Game in Review: Bastion 5e vol. 1

Since the subtitle of this blog reads “and occasional actual play” I figured I should eventually make good on that claim. As with everything here, we’ll tinker with the format till it feels right.

A little backstory on the campaign in-progress.

Just about every Tuesday night, for the better part of the last 10 months, I’ve been GMing a D&D 5e game on Roll20. The campaign originated a few months before then but early on the group experienced some player turnover; more so than I was accustomed to, even for online play. Fast forward a few weeks and we held on to a couple of the more suborn original players and landed two new faces and – it clicked.

To try and cover 30 some odd sessions of back would be folly. Rather, I’ll provide context as needed for things that occurred outside of the scope of this A.P. For everything else, you’re all smart lads and lasses, use context clues. Better yet, ask questions!

New Cult, Same as the Old Cult

Dramatis Personæ

Bree – Human Tempest Cleric of Umberlee – lvl 6 – played by J.D.
Edelbert – Gnome Arcane Trickster Rogue – level 5 – played by David (absent)
Geir – Human Hunter Ranger – level 5 – played by Tim
Hugo – Human Illusionist Wizard – level 6 – played by Roger

The party continued their descent, deeper under the mountain in search of the source of the valuable Godstone; a mythical material that held the potential to hinder a fiend of pure umbra that had been unbound and now roamed the region. Down the ladder in the dark, avoiding a lurking drider, across the dully illuminated subterranean sea and towards the city on the far shore – home to the tiny cave dwelling creatures they first saw many layers above, tending to the mushroom groves in a recently defaced temple. The party entered the city of the almost gnome-sized, pallid skinned cave creatures with large saucer eyes, long twitching ears and too-wide lipless grins full of rows of thick flat molars. the Keel.

Standing in the sprawling city of tiny curved roof buildings, stacked and bunched together like honeycombs, built no higher than a man’s waist; one structure rises above the rest, a building two or three stories tall and clinging to a rocky column of shimmering gemstone. This building, unlike the rest, is finished in florid alien finishes and accents. Nothing more out of place than the man-sized statue standing defiantly in the small plaza in front of this building of importance. The cold stone statue, one of a unfeeling squid-like face, the visage of a stoic illithid looms amidst this half-sized town of timid cave creatures.

Upon seeing this seemingly out of place illithid statue, Bree is met with a flooding vision. Now staring up through the rippling surface of a pool, staring out into a distant but familiar place – a garden set adrift in the astral sea. Leaning over the surface of the pool, staring back at Bree, a featureless porcelain white mask, a cascade of writhing tentacles wriggle from the bottom of the mask and pouring over many layers of voluminous brocade robes. Saluvesk, the Waiting. The illithid watcher who had once before pulled a near death Bree through the ether to its side for questions that stretched across time. “The lady,” rasps the rattling voice, “has returned.”

While Bree deals with this sudden mental intrusion, Geir does his best to keep aware of their present situation. Standing in the middle of this the small buildings, he notes the many onlookers watching the group from afar. The Keel appear curious but shy, if not frightful. All but for the three Keel who’ve appeared on the steps of the tallest building, just beyond the statue. The two flanking creatures, each brandishing pointed spears not much bigger than a freshly sharpened pencil. The one in the middle, head lolling from left to right, its eyes stripped of their sight. In their place, two large orbs of glowing gemstone are set deep in the orbital sockets of the Keel . Stones that glowed with the pale illumination of Godstone. The three defiant creatures crossed the courtyard and approached the party.

Seeing Bree’s distress, Hugo attempts to steel his mind and assist in her
parlay with the illithid. In opening himself up to this shared experience with Bree, while maintaining control over his mind palace. The intrusion proved too great and Hugo let slip a thought – a secret – that quickly siphons to the waiting mind flayer. Hugo’s intentions to seek the wisdom of the keepers at the Abby of St. Clewed is now gone to the mind flayer. The secret sect of information seeking zealots, in their remote facility, may now be faced with a new intrusion – hungry for knowledge.

With Bree and Hugo engaged with the cryptic Saluvek, the stone-eyed Keel affixed his sightless gaze onto Geir. With a series of questioning indecipherable sounds, the Keel grew impatient with the ranger’s lack of response. Then the stone-eyed one reached into the mouth of one of its guards and fished out a smooth, rounded pebble and motioned for Geir to put into his mouth – which he did. As his mouth and tongue numbed, Geir found himself capable of communicating with the Keel. The Keel with gems for eyes, Beel, the Void Star, demands Geir explain their arrival.

Bree’s vision had begun to ablate and tear at the corners as the trio of Keel approached the party. Bree and Hugo pressed Saluvesk for understanding, what was its connection to this place and creatures. As the press of the present pushed against Bree’s mind and the window the Saluvesk’s garden washed away, the final raspy words of “legacy — Duvan’Ku — a ‘mountain of time'” rung out. Those same cryptic words that Bree had heard once before from this being, crept through her mind once again.

The vision ended, Bree and Hugo return to the coherency of now to find Geir with a rock in his mouth, talking to one of these Keel, with dozens more curiously watching them from every corner of the city.

The party tried to convince Beel, the Void Star, of their benign intentions for arriving in their city, seeing the precious material. Explaining they were send here by a ‘bad man’ by the name of Salip Teel, a smoke genesi who they had crossed paths, and swords with, back in the city of Breton. It was Salip who had pointed Geir to the mine-shaft, far above this place, to begin with. Hugo threatened that without their help the mining machines that had been set to work far above would one day ruin this place too.

