Tale of the Mage’s Ghost

Tale of the Mage’s Ghost

Trollclaw Ford is where the road between Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate crosses the river called Winding Water. Winding Water cuts through canyons above and below the ford, so it is the only place to cross the river for over one hundred miles above and below. The only problem is that this ford is in a wilderness known as The Trollclaws, because the jumble is home to an extraordinary number of trolls.

About fifteen years ago, a band of adventurers calling themselves the The High Helms decided to secure the ford. An abandoned manor already existed on a bluff overlooking the ford. The High Helms built a fortified wall around the manor, and added a tower. The High Helms secured the ford for over three years. Trade increased between Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate.

Then the assault started.

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Tutorial: Skull Fountain

I’ve always been fascinated with modeling and dioramas. I’m starting to get interested in building settings for my D&D games. Here’s a cool simple fountain you can build.

DND Crafts

A little fountain has many uses: the party may benefit from the healing powers of an ancient god or needs to stop the endless flow of blood part of an evil sacrificial ritual. Oh, and it’s easy and quick to craft.


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Posted by on October 16, 2017 in Uncategorized


Splitting the Party

DMs Block Episode 111: Let’s Split Up the Gang mentioned what I see as one of the major differences between AD&D in the 1980s and D&D 5E today.

To be brutally honest, the D&D world back in the day was much more lethal. All of us DMs back then tended to follow Gygax’s lead of setting up an adventure and letting the dice roll how they may. Most DM die rolls were in secret, and if a DM got caught fudging rolls in favor of the party, that DM hung his head in shame at being a softy.

Today, the emphasis is even more on role playing and building a story in a cooperative world between the DM and players. And I think this is a good thing.

This is very evident in this podcast’s topic of ‘splitting the party’. Splitting the party was a huge no-no in AD&D. DM Mitch (or Ian, I can’t remember) pointed out that back in the day, if a party split up and went into a room with monsters, the now reduced party faced the full monster roster in the room. If the room was written to contain 16 orcs and 3 ogres, and the thief and a fighter split off from the rest of the group of eight players, they now had to face the full 16 orcs and 3 ogres by themselves. And this is how the ‘never split the party’ philosophy was born.

Today, a DM would be expected to scale the encounter back to take into account the reduced number entering the room. A DM might scale that encounter back to a handful of orcs and one ogre. It seems like DMs today are expected to make things up on the fly even more than they were back in the ‘80s.

There are many valid reasons to want to split the party, and DMs Mitch and Ian over at the DMs Block have a great episode here looking at those reasons to split the party.

In one way, I think this is an awesome advance in the way the game is played. It does make a lot more work for the DM, but I think it pays off in the long run and gets even more buy-in from the players.

And I don’t have to feel bad as often over a TPK.

If you missed the link above, here’s another way to get to that podcast episode…

DMs Block Episode 111: Splitting the Party




D20: Advantage as Caution

This sounds like a pretty cool idea! I think we will playtest it in our group.

System sans Setting

The mechanic of rolling 2d20 instead of one is very helpful in both the newest edition of D&D (where it’s used for Advantage and Disadvantage), and for other games that use an uncurved die for a single roll. By rolling 2d20 (or even more), you’re essentially adding a curve to a roll whose results would otherwise be linear. Particularly if you read the dice independently, you’ve made the results much more similar to a dice pool or iterated series of rolls. This serves to reduce swinginess, by further reducing the chance of fluke successes or failures (I suspect most players are more likely to try rolls on their high skills when given the option than their low ones, so are going to have a roll swing into a failure on a high skill more often than it swings into a success on a low skill).

Ultimately, there are a decent…

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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Uncategorized


The New Kid in Town

We played our first D&D game in about three weeks last Wednesday night. The Pub hasn’t been updated in that long, either. Last Wednesday’s game didn’t really give me any material for a post either, but I do have thoughts on a D&D creature that I believe has been underutilized.


I’ve only seen hobgoblins used a few times in D&D campaigns. It seems to me that they are always played as tougher orcs. That might have been the case in AD&D. I don’t know how hobgoblins were handled in D&D 2E, 3E or 4E, but in 5E, hobgoblins have some great traits that can make them particularly brutal. In particular, I like the Martial Advantage of hobgoblins.

Hobgoblins use Martial Advantage to inflict extra damage when they hit a target and an ally is within 5 feet. Hobgoblins inflict this extra damage because they are disciplined soldiers who stay in close support of one another. The extra damage is a way to reflect the mass effect of a disciplined hobgoblin unit.

