Randomizing My Way Through Tomb of Annihilation

The past month, I’ve been running Tomb of Annihilation, in 5E D&D, for two different groups. The first group includes my daughter, step-daughter, and their friends. The second group includes friends from high school and college. I also have a 3rd campaign in the mix as well; A Labyrinth Lord game for my step-daughter and her 6 to 9 other theater friends (and not Tomb of Annihilation).

Tonight, my daughter and step-daughter’s group left Port Nyanzaru. This coming Thursday, I assume the other group will also leave Port Nyanzaru.

With my daughter and step-daughter’s group, I used the recommended hooks for character backgrounds to steer them to Chult. For my friend’s group, they all decided that they were a musical band benefiting from the patronage of Syndra Silvane.

While in Port Nyanzaru, each group learned different information (via a rumor table). They received guidance from different people (via random side quests). They have three things in common:

  1. They both went to Watangu and got the same quest (one gets a spellbook the other a bag of holding). Oddly, they both attempted to persuade him and each group rolled a 1.
  2. They both opted to stay at the Thunderous Lizard, each getting a free night stay (one through a swindle, the other through a rocking performance).
  3. Chaos is the predominate alignment; The high school group is all chaotic, the other group is all chaotic except the roadie and the band manager.

As they journey into the jungle, I’m sure the random encounters will push further divergence. Already the high school group encountered two formative random encounters; a tabaxi hunter and a red wizardess. In the book, these encounters are rather sparse. However, with some role-playing and an odd bargain, the tabaxi joined the group to help them navigate the jungle.

The odd bargain emerged from rolling a random Tabaxi Quirks and Motivations from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. String of Yarn, the tabaxi hunter, sought to find lost civilizations. And never wore the same clothing more than once. With a bit of back and forth, String of Yarn will wear the characters clothes (and costumes) as they travel. In return, he’ll help them navigate through the jungle.

And the party wouldn’t have learned about the tabaxi hunter had they not had a random encounter with flying monkeys. The party did not escalate to violence and instead the bard cast speak with animals learning that they were being followed.

Random encounters are the lifeblood of any and all adventures that I now run. In Tomb of Annihilation, each group will experience a similar game, but the details will vary. And in that variation, we’ll find surprises to which we must all react.

A Slow Path to Dungeon Crawl Classics

While out visiting my brother and sister-in-law, I bought Dungeon Crawl Classics in Lawrence, Kansas in October 2012. The art was captivating (and I should’ve bought the Easley cover). But the rules were not yet for me; I was deep into Dungeon World and felt the DCC book to be rather intimidating.

The game lingered on my shelf for years. I’d pull it out to look at the art, but it never took hold. Then in August of 2015, something changed.

Fate-based games were tiresome and predictable (see Fate Point Economy: All the Glories of Accounting and Fiduciary Obligations). Dungeon World’s shimmer and shine as a new GMing approach had worn thin (It took 18 more months to outline in a blog post a primary issue I have with Dungeon World.)

I was looking at running a new campaign, and DCC made the short list (but was still a dark horse, I think because of the funky dice). But 5th Edition hit and I wanted to give that a spin. I even set up rules for a 5th Edition Character funnel (and should revise those rules based on my observations.)

That campaign fizzled due to scheduling conflicts amongst the players; Also, Out of the Abyss is a hot mess and requires a lot of organizational effort.

A few months passed, and I started playing in a 5E game at Better World Books in Goshen. The group was rather large, combats moved at a glacial pace, and the campaign style was not for me. But it didn’t matter who showed up, the DM ran regardless.

During this time, I was listening to the Save or Die podcast, and I couldn’t help but not GM Jim’s exuberant praise of DCC.

I stopped going to those 5E sessions, as a perfect scheduling storm occurred. I had a chance to start a Burning Wheel campaign based on an idea I had been noodling on for years. We set the group, cleared schedules, and then life shifted and the campaign stopped.

During that short-lived campaign, I saw the Road Crew kits that Goodman Games provided. I decided to run a game to get some swag. On one of the Thursdays when the D&D group wasn’t playing, scheduled and ran a DCC Funnel. At this point, I had never played nor judged DCC.

I left that session energized and excited. My 5th Edition funnel was a pale comparison to the DCC funnel experience. The session felt part Looney Toons and part B-Horror film (abbreviated session write-up for Portal Under the Stars).

As winter passed, I was delving further into OSR options, working a modified Whitehack and writing my own FLGS Quickstart Rules. By this time, I had listened to all of the Save or Die episodes, and moved on to Spellburn. I love Jim Wampler’s podcast energy and enthusiasm.

