All posts by troypress

Crypt of the Death Giants

Back in November, one of my players asked me to run a one-shot campaign for her son and his wife, as one of them always DMs, and they’ve never both played in the same game. I asked them what they wanted and they said that they would like “to have a one-shot with high-level characters, like level 15 or so, and possibly mostly a dungeon crawl with puzzles and games and things.”

I’d never run a session for higher than level 7, so after first thinking about writing my own session I decided I should buy and run a module from an expert. After checking out some different modules on DMs Guild, I bought Crypt of the Death Giants by Robert Adducci (@Raddu76).

I did add one puzzle, designed to make it easier for me to DM. I added a beacon that would store and retransmit the spells used against it against the party; that way I didn’t have to anticipate everything they might do to pose a more challenging encounter. They eventually figured it out! The beacon was because I wanted to work in this great sculpture my daughter had made. (I kept it in the car until they explored this far.)

One advantage of Forgotten Realms for a one-shot is that everyone knows a little about it – so in telling their backstories, for instance, my friend’s son mentioned his character had come from Waterdeep and had studied giant lore (as luck would have it he had just finished Storm King’s Thunder).

We had a party of five, and I liked the module’s early environmental attacks to wear them down. Lifting a tip I picked up from Reddit, I drew a circle divided evenly into twelve pie pieces and colored a slice in for each setback they suffered; this gave a nice sense of tension.

Everyone enjoyed the session, and I highly recommend the module.

Our First Virtual D&D Session

My group played our first remote D&D 5e session last night. As it happened, my notes (written before I knew this would be online) called for them waking in the middle of a cavalry battle between centaurs and horsemen. It was certainly a lot easier to manage with a virtual tabletop!

We had problems with the Roll 20 app’s audio and switched to JoinMe halfway through: that went much better. We will do that going forward. Unfortunately, virtual D&D brings all of the fun of conference calls to your gaming experience. People talking but not being heard, people talking over one another, and calls dropping. In the future, I need to do a better job making sure everyone gets their turn to speak, as it is easy to speak over another and miss cues that others want to talk.

I didn’t always realize that what players saw was different than what I saw. For instance, I didn’t realize people couldn’t see my initiative order, which I did by dragging the text of player names into a new order. So I need to figure out how Roll 20 handles that.

I loved being able to, on the fly, add art that related to the story (like the giant hand above, summoned by a spell). I need to research simple terrain backgrounds for next week.

Overall, virtual D&D is better than no D&D. In fact, now I know that I’d love a digital table for playing in person together in the future.

But the last thing I want in my life for the long term is another reason to sit alone in my office at my computer.

For strong tips, and a well-structured way of considering the technology stack needed, see: How To Move Your RPG Campaign Online.

Playing Solitaire Together

My 14-year old son asked me to teach him to play Solitaire last weekend.

This made me question my life choices: how had we never taught him Solitaire?! I can remember playing Simultaneous Solitaire all the time with my maternal grandmother and brother and sister before I was even ten.

So we got out three decks and each played traditional Solitaire, my wife and I guiding him along.

I even queued up a soundtrack (“Solitaire” by Suzanne Vega). 

I explained to my son that when Windows 3.0 came out it was the first GUI most people had seen, and Microsoft Solitaire was used to teach people about drag and drop.

Karen remembered her Magic Link PDA from Sony (running General Magic), which would cheer and clap when she won.

I realized that we’ve played a lot of cards with him, but they’ve all been dedicated-deck card games: Fluxx, Bang!, 7 Wonders, Innovation, Race for the Galaxy, Civscape, and Melee in the Mines. When I was a kid, we played dozens of different card games with a regular deck: Simultaneous Solitaire, Rummy, 99, Blackjack, a bunch of Poker variants. The only card game with its own deck that we played was Uno.

Anyway, he played Solitaire twice and lost both times.

I finally talked him into Simultaneous Solitaire. Simultaneous play means the game is no longer deterministic, no longer Candy Land for adults. The relative speed of the players changes the course of the game, as the two players race to play on the eight foundation piles. It’s a curious mix of cooperative vs. competitive – mainly competitive, as you want to get the most cards in the foundation piles, but there is such a sense of completion that it becomes cooperative when one person is stuck and you help them out, pointing out moves they missed. (Fun fact, Simultaneous Solitaire is known as Zankpatiencenquarrel patiences, in German.) 

Probably more popular is Nerts, a variant that uses 4 piles in the tableau instead of 7, with the addition of one face-up pile of 13 crads (the Nerts pile) [Nerts rules]. Dutch Blitz is in turn a variant of Nerts, but with a dedicated deck!