In an attempt to broker truce, Geir offered Beel a hunk of jade gemstone that he had long ago harvested off a strange basilisk. Scooping up the stone, Beel inspected it and promptly wrenched out the ball of godtsone from its right eye and inserted the jade. “Ack!” exclaimed Beel, “no good.” and just as quickly the jade was pulled out and cast to the ground.

Looking to avoid another misstep, the party made sure their next offering was done with a little more pomp and circumstance. Bree put forth a red fist sized oblong stone, warm to the touch. The fiery stone, the heart harvested from a Fire Badger that the party discovered nesting under the Summer Stone, an ancient lay-line marker, months back. With the magical stone in hand Bree imbued the offering with Light.

Laying the warm stone, radiating with light, on the ground Geir encircled it with silver thread and cast an Alarm spell upon the area – an alarm to only be triggered by Beel.

With their offering laid out, they launched into a speech about the chosen children of the earth, really laying it on thick, before finally casting a knowing finger at a random Keel onlooker in the audience. “This is your chosen one! Come forth and take this gift!” The gasps and whispers from the crowed, “Egg. Not Egg. Why Egg?” The little creature, Egg, looked in abject horror as all eyes fell on him. Beel, the Void Star launched into a tirade.

With a self-righteousness, Beel went to snatch up the red glowing stone he assumed was rightfully his. Geir’s shrill alarm pierced the darkness of the cavern and sent the little angry creature stumbling back. The guards levied their tiny spears at the group. But the Keel onlookers erupted with shouts of “Egg! Egg Red Stone!” and the terrified little creature that the party had anointed was thrust forward by the masses and made to take the hot red stone in his spindly hands.

The party looked on with confusion as this tiny creature scooped out his own eye and reluctantly pushed the warm red mass into the weeping socket left behind. “It burns!” exclaimed the poor creature, “I see the veins, the veins of the earth. They are aflame.”

Egg Red Stone had been venerated by the dubious deed’s of the group. The rabid crowd cheered their new leader. Beel and his retinue angrily retreated to their sanctum in the large tower near the Illithid statue. Seeing a need to rest, Hugo cast Leomund’s Tiny Hut on the steps of Beel’s sanctum, blocking the entryway. The group invited Egg into the hut to rest until he was read to face his public.

As the outsiders and Egg rested in the strange glowing bubble at the steps of the sanctuary, the citizens of this town began camping outside the hut. Pilgrims awaiting word from their prophet.

While resting in the hut, the group learned from Egg that this sort of abrupt change in spiritual leaderships was nothing new for the Keel. Beel had usurped Glip, the Whispered Mind, who had himself usurped another before that and so on. Beel’s downfall was inevitable but never so soon and never would it have been Egg, of all Keel to take the mantle.

After setting Egg to rest for a bit, the party discussed their intentions. Hugo, always seeking an opportunity, saw their backing of the new leader as a way to leverage the Keel to mine godstone for them in the future.

Their machination were cut short when they caught sight of a flash of motion on the edge of the light, through the camps around the hut, snatching up Keel by the bunch — the drider hunters had returned.

Lured to the city by the boisterous display the group made appointing Egg as the new leader, the driders were set on taking advantage of the unguarded spoils. Panic beset the many Keel outside the hut. They rushed the steps towards the sanitarium but even as Hugo dropped the effects of the Hut, the masses found the doors to the building barred and locked. Beel and his guard watched from a balcony above, grimly passing judgement on those who were not loyal in their faith. The Keel were exposed.

Hugo raced out across between the narrow buildings, dancing lights darting about, casting golden light into the darkness — until he spotted the abomination. Long crooked arachnid legs supporting a heavy rounded black abdomen covered in tiny hairs. Erupting from the abdomen, in place of a thorax, the lean narrowed fame of a man with ash grey skin. A twisted and hateful face with strange angular features. Peering out from beyond its shoulder, the awful bend of a black longbow. In one hand, a cruel sword. Its other hand splayed out flat, with tiny motes of magical energy dancing in its palm.

Set in between the small buildings, both Hugo and the monster appeared as titans posed for battle.

Quick to act, Hugo flicked his hand and muttered a word of magic. The drider protested and twisted and then began to lift off the ground. Suspended 20 feet in the air, Hugo’s Levitation had worked.

The drider took the crooked bow from its back and sunk shots into the wizard – but Hugo kept focus on his spell.

Geir began hailing the creature with arrows as Bree charged forth with her hammer-axe. With a bounding leap, and a thought to her magical shoes, Bree took flight and met the suspended drinder in free-space. The two exchanged cuts and blows as arrows and bolts of magic rained down.

The Keel continued to frantically try to gain entrance to the sanctuary but Beel’s contingent kept the doors firm. As the battle continued, other hunters flashed from the shadows, snatching away Keel a half dozen at a time.

The monster attempted to dispel the effects of levitation only to be countered by Hugo. The heroes pressed their advantage and continued the assault.

Desperate strikes and bites from the drider worried Bree not – until a tingle in her mind challenged her control. But the willful cleric fought the effects of the failed Hold Person. With nothing to take purchase of, the drider was stuck suspended above the small buildings with a flying Bree hammering away.

Finally, Bree flew up and over the horror and unleashed a devastating Thunderwave, blasting the spider creature and sending it hurling 20 feet down to the ground. No sooner did the drider drive deep into the ground, Geir was atop the beast with his spear – driving the point between its shoulder blades and pinning the lifeless creature to the ground.

With one hunter dispatched, the others retreated into the darkness, but not before stealing away many helpless Keel.

Swimming in the aftermath of the drider attack, with one red fiery eye looking up at Beel on the balcony above, Egg Red Stone erupted with anger. “This blood is on your hands!’ A spit of arcane fire shot from the red hot stone in the Keel’s eye and splashed on the facade of the building, feet from Beel’s perch.

