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.

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.