind of hypocrisy. It had robbed him of so many of his best men, including Frank Pocock, the last survivor of his three white companions. Even now Stanley felt the hollowness of his triumph. He had sailed from Zanzibar with more than 250 men, women and children. Only 108 would now return safely to their homes.”
The Scramble for Africa, Stanley arrives at the west coast of Africa

The Italian Renaissance

Italy, before it became a nation and was a collection of city states, is so full of intrigue, war and conflict that period has near limitless potential for inspiration for almost any role-playing game – but for Warhammer Fantasy Role-play in particular. As there is so much surviving art and written works from the region and period, there is a lot of potential reading to do. I just needed an overview before a visit to Florence, and I picked up The Italian Renaissance. It deals with both a few central topics such as Women and Princes and the State, and has a chapter on each of the major city-states, and for someone growing up in a modern democracy; I find it helpful to be reminded of the attitudes, government structures and social structures of other people and other times. It can add some memorable tweaks to your NPCs and campaign setting.

Monument to the most feared mercenary genral in Italy John Hawkwood (Fading Suns, anyone?), who fought for Florence

“On this knowledge the Council acted swiftly and silently, for no public trials enlivened the Venetian scene, and there were no appeals. Once found guilty, the prisoner was sometimes quickly and efficiently strangled in the dungeons or thrown into a part of the lagoon reserved for the purpose, where no fishing was allowed; or hanged by one leg from the pillars of the Doge’s Palace; or quartered and distributed about the city; or buried upside down in the Pazetta, legs protruding; or beheaded – as a public spectacle – between the great pillars on which stand Saint Theodore, with his crocodile and the winged lion of Saint Mark.”
– The Italian Renaissance, on how its Council of Ten kept power through its intelligence system.


Dresden Files

The Dresden Files didn’t make it to the top-10 list, but I include it as an honourable mention, as I think it can teach you a thing or two when it comes to upping the stakes and making the stories more action packed.  The Dresden Files demonstrates that you can always kick it up a notch!7bcd5b3f4e4c8b81976032eb67030845

So, I found a great fantasy art book in Paris…

Front cover of the art book of Oliver Ledroit.
Front cover of the art book of Oliver Ledroit.

I was in Paris this weekend, and was recommended by my friend Adrian, who is also one of my player’s in my own group, to go to Rue Dante and check out the comic book stores there. It was a great suggestion, and I dragged by girl friend to a number of them, while looking at the great French and American comics and graphic novels (not that there is clear verbal a distinction in Europe), as the French, Dutch and Belgian artists have always made comic books for both children and adult audiences, with some stories very adult.

I was exiting a store, when my eyes fell on an art book, which struck a chord, and I open it, and I see the illustrations from one of my favorite dark fantasy comic books The Black Moon Chronicles (also available in English). The artist is Oliver Ledroit, and it turns out he only did the first few albums, but has done a number of other things since then. It was his first job as an illustrator and got it by showing his portfolio at a convention, when he was only 17.

Inside the book I learned that there is a whole line of miniatures for the setting, and that Ledroit, was inspired by the early Conan comics and has worked on role-playing games and the video game Heroes of Might and Magic

Half of one of the big double page battles, which you also see in Prince Valiant.
Half of one of the big double page battles, which you also see in Prince Valiant.

He has these vast tableaus of thousands of troops, and is mentioned to be inspired by Prince Valiant, which is also clearly evident.

“If you ask him to represent 5,000 guards, you will get an outpouring of millions of men.”
(author of Black Moon Chronicles, Marcela-Froideval)

I can’t say that my own games are directly inspired by these stories directly, but I would recommend them to any fantasy fan. Even after Ledroit left to pursue other projects the artistic style has been retained, and it is really epic, where the good-guy templars are cast as the bad-guys.

The art book was reduced in price from 50 to 20 euros, and was a bit of a steal, in my view.