The revolution had begun.

Reaches of Nalvros: Region – Oijij Badlands

Continuing in the series of unused Dungeon World prep, this week I’m serving up an entire region. Enter the Oijij Badlands.

Reaches of Nalvros Almanac
Region: Oijiji Badlands

Region – Oijij Badlands

Torrid, Bogs and Quagmires, Perilous, Evil


  • Twisted and ugly, unnatural landscape.
  • Never a solid piece of ground.
  • Shifting landmarks.
  • Spring: Stagnant air.
  • Summer: Steaming bogs.
  • Autumn: Muggy and soggy.
  • Winter: Rot-weed in full bloom.


Area – The Corpseway

Appearing every few hundred feet to those who penetrate the deepest parts of the swamp, decaying corpses and moss-covered skeletons of various shapes and sizes hang on braided vines from the trees. The freshest are dined upon by devil monkeys; those unfit for the screeching monkeys, scoured clean by buzzing clouds of swamp-flies.
: Monster – Devil Monkeys
: Hazard – Swamp Tar

Site – The Sisters of Ojiji

The strange and dark camp is home to the crones known as the Sisters of Ojiji. To ensure nothing is lost in the drifting of the night, everything is chained to a center point; a blind and broken swamp troll.
: Discovery – The Skin-Weavers
: Site – RumTum the chained troll

Site – The Creeping Garden

A lush and verdant oasis in the otherwise muted and twisted Ojii expanse. The thicket of dense vegetation, sweetly smelling flowers and supple fruited trees, never seems to appear in the same place twice. It follows.   

Area –  Kirotoki River

While foot travel on patchy land or through shallow water is possible, the furthest reaches of the Ojiji would be most swiftly reached via the river. Instead of a single course, this waterway offers a myriad of interconnected streams, channels, and kettle ponds. Negotiating these confusing waterways proves difficult without a map.

  • Why do locals from outside the Oijij shun travel on the River?
  • What here are indigenous creatures rumored to protect?
  • What is unusual about the insects of the Oijij?

: Hazard – Swamp Tar
: Site – Root Hollow
An enormous, moss-covered tree lies toppled across part of the Kirotoki
River. Faint animal tracks run to and from a dark opening amongst the roots at one end, on the other side of which is a damp, rocky burrow.

When you crawl into the Hollow, roll +nothing: on a 10+, You find something —roll 1d8 on the table below; on a 7-9, roll 1d12 on the table below.

1-2an animal skeleton, in repose
3a broken tool (spade, axe, etc.)
41d4 rations wrapped in an oilskin
5a tarnished bracelet, worth 1d6x10 coin
6a sealed bone tune holding a scroll
7-8a tunnel leading deeper
9-10a trap, natural or constructed
11-12a dangerous creature

Area – Black Baron’s Keep

A wicked keep of black stone, high spires, jagged crenelations and a gate that hangs open wide like a dog’s maw. Worse yet, the whole unseemly thing sways on four massive squat crab-like legs that muck through the Badlands at their own will.
: Monster – The Black Baron

Site – The Blue Marble

A half buried smooth yellow stone sphere; spider-webbed with veins of blue-silver metalloid. Moss and lichen creep up the bottom third of the sphere. If the proportions are consistent, the sphere would be several meters in circumference. On the upper third of the smooth stone, angled up towards the sky is a narrow (3×3) circular shaft that disappears into the center of the stone. Even in the midday sun, the sphere is cold to the touch.
: Treasure – Crystal spike
: Treasure – Blue-silver rod


Hazard – Swamp Tar

A viscous, dark ooze covers the trees and ground in some areas, possibly
indicating an infection from some dark Source.

When you come into bare-skin contact with swamp tar, it burns you; you will suffer 1 point of damage every few moments until you find some way to remove the glue-like substance.

Monster – Devil Monkey

Horde, Small, Intelligent, Organized, Devious, Planar
Hurled object 1d4 (reach, near); 3 HP; 0 Armor
Vulnerable to cold

On one of the planes of fire grows a tree; that tree bears flaming fruit; and that fruit, when consumed, inexplicably transports the eater to the hottest climes of the mundane world. Such was the means of arrival of this rapidly-multiplying species of diminutive, impish primates.
Instinct: To find a way home, wreaking havoc along the way

  • Chatter mockingly from the treetops
  • Hurl flaming feces
  • Reveal much greater numbers than anticipated

Treasure: Scavenged gold jewelry; burning gall bladder (magical ingredient)

Monster – The Black Baron

Solitary, Magical, Hoarder, Ruthless
Necrotic Ray (1d10+1 ignores armor); 12HP; 1 Armor
Close, Near
Immune to poison, possessed by a Bog Mote.

The wicked Bog Mote who inhabits the Baron’s brain did not turn him a foul man; the Baron has forever been a foul man. The poisonous sprite that controls him only sought to exploit the Baron’s resources.

  • Wield terrible magic
  • Move the Keep
  • Command the Swamp
  • Hack up sticky black ichor

Treasure: The wealth of a kingdom hidden within the Keep.

Monster – Bog Mote

Solitary, Tiny, Planar, Flying
Stink aura (1d4 ignores armor); 6HP; 0 Armor
Immune to poison

This small floating ball of brown spores darts quickly between hosts; hiding in the swampy waters if necessary.

  • Dart to and fro
  • Hide in the swamp
  • Fly up your nose
  • Burrow into your brain
  • Take control


The Blue Marble

A half buried smooth yellow stone sphere; spidered webbed with veins of  blue-silver metalloid. Moss and lichen creep up the bottom third of the sphere. If the proportions are consistent, the sphere would be several meters in circumference. On the upper third of the smooth stone, angled up towards the sky is a narrow (3×3) circular shaft that disappears into the center of the stone.  Even in the midday sun, the sphere is cold to the touch.

