By Lathander’s Light

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On a remote island in the middle of the Darklake, below the crest of a mountain peak, stood an enormous, cylindrical tower.  Perfectly smooth, devoid of imperfections, the structure was carved from the island itself by the tower’s creator and inhabitant, a terrifying beholder called Xazax the Eyemonger.

Xazax the Eyemonger was always furious.  His svirfneblin servant, Peebles, had arrived at his tower to announce that a band of adventurers had arrived on the island.  “Oh great and powerful beholder,” Peebles bowed low.  “A wizard, a sorcerer, a paladin, and a blue skinned barbarian are on the beach.  They travel with a group of knights, warriors of the Gauntlet.  They have cut through the ambush I had laid for them and are headed this way.”

“Lorthuun sends his pets!”  Xazax roared, rising out of a nest of gold coins and precious gems he hoarded in his room at the top of the tower.  Xazax was almighty and formidable, but like all beholders he was endlessly suspicious that others were plotting to destroy him.  Lorthuun, a beholder in Mantol Derith, was Xazax’s greatest adversary and most likely behind the arrival of these adventurers.

Peebles bowed lower, his nose now touching the floor.  “Will I bring them to you, oh great and powerful beholder?”

Xazax, the menacing aberration, floated through the air and loomed over the cowering svirfneblin.  The beholder’s giant eye began to glow and the ten eyestalks framing his massive head writhed in anger.  His servant-thing had failed him for the last time.  “Such a pathetic creature you are, Peebles.  You have done enough for me.”  He growled in the deep speech language of the mind flayers and beholders.

BVVVT!!  The sound of the death ray that shot from Xazax’s eye was loud like the sound of boiling water escaping through a tiny nozzle under immense pressure. In an instant, there was nothing left of Peebles the svirfneblin except for a smear of blood across the stone floor, his body having been destroyed by the single blast.  It was a suitably violent end for such a worthless play thing.

Lorthuun’s warriors were on the way.  Xazax hovered back and forth through his massive chamber, silently plotting how to destroy the adventurers when they arrived.

Xazax had built his tower above the entrance to a cave system beneath the island.  A wide hole in the bottom floor of the tower was the natural opening to the cave, a verticle chute that dropped three hundred feet into absolute darkness.   Xazax believed that through this cave one could find the way to Gravenhollow, the Library of the Underdark, but the caverns were a labrynth that the beholder could not find a way through.  Perhaps Lorthuun, with his resources in Mantol Derith, had found a way.  The adventurers must have come by his bidding to explore the caves.  Let them come, Xazax mused, and show me the way through.

Hours passed until the first adventurer, a halfling, entered the tower through a small door in the wall that Peebles had once used.  His name was Norcrum, and he moved fluidly into the room with a quarterstaff in his hands, his body trained from years of combat.  Behind him came two spellcasters, a sorcerer named Phirion and a wizard, Elurin.  A paladin, Thane, and the blue-skinned barbarian, Ragnar, were next to enter.  Both were distinguished fighters who undoubtedly had a hand to play in destroyed Peebles’ ambush.  Bringing up the rear, five knights scurried through the small door and into the tower, their shields bearing the symbol of the Order of the Gauntlet.

From high above, Xazax peered with a single eye over the edge of his hidden room and watched as the troupe took in its bearings on the ground floor of the tower.  Xazax could detect the magic radiating from their bodies, see the way the fighters held their weapons, and knew that this band of adventurers was a formidable group. Before the beholder could put together a plan to assault them, however, the adventurers made up their mind to descend down into the caves through the massive hole in the tower’s floor.  A floatation spell spent by the wizard, Elurin, allowed the five adventurers to float down the massive chute into the darkness below.  Their retinue of knights were left to climb down by hand along the rough edges of the cave entrance.

Once the adventurers had floated far enough below, Xazax decided to strike.  The beholder came out from his roost and drifted down toward the chute.  As silently as a cloud, he floated down the hole and hovered behind the knights, who were too focused on their footing to notice the beholder.  One of Xazax’s eyestalks narrowed, loosing a silent telekinetic beam that ripped one of the knights from the wall and sent him plummeting to his death.  Too easy, Xazax thought.

The shrieking cry of the falling soldier caught the attention of the other four knights, but before they were aware of the threat, Xazax’s eyes began firing their necrotic death rays.  BVVVTT!!  BVVVTT!!  Two of the knights were struck square in the back.  Only their fine armor kept their corpses in one piece, but their lifeless bodies tumbled from the edge of the cave toward the adventurers descending further below.  The wet, slapping sound of their bodies hitting the ground rewarded the beholder.