It has also left me wondering about the French role-playing scene. It turns out the author of Black Moon Chronicles also makes role-playing games. What does that look like? What other games do they make? How big is it? Are any of them in English? It is a big market, and a country like Sweden, which is significantly smaller, has a number of very successful home-grown games, like Drakar och Demoner (which I’ve played a lot!), which leads me to assume that France must have many.

When I return from Internationale Spieltage in Germany, I will have to look into the other projects Ledroit has worked on, such as the science fiction SHA and the noir story XOCO and perhaps I will see some new RPGs at the convention in Essen.

I will conclude this post with a few more samples from the book. But it is full of awesomeness, so I recommend to check Ledroit out yourself.

It shows in his fairies sketches that he was interested in butterflies when he was young.
It shows in his fairies sketches that he was interested in butterflies when he was young.
Character sketches for a SF universe by Ledroit.
Character sketches for a SF universe by Ledroit.
Awesome elf character sketch for Heroes of Might and Magic by Ledroit.
Awesome elf character sketch for Heroes of Might and Magic by Ledroit.

Books that inspired my campaigns (part 1)

My friend, and sometimes Game Master, Johannes, described some of the books that inspire him as a GM on his blog Sort Forsyning top 13 books (it’s in Danish). That in turn inspired me to share some of the books that I find are great inspiration for role-playing games. I think it will be a (current) top ten. I hope you get inspired too!

Malazan Book of the Fallen

These 10 books have so many cool ideas that it is mind boggling. It shows in the stories that the author has a background in anthropology and archaeology, as cultures and lands have layers upon layers of history, with different technology levels and magic. The world building was very interesting to me. It is very far from the traditional Gary Gygax medieval knights world.

I love them, but the books aren’t equally great, and were hard to read as they came out, as the amount of people and plot lines you have to keep track of is staggering. That said, I’ve lifted a number of ideas from these books straight into my current D&D campaign. I also wanted to replicate the magic system, where each “school of magic” (sort of) is drawn from a particular plane. But it was too much work for D&D spells and planes are so heavily integrated into the rules.

It is also dark, gritty and funny. The second book, Dead House Gates, and its story of the Chain of Dogs, remains the most riveting and gut wrenching fantasy story I’ve read.

Duiker was well past astonishment at anything he saw. Like the Tithansi tribesmen he’d occasionally exchanged words with, he’d begun to believe that Coltaine was something other than human, that he had carved his soldiers into unyielding avatars of the impossible. Yet for all that, there was no hope of victory. 
(Deadhouse Gates)

Bernard Cornwell has written 21 novels with the hard as nails British soldier Sharpe, who has his career during the Napoleonic Wars – mainly in the Peninsular Wars under Wellington. They are great adventures, full of good plot ideas, and they were the main inspiration for my Warhammer campaign. Cornwell’s insight, that to make the story interesting, he had to make enemies and obstacles on Sharpe’s own side just as big a feature as the enemy, is something I used. I alsoRifles drew a lot of inspiration for the military campaign side of things, with the size of the army train, the unwieldiness of the artillery and the chaos and confusion of battle that Cornwell describes so well. Being part of a military organization is obviously also a powerful motivator for going on ‘missions’. Cornwell writes great action, and there are a lot of skirmish battles with company sized units, that I also drew upon for my campaign.

“Powder smoke spurted from the orchard, showing that Dragoons [no, not dragons!] barred that escape, yet it was his only hope. He shouted up the ladder. ‘Come down!’ He turned to Harper. ‘We’ll take the Spaniards with us. We are breaking southwards.
‘They’ll catch us.’
‘Better that than dying like rats in a pit. Fix swords!’
(Sharpe’s Rifles)

khazad dumLord of the Rings (and Silmarillion)
It needs no introduction. For years it was one of the few fantasy novels available to me, because we had it at home in Danish. When I became better at English as a teenager, they whole fantasy field opened up, and I’m still trying to read through all the Fantasy Masterworks. But Tolkien will always be there, with the magic, orcs and journeys, and I still love ancient dwarf keeps full of secrets, treasure and ancient evil (and so does many of my players!). Don’t think I’ve ever made a fantasy campaign without a lost dwarf keep.