The unquiet Undead [] [] [] []
Poison/disease [] [] [] []
Noble sacrifice [] [] [] []

Common Areas

[] A pit/shaft/chasam
[] A smooth bored cylindrical hall
[] Rouge hewed natural walls
[] A crack in the wall
[] A large circular room supported by a huge column
[] Niches/ alcoves

Unique Areas

[] A tunnel illuminated with glowing fungus
[] A tinkerer’s workshop
[] An underwater stream
[] A large circular room with a huge collapsed column
[] A hidden crystalline chamber

Discovery Seeds

[] A pile of bones and trash
[] A goblin survivor, looking for a way out
[] A huge white androgynous humanoid, tending to his work
[] Cilia-like glowing fungus, moving without a breeze.
[] A room full of moldering undead goblins
[] A swarm of tiny blue motes lead the way
[] A valuable mineral/metal
[] Signs of a battle
[] A magical/alien item

Danger Seeds

[] A pit trap
[] Large mechanical beetles (16) scoured the tunnels
[] A fungaloid lord soaking strands of glowing fungus in the water
[] A room collapse

Ladders in the Dark

In a recent 5e game, the adventures followed an opening in mine shaft into a subterranean mushroom forest; an underground ravine filled with massive mushrooms and curious, gnome-sized, wide-eyed, cave-dwelling onlookers. The party set forth down a winding tunnel, deeper into the earth. After encountering a venerated myconid lordling and ingesting oodles of spores – the heroes came to a half-sized temple to the fungal hive. Oh yeah, on account of the spores, the party could now read one another’s thoughts and empathize with the surrounding fungi.

Exploring the pint-sized temple provided some additional opportunities for mushroom talk and sharing ugly truths between the group. Eventually, they found a tiny ladder that lead down, further still.

Hanging down into the dark void, the child-sized ladder bent back and forth on itself, like a fire escape. It was the only path to discover the answers to the questions they sought. Faced with the prospect of descending a wee-bitty ladder that hung suspended in the darkness thousands of feet above god-knows-what, it felt like the perfect opportunity to make a mini game mechanic.    G

Roll20 play space for The Descent
Left: cutaway view of the cavern. Right: ladder mini-game

 The Descent

The tiny stairs hand down and into stretch far into the darkness. The structure sways with a gentle rhythm and creeks in protest as you step on to the grate.

  • There are six ‘zones’ on the stairs, 1 at being the highest point and 6 being the lowest point.
  • Each zone is made up of 5 squares, roughly 50ft each.
  • The consequence of falling off the stairs at each zone is listed below.
1 & 220d6 dmg when you hit the rocks.
3 & 4 DC10 acrobatics save to angle towards the water.
– on a save, 10d6 dmg and in the water.
– on a fail, 20d6 dmg and on the rocks.
5DC15 acrobatics save to angle towards the water.
– on a save, 10d6 dmg and in the water.
– on a fail, 20d6 dmg and on the rocks.
6It’s too short a fall to angle towards the water.
20d6 dmg, minus 5 dice for each square below the
highest square in zone 6. Reduced to a minimum
of 5d6.

Movement on the stairs is as followed:

Out of Combat

Spend roughly 1 minute traversing the stairs to move between zones.

In Combat

Spend a full Move action, advancing a square up or down.

If all you do on your turn is Move and Dash – move 2 squares. Then you may opt to make a DC12 Athletics/Acrobatics check to recklessly move down the stairs.

On a success, move 1 additional space. On a critical success, move 2 additional spaces.

If you fail by 5 or more, you stumble and fall prone on the stairs, reducing how much ground you can cover on a future turn. On a critical fail, you lose your footing and make a DC12 DEX save to avoid falling off the stairs.

The Fall

If you do fall from the ladder, see below.

While in free fall, you descend at a rage of 10 boxes per round. While falling, if you run out of boxes to advance before the end of your turn, you hit the ground. Consult the results of the previous table for damage.

While falling, on your turn, as a bonus action you must attempt a concentrate check , DC10 CON save, before attempting any action (spell, skill/ability check, etc.) that could stop your fall.

The base difficulty for stopping your fall is DC15, modified +/- by the situation.

Notes from Play

After our session, I made a little tweak that I hope will make this mechanic feel more crisp in future play. Originally each square was roughly 100ft of stairs – I reduced this to 50ft of stairs per square. The scale of the stairs did not affect the climb/fall mechanic because we were dealing with counting squares, not feet, but it did have an adverse effect when I layered in a combat on the stairs. This reduction has two primary purposes: reducing the number of rounds a falling character has before they hit the ground and improving ranged combat.

The party encountered a drider, who had been stalking them, on the stairs. It opened with dispelling the levitation the wizard was using to scale down the side of the ladder. The wizard began to fall. Not a bad dramatic opener.

From its inception, I had intended to treat each ‘rung’ on the ladder as a range of engagement for combat. If a character and an enemy shared the same rung (e.g. the 3rd square of zone 2), they were effectively close enough to one another on these twisting stairs to engage. I was OK with hand waving some of the combat movement details for the sake of pacing and excitement.

What ended up happening was the 100ft squares proved to be too much space for combat. Too few spells had ranges that could realistically cover the 200ft+ gap of 2 or squares. Aside from that dispel magic opener and a few long bow vollies, most of the actions taken between players and drider were movement.

At a point early on, the players decided this was a fight they did not want to undertake on such perilous grounds and they began their retreat. Because of the 100ft squares, it did not take long for the characters to be outpacing all ranged threats – and the drider broke off pursuit. Reducing the scale from 100ft to 50ft per should make future encounters feel more harrowing.