One-Page Generator for Keeps

As I’ve written elsewhere, when I started my current homebrew O5R campaign, I generated a 10×10 hex map using Hex Describe. Even though it is powered by nearly 2,000 tables (!), I found myself missing the cast of characters that populate a town. I came up with a design goal of, within a single page, emulating the keep from The Keep on the Borderlands (buy it!) as a useful starting location for the adventurers, but adding more elements of intrigue. Since Hex Describe is open source, and you can append your own tables to it, I did so and shared my tables with Alex Schroeder and Ktrey Parker. Ktrey suggested I add more professions; Alex suggested it could be used for more than just one town, but if so it would need more options and more variability.

Here’s example output from what we came up with.

This is Selwick, a town of 200 humans (HD 1 AC 8 1d6 F1 MV 12 ML 7 XP 100). The wooden houses are protected by a large keep, a wooden palisade and the river. The outer bailey of the keep houses the richest tradespeople of the land, under the rule of Duke Félix the Lucky Khan. The inner bailey houses the castellan and the guard. Entering the outer bailey is by paying 1sp per person. These tradespeople work there: 

  1. The crier Darwin is an excellent source of rumors. (A member of Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers.) 
  2. The herbalist Ève buys rare flora. (A member of Perfect Disciples of the Archaic Victory.) 
  3. The jeweler Loan acquires up to 1,000gp of gems. (A member of Beautiful Folk of the Keep.) 
  4. The merchant Allyson buys bulk quantities of spices, metal ingots, and other trade goods. (A member of Beautiful Folk of the Keep.) 
  5. The moneylender Hristina will convert coins from one denomination to another (10% surcharge). (Prays to Odin.) 
  6. The provisioner Tamira sells all types of equipment. 
  7. The rat catcher Kashfia, a devoted follower of Mitra, travels around singing hymns. (Surreptitiously favors Duke Alesch.) 
  8. The smith Besart sells new – and refurbishes old – weapons and armor. (Surreptitiously supports Duke Alesch.) 
  9. The tavern owner Henos runs the King’s Swan here, frequented by the well-off and the rabble-rousers. (A member of Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers.) 
  10. The trader Aaron buys old equipment and rare finds. (A member of Perfect Disciples of the Archaic Victory.) 
  11. The watchman Thalea frequents the shops the PCs visit and keeps an eye on them. (Second-in-command of the Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers.) 

(For a rumor about allegiances, roll a d10 and a d6. On a d6 of 1-3, tell the truth about the tradesperson corresponding to the results of the d10; on a 4-6, lie about them.)

The inner bailey is open to the select few and houses these noteworthy personages: 

The castellan Courtney. (Trusted confident of Duke Félix the Lucky Khan.) 

The corporal of the watch Alisha. 

The local secret society Perfect Disciples of the Archaic Victory is being infiltrated. It is led by the wizard Gentjana📷(level 3). The spells known are based on The Book of Songs by Xoralfona the Wordsmith: 1. empathycalm, 2. mind blast. They believe that the ruling class has been taken over by vampires. They prepare for the big fight by studying ancient books and training with silver daggers. 

The Fellowship of Pale Fortune Tellers have been plotting to overthrow them, led by the wizard Diell📷 (level 5). The spells known are based on The Book of the Warp by Korokoro the Mad: 1. recoilmishap, 2. oozeplague touch, 3. warp mind. A potion of strength (deep red, smelling like tree resin, 20min, strength 18). To believe in the current order of things is what servants are trained to do. They believe that another world is possible. 

Yet another secret society waits in the wings.

And, of course, this is built into the full hexcrawl generator, if you select Alex Schroeder’s set of random tables. For my hexcrawl, I actually ran all three sets of tables and combined them. I ran the same map through the generators from Alex Schroeder, Peter Seckler (a fork of Alex’s supporting different terrain types), and Matt Strom. Then I copied and pasted each together. Tedious and not something I’d do again but Alex’s doesn’t cover all terrain types. In retrospect, I’d start with Alex’s only and then cherrypick from the other two documents rather than combine them all to start with.

Alex SchroederPeter SecklerMatt Strom
Best forAlpine mapsSmale mapsSmale maps
Word count101,00717,882101,165
LicensePublic domainPublic domainCopyright held by various authors

The specific ruleset that Hex Describe uses is Alex Schroeder’s heartbreaker: “Halberds & Helmets is the name of my Players Handbook for old school D&D. It takes its inspiration from B/X D&D (1981) via Labyrinth Lord and incorporates many of the various rules and ideas I tag Old School.” This is mostly compatible with B/X but Halberds & Helmets (and therefore Hex Describe) uses its own sets of spells.