Xazax began to hear excited cries from further down.  Unbeknownst to the adventurers which had floated their way down the chute, they had descended into a nest of ropers, rock-like creatures with toothy mouths and whip-like tentacles used to pull unwary travelers into their biting reach.  Xazax felt the thrill of killing surge through him as he heard the screams of the adventurers meeting their fate.  The battle that raged below would weaken them for when Xazax finally arrived.

Agents of Lorthuun beware, for I am Xazax!”  The beholder bellowed in deep speak.  The knights clinging to the wall in front of him began to shout their last living words.

BVVVTT!!  Another of Xazax’s eye stalks fired, boiling another of the knights alive in his fine suit and throwing him from the wall.  BVVVTT!! The last knight toppled away.  After a falling second, Xazax heard his body strike the stone below.

His eye stalks glowing with charging power, Xazax continued descending down to the bottom of the chute toward the sounds of battle in the roper cave below.  How many of them have died already?  The beholder wondered.  How many are there left to kill?

When Xazax reached the bottom of the chute, he was pleased with what he saw: scattered across the floor were the bodies of four of the knights he had slain with his death rays, and in the cave ahead there was total chaos.  Stalagmites and stalagtites made traversing the cave a treacherous endeavour, but had also hidden the four ropers which had been tearing apart the group of adventurers since they entered the cave.

The knight he had pulled from the wall had somehow survived his fall, but now he was staggering toward the far end of the cave, clutching his abdomen which had been ripped open by one of the ropers’ jaws.  At the far end of the cave, the wizard, Elurin, was wrapped in a tentacle that pulled him toward another mouth.  Elurin’s spells were nearly exhausted and death was near.  Thane, the paladin, was hacking at the roper’s tentacle wrapped around the wizard in an effort to free him, but it was likely too late.  On the other side of the cave, Phirion blasted one of the ropers with gouts of fire.  The ropers, which appeared as stalagmites until they struck, had pulled the party apart with their grappling tentacles.

In the middle of the fray, Ragnar the blue-skinned barbarian had his arm in the mouth of a biting roper but seemed oblivious to the pain wrecked by the monster’s jaws.  Beside him, the halfling, Norcrum, was making short work of the roper’s thick skin with a flurry of blows that were pulverizing the creature.  With a heavy swing of his mace, Thane cut Elurin free of the roper that held him and began pulling the wizard toward the exit on the other side of the cave.  The party saw Xazax hovering in the entrance, and suddenly they all knew they had to escape.  Seeing the adventurers so scattered and weakened from their fight with the ropers, Xazax decided to strike.

BVVVT!! One of his eye beams disintegrated a stalagmite just as the sorcerer ran past it, filling the air with an explosion of shattered rock.  BVVVT!! Another ray streaked past Ragnar’s head.  “You were fools to obey the will of Lorthuun!

“This way!”  Elurin shouted, standing in a hole in the wall at the other end of the cave that he discovered was a likely way out.

You cannot flee the Eyemonger!” Xazax bellowed, although none of the adventurer’s could understand him.  BVVVTT!! Another stalagmite exploded in a shower of rocks.

As Phirion scrambled toward the exit, Norcrum finished beating the last roper into a pulp and made for the hole in the wall.  Behind the halfling, Ragnar saw that they wouldn’t all make it out before the beholder was upon them.  Thane was badly injured, his armor slick with his own blood as well as the surviving knight’s.  Elurin looked exhausted, having spent all of his spells.  The situation was looking dire.

“We’re all going to die in here!”  Phirion exclaimed.

Xazax began floating forward, his view of the fleeing adventurers obscured by the stalagmites and stalagtites.  He heard them screaming, knew they were running, and hungered to lay the final blow upon the frightened crew.  They were headed for an exit, but they were too far from the tunnel to outrun his deadly gaze.  As he rose higher in the air to clear his line of sight, he found a clear shot and readied the killing blow.

“Lathander bless you!”  Ragnar shouted.  “And I will see you all on the other side!”  The barbarian pulled off the golden ring which would guide them to Gravenhollow and tossed it to Thane, who caught the ring in a gauntleted hand.

“Ragnar, no!  We can all escape!”  Thane growled, but he knew it was a lie.  For them to survive, Xazax had to be slowed, if not stopped.  Phirion and Elurin stopped in the tunnel exit, looking back at the barbarian.

“Do not worry.”  Ragnar replied, a grim smile on his face.  “Lathander shines on me!”