And the wizard, who chose to free fall until nearly the last moment, before concentrating and casting levitate (awesome) – would have had to resolve his fall in 3 turns instead of 6. And I’m all about reducing protracted combat.

What sorts of hyper-situational mechanics / moves have you been tinkering with?

Clock Tease

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation amongst my group – I can’t say no to a good progress clock. The Bells crime syndicate is making a move on the Marble District? Clock. The blood maladie takes the host on the next Wolf-Moon? Clock. Inciting a servants revolt against the aristocracy? Clock!

It started, as it does with most folks, with Apocalypse World; but it really became a problem with Blades in the Dark. If it please the court, I present Exhibit A, the play space from a past Roll20 BitD series. I have no regrets. Clocks are great.

Roll20 Blades Page – map, clocks, factions and relationship map

A Wild Lumpkin Appears!

So when I started watching the backlog of the Sunfall Cycle, an actual play series GMed by the Steven Lumpkin, and I saw a clock mechanic being leveraged in 5e – I was titillated.

It didn’t take long realize that the clock in the Sunfall series was functioning more like the Torchbarer grind track and less like a PbtA progress/project clock. Lured in under false pretenses? Sure. But there’s something to be said about what’s going on here nevertheless. So here I am, saying something.

The games that influence the style of play that Lumpkin’s Sunfall Cycle embodies are of a particular ilk: Bloodborne, Dark Souls and Darkest Dungeon. That’s to say, a fairly unforgiving learning curve that incentives creative problem solving and rewards player mastery over a given situation. Through some of the custom mechanics that lean heavily on the genre of game he’s seeking to invoke, Steven has managed to craft a high body count, grinding 5e experience that doesn’t feel punitive or oppressive. If you’re interested in a better explanation, go directly to the source,  

There are a lot of changes going on in the Sunfall series that work well to promote a particular style of play; but for the sake of this conversation I’m going to focus in on dat clock.

The Clock
Due to strange forces and arcane magics unseen, the dungeon is slowly collapsing in time- when the dungeon finally collapses, you respawn at your last Sunfire Brazier, and the clock is refilled.

Every time you enter the dungeon, you have 10 segments on the clock before the dungeon collapses.
Each Segment is 10 minutes long!

This gives the dungeon a clear structure; there are 10 “major events” that can happen before everything resets.  Every time something big happens, I can just check off one segment from the clock.

Steven Lumpkin, “The Sunfall Cycle Playtesting Rules: Character Creation, “Dark Souls”, The Clock” Roll 1d100, 21 October 2018

A 10 segment clock to tick throughout a dungeon, counting down to a critical end point. In the case of Sunfall, it’s the collapse of the dungeon and the return of the characters to a mystical moon base. But if magical moon base respawns aren’t your cup of tea, there’s nothing stopping a low magic setting from reaping the benefits of a little high-stakes, time-crunch, dungeon crawling. Now, what drives this little magic chaos clock?

The following actions tick down 1 segment off the clock:

* Fighting a fight.  Between the combat itself and catching your breath after, a fight advances the clock.
* Taking a short rest.  You must dedicate your collective efforts to recovery during this period.
* Common skill-based actions that invoke a risk of discovery or failure: Picking a lock, Disarming a trap, Hacking down a door, Climbing a challenging ascent, etc.
* Any improvised action that would take a decent chunk of time and effort- for example, carrying a crate of heavy stone statue pieces from a few rooms away and down a narrow flight of spiral stairs.
* Having an extended conversation with an NPC, when the GM deems it appropriate.  Talking amongst yourselves will never advance the clock.

Steven Lumpkin, “The Sunfall Cycle Playtesting Rules: Character Creation, “Dark Souls”, The Clock” Roll 1d100, 21 October 2018

This is where it’s at. Codifying all the noodley bits into 10 minute segments to propel the clock forward. Now, there are other elements to the game that are directly influenced by this time track, lighting for example. Interested in knowing more? To previous link I cast thee!

To The Laboratory

Armed with this premise of a 10-segment clock that reduces by one segment after each fight, short rest, involved skill-based action or other laborious task; we can start concocting situations and consequences for racing the a clock.

Personal preference, my fail states would rarely end in flat out player death. It’s far more enjoyable to keep them around and just making things worse and worse. Either way, let the players at your table know what’s at stake before it’s too late.

Dirigible Down

How did the goblins manage to commandeer that airship? You’ve got it on good authority that not a one of them in the lot is adept at flying, let alone landing. That surely has not stopped them from making a right-awful mess of the lowlands for the pass three days, as they’ve sailed dangerously low and recklessly fast. At this pace they’ll be at the castle walls by nightfall – though it’s hard to say if they’ve enough altitude to clear the parapets.

If the wingwright’s calculations are correct, the arcane engines have been running wide open for too long. They’re liable to explode at the slightest provocation. These damned fools are riding an arcane bomb into a stone wall. Now’s time to get aboard the craft and land it before the entire city are showered with goblin guts and balloon bits.

The Chronomancer’s Task

The golden zugguart of Zemdaru Lu, the last of the Hoursmiths, is drifting. The cyclopean structure is drifting across time – and it’s taking the Brass Bends District with it. The Troll Barons are bound to be mighty cross – the Brass Bends weren’t scheduled to slip into the nether of time for at least 300 more years. So it goes in the bureaucracy.

The Consortium has filed the requisite paperwork for a fully bonded and ensured questing party to venture into the golden zigguart and put the derelict Hoursmith to task. Alas. There was a clerical error and they’re stuck with you. Venture into the chronomancer’s lair and put a stop to this madness before it is too late.