“The orcs have often plundered Moria; there is nothing left in the upper halls. And since the dwarves fled, no one dares seek the shafts and treasuries down in the deep places: they are drowned in water – or in a shadow of fear.
(Gandalf, in the Fellowship of the Ring)

The Fall of the Roman Empire – A New History
This book is fantastic. It really inspires my world-building in many ways. Fundamentally, it provides insight into how that empire was ruled, from a variety of perspectives, including logistically and politically, and how half of it ultimately collapsed. Some of the key points I have taken from it are: rampant corruption, civil war every 20 years, high level of autonomy because of the limits of the administrative system, and the size of armies that could disrupt it -around 10,000 displaced tribal the-fall-of-the-roman-empire-978033049136503warriors settled in the Balkans created a domino effect that contributed heavily to the fall of the Empire.

Then there are some practical details around travelling, where I think in most fantasy games the logistics and time involved is underestimated. Theophanes had to travel from Egypt to Antioch (in Turkey). The trip was on great roman public roads, which made it very quick – he travelled 40 kilometres (around 25 miles) per day. With him, he brought a group of slaves, and soldiers for parts of the trip. This meant that the journey lasted almost a month. For his slaves he bought 160 litres of wine for the return journey, and bought two bottles for the same price for himself (obviously a better vintage). As he hardly knew anyone along the way, he also had to bring dozens of valuable gifts for other important Romans that he met.

“Running the Roman Empire with communications then available was akin to running, in the modern day, an entity somewhere between five and ten times the size of the European Union.”
(The Fall of the Roman Empire – A New History)

Undaunted Courage

This is the story of the legendary Meriwether Lewis who, together with William Clark, Sacagaewea and their party, was the first to cross America over land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is an adventure of the highest order, and really gave me a lot of inspiration for eUndauntedxploration of the untamed wilderness, and you see how resourceful humans can be. It is a direct inspiration for my current D&D campaign, where the characters help settle a new an unknown land.

“Together, under the leadership of the captains, they had become family. They could recognize one another at night by a cough, or a gesture; they knew one another’s skills, and weaknesses, and habits, and background: who liked salt, who preferred liver; who shot true, got the cooking fire going quickest; where they came from, what their parents were like, what dreams they had…They would triumph, or die, as one.”
(Undaunted Courage)

In the next part I will be touching upon The Song of Ice and Fire, a book about Africa and a video game, among others.

My Dungeons and Dragons Homebrew 1

I want to provide context for my posts on rules and campaign setting, and I’m writing brief overviews of each session for my players anyway, so I’ve decided to post the chronicles of my campaign on this blog. With my Warhammer campaign coming to a close at around 90 sessions, where I have a few paragraphs on each session, I can see it is also a pretty cool thing to have when looking back at all the great fun we had.

Campaign setup

My campaign is fundamentally an exploration campaign. The realms of the East have been warring for 30 years against a dark empire named the Hrran Hegemony. The war is in a deadlock and the ‘good’ realms need resources, allies or some kind of joker to break the deadlock. Fortunately, the half-elves of the Isles of Finrod have found a new continent across the ocean. The largest human kingdom therefore sets up an outpost and has sent settlers there to establish a new realm, and to explore the lands for riches, magic and potential allies. The characters are among the second group of settlers sent there.

Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington
The land where they settle is covered in deep forest. This is from a Washington state rain forest.

The Group

All members of the adventuring group come from the realms in the East, which have a geography and technology roughly equal to early medieval Europe. They decided at the beginning to form a accredited Adventuring Company, which provides some advantages, but cost them resources.

The dwarf bard use a bagpipe as his instrument. Fun, and great for attracting random encounters!

