How Dice Create Game Feel in Tabletop Role-Playing Games

Video game developers spend countless hours tweaking their work to produce the intangible quality they call Game Feel. Game Feel is that little spark of joy you get from tapping a button and seeing Mario jump. Even on an empty platform, without an enemy to stomp or a box to bash, it is satisfying when Mario jumps. Behind that feeling is Shigeru Miyamoto sitting in a studio with an alpha version of his game, making Mario jump over and over again, literally for days in an empty void, minutely adjusting Mario’s weight, jump velocity, landing animation, etc. until the jump feels absolutely perfect. Any time you’ve ever played a shooter and picked up a new gun, and just knew it was more powerful the moment you fired it, you’ve experienced game feel.

I’ve never seen this term come up in discussions of tabletop role-playing design. We talk endlessly about reward systems, associated / dissociated mechanics, social contracts and narrative authority. Far less frequently do we talk about the fundamental act of rolling the dice and getting a result, for good or ill, and how the design of dice systems and resolution mechanics can make that more or less satisfying on a visceral level.

Last year, I briefly played Coriolis: The Third Horizon by Fria Ligan with a couple friends. That game has deep lore, plenty of mechanical bits to chew on, and incredibly beautiful physical components. Regardless, it fell flat for us. One of my players complained that his character didn’t quite feel competent, even in things where he had specialized. At first, misguided, I tried to disprove his claim with math. Coriolis has a chart in the core book that outlines the likelihood of success for different rolls on any given check. I pointed out that a character specialized in something had a similar chance of success as a comparably specialized low-level character in Dungeons & Dragons 5E. Then I realized that was the root of the issue. In order to know his chances for success, I had to look it up on a table in the book. 

Chances of success in Coriolis. You can pray for rerolls at the cost of the GM building a pool of screw the players” tokens.

Coriolis uses a system in which you roll a bunch of D6s together, and succeed if at least one of them comes up a 6. It’s nice and simple, but other than knowing that more dice is better, it’s completely opaque. What are your chances of at least one 6 coming up on a pool of 5d6? Apparently it’s 60%, but I have no idea how to get to that number. Contrast this with D&D’s system: roll a d20, add your numbers, get equal to or higher than a target to succeed. Putting aside critical hits for now, both of these systems are binary. You succeed or fail, nothing in between. If you have a +6 in D&D and need to hit a 15 target on average, that’s 60%. But D&D’s system has two traits that make it far more satisfying, that give it much more positive game feel.

Firstly, it’s much more transparent before the roll. Even if you aren’t thinking that a D20 represents 5% increments, you can intuit that a +6 in 20 sounds like an okay bonus. And second, perhaps most importantly, the roll itself is much more dense with information. In Coriolis no sixes came up, so you failed. In D&D, maybe you rolled a 14 when you needed that 15. So close! Arggh!” Maybe you rolled a 1 Wow, Garmok the barbarian really misjudged this leap.” Even though the result is binary, we can tell just how close we got. There is no mechanical difference in D&D between a 1 and a 14 in this case, but that bit of information — your distance from success– creates a little moment of nano-storytelling, something vital in an RPG. We narrate outcomes based on the difference in results, and experience them as degrees of success, even though non-binary resolution don’t explicitly exist in D&D.

This isn’t to say that somehow a D20 is inherently superior to a pool of D6’s. Torchbearer by Thor Olavsrud & Luke Crane uses a D6 dice pool, but has a more immediately transparent core mechanic than Coriolis does, where to feel okay about making a roll, you want a number of dice equal to double the obstacle of the test you are making. Once you roll, you can tell how close you are and manipulate the outcome using Torchbearers rather complex mechanisms. The Game Feel of Torchbearer is satisfying in a very different way than D&D’s classic D20 roll, and involves a lot more system mastery. So far I’ve mostly written about old school games on this site, which tend towards simple, single-roll resolutions, but Torchbearer is one of my favorite games, for almost the opposite reason. The complexity of its dice mechanics compliment the granularity of detail of the characters, contributing to its game feel, which is massively concerned with small details and individual moments. Each roll of the dice and manipulation of the results becomes a detailed narrative beat, focused on the specifics of the character.