The Joys of the Butcher Prince

The castle whispers with rumors of the Prince’s cruelty. The Queen, bereft of the firm hand of her husband, the Red King; left alone to the task of raising her troubled son – she has taken to keeping the boy locked away. Bound to his studies and worship for many hours a day.

Still yet, the Prince has an unseemly appetite for the macabre that cannot be so easily hidden away. From high upon the keep in his solar – dark demands are carried forth to the prisons below. The galors approach. They come to snatch you and yours out of your cell and take you before the blood-spoiled boy to partake in unthinkable inhumanity. Now, you must escape.

Reaches of Nalvros: Ants in the Pants

In last week’s post, My Dirty Secret, I made mention of some prep from an old Dungeon World game that had gone dormant. In an effort to not completely waste the effort, why not dust off the work and give it new life.

The notes process, taken from Perilous Wilds, nest discoveries, dangers and sites under respective regions with the almanac. The regions tend to come into better focus as more points of interest are added. As this sharing process continues, I’ll bounce around from region to region sharing the things I’m most interested in at the time. Over time the various regions will become more defined.

This week, we start in the Gorecrow Gap, a stretch of clear-cut wood southeast of the walled city of Ironwood. The trees of the Gap grow to tremendous size and hardness – providing both a source of valuable ironwood lumber to nearby civilizations and roots for the murderous gorecrow.

Region – The Gorecrow Gap

Temperate, Repopulating Timber Lands, Perilous, Neutral

  • Dense trees are refilling the gap
  • Exquisitely tall Ironwood
  • Things go bump in the night
  • Spring: Color returns to the Ironwood
  • Summer: The nests come alive
  • Autumn: Harvest of the Ironwood Pods
  • Winter: Ironwood turns a dull white

Site – The Nest

A subtle but consequential rise in the dusty earth gives hint to the frenetic activity that lurks below. A very active, giant ant colony.


  • Subterranean cloying heat.
  • Irrationally deliberate tunnels and passages.
  • The ceaseless thrumming chatter of a thousand minds work as one.

: Danger – Goliath Ant Drone
: Danger – Goliath Ant Queen
: Hazard – Subterranean Maze
: Treasure – Goliath Ant Queen Pupa

Danger- Goliath Ant Drone

Horde, Large, Blind
Mandibles (d6 damage); 6 HP
Hand, Close

These huge, blind, subterranean insects build elaborate tunnel systems that sprawl throughout the Gap. Something has agitated the colonies.
Instinct: To serve the queen

  • Excavate earth
  • Leave a scent trail
  • Swarm

Danger- Goliath Ant Queen

Individual, Huge, Immobile, Blind
Mandibles (d4 damage); 10 HP; Armor 1

A living factory. This behemoth matriarch, designed for breeding, can hardly defend herself. But do not think for a moment that makes her any less dangerous; she is mother to an entire army.
Instinct: To spawn.

  • Birth larva
  • Rally soldiers
  • Throw weight around

Hazard – Subterranean Maze

The seemly chaotic network of tunnels, caverns and chambers is anything but chaotic for the ants. You, however, are no ant.

When you navigate the labyrinth of the Goliath Ant Colony, Roll + INT. On a 10+ You get hopelessly lost and find — roll d8 on the table below; on a 7-9, roll d12.

1-2A lone drone
3The nursery
4An unexpected exit
5The larder (+2d6 rations)
6The Queen’s chamber
7-8A swarm of Goliath Ant Drones
9-10Am abandoned tunnel, leading deeper
11A gnome poacher
12What the ants fear most

Treasure – Goliath Ant Queen Pupa

A soft and milky white fetal creature the size of a horse. For now.
A future Goliath Ant Queen, still impressionable. When you separate the future queen from her colony and raise the Queen as your own, Roll + WIS. On a 10+ a new master — choose 3 from the list below; on a 7-9, choose 1.

  • The colony serves you implicitly.
  • The colony takes root in a place of your choosing.
  • The colony matures quickly.
  • The colony does not attract undue attention.
  • The colony does not damage surrounding valuables.  
  • The colony has a taste for the exotic.

My Dirty Secret: A Man Named, Jason

Some while back I was running a game of Dungeon World for folks on Roll20. The game ran for a couple of months and for one reason or another it came to a ho-hum end. It wasn’t a well orchestrated, fictionally satisfying, cinematic climax. It just sputtered out with a whimper. People got busy. Situations changed. Sessions were skipped and eventually, the campaign fizzled. And ya know what, that’s okay. That’s not why you’re here.

That brief series of gaming brought about one of my most ‘oh damn, that’s cool’ moments – when one of the heroes crossed into a magical tapestry and took the place of a venerable saint to wrestle a vile black unicorn. Henceforth changing history as the character took the place of the honorable saint as the figurehead of a devout religious sect. But that’s also not why you’re here, not now at least. You’re here because you want to know my awful shame.

I, Michael the GM, was over prepping my game. A Dungeon World game no less – how salacious!

You know who I blame? Well, Jason Lutes, mostly. Perilous Wilds, his random table fed, exploration focused Dungeon World supplement is – addictive.

Time-frozen swamp, haunted by a luscious garden that creeps across the landscape? I got you, fam. A caldera, home to a violently reclusive cult of daring Lamplighters? On it, chief. A splendid mountain villa, once home to a line of erudite dwarven lords – now the site of a great betrayal and a mercury golem? Miles ahead of you, buddy. Suffice to say, once I started rolling up random locations, I just couldn’t help myself.

I was afflicted by the GM’s sickness – an incurable love for the lonely game.

