Friday, April 29, 2016

The Mists Of Akuma Beckon You

Today we're going to do something a little different, something your beloved bard has never done before. No, it does not consist of me being short-winded or dry. That's not how this bard rolls, yo.

 I am going to get you excited. Yes, some of my previous articles have elicited some emotion of state of mind comparable to excitement, but today I am going to blow your mind the same way my mind was blown recently. 

I have been doing Ed The Bard now for a little while (since the halcyon days of January 2016). It was back in March when I was pumping out an article a day that I was approached by ENnie Award-Winning designer Mike Myler. I knew of Mike's extensive body of work and tried my best not to geek out like a giddy little girl. So, once my giddy girl-like geekery had subsided, Mike showed me something. It was a fabulous, gritty little campaign setting called Mists of Akuma for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

What is Mists of Akuma?

MoA is an eastern-style campaign setting, beset by an insidious mist that houses demonic entities and changes men, darkening their hearts and transforming them into cold-blooded killers. Oni warlords savage the land while ninja skulk in the shadows, eliminating targets with unparalleled precision and ruthless efficiency. Brave samurai stand against the horrors of the mist, augmented by the newest technology, but never knowing if it will be enough to stop the tide of darkness that washes over the land of Soburin.

It is a dark, brutal, and hopeless land, which is not what most would expect when they hear eastern-style campaign setting. While many eastern settings try to capture the beauty and majesty of Edo period Japan, Mists of Akuma takes a hard left into Silent Hill. 

The best way I can describe the feel of this game is as if Akira Kirosawa and Quintin Tarantino had a dark, edgy little baby that loaded itself up with steam-powered augmentations, vowed to become a mystical ninja, and assassinated people while shrouded by an evil fog. It is equal parts Legend of the Five Rings, Steam Boy, Afro Samurai, Sin City, Warhammer, and Ravenloft. That might not make a whole lot of sense when you hear it, but when you see it on the page it coalesces into a beautiful symmetry of grit so thick, I felt like needed a shower after reading it. 

And that's a good thing.

There are countless eastern-style settings and supplements out there, and each offers roughly the same things, but Mists of Akuma manages to do the impossible and put a unique spin on everything. For instance, there are two new attributes!

Sure, you can play a hero in the darkened lands of Soburin, but this is not a game with an abundance of heroics. This is a game for folks that aren't very nice. The anti-hero, the badass, or the straight-up villain will find themselves right at home in this world where the perpetually corrupting influence of the mist darkens one's soul. And unlike other games that punish you for all the dark deeds you can perform, Haitoku (meaning "fall from virtue") actual rewards your embrace of the dark side with access to certain feats and powers unavailable to more virtuous and honorable characters. Star Wars RPGs, take note. This is how the Dark Side is supposed to work.

It's not completely bleak, however. There is still something there for the woefully outnumbered who would rather battle against the darkness than join it. Where our nefarious friends find solace in the shadows with Haitoku, the pillars of light in a dark world will find themselves embracing Dignity. But, if you still feel the need to walk that fine line between a badass good guy and a hardcore bad guy, don't sweat it. Mists of Akuma has no problem with you doing both. After all, you can be a cold blooded murderer but still maintain a code of ethics and duty in you wonton slaughter. In a morally ambiguous world like Soburin, the balance of light and darkness is in a constant state of flux, and with the mists seeping into the hearts of men, there are very few pillars of purity left... and the ones that are probably won't last very long.

Despite all of it's differences, there is a lot of the familiar nestled in Mists of Akuma. The Samurai, with much of the same feel and flavor that it had with in the old OA supplements. The Wu-Jen in all of its elemental power and glory makes a welcome return, and even some of the good o'le stand-by races, like the Tanuki and the Tengu, find a home

But there is so much more!

The book is loaded with new monsters, like the Imperial Dragons, the plethora of Oni, and the Tsukumogami. And classes get a lot of love with the addition of the Bushibot Martial Archetype, Circle of Blight and Circle of Shifting for our druid friends, the Clockwork Adept and mage Arcane Traditions, the badass College of the Gun for the bard with a need to draw some iron, the Detective, Herbalist, and freakin' Ninja archetypes for the canny rogue, the Priest and the long-awaited (at least by me) Martial Artist Monastic Tradition for the hard-hitting Monk whose wishing to channel their inner Bruce Lee, the Samurai Sacred Oath for the righteous Paladin, the Tsukumogami Hunter Ranger Archetype, and the Shinobibot Archetype (which should be as badass as it sounds).