Illustration from Torchbearer. Shaking your fist at a pile of failed dice and calling them Scoundrels!” is also very cathartic.

There are folks out there who pay D&D almost exactly as written, but swap out the D20 for 2D10. The result is that you get far more rolls in the middle range, so the characters’ actions become more predictable, and their skills and modifiers become more relevant. The advantage here is that it mostly eliminates the problem of the player who spends the whole evening never rolling above a 5, a much more likely event when they are rolling D20s. I’d argue though, that you lose as much as you gain, but the thing lost is much more intangible. It feels good to roll a D20_._ Maybe it’s just because D&D is the behemoth of the hobby, but D20s feel different from any other die. The near-sphere of triangles rolls just enough to be satisfying, and has a kind of definitive, singular authority to it. It is admittedly chaotic, but by cutting the sessions where you roll crap the whole time, you also cut out the ability to shout Natural 20!” and have the whole table clap as you indulgently narrate an gory bugbear-slaying.

Stars Without Number, by Kevin Crawford, does a brilliant job of harnessing dice math to produce game feel. Skill rolls, made outside of combat, take after Traveller and are rolled on 2d6. You’re likely to get results of about 7, so if you have a couple points in a skill you can feel relatively confident that it’ll work with some level of consistency. Your character feels competent in the things they are trained for. All combat rolls, however, use a D20 system straight from D&D. This makes combat feel more chaotic, frenzied and unpredictable, because it is.

Other games have eschewed dice entirely for other ways of resolving tasks and creating game feel. The most dramatic game feel I have ever experienced in Tabletop has been in the game Dread by Epidiah Ravachol and Nathaniel Barmore. Dread is a game for telling horror stories together, which eschews dice as a resolution mechanic in exchange for a Jenga tower. As the danger ramps up and blocks get pulled from the tower, the presence of the unstable object, brimming with potential energy, dominates the table. The fun in Jenga comes from that persistent tension, that at any moment there is going to be chaos and noise and a mess that wasn’t there before. Dread harnesses that brilliantly, turning that gleeful anticipation into something horrifying because the collapse of the tower means the violent death of a player character. 

Next time you’re playing a game, think about how you feel when you roll and manipulate the dice. Once the result is clear, what’s your emotional reaction? How did the design of the dice mechanic influence what you felt? Consider, maybe, that choosing to use the icosahedrons of chaos just because they are fun to roll and come in every color imaginable is just as legitimate a game design decision as a meticulously-tuned probability curve.

January 17, 2019

Thursdays in Thracia - Part 16

This is Part 16 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.

Phyllis Thickfilth, pre-conversion.

Continued from Part 15 when Stellaa met her doom and the party found a sword in a transparent chest lid.

What Happened

The party began searching the large chamber, inching warily towards the barred door and peeking towards the throne behind the curtains.  Then they heard heavy footfalls coming, and hid back in the small hidden room, just peeking out. Those who could see in the dark saw a creature enter the chamber. A woman. a cow? A cow-woman. A large, aging cow woman with graying fur and a stooped posture. They watched as she scooped up the lifeless body of Stellaa the cleric, and carried her away.  They decided to follow, sneakily.

They followed her back up to the subterranean river, and she kept moving back towards where the tribe of lizard men had been. She waded right into the river, standing strong against the swift current. They would have to move along the shore, passing once more under the great spider web that spanned the river. In her haste, Thelma Turge snagged her pointy witch’s hat on the web, alerting an enormous spider. It descended swiftly, foul poison dripping from its mandibles. Luckily, someone remembered that they still had the gleaming yellow statue-eyes from their first expedition, which held the power to paralyze foes! The eyes were deployed, freezing the spider in place, but using their final allotment of arcane energy. The light faded from them. The party hurled torches at the web, burning it away while the spider was stuck. It fell into the white water and was washed away.  The elderly cow-woman was nowhere to be seen. 

Thinking it best to return to the surface, the party headed back to where they knew there were stairs - near the bridge / home of Grastic Hammerclay, the self-conscious giant gnome whom they had befriended on dubious terms. On the way, they ran into some gnolls. After a sleep spell and some bloodletting, they interrogated one of them about the cow-woman and found out she was the grandmother of the Minotaur King, who rules the caverns from an ancient palace below.