And that’s when DCC clicked. I re-opened the books, and saw the game for what it was – an intriguing and energizing paradox.

A rules light system in a book that could maim a person. A game that eschews balance in favor of judgement calls and wild randomness. Where death is memorable and an inevitable stepping stone in the campaign story arc. And how a simple mechanic, the Might Deed, can obviate all of the feat chains of other game systems. Where players can get anything they want if they are willing to quest for it!

Now, I am running a regular DCC drop in campaign. I write up session reports, session preparation, and other procedures for the game. I am enjoying it. If the revolving and returning players are any indicator, so are the other players.

It’s a bit chaotic digging through my binder full of characters, never quite knowing what the session will look like, but I enjoy those challenges and improvisations. I’m running from a mix of modules, my own procedures, and improvisation.

Campaign, Rulings, Descriptions, and Questing

Favor Campaign over Characters

In most games, characters start fragile. A dead character should not end the campaign. Players are busy. An absent player should not scuttle the session.

Ensure that the game can handle drop-outs. Also, ensure it can handle drop-ins. Someone has intermittent availability. Work so the game would be fun for them as well as the regular players.

Let’s call this Martin’s Law. George R. R. Martin “Song of Fire and Ice” is a testimony to ensemble stories.

Favor Rulings over Rules

I don’t want to remember a wide variety of rules. I want a light framework to help me adjudicate in a consistent manner. I want to avoid time spent looking up rules, but instead want to keep moving in a consistent manner. I want the players to get back to the adventure/story.

I also want to make sure players have tools that they can use to counter the sting of some of my rulings; Either giving them a bonus, re-roll, advantage, or way of buying it off:

  • Fate Core has Fate points
  • Burning Wheel and Torchbearer have Artha
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics has Luck
  • D&D has Inspiration.
  • Eberron has Hero Points

Favor Description over Prescription

This is an extension of Rulings over Rules, but merits further discussion.

When presented with a problem, are do players limit their response to they have on their character sheet? Or do they start narrating how they respond and look to you for adjudication? Are the players engaging with the adventure or their character sheet?

For clever or amusing ideas, don’t require a role. They described how they were looking for traps and how they would disarm it. Give it to them. Broadcast that you will be rewarding player skill. This is a core tenant of avoiding the grind in Torchbearer, and what the OSR builds on.

Also, throw them some Inspiration, Luck points, Hero points, or Fate tokens. Given them currency to further engage in the story.

In a DCC funnel I ran, one of the characters had a pound of clay and fashioned a terra cotta helmet in hopes of blending in with a bunch of terra cotta warrior automatons. Instead of requiring a Personality roll, I said it worked. If I had to do it over again, I’d also have awarded +1 Luck to the character.

Mighty Deed Die vs. Feat Trees

The Warrior in Dungeon Crawl Classics has a Mighty Deed Die. The Might Deed Die replaces your static bonus to hit. At 1st level, you get a 1d3 Mighty Deed Die. (2nd level it becomes d4, 3rd a d5, etc).

When you attack, you declare your Mighty Deed – trip the monster, blind it, dive between it’s legs slash its underside etc. You then roll your attack add your Mighty Deed roll and your strength (or dexterity) bonus. If you hit the armor class and get a 3 or higher on your Mighty Deed die, your deed happens. The rules suggest the Referee to scale the degree of success based on the Mighty Deed result.

The Mighty Deed Die subsumes 3E and Pathfinder combat maneuvers: trip, disarm, sunder, improved grapple, etc. It guides play from the character sheet back to the table and story.

Favor Questing over Railroading

Put decisions on where to go adventuring into the players’ hands. Let them know if they want it, they can quest for it. Lost a limb? Give them clues about the promises of the Regenerating Muds of Lazul. Ask the players what their characters want. Let them pursue those desires by engaging in the world. But make sure the world is not remaining static.

Set larger events in motion. Create rumor tables. Think off screen. In other words, favor a sandbox world over adventure paths. The campaign is more than the actions of the characters.

Postscript

I recommend three resources:

The Rise (and Fall) of Session 0

I’ve seen an uptick in Session 0 rules for RPGs. And their usage.

The general idea is that before you play your first session, you have a collaborative session to prepare for the game.

You do a little world building (as per Diaspora, Dresden Files, or Fate Core). You might leverage Microscope to build the campaign setting.

Then move into the involved process of character creation: Pick your traits, feats, backgrounds, skills, etc. What shiny bobbins do you want this character to have.

One notable difference between Session 0 and Session 1 is that they are different activities. Where Session 1 is playing a character (or characters), Session 0 is preparing to play the character(s) by playing at world building. It’s analogue to making a Magic deck vs. playing Magic against an opponent. Both can be enjoyable, but they are two different activities.