You can take the generator for a spin here: Hex Describe Town Rule (about half the towns have the keep with personages).

Two Hours of D&D Play from One Sentence!

Last night I got two hours of O5R play out of one sentence of my session notes! That sentence:

A dead man, an arrow in his eye: you find no food or weapons but a saddle and shield.

Reacting to my players’ actions, I ended up roleplaying the dead man (thanks to Speak with Dead), the grass (!) his body was found in (thanks to Speak with Plants), and his murderer.

The key resource I used during play was a random name generator I had written at the start of the campaign, when the situations arose and I needed to name the dead man (Zerbal), three of his enemies (Ayuhrono, Himingel, Orjeromen), and his murderer (Osad). (As one of the players pointed out, I tend to turn Speak with Dead into a game of Monkey’s Paw, technically answering the questions but in an often-useless way: when the cleric asked about enemies, Zerbal complained about fellow tribesmen.)

I hadn’t thought too much about who the murderer was but realized it related to conflict between three factions in that part of my campaign world. This led to a long fascinating debate among the PCs as they weighed the pros and cons of avenging the murder victim vs. allying with the murderer’s faction.

The best part is that their actions last night will reverberate across future sessions!

Why does low prep work? Because you just can’t anticipate what players will react to and be interested in. The players ignored clues about a chimera and other nearby happenings to focus on this particular detail.

The key resources that got me comfortable with low prep were Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Hexcrawl’s The Alexandrian, and Alex Schroeder’s Hex Describe.

Another tool to go low prep is to rely on Google. Last year I switched from paper notes to a laptop, originally to use D&D Beyond during play. But then I started using Google for other details during play. So last night when one player rolled a 1 in combat three times in a row (!), I found a critical fumble table to use for the last two rolls. When he later decided to harvest body parts from the chimera, I Googled “5e dragon body” and found a Google Doc on Dragon Harvesting.

Now sometimes low prep can be the result of a good return on investment on high prep. August is usually a slow month at work, and that month I invested time in creating my hexmapmy one-page pantheon, random tables for names, terrain encounters, even random tables for common landmarks (temples, towers, barrows), and running a Session Zero. This was knowing that during most other months I’d be too busy to spend more than an hour a week on session prep: for last night’s session, I spent about a half hour during lunch two days in a row coming up with one page of notes.

I’m pretty sure I’ll need more than two sentences for next week’s session, but I’m comfortable that low prep will continue to pay dividends.

(Photo credit: Musa reading a volumen (scroll); Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. from Boeotia; the artist is identified as the Klügmann Painter.)

OSR Spellcasting Systems

I’m amazed by the variety of implementations of spellcasting in OSR systems. I asked OSR Reddit what the problems are that these new implementations are trying to solve, what the most popular approaches to spellcasting are, and people’s preferences. I distilled the discussion into the following analysis.

  • Perceived problems with OD&D
    • Boring
    • Vancian magic isn’t magical enough
    • Difference between spell levels and PC levels
    • Set spell lists
    • Doesn’t suit certain settings and types of campaigns
  • Types of spells
    • Set spell lists:
      • By spell level
      • By player level (e.g., level 2 spell for level 2 caster)
      • By schools (e.g., Necromancy)
      • Level-less
    • New spells are discovered in game (as treasure or from other casters)
    • Improvised by player
  • Availability of spells
    • Cantrips can be used any number of times
    • Spell slots:
      • With slots per level
      • Overall number of slots (level-less)
      • Spells have physical form (e.g., scrolls) and take encumbrance slots
    • Any spell they know:
      • Chosen by player
      • Chosen by player if they pass a check (e.g., Intelligence)
      • Determined randomly
    • Casting has a cost:
      • Time — Spellcasting takes 2-3 rounds
      • Reduces hp
      • Mana cost
  • Success of spells
    • Target, if any, gets a saving throw
    • Caster rolls for success
    • Caster failure results in anything from magical side effects to catastrophes
    • Magic Dice (MD) per level, with option to roll as many or as few as you wish (GLOG) but with doubles result in a side effect and triples result in a catastrophe

Based on this research, I decided to do a survey to provide feedback to the OSR (Old School Renaissance) community on what Level 1-3 spells are considered most useful. The results can then be used to create shorter spell lists and player aids.

For each of the six groups of spells, you’ll be asked to rank at least the top three spells for OSR play, from most useful to least useful. You can take the survey here:

Many thanks!

(Illustration credit: The Sorcerer, by Jennie Wilde.)

Reskinnable Pantheon for a Module

Thought experiment: What should a generic pantheon look like?