They left the gnoll, greeted grastic, and proceeded upstairs. Waiting for them was a group of the black-clad death cultists behind a set of iron bars. When they moved to retreat down the stairs, however, the stairs flattened into a steep slide / ramp, and the whole party slid downward. Luckily, Grastic was able to catch them on their way down, and prevent them from tumbling into the rushing river.

They hatched a plan. Phyllis Thickfilth, a chaotic thief in need of a bath, crept back up the stairs, then clung to the ceiling above the metal bars, obscuring herself in the shadows. The other party members then shouted insults up to the cultists. Falling for the ruse, the cultists deactivated the stairs, opened the bars and came running down. When they had past, Phyllis moved into the next room. She found the switch for the stairs in a skull-bedecked ceremonial basin just in time and flipped it, reactivating the defenses and sending the cultists tumbling into the river. Grastic did not save them.

Stairs, braziers, menacing statues, etc.

When the rest of the party arrived upstairs, Glibble the Average, an elf, stepped on a stone which clicked under his feet. Looks like the switch controlled multiple defenses, and had not been turned off. As he leapt off the switch a spear shot downward from the ceiling, barely missing him.

Towards the back of the room behind dark curtains was a great black stone statue, with beautiful blue stones for eyes, flanked by great burning braziers. Phyllis climbed up the statue, and immediately felt the presence of death upon her. She was cursed! Having come this far, she made to pry the stones from the statues eyes. The braziers erupted in fire, and Phyllis duck-and-rolled down behind the statue, but not without getting a bit singed. To make matters worse, the thick curtains caught ablaze, creating a wall of fire between her and the rest of the party. Thinking fast, Ludens the Dwarf used his polearm to reach up and snag one of the curtains and slide it back along its rod, creating an opening.

The party quickly made their way back to the surface, consulting the existing map to figure out where they were in relation to the entrance. They moved along the rope bridges in darkness, the elf and dwarf leading the way so as not to attract bats.

Phyllis Thickfilth, post-conversion

Back in town, the party celebrated their successes and counted their coins. They visited Tiffara, a creepy lady on the edge of town who offered to identify magic items. The glass eyes (realistic ones, not the paralysis jewel eyes) they had given her earlier turned out to be able to magically grant someone the ability to see in darkness. The catch is that you have to replace your current eyes with them. She also identified the sword encased in the transparent chest-lid, and told them that, sadly, it was a cursed blade.

The party realized they had more than enough extra money now to purchase a modest cottage in the town of Thracia, and so embraced the joys of home ownership. They placed the cursed sword on the fireplace mantle, a trophy to be proud of.

In order to remove her curse, Phyllis approached the temple of Law. The high priestess could smell the Chaos on her, and gave her a choice between a very steep tithe to the temple, or swearing an oath to the gods of Law. Phyllis begrudgingly accepted the latter, and underwent the ritual bathing and purification.

Playing the Game

There were a lot of great moments here. The players are really starting to embrace the idea of combat as war in the game, avoiding a head to head fight with four measly guards in favor of using elements of the terrain to dispatch them without ever rolling initiative. They almost certainly could have won that fight, sure, but why risk the casualties? B/X really encourages this kind of thing, with death at 0HP and the combat game being highly chaotic. Or as, someone on a discord I belong to put it recently : use your brains to fight and if you don’t, you get this bullshit video game from the 80s that murders you.” Anyway I am loving this style of play more and more, and it’s fun to analyze what enables it. Some combination of a dungeon that is detailed enough to enable this sort of manipulation, combined with a lack of both attractive options in combat and a lack of incentive to engage with it. Where modern D&D characters each have so many ways to be badass in tactical combat, creating a whole hammer / nail scenario, B/X characters don’t have a lot of options to be badass in… anything really? The net result is that B/X tactics are about surprise, terrain, and other physical elements of the environment and fictional positioning: You’ve got a shield and good armor, and I have a blade at the end of a long stick, so I’ll stand behind you.” Where as a lot of 3+ edition combat is about chaining together special abilities and class features, and requires an understanding of the tactical game in the abstract. Note: I’m not edition-warring or cheering for a particular play style here, there are appeals to each, and I imagine most players’ preferences lie somewhere in the middle.