The question is—how should this play out on the tabletop? Read the rest of this entry »


Levelling Up

Last Wednesday was Josh’s Icewind Dale campaign. My wizard is not far from 4th level. This brings us to a difference between AD&D and 5E.

At 4th level, my wizard gets more hit points and another 2nd level spell, just like in AD&D. However, in 5E, players can also increase Read the rest of this entry »


When Time Runs Out

Sometimes you just run out of time in a game session.

I know, I know…lotsa players really have no concept of this phenomenon. You start a game session, and you play it through to completion. Three hours…eight hours…fourteen hours…whatever it takes, you play until you are done. College students might be able to do this. Unemployed gamers might be able to do this. High school players might be able to get away with this on weekends, or if they have very permissive parents.

That’s not how it works for many of us. High schools players usually have curfews. Players with jobs need to get enough sleep to get up for work in the morning. Married players need to make sure they are giving enough time to their spouses and families. This is just respect for other people in our lives, and for the responsibilities of life.

So what do you do when you run out of time in a session? How do you make sure you don’t run out of time?

First, time management should be the primary responsibility of the game master. The players need to be sure they let the GM know if they have a hard deadline by which they need to quit playing, but the GM controls the pace of the game, and the GM knows what she has in store for the players. The players do not know these things. Therefore, the good GM will keep an eye on the clock and respect his player’s time constraints.

When the GM knows how much time she has, the good GM will be able to control the pace of the game. Keep the game on track. Limit distracting table talk. I know that players want to tell war stories about past glories, and things they do in my game might remind them of “that time when…”, but try to keep your current game moving forward.

Keep an eye on the clock as the game progresses. Know where you are, and what you still need to accomplish in this session. Sometimes I might modify on the fly what I have the players doing. I might not throw that second wave of hobgoblins on the table. I might decide that a minor side quest would be more distracting right now then useful, so postpone it for later.

A good DM is also going to spot good stopping points along the way. Sometimes right before a big combat that I know is going to take longer than the time we have, I will call the game early. At first, some players groaned about this, but they have seen that his usually works out for the best.

Sometimes you are in the middle of fast and furious action, and the time deadline is there. The temptation will be to blow through that time deadline and just press on. I would advise you to weigh that decision carefully. Deciding to push on through might have very significant unintended consequences later.

For instance, in my regular group, I have one high school student with a 9:00 curfew. This player has pretty strict parents who would not be understanding of blown curfews. I understand parents setting curfews. When I was heaviest into gaming, in high school in the early ‘80s, my parents always set a curfew. They were also firm believers in corporal punishment. When they said to be home at 9:00, they did not mean 9:01. And they meant 9:00 by their clock, which was always roughly five minutes fast. It was always safest to make sure I was home fifteen minutes early. I won’t get into what happened to me if I was late. I’ll just say that there were consequences.

I don’t think my player would face such serious consequences as I did, but he would have some consequences nonetheless. They might not want him to come back to the game at all. That would suck. A short sighted decision to blow a curfew could result in his not gaming at all—at least, not playing in my Wednesday night game. Everybody with responsibilities face similar consequences. A significant other might be looking forward to one of your gamers getting home for some together time at the end of the evening. What’s going to happen when that player comes home hours late? What if one of your players plays later than planned, and then sleeps through his alarm the next morning and is late to work? When I supervised a CCC crew, the biggest problem I had with gamers on the crew was when they would have an all-night session before a work day and then be pretty useless at work because they were so tired. As a boss, and especially as a gamer, I did not take pity on game-induced fatigue and made sure there were consequences. They learned how to game and be responsible to their jobs.

So as a DM, you need to be able to spot good stopping places, even in the middle of fast and furious action. Be aware that some spots are better than others. Be creative in picking those spots.

For instance, in high school one of our favorite RPGs was a World War 2 themed game called Behind Enemy Lines. I was running a game based upon the old Rat Patrol TV show. The players were a recon squad in North Africa. They had two jeeps with pedestal mounted machine guns. In one game, they got caught open in the desert by a flight of German Stuka dive bombers…and we were running up against my curfew. I went ahead and started the battle. The planes made a couple of strafing runs first. The jeep drivers started evasive maneuvers, flooring it and spinning madly through the sand, throwing up big old sand rooster tails. The gunners held on and returned fire on the Stukas. I had one eye on my watch the whole time. Finally, the Stukas made their bomb runs. The first drop was a clean miss. The second drop was a near miss on the lead jeep—and I was out of time. The bomb exploded just yards away from the jeep, the jeep tipped over, the two guys started spilling out—and ‘To Be Continued’ flashed across the screen.

This is called a cliffhanger ending, and I love them. They are especially effective for keeping motivation high to get back to the game. Nobody is going to want to miss that session!