Session 0 may also be a natural consequence of an involved character creation; Or rules baked into the game system.

While the goal may be admirable – to build consensus and a shared understanding of the game – there is peril.

Where Session 0 Falls Flat

The peril is that Session 0 creates a social contract and understanding that emerged through a different mechanism than the other future sessions.

Session 0 is not about playing to find out what happens…its about building what has happened beforehand. Your character is not taking risks nor in danger – unless you are playing original Traveller in which you could die during character creation.

Session 0 builds the initial conditions that the GM should bring to the table for Session 1. Its now on the GM to live up to those speculative constraints. Its also possible that the player’s initial constraints may not reflect what they discover they want to play in the future sessions.

In other words, in the advice of seasoned programmers: Avoid premature optimization. Get something running as soon as you can.

Making Session 1 the First Session

When the group gets together for the first time, the goal should be to start the charactersen media res as soon as possible.

This assumes:

  • Players know what they are playing that day
  • There is immediate action
  • Characters are quick to bring to the table

Players Know What They Are Playing That Day

Set expectations; What do they need to bring. What will you be doing. What are you trying to get done in the first session.

I ran a DCC 0-level character funnel and did a poor job setting expectations with one of the players. She later expressed frustration at the game.

I should have said:

We will be playing a Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel. Each of you will have 4 fragile characters to start. The goal is to make it through the dungeon with at least one of them alive. The survivor(s) will be your character(s) in further adventures. It won’t be easy, and you should think of your characters as pawns. Don’t risk them all at once.

There Is Immediate Action

Grab an introductory dungeon and have the characters start there; Either at the threshold or scouting out the approach. If there are random rumors for the adventure, give them a couple.

Do not worry about how they met; They are there and rescuing the puppy, seeking treasure, or ridding the area of monsters. Worry instead of playing to find out what happens.

Suggested Adventures

Characters Are Quick To Bring To The Table

If character creation and equipping is fast (e.g. 15 minutes or less), let them make characters. Keep it time bound. If you have a straggler – cough Matt cough – have them catch up in the dungeon (or find them as a prisoner).

If character creation is longer than 15 minutes, give the players pre-made characters to choose from; If you have time give each player 2 characters and let them pick one.

The goal is to start playing to find out what happens.

Postscript

If character mortality is high (e.g. B/X D&D, Dungeon Crawl Classics, etc.), make sure there are opportunities for replacement characters.

Encourage or give them a some hirelings. In the dungeon add some bound prisoners that can replenish the ranks. Don’t worry about verisimilitude; worry about engaged players.

If character creation is slow, make sure you have some spare characters prepared.

Randomness, I Forgot that I Needed You

I have fond memories of my 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons gaming days. Through random encounters, rolling on treasure tables, swingy spell results, and shared adventures I formed friendships that continue to this day.

From high school through college, we played D&D. Then moved for a brief time to Rolemaster, and it’s notorious charts (and critical tables).

From the Stone Giant Smoothy:

In exploring the caverns, the group had turned the corner and at the end of the corridor was a room packed with Stone Giants. We were out of our league. But we attempted a last ditch defense. My priest decide the best option was to drop a blade barrier in the giant filled room. The wizard thought it would be best to run, and opted to create a wall of force that would buy us all enough time to flee. The initiative fell, and the blade barrier went off, then the wall of force. The dimensions of the blade barrier fit the room, and all we could do is stare at the invisible barrier as the frost giants met their doom.

To Ace and Deuce in a short-lived Rolemaster campaign:

Deuce was an accomplished bowman and rogue; Built to be a death dealing archer. Yet, when arrows flew, his first critical hit – D critical – were superficial and his second hit was the killing blow. To aggravate the situation, the other player adopted the moniker Ace after three occasions of one-shot kills. (Thank you Matt for the corrections)

Through a random encounter with a White Dragon:

I rolled a random encounter: A White Dragon attacked the character’s on the permafrost fields; Lucky initiative and some potent spells dispatched the dragon. From there, the party druid cast Find the Path to locate the dragon’s hoard. And a grand session ensued where the party fought tooth and nail with a drow (again random) raiding party who also wanted to loot the dragon hoard.

And:

A Diversion

For the last 5 or so years, I’ve been chasing game systems looking for the right fit (Thank you 4th Edition for the bitter taste you left in my mouth). For a while my system of choice was Dungeon World.

In Dungeon World, I found a system that I could run with little prep and ample room for rulings. But as I’ve reflected, I noticed these games had a subtle yet profound frustration – the initial character bonds.