After 3 sessions the line-up is: 

Sir Jarn Ashford, Human paladin 1/ranger 2

Arak, half-orc fighter 2/war cleric 1

Welk Del’mantanrese, human abjurer 3

Weylyn Cullain, half-elf moon druid 3

Horziver Xalybyr, gnome arcane trickster 3

Abbott, human warlock 3

Korrick the Lorekeeper, dwarf fighter 1/bard 1

The first 3 Sessions:

Session 1:

The members of the adventuring group has various ties to each other, both are mostly not close friends. They embark on their journey at the Isles of Finrod, and sail across the ocean on one of three vessels (of course). After a few weeks they make a stop at Hope’s Pinnacle, which is a lone island with a huge abandoned castle built by giants, where a garrison and port has been built by the good nations. They stay a couple of days before continuing their journey.

Close to land the ships are thrown into a storm and attacked by Kuo-Toa. The party fights them off, but after the storm dies down one of the three ships are missing.

Meta: They drew random questions I had created, which they answered to create more backstory for their characters.

The ships of my campaign are similar to the far left ship, however sleeker, with more of a norse longboat element, and more elaborate elven carvings – and no cross on the sails.

Session 2

They arrive at the small settlement, which lies in a cove, next to a river, surrounded by a vast forest, and with a couple of gleaming white towers reaching above the canopy in the distance. They are greeted warmly, and introduced to some of the people living there, including the governor Erin de Vrin. But with a missing ship, the mood has a somber undertone. Next morning, the two adventuring parties available to the settlement are sent out to find the missing ship. The characters are sent north, while their ‘rivals’ are sent south.

The group treks through the forest and at night are assaulted by a Displacer Beast, which they manage to slay. The following day they come upon a group of goblins, throwing stones and taunting a wounded elf captured in one of their pit traps. They drive off the goblins and rescue the elf. The elf has tattooed camouflage on his skin and he almost only use sign language.

Session 3:

With some difficulty the druid Weylyn begins to communicate in the elven tongue with the tattooed barbarian, and recognizes that he speaks some kind of dialect of the elven language. They learn that a big winged beast roams to the north, and that he finds it very important to stay hidden. The next morning the elf has sneaked out of the camp.

Using the wizard’s seagull familiar, they do spot the winged creature, which turns out to be a wyvern, and see its nest in a ruined tower. They decide to explore the tower while the wyvern is hunting at dusk. At the top of the tower in the nest of flotsam and bones, they find a couple of scrolls and a kuo-toa body. Welk and Horziver figure out how to destabilize the nest, and make a plan for attacking the wyvern when it lands, and hopefully drop to the bottom of the ruined tower. The plan succeeds and the party manages to overcome the wyvern without getting hit.

At night, the carrion crawler that had hidden in the tower came out to feast on the wyvern. It was discovered, and the group killed it.

Trekking further north they finally come upon a cove, where the lost ship is stuck on a reef. The cliffsides have many cave entrances, and they begin to explore. They find a body of a sailor, after chasing away two giant crabs, and in one of the caves they are attacked by many crabs, but rescue an exhausted guard from the ship, who hid in the cave.

They bring her back to their camp, to give her rest and hear her story. At night kuo-toa emerges at high tide from one of caves and sacrifice a human to some kind of snake creature that emerges from the sea.

Meta and Mechanics note:

Fighting the wyvern, the damage output of 6 players was very high, with above average rolls, and it was a short

The Wyvern monster manual illustration from 3rd edition of D&D by the way.
The Wyvern monster manual illustration from 3rd edition of D&D by the way.

encounter. But the danger of getting hit by the poison stinger of the wyvern made it a tense encounter. It certainly displays the weakness in D&D 5th if you have large groups against single enemies. However, in this case, a hit by the wyvern on almost anyone of the 2nd level characters would either drop or kill them. I think it was fun, and when the PC’s dare something dangerous, the player’s feel great when they succeed.