I had to do this in the last session of my Wednesday night game. The party has been looking for the cousin of one of the party members. The cousin had been captured by goblins. The party finally found the old abandoned castle in which the cousin is being held. They managed to find a back door entrance, and they made it to the room in which the cousin is held. In the room were a drow and a bugbear. The party surprised the drow and bugbear, and battle was on. The drow was the focal point for the party’s attentions, and she got hit pretty hard in the surprise round. She drew a dagger and dropped to the cousin lying unconscious in a corner. It looks like she’s going to try to off the helpless cousin. The bugbear is battling the other half of the party. Another surprise is about to spring on the party.

And then we were at my player’s hard curfew.

“To Be Continued…” Heh, heh, heh.


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When They Won’t Jump Through Your Hoops

Dungeon Masters love creating awesome encounters for our players. We love layering a story, developing unforgettable NPCs, and springing complex traps upon our players. We spend hours lost in thought at our day jobs planning the campaign. We spend late nights behind stacks of books and graph paper, carefully crafting and fitting every piece of the puzzle that the players will have to solve along the way. (Okay…old school guys like me are behind books and graph paper. Most of you are staring bleary eyed at your iPad screens.)

And then sometimes the players don’t want to play along.

I don’t mean they don’t want to play D&D. I mean that they come up with their own way of doing things that you did not think of when spending all that time designing the scenario. Sometimes they want to go an entirely different direction from the one you had planned. This means that, above all of your players, a DM needs to be an improvisational master. There are two things a DM can do at times like these. Well…three, but I’ll save that third option for a different post.

First, let me tell you what you don’t want to do. Above all else, you do not want to railroad your players into following your idea, anyway. As the DM, you really are god in your world. It’s easy to limit your player’s choices until they have no choice at all. This is not what players come to D&D, or any RPG, for. If your players feel like a cog in a machine, if they feel like cattle running down the one-way chute to the slaughterhouse, they are not going to have fun. It doesn’t matter how great you think your idea is; if your players aren’t having fun, they won’t come back. You might think “Well, I’ll just find other players.” You might find other players once or twice, but word will get around that you suck as a DM. You can’t DM without players. Therefore, it is in your own best interest to respond in a way that lets everybody have fun.

There really are ways you can handle the situation which are wins for both you and your players. As the DM, your job will be harder…but that’s why the DM gets the big bucks, right? 😉

  1. Go With the Flow

The first thing you can do when players depart from your script is try to find a work-around. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, you find ways to adapt, adjust, and overcome. Is there any way you can tweak your idea to make it fit into the direction your players go?

For instance, I had an encounter planned for a group that involved making up a special prop—a wanted poster with one of the player’s pictures on it. This would let the players know that the Bad Guy was onto them. A group of hobgoblins had the poster and were looking to collect the bounty. They knew generally where the group would be–heading south along a forest edge. The hobgoblins wanted to go north along the forest edge until they found the players. As an extra twist, the hobgoblins had an ogre with them whom they used for bait. They had the ogre head north outside of the forest while they followed along just inside the forest. They knew the players were aggressive and would attack the ogre if they spotted it first. While the players were occupied with the ogre, the hobgoblins could get into a good position to ambush the players, hopefully after they had taken damage from the ogre. If the players defeated the hobgoblins, they would find the wanted poster and know that the Bad Guy was onto them.

I was stoked to play out this little scenario. However, the first thing the players did when they started heading south was declare that they were paralleling the forest, but staying about a mile away from it.

Great. This would have them avoid the entire encounter that I had planned for the evening. The key for the encounter was the ogre engaging more or less in the open and distracting the players, while the hobgoblins ambushed from the forest. How could I mesh together my plans with the player actions?

I decided that even as far out from the forest as they were, there was a chance they could see the tall ogre silhouetted against the forest. One player did see the ogre. It worked out that it was the most aggressive player who saw it. Nice. I’ll save time here and avoid all of the details, but this battle started out as long range arrow fire at the ogre. The ogre rushed to attack.

I still could not use the hobgoblins as I had intended–close range ambush from the forest–so I had some decisions to make. What did the hobgoblins see? What did they think?

They saw the ogre rush away from the forest. One of the hobgoblins said “What in the world is Grom doing now?!”

The cautiously left the edge of the forest for the brushy hills. Soon they could see arrows flying through the air towards the ogre. They stayed low and crept forward. They could eventually see the battle, and realized that Grom had indeed found the party they had been looking for. However, the battle was going against their ogre bait.

“Let’s go help him!”

“I don’t think we’d get there in time to make any difference. Now that we know where they are, we could shadow them and attack their camp tonight.”