Until now, I’ve mostly been treating town as this abstract place where paperwork happens between dungeon expeditions. But now we’re developing some persistent elements that I want to play up in the future. I love that the players have decided to buy a house, it gives us a concrete place to imagine them crouched around a table, plotting their next foray. One player even started blueprinting the house on grid paper, figuring out where they could put their trophies.

When players create these little bits of creative ephemera, it brings me a lot of joy. We’re developing a nice stack of maps and sketches at this point. If you recognized the style behind the evolving Phyllis Thickfilth, it’s because she’s played by Olivia, who did all the art & design for my game Offworlders.

As town becomes more persistent, it also has me thinking about the wider world. It’s possible that I’ll start adding additional modules or dungeons as potential locations if my players feel like exploring something other than the caverns. Maybe the Isle of Dread lies just off the coast?

If you want to follow along at home, you can get both The Caverns of Thracia and B/X Essentials at DriveThru RPG. If you want to know when I post something new, put your email address in the sidebar.

January 16, 2019 actual-play b-x dungeons-dragons osr

Thursdays in Thracia - Part 15

This is Part 15 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.

Continued from Part 14, in which we learned the flexibility of Glibble’s Floating Disc.

What Happened

Descending into the darkness, the party found themselves on a wide shelf with two stone gargoyles, overlooking a square room. The walls of the room below were lined with skeletons whose eyes glowed an eerie, pulsating orange (40A, above).  Stellaa’s Detect Magic spell was still active, and it alerted her to the presence of an illusion. The wall behind the gargoyles was not a wall at all, and was in fact an opening into a large chamber (c).

At the west end of the chamber hung large curtains, and behind them a row of bars, and behind those, a throne. The party decided to investigate the other doors first. The door to the north was barred with wood, and its lock filled with wax and stamped with a seal. Clearly something dangerous lay beyond.

They recognized four patterns on the wall to the south, which had previously indicated the presence of secret doors. They opened and entered the first (h). Once two of their number were inside, an eerie voice sounded from the darkness, and the door began to close — the room was haunted!

Luckily, Filgrum Thickwobble, a fighter of incredible strength (18 Strength) was able to push back against the supernaturally animated door and get himself and his companion to safety. They tried the next door, behind which was a small chest, with a transparent lid. Suspended inside the lid was a beautifully crafted sword. 

As the party poked and prodded at the chest, two strange little creatures emerged from the shadows, with bulbous heads and gray, muscular bodies. They attacked!

The party fought valiantly, slaying the creatures, but sadly Stellaa the cleric fell to a mighty blow, her body flung to the floor of the larger room outside. With little time to mourn, her companions looted the chest, finding a small fortune in gems and coins, as well as a secret compartment containing unknown potions. They detached the transparent lid, and decided to return to the surface where they could figure out how to remove the sword.

Playing B/X

I could probably change the heading for this section to complaining about module layout” for all I’ve been doing it in the last few posts. The Caverns of Thracia is gorgeous in its interconnectedness. It is really impressive and creates this strong feeling of exploration and discovery. But oh boy is it convoluted to run. Let’s look at two bits of map:

  • Map 1

  • Map 2

Map 1 is a small selection of the big map of Level 2 of the dungeon. Map 2 is labelled Room Complex 40A-I.” Now when you look at them side by side, it is almost apparent that the stairs from 32, by the spider web in Map 1, go down to B, by the gargoyles in map 2. Almost. What isn’t apparent is that the big room, 40C in map 2, is actually directly above 41A, and that the gargoyle shelf with the opening to 40C, sits above another opening from which stairs descend to 41A. 41A has its own connections which link to other areas. If you find yourself going …wait what?” then you’ve got an idea of how confusing it can be to prep and run this dungeon. What’s more, Map 2, of room complex 40 A-I, is separated from Map 1 by a full ten pages of textual room descriptions and encounters in the module itself. No where, at least as far as I have found, is the connection between 32 (Map 1) and 40B (Map 2) described. You just have to kind of line things up mentally and make some good notes. 