The barbarian turned toward Xazax and ignited his magical sword, Dawnbringer.  The sentient, flaming blade burned like the sun and filled the cave with light, momentarily stunning the beholder with the brilliance of Ragnar’s legendary weapon. BVVVTT!!  An eye beam struck the ceiling as Xazax howled in his blindness.

“I am Ragnar!” The barbarian howled as he launched himself at the beholder. “And I am trying to be a better person!”

Elurin tried to muster a final spell which would save the barbarian from certain doom, but he found himself being pulled back through the hole by the hands of an unseen creature.  “You are worthy,” rasped a deep, alien voice.  The stones beside the tunnel entrance began to move, and ghaleb dur, the great stone guardians of the underdark, arose like mounds of shambling rubble.

“We have to save Ragnar!” Phirion cried, but he was grabbed by one of the stone creatures.  Against their will, shaken by the horrific battle, the adventurers were pulled back through the tunnel exit by the ghaleb dur.  They were gone, leaving the barbarian and the beholder alone in the cave.

As Ragnar found his feet and began to charge, the walls of the cave started to rumble and shake.  Stalagtites broke from the ceiling, crashing into the ground below.  A dozen ghaleb dur rose up from the floor to tear down the ceiling and collapse the cave.  Bringing down the mountain atop themselves wouldn’t harm the elementals, but it was perhaps the only way to stop Xazax from pursuing the survivors the ghaleb dur had appeared to save.  Lost in his rage, Ragnar was unaware of the world collapsing around him.  He burst forward, legs pounding beneath him, carrying Dawnbringer low by his side as he closed distance with the beholder.  A rock fell from the ceiling and struck his shoulder, but he did not seem to notice.

Xazax saw the raging barbarian coming, but he did not expect the pain to follow.  Ragnar’s courage shone through the glaring light of his sword and his roar was louder than the thundering cave collapse: “LATHANDER!!!”  All ten of the beholder’s eyestalks came to bear as Xazax prepared to possess the mind of his newest toy, but his focus was broken when Ragnar swung with inhuman speed and smashed the beholder with his flaming blade.  The searing edge cut through Xazak’s flesh, shattered the beholder’s glistening fangs, and filled the beholder’s world with an immense, blinding pain.  The barbarian roared and drove the blade deeper until Xazax unleashed the full bore of his power.

BVVVTT!!!  BVVVVTT!!!  BVVVTT!!  Xazak’s eyestalks erupted in necrotic light, pummeling the barbarian in the chest repeatedly at point blank range.  The force blasted Ragnar back through the air and into a stalagtite, the rock shattering under the blow.  Ragnar’s lifeless body hit the ground and slid to a stop at the foot of a ghaleb dur.  The barbarian’s chest steamed, his flesh boiled, but upon his face was the look of peace.  His smile disappeared beneath the falling rock.

The beholder roared, fiery agony racing across his face.  Ragnar’s flaming sword had extinguished itself when the barbarian’s fleeting life left his body, but still Xazak began to blast the handle which had landed on the ground nearby.  BVVVTT!!  BVVTT!!  Dawnbringer skittered across the floor, but when the dust settled, Xazax saw that even his disintegration ray hadn’t damaged its lustrous finish.  “Curse you, Lorthuun!” Xazax bellowed.  All around him, the beholder realized that the ghaleb dur were nearly finished.  The final stone columns supporting the cave ceiling shattered.

A massive explosion rocked the base of the tower, a plume of dust and dirt shot up from the hole in the bottom floor.  Xazax the Eyemonger flew through it, rising up out of the destruction, dirt mixing with the gouting blood which came from the deep, throbbing wound on his face.  The island shuddered, the vibrations deepened and stopped, and the collapsed cave below came to rest.  Xazax spat out one of his broken teeth and then peered over the edge of the chute.  Down below, he could see the cave in was final — the cave below had been completed sealed off.

Slowly, the beholder lowered itself to the surface of the floor, allowing his massive weight to rest.  The pain in his face pulsed.  He knew it would be a long time until he was recovered from the wound, but that he would always bare the scar of that fiery blade.

A voice came to Xazax from the door that the adventurers had come through.  It was feminine, but cruel.  “You look like you could use some advice.”

The beholder rose back into the air, spinning around to glare at Mother Mud.  “I will destroy you where you stand, foul sister!”  Xazax winced when he spoke, his broken skin stretched by his words, deepening the wound.

Mother Mud was not dissuaded by the sight, nor did she seem to fear the beholder’s threat.  She had seen beholders come and go.  “If you did, it would not be the last of me, but it would make my sister very, very upset.”