“Forget that! I wanna kill me a human!”

Seriously…this was the conversation among the hobgoblins I played in my head while fighting the ogre against the players. They decided to sneak up on the players while they were gloating over their ogre kill.

The hobgoblins should have waited until dark. So it goes.

Actually, to show how fluid this was in my mind, if the players had immediately pressed on after defeating the ogre, the hobgoblins would have waited until dark. Because the players took the time to loot the ogre’s body, have a rest, and take the time to talk about Life, the Universe, and Everything, the hobgoblins saw that the party was being inattentive right then and decided to attack. I adapted my plan to the player’s actions every step of the way, so as far as I’m concerned, that particular game session was a win.

2. Abandon

The other option you have when players don’t follow your plan is to abandon the plan that you had, or at least postpone it for a more opportune time. This is a far better option than coercing players into jumping through your hoop. It is far better that you go through the challenges of adjusting and adapting than for you to force your players down the slaughterhouse chute. If nobody in the party had spotted that ogre, they would have totally passed that encounter by…and I would have had to be okay with that. This is one of the things that makes DMing tougher than playing, adjusting to these unforeseen left turns.

There are things you can do to lessen the impact of these times. This is why it helps to adventure in a fully fleshed out world. It gives you more options when the game doesn’t go according to plan. This is an advantage to playing in a commercially available world like The Forgotten Realms. Much of that detail is already there for you. If the players had avoided the hobgoblin/ogre ambush above, they simply would have arrived at their destination sooner and the game would have continued. I would have been bummed that I still had an unplayed encounter, but the players wouldn’t have known any different, and they would still have had fun. Mission accomplished.

However, even in a home brew world, you should have more material ready to go than you plan to use in any particular game session. This is why there is no rest for the productive DM with a home brew world. You can never have too many side stories or NPCs in a home brew world. You never know when you might need them.

The bright side to these unused encounters is that they become another tool in your DMs tool box. So you didn’t use that idea today. The day will come when you can use it, and it will be so nice that you have it, and it’s ready to go. See? It’s never for nothing!




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The Dragon and the Witch

This battle occurred during my son Joshua’s Icewind Dale D&D 5E campaign he is running from a Wizards of the Coast adventure book.

Here there be some spoilers!


The dragon chased us to Good Mead.

He had cut us off from Easthaven in the pre-dawn, so we turned our horses and made for Good Mead. We started out with a half mile lead. To our good fortune, the dragon never took wing but pursued us on foot. We made it to the gate with only a quarter mile lead. The gate closed behind us. I climbed the stairs to the rampart. Clarisse and Granela followed. Varus, Cass, and Glacia stayed on the ground behind the gates.

The Ice Witch rode the dragon, which was close enough to see clearly now even though the sun was still below the horizon. This was like no dragon of which we had ever heard. This dragon was mostly skeleton with bits of dried skin shrunken tightly to its frame. He had not flown because most of the membrane composing his wings was gone. His wings were mostly a skeletal frame, with only some pieces of dried skin taut between the bones like a drum head. The sight was horrifying to behold. However, if this decomposed but animated dragon corpse could not fly, then perhaps its state of decay meant it could not unleash fire or frost from its terrible maw, either.

The dragon charged the gate, and the witch looked up to see us on the wall. Her popular name, Ice Witch, fit her well. She looked unnaturally white. She raised a hand and pointed a finger. A fog cloud grew out of the damp air and enveloped the battlements, blinding us to what was going on outside. We felt as well as heard the dragon hit the gate. I moved left along the rampart to try and get out of the fog. Clarisse and Garnela followed. As soon as I cleared the fog and could see the Ice Witch, I snapped my fingers and pointed at the witch, hurling a fire mote at her head. She ducked as Clarisse also fired her crossbow. My fire bolt and Clarisse’s quarrel both missed…but Garnela’s eldritch blast did not. The bright energy bolt lanced out from Garnela’s wand and connected squarely with the Ice Witch’s shoulder.

The Ice Witch flinched and took the blast. She looked on Garnela with cold fury. The witch waved her hand. A swirling glow stretched out and took on a spear shape. The Ice Witch hurled the spear at Garnela. The spear, a monstrous icicle, flew impossibly fast to the top of the battlement. Garnela had no chance to dodge as the ice spear took her solidly through the chest. Garnela fell back from the battlement in a splash of her own blood.

Everybody on the rampart ducked. The wall shook again as the dragon once more hit the gates. This time, the gates did not hold.

The dragon and the Ice Witch entered Good Mead.