For a hexcrawl module I’m writing, I didn’t want to go with specific gods, but I’ve struggled to come up with something generic that the DM could easily adapt to their setting.

I want to make less work for GMs. This is prompted by me encountering things in modules like “A steep hill rises from the forest and at its top there is a shrine where stands an old statue of Yemathic, about 20 feet tall” and not finding enough about Yemathic to know what is intended. (OK, pages and pages on, including passing a few more references, I found out that it was a god or goddess – not sure which – of justice.)

The Greeks and Romans had almost the same gods, just with different names: Ares vs. Mars. Then the Romans tried to translate every local deity into their pantheon: “Oh, your god Taranis is just another name for Jupiter.” So that is the hybrid I’m looking for: “You encounter a wall painting and a shrine to what the runes name as Ausdia, a goddess of the sun, with a solar halo behind her head.” Easy to reskin to Apollo or Belenus or Dol Arrah or Frey or Odur or Pelor or Phlotus or Re-Horakht or the homebrewed solar deity.

One approach would be just to go with the 5e domains: Knowledge, Life, Light, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, and War.

For another approach, I re-read “Appendix B: Gods of the Multiverse” from the 5e PHB and did a word count on the Deity column:

Word Count Word
12 war
11 magic
9 nature
9 sea
7 death
6 knowledge
6 fertility
6 storms
6 good
5 healing
5 giants
5 craft
5 light
5 fire
5 sun
4 music
4 love
4 evil
4 elf

I’m going to go with 8 (so I can use a d8 to look up a god), with a d6 for gender (1-3=god, 4-6=goddess):

  1. god/goddess of death [War domain]
  2. god/goddess of fertility [Life]
  3. god/goddess of knowledge [Knowledge]
  4. god/goddess of magic [Trickery]
  5. god/goddess of nature [Nature]
  6. god/goddess of the sea [Tempest]
  7. god/goddess of the sun [Light]
  8. god/goddess of war [War]

I’m going to leave out alignment references, as I think those are easy for a GM to swap in as needed.

For when I want to use a d12 (ancient ruins):

  1. god/goddess of craft [Knowledge domain]
  2. god/goddess of death [War]
  3. god/goddess of fertility [Life]
  4. god/goddess of fire [Trickery]
  5. god/goddess of healing [Life]
  6. god/goddess of knowledge [Knowledge]
  7. god/goddess of magic [Trickery]
  8. god/goddess of nature [Nature]
  9. god/goddess of the sea [Tempest]
  10. god/goddess of storms [Tempest]
  11. god/goddess of the sun [Light]
  12. god/goddess of war [War]

A common pattern, which I omitted from these, is to have gods of a race: god of giants (5 references in the PHB), god of elves (4), etc. Those can easily be added depending on the history of a location.

Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

One-Page Dungeon Generator

I love the Dungeon Contest’s one-page dungeons, where you can see the entire dungeon and its contents at a glance. Especially those dungeons that get beyond the fixed narrative structure of five-room dungeons. My own attempt for the Dungeon Contest was thematic but probably unoriginal, though it did lead to three great sessions in my last campaign and the rise of a new Big Bad Evil Gal (you can download Catacombs of the Lich Queen here).

So I was disappointed when I ran Hex Describe for the first time and realized it lacked any single-page dungeons in its hexes. I suggested something quite simple, providing five bullets built from three types of rooms (entrance, interior, final):

  • Natural cavern
  • Mushroom farm
  • Kitchen
  • Guardroom
  • Throne room

Well Ktrey Parker ran with it, adding themes and adapting his tables, and Alex Schroeder built a dungeon-map generator, and together we iterated and iterated, ending up here:

Check it out! You can generate your own random dungeons, varying in size from 5 to 14 rooms. And, if you’d like to improve the generator, we’re always looking for additional authors to add to our tables.

Use Text Mapper to Create Random Maps and Hex Describe to Create Random Campaigns

For my current hexcrawl campaign, the Hexedland, I created a 10-by-10 hexmap using Text Mapper. I used the random generator based on Erin D. Smale’s algorithm, then keep tweaking the results by hand until I got something I liked. For instance, I wanted the starting hex to border each type of other terrain (forest, mountains, hills, swamp, lake, grassland) so that players could choose the type of environment (and therefore monsters) they wanted to encounter. I lengthened a mountain range that divided the middle of the map, and had the west side be arid and the east side be fertile, indicating that rains blow westward.