So here I was, playing a weekly game of Dungeon World with a perfectly fantastic group of players. But was it all was all a thinly veiled excuse to noodle in an increasingly more convoluted Google Doc between sessions? I pecked away nightly, quietly interpreting dozens and dozens of d12 rolls – consulting charts and decoding the results in my brain. Answer questions that hardly yet existed, let alone been asked.

But what is the: Unnatural | Divine | Discovery | of a | Chaotic | Wisdom!

Harry Clarke Andersen

I was flagrantly defying the principles of the game that I espouse as the closest thing to GMing 101. I drew the map, but then, I filled in the blanks! Then I went back to add in the crosshatching.

But dare I say, where’s the harm in a small novella worth of game prep? After all, this isn’t the ‘allow me to regale you with my grand tale of intrigue’ type of GM prep. This is that good ish – the evocative prep that raises two or three questions for every one that it answer. The prep in a really sexy consistent format structure. The prep that gets you totally jazzed for what comes next. The prep that just begs for players to get involved to bring the beast to life.

And there it is – prep that begs to be played. That’s the redeeming quality, is it not? The hundred some odd pages of ideas and almanacs that I have squirreled away from this long defunct game are now – a corpse. When that Dungeon World game ended, the game prep went on the shelf and I haven’t fiddled with it since. To do it now would feel uselessly academic. The players, weren’t the excuse to prep – they were the catalyst. I may have been writing for me, but I was writing because of them.

Are you a habitual over-prepper? Are you seeking treatment or embracing your foibles? When has your need to over-prepare your creative pallet bitten you in the ass?

Oh, yes. Once more with feeling for Perilous Wilds – it’s worth the price of admission. I haven’t run a game of DW without it since first reading it. I like it so much I use PW rolled dungeons in my 5e game. Besides, Keny Widjaja’s illustrations are consistently dope.

Surrounding Demons by Spidol (Keny Widjaja)

Failing is Effin’ Fun

I’m convinced that players are by in large masochists. At least the ones that I play with tend lean in that direction. Maybe that’s a result of how I run games. Maybe it’s just the type of people I attract in my life – oh god. Not a time for self reflection.

Failing is, as the big words above state, effin’ fun. With this caveat – failure is most fun when it hurts like a mutha and it does not rob players of the agency. Solution: give the players the tools necessary to hurt themselves. They’ll rarely shy away from it and they’ll be surprisingly ruthless.

Over the past year I’ve been running a weekly game of 5e on Tuesday nights. It’s got all the traditional trappings that you’d expect out of a D&D game. And it’s been a ding-dang blast. But I have a secret and I think my players are starting to suspect something – I’ve got PbtA chocolate in their D&D peanut butter. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, I get it. But hey – permit me this flare for the dramatics.

For those unfamiliar with PbtA – a quick rundown. Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) is a designation for a family of games, inspired by Apocalypse World by Vincent & Meg Baker. The various systems loosely share design aspects with AW – what is/isn’t PbtA can be a discussion for another time. For the basis of this discussion, PbtA games generally have players rolling 2d6 + a modifier between -2 and +2 with a 10+ result being a successful result where the players ‘get what they want’. A 7-9 result is a partial success or a success with complications; the players get what they want but at some additional cost or complication – cue the tense music because things are ramping up. Finally, a 6 or less is a failure. The player may still very well get what they want, or maybe they don’t, regardless – this is where the wheels fall off. The crap hits the fan and thing go sideways. But never does the forward momentum stop.

TL; DR – There are dozens of stellar PbtA games. Go play them. At the very least, go read them – the GM principles alone are worth the price of admission. Check out some of the titles below.

By leaning on some of the key concepts lifted from the Powered by the Apocalypse family of games, I’ve been able to run a style of 5e that has proven to be a win for both players and GM. Concepts such as: ongoing collaborative world building (leading questions, another future topic), the idea of say ‘yes’ or roll, a non-binary success / failure approach on non-combat rolls and the idea of failing-forward.

Since by now we’re all big fans of sucking – here’s what I did. I set out to make failure choices in my 5e D&D game similar to the messy choices seen in many PbtA moves: On a failure, pick ‘x’ from the list below. That’s when the players realize their staring at a shit sandwich on a plate no matter what they choose – and everyone is into it.

Now, I’m not a crazy person. I’m not monkeying around with 5e combat mechanics (yet?), the d20 vs AC is still sacred in some circles. So what’s left? Skill checks. Okay, but what’s better than a skill check? A skill challenge! Go on you say? Don’t mind if I do.

Skill challenges have their origins in D&D 4e. Extrapolate a complex series of actions down to a series of skill checks vs a DC. Allow the players some flexibility in what skills they use to overcome the obstacle. Track the successes vs. failures and the overall result is determined by which boxes get filled up first. Easy enough and familiar even if you never touched a 4e game – we see a very similar concept in 5e Death Saves.

So we have these two concepts, failure choices from PbtA and skill challenges from 4e and now, we make em kiss. Boom – the Fail-Pick Challenge is born. A typical skill challenge in original design but with an added wrinkle – on a failure, in addition to marking a failure, the player chooses one of x number of choices that each weigh some sort of interesting risk vs. reward. One choice might be safe(r) but provide no benefit. Another choice might be comically bad for the character’s heath but weighted with a big fat juicy carrot danging off the end of the stick. The more tempting the choice, the more it’s going to ‘cost’.

The particulars of each Fail-Pick should be devised in advance and with some degree of care. As the GM you know what candies your player’s bacon best. What’s the thing that they just will squirm in their seats to say ‘no’ to? That’s what we’re after, players lamenting their predicament while everyone else leans in awaiting their choice.