There was no way we were going to last under the onslaught of both the dragon and the witch. The witch’s magic was clearly more advanced than mine to have any hope of winning a mage duel, and her Ice Spears were capable of dropping as hardy a soul as our tiefling, Garnela, in one blow. I had to get the witch out of this fight somehow.

Recalling a drow tactic which I had discovered when researching The Shard, I scooped a pinch of bat fur and pitch from my spell pouch and rubbed them between my index finger and thumb as I spoke the word of Darkness. I centered the black globe on the Ice Witch’s head.

She can’t hit us if she can’t see us. I hope.

Cass, Glacia, and Varus threw themselves valiantly at the dragon. Cass’s glaive bounced off a dragon’s rib, and a sweep of the dragon’s tail sent the elf warrior sprawling. Glacia screamed her war cry and furiously chopped away at the dragon with her axe.

Clarisse knelt alongside Garnela’s fallen form. She still lived, but not for long unless she received immediate aid. Clarisse reached into Garnela’s pack for a flask. The flask contained not brandy, though brandy would have been most welcome, but a healing elixir. Clarisse spilled some into Garnela’s mouth. The bleeding stopped. The rent tissue of her chest knit closed. Garnella’s eyes opened, and she picked her head up.

I concentrated on maintaining the darkness surrounding the witch, but I realized that this was only a temporary help. At some point, and probably sooner rather than later, we would have to switch to the offensive. I edged along the rampart while concentrating on the darkness globe. When I dropped the darkness spell, I needed to be close enough to the witch to engage her with a witch bolt electrical blast.

Having healed Garnela, Clarisse drew her two rapiers. She sprinted along the rampart and leaped with a cry onto the dragon’s back. She advanced with the rapiers into the black globe, knowing the witch was in this fifteen foot sphere. Clarisse felt a tug and a tear along the upper arm of her tunic. I saw another ice spear fly out of the darkness globe and sail over the battlement into the darkness beyond.

The melee on the ground between the two elves, the barbarian, and the dragon raged. Claw bashed on shield. Glaive chopped at bone. Axe bit into rotten dragon flesh and bone. Teeth snapped at Glacia. Glacia staggered back, then shook herself, howled again, and threw herself once more at the dragon with renewed fury.

Suddenly, the temperature dropped. I heard a howling wind, though I felt no accompanying blowing. Then the sleet hit me in the face. And the arms. And legs. I was surrounded by a whirling, blowing sleet cloud. As I struggled to keep to my feet, my concentration was disturbed, and the darkness globe surrounding the witch fell.

I suppose the Ice Witch didn’t actually have to see me to throw that one.

At this moment, our mighty Glacia delivered a final glorious blow up through the chest of the dragon, nearly cleaving the beast in two. The two halves shuddered and dropped. Thus ended the dragon.

Clarisse and the Ice Witch faced each other as they rode out the dragon’s fall. Off balance from the jarring of the dragon’s fall, Clarisse delivered weak thrusts with her rapiers. The Ice Witch began moving her hands. We had no idea what was coming this time. Would it be another Ice Spear, or something worse? Garnela, on her feet now, cast an eldritch blast that staggered the witch, but the witch’s hands continued their arcane motions. Suddenly from the ground, a flash of light leaped from Varus to the witch as he spoke a word of divine magic and pointed with a flourish. The witch was wrapped in an impossibly bright light. She screamed. Her form seemed as a snow carving, then melted and broke apart in the light. A pile of snow remained where she had stood on the twice-dead dragon’s back, and then even the snow disappeared.

It hadn’t been the real Ice Witch–merely a form of the witch she had sent in her stead. A wizard that could create such a form was far, far above my own powers. And she was still out there somewhere.

I carefully made my way down the stairs through the sleet slush. On the ground, I approached one of the town guards as he stood immobile, jaw agape at the battle he had just witnessed.

I asked, “Good Guard, where is the nearest place I could get a beer?”


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Ep 66: Bringing the Magic of Magic to D&D; If You Guild it They Will Come

This was a cool podcast by Dungeon Master’s Block about using Guilds in your fantasy world. They use guilds from a Magic: The Gathering setting to illustrate some Guild possibilities. The Green/Black guild was intriguing!

Listen here:

#MagicMark is back to talk with us about building Guilds for your D&D worlds and Campaigns. To delve in deeper into the MTG Universe, we will look at the plane of Ravnica and the 10 guilds that rule there. Patreon @DMs_Block Facebook Stitcher iTunes Intro Music in this episode is Dreams By Hired Beats is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Release:… License:… This episode edited by: DM Mitch

Source: Ep 66: Bringing the Magic of Magic to D&D; If You Guild it They Will Come


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