Editing the map doesn’t involve drawing but involves changing descriptions of hexes:

0101 green firs thorp
0102 light-grey mountain cliff1
0103 light-grey mountain
0104 light-green firs thorp
0105 green fir-forest
0106 light-grey forest-hill
0107 light-grey mountain
0108 light-green firs thorp
0109 grey swamp
0110 grey swamp
0201 light-grey mountain cliff0
0202 white mountain
0203 light-grey mountain
0204 light-green fir-forest
0205 light-grey mountain cliff0

I also ended up adding names into the map for some of the major landmarks. The following illustration is just of a random map, as I don’t want my players to see the actual map I’m using. Half the fun is in the discovery.


Now why create maps like this?

The key reason is that you can then copy that map into Hex Describe and create an entire campaign!

All of a sudden you have 100 regions that your players can go explore! And of course you can hack and edit any description to better suit your players’ interest. But it is much easier to start with 100 descriptions already generated then to start with a blank page.

So far I’ve extensively rewritten each of the hexes my players have visited, keeping some elements from Hex Describe’s output. For instance, I’m replacing the Halberds & Helmets cosmology with the gods from my one-page pantheon. But the random hexes generate ideas that push me to be more creative and inspire confidence that, should my players set off in an unexpected direction (as they often do) or get lost (less often), I can describe where they end up.

I encourage you to give both Text Mapper and Hex Describe a spin!

One-Page Pantheons

The general advice for DMs building their own campaign worlds is to recognize that most of world creation won’t end up being experienced by the players. While you can go full Tolkien if you wish (to obey your own muse), you’re typically better off creating simple systems and then using fractal design to zoom in on those parts that players show an interest in.

For my Hexedland campaign, rather than write The Silmarillion, I developed a one-page pantheon, where the description of each god shared the major myth associated with that god. Read together, this provides a summary of the mythos. What follows is what I provided players at Session Zero:

Humans believe in all 12 gods, but most have two gods they consider patrons. They wear an upper arm ring with a symbol of their favored god and a finger ring with the symbol of their second god. They do not need to pick a god that exactly matches their alignment.

Common beliefs no matter which gods a player favors:

  • Gods are not omniscient. They rely on prayers to learn what is happening in the world.
  • Gods are not omnipotent either. They channel their actions through clerics and believers.
  • Some people became gods, either through Diahaj granting them apotheosis or through them recruiting enough worshipers to achieve it on their own (Tolcu-Tolcu).
  • Where a spell on a scroll can only be read by magic users, a spell on a prayer leaf can be read by anyone. A prayer leaf is a piece of parchment folded in half and then folded in thirds and placed in a small leather pouch.
  • Each god has an associated taboo, an activity a character must avoid. For instance, followers of Wenmaju avoid dry food (rations), while followers of Pentwer won’t set traps or associate with someone who sets traps. Violating a taboo will suspend a player’s ability to use any prayer leaves until a tithe has been paid to the right temple in Auspele.

The twelve gods often contest one another in mortal affairs. Other, more idiosyncratic gods are worshipped elsewhere.

d12Deity / Algnmnt.Archetype / TabooSymbolBackground
Creator / public eatingSunburst with 12 raysShe created the sun, the trinity, and peopled the world with immortal plants and walking trees. No one ate anyone else.
Lawbreaker / jokesCave entranceThe god of the trinity, he rebelled and created animals and night and death. Sometimes called “The Devourer.”
Caregiver / selfishnessCrescent moon & starThe goddess of the trinity, after the first nightfall, she grew the moon and the stars.
Magician / routinePainted skullThe other-gendered god of the trinity, they transformed substances, resurrected the dead, and deified mortals.
Lover /
dry foods
Two eyesA sublimely beautiful intersex human, they were wooed by each of the trinity.
Hero /
Bow with arrowOriginally a princess, she singlehandedly defended her brothers from an orc attack and then found and freed her kidnapped husband. Mother of Coronosej.
Ruler / frivolityCrownShe created an alliance of races, defeated an invasion of monsters, and became the first empress of Cedreg.
Explorer / setting trapsFlamesA dwarf, he went into the wilderness and blazed a trail for settlers. (Caring little for who already lived in the wild.)
Sage /
E-shaped runeAn elf, she compiled lore on the lands opened up by Pentwer.
Everyman / luxury goodsBumblebeeOriginally a human farmer, he was the first to tame bees and cultivate honey. 
Jester /
books & scrolls
Ancient vaseA halfling bard, she stole honey and invented mead.
Innocent / bigotryCity on a hillShe taught cosmopolitanism and radical inclusiveness to the citizens of the empire, became widely worshipped and achieved apotheosis on her own.


The archetypes for the gods came from The Hero and the Outlaw. The icons were all sourced from The Noun Project (for which I have an annual license).

Hexedland's 12 gods