Long story short, I missed a whole interesting encounter. There is supposed to be this powerful guardian at 40B that challenges a PC to single combat to allow passage to the shelf beyond. It’s cool and flavorful, and definitely would have resulted in the death of one of my low-level PCs. That room just doesn’t exist in our version of Thracia now. While flipping through my print-out and trying to keep things moving in play, I straight-up missed it.

I missed other stuff too. The chest with the transparent top is supposed to be both immobile and trapped, but that information comes at the end of the whole room description, after the contents of the chest are described. The two monsters in the room are doppelgängers, but instead of having them appear as helpless people or some other interesting and dangerous situation, I tripped up thinking on my feet and just had them attack. It’s this kind of stuff that our players never notice, but that keeps DMs up at night.  Everyone had a great time, the players have no idea what they are missing, but there is that little voice that says my game could have been better. On the one hand, it’s good to be aware of how you can improve your game. On the other hand, and I’ve written about this before, cognitive load is a real thing. Thracia is a module that pushes the boundaries of my cognitive load.  I’m straight up exhausted at the end of every session trying to keep this stuff straight. 

But there is hope! Michael Bacon, who writes over at Buildings are People is leading a heroic, crowdsourced effort to create a more legible, terse key for the rooms in The Caverns of Thracia. I’ve volunteered to write a few rooms myself. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, please check it out.

If you want to follow along at home, you can get both The Caverns of Thracia and B/X Essentials at DriveThru RPG. If you want to know when I post something new, put your email address in the sidebar.

December 14, 2018 actual-play b-x dungeons-dragons osr

Thursdays in Thracia - Part 14

This is Part 14 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.

Map of a section of The Caverns of Thracia

Continued from Part 13, when Yam Stevens sacrificed G’ruk to some tentacles.

What Happened

The party reconvened back on the shore, just across the river from the lizard encampment. They looked back at the small forest of jagged stalagmites, which the charmed lizardman had warned them was dangerous before leading them through. Unfortunately he had rejoined his tribe. The party decided to try and explore farther upriver.

They hit an obstacle when they realized that not far from where they were, the gravelly shore hit a cliff wall which ran straight to the strong-running river. There was no way around it on foot, and the river was too swift and rocky to navigate unaided. When they leaned out, they could tell the shoreline continued some fifty feet beyond. An elf in the party, Glibble the Average, came up with a plan. Glibble knew a single spell, Floating Disk, which would conjure a slightly concave, almost invisible hovering disk of energy, which would normally just follow him around slowly.

He summoned the disc, and with the help of other party members, backed it into a corner and managed to sit on top of it. Then he used a ten foot wooden pole to push off the cliff and out over the running river. Someone held one end of a rope while he held the other, and he pushed his way upstream, gingerly using the pole to navigate the rocky riverbed.

When he made it to the other side, he hammered in a spike, holding his end of the rope in place, and the rest of the party did the same on their side. Then they heard voices, footfalls and the sounds of people walking in armor approaching from behind, through the stalagmites. Quick as they could, using the rope as a safety line, they waded into the river, around the cliff and onto the next patch of shore.

Moving further up the shoreline, they came across a massive spiderweb, stretching across the entire river and blocking their path up the shore.

Filgrum Thickwobble (fighter), very carefully sliced a whole in the corner of the web, just large enough for them to crawl through one at a time. He managed to do it without disturbing the rest of the web. While the party crawled through, they noticed a large white bundle at the top of the web, just at the edge of their lamplight.

At the end of this strip of beach, part of the cliff face seemed unnaturally smooth. Stellaa the Cleric prayed to the gods of neutrality to detect magic, but unfortunately no arcane secrets were revealed. Eventually the strong members of the party jammed a crowbar into the cliff face and pushed. The smooth cliff face opened up, revealing a stairway descending into deeper darkness.

Playing B/X

So, Floating Disc. It’s a weird one, almost intentionally designed to be useless for anything other than hauling treasure out of the dungeon. But it doesn’t last that long (6 exploration turns), so if you’re more than a level deep it’s not even good for that. Here’s the description for the spell, straight from Moldvay:

Range: 6’

Duration: 6 Turns

This spell creates an invisible magical platform about the size and shape of a small round shield which can carry up to 5000 coins (500 pounds) of weight. It cannot be created in a place occupied by another object. The floating disc will be created at the height of the caster’s waist, and will remain at that height, following the caster wherever he or she goes. If the caster goes further than 6 feet from the disc,it will automatically follow, with a movement rate equal to the caster’s. When the spell duration ends, the floating disc will disappear, suddenly dropping anything that was on it.