Xazax’s eye narrowed as the beholder floated higher, out of reach of the hag.  “Sister Shadow cannot reach me.”  The beholder’s eyestalks began to writhe again as they charged another blast.

“They destroyed the gem of Fraz-Urb’luu.”  The hag cooed.  Xazax froze.  This made her smile.  “So it will not be long.”

The beholder rose higher still.  “Speak your advice then, and be gone from here!

Mother Mud strode forward toward the edge of the hole in the middle of the floor.  She looked down at the cave-in and clicked her tongue.  “There is still one way to reach the Great Library.”

Xazax loomed a little closer, intrigued by the idea that the way to Gravenhollow was not entirely lost.

“You’ll need to clean up this mess.”  The hag continued, pointing her finger down at the bottom of the pit.  “Because it has buried your guide.”

Play the Objective

If you’re Dungeon Mastering a game, regardless of its system, you’re having to keep a lot in mind during a session.  Heck, you’re literally entertaining everybody at the table.  All the rules, all the math, all the mechanics can become overbearing if you allow it to, so you’ll often find yourself looking for systems to stay organized, focused, and engaging.  What’s more important than what’s in the rulebooks and the campaign, however, is who the characters are in your story and what their objective is.  If you’ve got all the monster stat blocks memorized but you’re not playing the characters’ objectives, you’re not running a game that gets the players personally invested.

A character’s objective is what gives them velocity in your story.  Whether they’re looking to avenge the death of a loved one, locate an ancient artifact they’ve long sought, or discover a prophesied secret, every character in your story is looking for fulfillment by achieving an objective that’s aside from your campaign.  As the DM, you’re responsible for keeping track of it.  In fact, it’s likely the most importatnt piece of information you have at your disposal to create a game that’s exciting and rewarding.

So how do you describe an objective?

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An objective consists of three parts:

  1. Who’s looking for it.
  2. What’s in the way.
  3. What it means.

Knowing what your player characters are searching for, understanding what it is that’s keeping them from reaching it, and what it would mean should they ever achieve it will help you make informed decisions about the types of encounters that will mean the most to your players.

The next time you sit down at the table with your players, show them this little diagram and ask each of them to describe their character objective.  Write it on a piece of paper clipped to your DM screen, and whenever you start introducing new scenarios, see what objectives you can play on.

It’s a Trap!

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I’ve run a lot of sessions that include traps, and I’ve seen them played out any number of ways, but I’m about to share with you the best piece of advice I’ve ever received on the topic of including traps in your game.  As a DM, you might find this counter-intuitive, but consider what I’m about to say as it will make running traps a lot more fun than they usually are.

If you take a look through any number of campaign materials, you’ll often run across a trap described as follows:  “There is spike pit trap in the middle of the hallway that can be detected by a DC 10 Perception Check.”  At face value, this encounter might run as follows:

“At the end of the hallway you see a wooden door.”  You say.
“I want to see if there are any traps in this hallway.  My character does a visual check to see if there’s any danger.”  The player replies.  He rolls a perception check and rolls an 8.
“You look around at the walls and the floor, but you don’t detect any traps in this hallway.”
The player decides to take his character down the hallway and activates the trap.

This style of gameplay is very straightforward, creating a scene wherein the player fails the check and doesn’t spot the trap, but it’s horribly boring and makes for some frustrating play.  So how can you, as a DM, phrase the scene in a way that adds some intrigue to the trap and makes the encounter more intesting?

Don’t hide the traps.
Instead, reveal them.

True, the player will need to pass the required check to identify that there’s a spike trap in the floor of the hallway, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some clue which would indicate there’s something amiss.  Revealing to your players that a trap is present in the scene creates tension, forces them to think critically about the situation, and makes the game much more enjoyable.

Consider this alternate narrative to the previous example:

“At the end of the hallway you see a wooden door.”  You say.  “Leading down the hallway you see footprints in the dusty floor from somebody who had passed this way before.  The footprints lead only about halfway down the hallway before they disappear.”
“The footprints going down the hall disappear?”  The player asks.
“From what you can tell, yes.”
Now the player is curious.  “Does it look like somebody could have climbed the walls in this hallway?”
“There are no hand holds in the wall which would allow it.” You reply.
“Something is clearly wrong.”  The player begins to muse.  “I bet there’s something in the floor.  Either that, or somebody invisible is stalking this hallway!”

Suddenly what once had been a basic roll check has now turned into a full-fledged investigation.  By telling the player that there’s a trap in the room without revealing its identity, you’re adding tension and interest to the scene that is lost by following the trap rules “by the book”.