How’s about an example from a recent game:

Dismantling the Earth Eater

The source of the furious grinding sound comes into view as you round the final bend. At the end of the tunnel, a wall of gnashing and biting metal teeth and gears lock and spin with a unceasing need to consume. The machine, twice as tall as a house, bristles with snapping belts, hissing pistons and flashing diodes. Thick tubes feed hydraulic pumps and gouts of steam roil out in anger. The massive contraption works to strip away the earth before it with astonishing ease. The mountain above you and the earth below you quake in protest. Putting a stop to this madness will require quick thinking and precise action.

Skill Check DC15 to exploit a weakness in the brutal apparatus – each player acts in initiative order, using each skill only once.

Successes: [ ] [ ] [ ] Failures: [ ] [ ] [ ] Time Track: [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]

On Initiative count 20, mark one segment of the Time Track.

On a success, mark one box on the Success Track.

On a failure, mark one box on the Failure Track and choose one Fail-Pick below:

  • Bail Out – get out quick. DC12 Dexterity save vs. a glancing blow (5d6 damage), save for half damage.
  • Hang Tight – take the shot. Take a glancing blow (5d6 damage) with no save, but set up your next ally with Advantage.
  • Take the Blow – face the danger head-on. Take the full blow (10d6 damage) but mark a success on the Success Track, in addition to your failure.

If the Success Track fills first – the challenge is a success. The Earth Eater screams in protest as the pistons and gears powering the industrial megalith come to a halt. The vicious machine now lay dormant as the echoes of its grinding fade into the stone. Pebbles and debris trickle down from above.

If the Failure Track fills first – the challenge is failed. The boring device whirls out of control and continue to drills into the mountainside. Ravenous in its consumption of the earth! Cracks and fissures split along the ceiling and floor – the whole place is coming down.

If the Time Track fills first – the chance to stop the machine has passed! The Earth Eater chugs away, ripping through the innards of the mountain – ejecting tons of tilled earth and debris in its wake, nearly burying you! The device is out of your reach now and continuing on – down a path that will surely take it directly into the nearby abbey.

That should give you a bit of the flavor of a Fail-Pick Challenge. There’s an endless number of ways you could go with it using a similar design and that big sexy imagination of yours.

If the idea of tinkering with skill challenges in this way is interesting and you’re keen on some more examples and thoughts on the elements that make the design – I made a thing. It’s a short little ditty about Fail-Picks and you can find it on DriveThruRPG for a single smacker. Link below for those pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down. And hey, thanks.

What are you doing in your game to make failure dynamic, exciting and efing fun?

Yeah, like – a lot.

“So, what do you do?”

There are two responses to this question – the uninspired answer that everyone expects you to give. The one I give by default. The one that sends alarm bells ringing my brain halfway through my half-hearted explanation, “stop. you’re killing them with your apathy.”

And then, the answer that’s brimming with passion and excitement and truly speaks to the heart of this man. That’s the answer I never give out. That’s what this place is for.

So, what do I do? I think about RPGs, like – a lot.

I first got involved in tabletop RPGs, let’s call it, four years ago; because quite frankly, nobody is going to fact check me. I was late to the party. Depictions of the glory days of D&D in media like Stranger Things invokes in me a nostalgia that I have no right to claim. There has to be a clever phrase for this false sense of belonging to a moment you never had. Oh yeah, delusion.

I grew up at the teat of video game RPGs – titles that I later learned cribbed so heavily from the rise of TTRPGs that they might as well have been paying royalties to TSR and company. I was primed and ready, but I had no gateway. No cooler older siblings to haze me into their game. My equally nerdy best friend showed no interest in the hobby. No access to a FLGS and certainly no Matt Mercer and a legion of Critters to lure me deeper down the gnoll-hole.

It wasn’t until Roll20 came about that I finally had access. I broke in to the previously esoteric world of pen and paper roleplaying games, on the internet. How anachronistic. Alas, those first few goes at it, they were, unique. I truly hope no matter how addled my brain becomes through the years, I never forget the sound of my first GM shouting to his off camera daughter to, “just put a bowl over the mouse! I’ll get to it later.” And then catapulting my gnome, strapped to a dog, across the river. The game sessions were short lived and mostly forgettable – but that mouse. That damn mouse.

The online play spun into public play with Pathfinder Society at a game shop no more than 5 minutes from my front door. Who knew? Clearly not I. Eventually, I did the inevitable, the unthinkable – I started GMing. That’s when things fell into place.

Scene change. Cross fade. Present day. Over the past three years, I’ve fallen in with an absolutely amazing group of players; nearly all met randomly through Roll20 and G+ gaming communities (RIP). Over that time, we’ve logged hundreds of hours playing dozens of systems, telling countless stories and making honest to god some of the most meaningful memories in my life. It is because of these random invites that I’m booking my third consecutive year spending a week in June in Columbus, OH at Origins Games Fair- playing more great games with more amazing people and making more memories. It’s a vicious cycle.

The side effect of this bountiful wellspring of RPGs is this affliction that I simply cannot shake. My brain is in game mode, constantly. Every bit and bob of media consumed is immediately deconstructed for content. Like a picky toddler dissecting their dinner, hunting down and extracting all the vile ‘green stuff’ before they eat a bite. The world is my chicken casserole and all the “green stuff” is gamable goodness. Here’s the trick. I love the green stuff. You would too kid, just eat your dang dinner.

Next month I’ll be 35, halfway to 70. I’m banking heavily on a few more decades of kicking around design ideas with good friends, obsessing over the latest Kickstarter launches and deliveries, prepping for future sessions, binging on backlogs of Actual Plays and just generally just keeping my brain whirling with making the make-believe, real.

I like RPGs. Yeah, like – a lot.