So it’s this disc you don’t really have control over, that can carry stuff, and will follow you. Otherwise it just floats there at the same height. Cool cool. It’s not an obvious choice for a first level spell (Sleep is the obvious choice, followed by Charm Person), but Glibble’s player was brand new to role-playing and really got into the random spirit after rolling up his elf, so he rolled randomly for his spell too, even though he had the option of choosing.

Anyway, the players talked it out, and came up with a way to use the spell that wasn’t obvious from the description, but at least plausible sounding enough that I would feel weird saying no. I love when spells get used like this, and want to encourage that kind of thinking in my game.

I’m not interested in edition warring or even particularly in waving some kind of old-school flag around, but let’s take a look at the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons description of the same spell:

This spell creates a circular, horizontal plane of force, 3 feet in diameter and 1 inch thick, that floats 3 feet above the ground in an unoccupied space of your choice that you can see within range. The disk remains for the duration, and can hold up to 500 pounds. If more weight is placed on it, the spell ends, and everything on the disk falls to the ground.

  • Casting Time: 1 action
  • Range: 30 feet
  • Components: V S M (A drop of mercury)
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Classes: Wizard
  • The disk is immobile while you are within 20 feet of it. If you move more than 20 feet away from it, the disk follows you so that it remains within 20 feet of you. It can move across uneven terrain, up or down stairs, slopes and the like, but it can’t cross an elevation change of 10 feet or more. For example, the disk can’t move across a 10-foot-deep pit, nor could it leave such a pit if it was created at the bottom.

If you move more than 100 feet from the disk (typically because it can’t move around an obstacle to follow you), the spell ends.

I think you could still ride it over a river, probably. But I’d probably spend a lot more mental energy wrestling with the intent of the spell here, because when I run games I am generally interested in running them as close to as-written as possible. I want to experience the game that the designers designed. Fifth Edition feels a lot more concerned with balanced mechanical interaction than B/X does. That kind of play certainly has its appeal, and I love me some complex mechanical games, but I’ve really been drawn into B/X by the open-ended lack of precise definition. Or the existence of just enough definition to make the rules something you actively have to play with as you go. Some of the quirks and weird vagaries of early D&D would be inexcusable by modern, published game design standards, but they make running the game an exercise in making fair and creative rulings. Most contemporary role playing games make the GM primarily a creator and arbiter of the fictional situation, but present the rules of the game as being a relatively static thing, to be consulted and executed as necessary. In B/X, the rules fit together loosely. Like the minute mechanical imperfections that allow a lock to be picked, the spaces in between them are where so much creative play happens.

In general, I like rules. Rules are important in games.  They define the baseline expectations for the players and communicate the intent of the designed experience. I find the common If you don’t like a rule, just throw it out!” platitude at the beginning of a lot of rulesets overly simplistic and dismissive of the experience that a carefully designed system can create. I am finding a space in B/X play where there is a nice middle ground, neither a tight set of constraints, nor a casual dismissal of game design. Each rule and mechanic can be held up on its own, and applied if and when needed, but not thoughtlessly. Once considered, new rules can be applied, or certain restrictions can be removed. It’s all in the wiggle room.

If you want to follow along at home, you can get both The Caverns of Thracia and B/X Essentials at DriveThru RPG. If you want to know when I post something new, put your email address in the sidebar.

November 26, 2018 actual-play b-x dungeons-dragons osr roleplaying

Offworlders is available now at DriveThru RPG

You can now download Offworlders, my lightweight sci-fi rpg as a free PDF from Get it!

The Cover of Offworlders

November 2, 2018

Thursdays in Thracia - Part 13

This is Part 13 of my Thursdays in Thracia B/X Dungeons & Dragons Campaign, an actual play of Jennell Jaquays’ The Caverns of Thracia. For more context, start from Part 0.