We would go around the table, establishing bonds and dive into the details of those bonds. From the interwoven bonds, I would improvise our first session. It is a great trick for convention games and short scenarios.

The interwoven bonds create an obvious starting situation. We’d play and during those sessions the situation would begin to resolve. Moves would snowball, but I found that nothing new and unexpected would enter the ecosystem of the starting situation; We would build on what the GM and players came up with.

What was missing was “Things that nobody knew would happen“; the random initiative, critical tables, and random encounters. Those subsystems that inject the unexpected.

I missed the moment when all players at the table would assess and respond to the unexpected. When imaginations fired and creativity responded to the constraints of the new situation.

The Challenge

Here’s a challenge to everyone, pick one:

  • Ask another player who has been playing for awhile to describe their most memorable experience with a Deck of Many Things.
  • Drop a Deck of Many Things in your next session, and roll with the punches.

In my experience, the table comes alive with the Deck of Many Things: The promise of riches and the gamble. A scene with a Deck of Many Things is a concentrated moment of adventure.

That first player who draws a few cards, and all is well. Thus goading others on. Then the desperation as party members begin drawing from the Deck of Many Things not for riches, but to try to undo the drawing of the Void or Donjon by a party member. And there are the treasure maps, fighting death, gaining a keep, and enmity with an outer planar creature.

In 2nd Edition, I had a Dwarf that once drew 5 or 6 cards. He drew the Euryale (-3 penalty to all saving throws vs. petrification). Several sessions later, the group had a random encounter with a Gorgon’s petrifying breath; The -3 penalty made the difference in his failed roll.

I wasn’t there for another use, but I believe a beloved and long running henchman began his career when a player drew the Knight (gain the service of a 4th level fighter).

Postscript

These days I’m looking to Dungeon Crawl Classics as my system of choice. It is a paradox…a rules light system in a massive tome. The majority of the pages are for random things (spell results, dragon powers, critical hits, fumbles, starting occupations, deity disapproval, etc.).

Characters don’t begin with interwoven backstories, they are instead dropped at the start of an adventure with 3 random bits of equipment and some coins. But more on that for another time.

What Makes a Good Role-Playing Session (for me)?

My default mode is critical pessimism; I’m working on that. In reviewing my blog posts, I am critical of game sessions.

So I decided to flip it and reflect on what makes a good role-playing game session (for me)?

A good RPG session requires a good group of players.

Good players are:

  • Generous
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Curious
  • Invested
  • Active

This is the foundation. With a good group of players, most game sessions are good game sessions, even Fate.

It is one of the reasons I enjoy Games on Demand at GenCon and Origins; the GMs are invested, excited, and ready to facilitate their games.

In the case of a one-shot session, this is adequate. But for extended play, I need more. I need meaningful situations.

Meaningful Situations

At its very basic, do the character’s actions impact the fictional state of the world? Flipping this around, does the fictional changes of the world impact the characters?

Is the GM presenting situations that challenge the other players? And are the players attempting to advance their character’s agenda through overcoming challenges presented by the GM?

A key ingredient for meaningful situations is that risky ventures may pay huge dividends or bring about disastrous failure. Which asks what is at risk? What is there to gained?

  • Fictional advancement
  • Laughter and enjoyment
  • Mechanical advancement
  • System mastery

Fictional advancement, laughter, and enjoyment are not dependent on the rules. Though random tables and results can add a lot to the enjoyment as they give unexpected responses.

The other two bullet points – mechanical advancement and system mastery – are game system rewards.

Game System Rewards

In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, characters gain most of their XP (and mechanical advancement – through gaining treasure. Conflict was dangerous and yielded little XP compared to treasure.

Domain rules become a natural extension of ever-growing wealth.

In more recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the characters gain most of their XP through combat.

Meaningful Rewards

Even though the most efficient method to gain XP is via treasure, the older editions have procedures that push the characters towards conflict. In this tension I see an elegant reward system.

Players that master this concept see combat avoidance as the best path. Anything that can end a combat is superior than engaging in a war of attrition:

  • Swingy spells (save or die)
  • Negotiation and forming alliances
  • Hirelings and Henchman to absorb failed efforts
  • Stealth and subterfuge

Yet through this all, the system increases character combat efficacy. And challenges the player’s humility regarding their characters; Why not fight, we’re strong enough?

One quick method is to apply Jared Sorenson’s 3 Questions to the rules:

  • What is your game about?
  • How does it go about that?
  • What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?

In the case of older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, the answers revolve around exploration. In newer editions, it seems to revolve around combat.