Set the Stakes & Kill

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(stāk)

noun
plural noun: stakes
  1.  
    a sum of money or something else of value gambled on the outcome of a risky game or venture.

Setting the Stakes

As a Dungeon Master, your primary responsibility is to create a world wherein your players can explore a compelling story.  Secondary to that, you’re the one deciding the degree of risk; how difficult it will be for your players to accomplish their goals, and what the penalty might be if they should fail.

In short, your job is to set the stakes by describing a world (or character) worth saving, the villains who would see it destroyed, and the risk your players will be taking should they fail.  One of the best way to grab your players’ attention and convey the gravity of their situation is to remind them that death is on the line, and the only way to accomplish that is by killing a character.

Use your NPCs

Non-Player Characters (NPCs) give dimension to the world wherein your player characters (PCs) discover a story.  By answering player questions or by interacting with one another, NPCs can create tension, give direction, and set the stakes.

Unfortunately for our NPCs, one of their best uses is to be murdered as a reminder to your players that their characters may die during their adventure.  Whether their death is by some trap, subterfuge, or cold-blooded murder, the tragic fall of an NPC is a great player motivator.  When your players witness a murder or hear about it after the fact, it will force them to action and create a more memorable game.

The Active Storytelling vs. the Passive Narration

We’ve all sat at a table to start a new game that the Dungeon Master prefaces with the following tale: “You’re all a bunch of weary travelers who have known each other for many years.  You’re sitting in a tavern, drinking a cold ale after a long day, when a man enters the room and declares, ‘I have a job for a group of adventurers!'”

Stories such as these are passive narrations that do little to compel players aside from give them an opportunity to ask, “What job?”  It presumes that there’s a choice to be made, leaving the door open for the story to end before it begins.  If the opportunity to go on an adventure doesn’t fit the alignments and desires of the characters, then you’re already sunk.

The greatest invitation to start an adventure is one that forces players to decide between life and death.  To do this, you’re going to need to scrap that passive narration and instead use active storytelling:

You’re a bunch of weary travelers who have known each other for many years.  You’re sitting in a tavern, drinking a cold ale after a long day, when you see a flash of light from across the room and witness a man burst into flames.  He screams and curses, then crumples to a heap as his body is quickly reduced to a steaming pile of ash.  “It was him!” Shouts a young boy in the corner, pointing to a shadowy figure who runs toward the door.  “He killed my father!”  As the shadowy figure runs past your table, he drops a folded note beside your drinks, then he bursts through the door and disappears outside.  

When you open the note and read it, it says “You’ve been framed.”

Introductions like these set the stakes high and create a compelling reason to undertake the quest ahead.  It also creates a world wherein people can be killed in public, which might not sit well with the players.  After an introduction like this, they’ll be pressed to find answers quickly:

  1. Who was that shadowy figure?
  2. Who was the man who was just turned to ash?
  3. What did the boy see?

These are the types of questions you want your players to begin asking at the onset of an epic story, or at any time during the adventure when you need to change directions or compel them to action.

 

Statement of Intent

I first started weaving stories when I was 12 years old.  Like most kids’ creativity, mine ran wild with thoughts of dragons and ninjas, wizards and pirates, aliens and and dinosaurs.  My stories were about great battles fought between toys in my backyard, allegiences lost and truces betrayed for the sake of action.  Most of my stories didn’t have an ending, but were instead interrupted by the call to dinner, time spent doing homework, or somebody else needing to use the family computer.

Like most geeks, my stories were a way to escape my reality.

As I got older, however, their telling became less frequent, more filtered, and often censored by some idea of maturity.  I stopped telling stories about dragons and wizards, I spent more time playing video games and television shows so that I could absorb what others had written, because drawing the stick figures of my imagined heroes wasn’t as cool as I had thought it once was.  I graduated high school and became a movie nut, I graduated college and became a beer nut, I grew up and stopped thinking about what was intrinsically exciting.

A few years ago I reached out through Meetup and found a group of gamers who were playing “Marvel Heroics”.  I rolled dice, I wove a narrative, and I was reminded of how much I enjoy telling stories at the roleplaying table in 2012.  Compared to some, my exposure to the realm of tabletop roleplaying is short lived, but it is enough that I love the hobby, think of ways to improve it, and recognize how important it is as a means of storytelling.

Let this blog serve as a place for me to talk about what make stories fun to tell, to share, and to question.  I don’t know how long I’ll use this for, or whether blogging is something I enjoy doing at all, but for now, let it be a place where I can talk about telling stories.  Whether it be through tabletop roleplaying, the screen, or the turned page, there are stories to be discussed here.

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