[caption id=“attachment_508” align=“aligncenter” width=“525”]Dungeon map from The Caverns of Thracia The river on level 2[/caption]

Continued from Part 12, in which a giant gnome was roused and Jek the Stabber broke into a subterranean hut.

What Happened

Just as the lone lizardman appeared from among the stalagmites by the river, Magic-User Yam Stevens was able to cast a charm spell on him, turning him immediately into a useful ally. The lizardman told the party that the hut (29) was a strictly taboo place for his tribe, and they better fix it up quickly to keep from getting into trouble.

After setting it right, he introduced himself as Shrank, and said that the party should come with him to meet his chief, G’ruk. G’ruk had been looking for humans recently, he said, and might have an opportunity for them. Yam stevens volunteered to go with a fighter retainer they had hired to meet the chief and check things out. Shrank led the two of them through a patch of dangerous stalagmites, and ferried them across the river to where the tribe waited (31). It was a group of 15 lizard folk, led by a shaman, G’ruk. G’ruk greeted them about as warmly as a cold-blooded creature is able, and told them that there was a small cave upriver, in which a treasure lay. However, he had heard that only humans could access it. If he led Yam to the treasure, they could split it 50/50.

Yam agreed, and he and the fighter and G’ruk, Shrank, and another lizard warrior made their way upstream, the humans riding on the backs of the lizards, passing on the way underneath a massive spider’s web(32). They reached a narrow, gravelly beach, with a small opening in the rock wall. G’ruk indicated that this was the location of the treasure, and Yam had the fighter step forward to check it out. Then things got confusing very quickly. G’ruk ordered his tribesmen to attack the humans. The second lizardman snuck up behind the fighter in the hole, but Shrank, under the influence of the spell, hesitated. G’ruk was furious, and tried to attack Yam while the fighter and his foe clashed in the cave.

Shrank finally blocked one of G’ruk’s attacks, allowing Yam to get off a Sleep spell, dispatching G’ruk and his accomplice at once. Shrank grew increasingly nervous. While Yam looted G’ruk’s sleeping body, the fighter descended into the cave to investigate this treasure, calling back to Yam all the while. Three chests, a big one in the middle and a smaller one on each side, were lined up along the wall, and another exit from the cave, deeper in.  When the fighter touched the chest, a mysterious, disembodied floating mouth materialzed and began to attack, biting at him over and over! He soon came running from the cave mouth, pursued by the floating mouth as well as several thick, dark tentacles, reaching from further into the cave.

Startled, Yam decided to retreat, and had Shrank ferry him and the fighter back to where the party waited, just as the mysterious tentacles tugged G’ruk’s sleeping form back towards the cave mouth.

Playing the Game

So this treasure situation was a little crazy. In the module, G’ruk actually believes that human blood is required to open these treasure chests, but won’t reveal that to the PCs. He is, however, wrong. The chests can be opened by anyone, but are protected both by these weird, disembodied, floating mouths and by a tentacle creature that reaches in from the following chamber. The rules for these mouths are absolutely wild, and I ended up kind of relieved that only the retainer went in and I could run them more loosely.

Check it out:

room description from The Caverns of Thracia

It might be on me, but in a module that can go in so many different directions at any moment, these kinds of descriptions and rules in block text are really hard to execute as written. I read the room descriptions beforehand, of course, but I’m not sure where the players are going to go each session. It’s easy to end up in a situation where I’m staring at my print-out, trying to figure out exactly what to say to the players about the situation. There’s a tension between wanting to do the module justice and get the specifics right, and my desire to keep things exciting as a DM. The mouth monster isn’t really that complex, but trying to read this and work it out in the moment was pretty paralyzing. For that reason I avoided dropping back into combat rounds and just had the fighter shouting, about as confused as I was.

It was fun to figure out how Shrank would react in this situation. After some negotiation with Yam’s player, I gave Shrank a 50/50 shot of interfering versus just hesitating while G’ruk attacked. Most modern roleplaying games tend to push the GM to make particular decisions, or to mechanize certain things, but I’m increasingly convinced that if you don’t know what to do, and there isn’t a rule, tell the player it’s 50/50 and roll” should be in the GM section of a lot more games.

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October 31, 2018 actual-play b-x dungeons-dragons osr roleplaying