Conclusion

I’m particular about my games; I want to enjoy my game sessions. They are a major time commitment. Both the group and system should cleave close to my ideal. A game of pure combat loses its luster.

My ideal answers to Jared Sorenson’s questions are:

What is your game about?

Exploration of a rich world, where characters can pursue personal agendas as well as play to find out.

How does it go about that?

Shared development of a rich world that challenges the characters.

What behaviors does it reward and/or encourage?

That which makes a good player:

  • Generous
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Curious
  • Invested
  • Active

The Disservice of Modern Dungeons & Dragons Initiative Systems

When 3E came out, I loved the initiative system. Circular initiative, readied actions, delayed actions, and attacks of opportunity. The order of actions felt more strategic. And then they added reactions. Oh boy! So much to consider.

But I’ve noticed that combat grinds on and on in these more “modern” systems.

Individual Initiative

Below is a very course grained sequence of actions:

  1. Roll initiative
  2. Record initiative
  3. Player begins turn
    1. Player assesses the current situation, asking the GM for any information
    2. Player determines optimal action
      • Ready
      • Delay
      • Act
    3. Player performs action
    4. GM adjudicates action
    5. Player assesses results
    6. If actions remain (e.g. quickened spells, extra attacks), goto “Player determines action”
    7. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  4. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

In summary, while one player takes their turn, the other players are idle. This is the nature of turn based systems.

Some players may plan their next action, butmay scuttle those plans by the time their turn arrives. After all a well-timed Entangle or Fireball can snarl most any situation.

And in the above system, there are many points in which a single player asks the GM to rebuild and describe the current state of the conflict. A battle map can alleviate some of this, as can condition tokens, but it is the nature of the beast.

Players do not pay full attention during other player’s turn. So the GM restates the “current state” multiple times. And in those restatements, not all players are listening. So the table ends up with a fractured understanding.

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

I look back with fondness at 2nd Editions declare then roll initiative system. Or Burning Wheel’s scripted conflict. There is both a chaos to the system, but also a greater degree of shared engagement.

Below is a rewording of the above Individual Initiative, but from the perspective of players declaring actions before rolling initiative.

  1. Players assess the current situation, asking the GM for any information
  2. Players declare actions
  3. Roll initiative
  4. Record initiative
  5. Player begins turn
    1. Player makes a go/no go assessment concerning declared action
      1. Perform declared action if it was a go
      2. GM adjudicates action
      3. Player assesses results
      4. If actions remain, goto “Player assesses if their declared action is viable”
    2. Player ends turn and begins waiting for next turn While waiting assess if a reaction is appropriate
  6. Announce next player, goto “Player begins turn”

First, all characters are engaging in assessing the current situation. They do this at the same time. From there, they commit to their actions; Also at the same time. In those moments “all eyes are glued to the GM.”

On a player’s turn, their assessment is most often constrained to their declared action. The assessment is now a simplified “Do I do it or not?” question.

From a systems stand point, portions of the table play move from serial processing to partial parallelization. The players all assess and declare at roughly the same time. Then they act in order. But their action involves smaller assessment, minimal declaration, and instead focuses onadjudication.

Further Dissection

When players must select multiple actions for a given round, the declaration can become burdensome. But I suspect the reason for giving multiple actions is to help satiate the player as they wait longer between their turns.

Below are two tables that highlight the active players for a given step in the encounter. The question marks (?) indicate an uncertainy of what the player is doing. It doesn’t matter all that much.

Individual Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare ? ? Assess
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Declare ? Declare ? Assess
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Declare ? ? Declare Assess
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Declared Intention then Roll Initiative

State Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GM
GM Describes Assess Assess Assess Declare
Player 1 Declare Declare Declare Declare Assess
Roll initiative Roll Roll Roll Roll
Player 1 Begins Turn Assess ? ? Declare
Player 1 Rolls Roll ? ? Record
GM Responds Assess ? ? Declare
Player 2 Begins Turn ? Assess ? Declare
Player 2 Rolls ? Roll ? Record
GM Responds ? Assess ? Declare
Player 3 Begins Turn ? ? Assess Declare
Player 3 Rolls ? ? Roll Record
GM Responds ? ? Assess Declare

Proposal

Consider mechanisms in which you can get players to do the same kinds of things at the same time (e.g. declare actions then roll initiative). This is complicated by the more strategic options for each player’s turn.

I find the cost of those strategic options to be slower-paced, less engaging conflicts. And as D&D has moved from majority XP awards for treasure to majority of XP from defeating monsters, this has resulted in a system disconnect.

Take some time to read the initiative section in Philotomy’s Musings. Consider what conflict means in your game. Consider how you want to incentivize the strategies and actions of your players.