There is a lot to love, but don't take my word for it. I talked with Mike himself about Mists of Akuma, his thoughts on the setting and the major influences that helped mold the mist-shrouded lands of Soburin. My biggest take-away from this interview is the man just doesn't know his source material, he has a passion for it. That is the kind of setting you want to play in, my friends.

Where did you get the idea for the shadow, gritty land of Soburin?
I started wondering to myself, "what if Matthew Commodore C. Perry sailed into Edo harbor in 1854 in his steel-plated gunships only to find that Japan really was a magical place with real power" (historically he brought a very rude and abrupt end to the long period of isolation that marks the Tokugawa Era, ushering in the Meiji Restoration).
Obviously, the answer to that is that he would need to fly in on electropunk planes because Japan could have fended him off. Everything tumbled forward from there. With proper mages and mystically empowered samurai, there'd be a strong inclination to militarize (re-militarize even, since there's only a short span of time after the Ichizoku Wars in Mists of Akuma where peace had been achieved) for their own foreign purposes to deploy this new resource elsewhere. Speaking of resources, what a great and untapped place this would be for metal, precious ore, and the like!  
Nobody likes being invaded and drafted though so there's a lot of hatred to be had. And if this is really going to be Eastern, then Americ---I mean, Ceramia--would need to be gotten rid of for the setting to carry the themes I want it to embody. Since the tech-envelope was already getting pushed forward with the aircraft of Ceramia, it made sense that weapons of mass destruction wouldn't be far behind and there it was -- Soburin, far removed from the world, gets insulated from the apocalyptic hell unleashed elsewhere. 
After that things just fell into place -- of course the foreign invaders would subjugate and try to control all of the nonhumans in Soburin, and being on a dying world, the struggle to survive demands harsh choices, bitter betrayals, and Pyrrhic victories. Especially so because of the appearance of the corrupting mists that descends onto the land without rhyme or reason, making people terrified of each other and what lay in wait for their futures.

What do you think were some of the major influences of the setting?
Oh golly, there's a lot. When people want the one-sentence answer to this it's "Think Eberron + Rokugan + Warhammer 40,000 or Afro Samurai + Sin City + Ravenloft and you're headed in the right direction." (I am a Warhammer 40k junkie and got to work on the last book from Black Crusade and it was a dream come true.)
A longer explanation involves my fascination with eastern cultures, something that's been going on since childhood. I've been a Taoist (though I think the "Church of Taoism" is a joke -- just read the Tao te Ching, I promise that is its only intent, not some ridiculous organization around it) for almost two decades now and have been consuming Asian folklore, mythology, and history for quite a while. I was also obviously a huge fan of the Oriental Adventures book from 3.0 (regardless of its antiquated name) and that's always stuck with me. Ravenloft spoke volumes to me too, as did the Forgotten Realms, so I've mined my favorite themes from there for Mists of Akuma. There's even a little bit of Shadowrun love with the bengoshi (think of a Johnson that works for the government and you're with me).
 Mists of Akuma is also all largely informed by what I've already made as well. The (totally awesome) Veranthea Codex for the Pathfinder RPG is my home setting (it covers the gamut of renaissance steampunk, high fantasy wuxia, dieselpunk monsters, a psychic horror western underground, and soon a sci-fi maritime charade with the Into the Veil supplement), and my last project (Hypercorps 2099) squeezed my brain for truly awesome cyberpunk superhero goodness for both Pathfinder and D&D 5E. In addition to just generally polishing my designs and writing, they each taught me an enormous amount about the business of publishing a campaign setting and really helped me figure out what I want when I sit down to make things happen. 
 This time, I didn't want to do a translation like with Hypercorps 2099 however, I wanted to build for D&D 5E from the ground up, utilizing the vagaries of the mechanics and the general feel of the system to get the maximum impact of my theme for Mists of Akuma: f#$%ing cool. Everything in this book is going to bleed cool because that's the theme; Veranthea Codex was all about being radical (which it totally is) and Hypercorps 2099 is about a sense of hyper (from the gameplay to the content), and while each of those is cool in its own way, that's a byproduct of their focus. Here the focus is to make the reader calmly set the book onto their lap after reading a littel bit and swear because god damn that was f***ing cool. I am 100% positive we are blowing that objective right out of the water

Why mix science and technology with samurai and shinobi?
The answer goes back to the theme of the book (see the last paragraph) but there's a little more to it. First off, I have absolutely no expectation that WotC is going to abandon the OA property. Secondly, if you look up "5E Oriental Adventures" on google you will find a lot of material (and a lot of it is good -- Tribality in particular). Thirdly, I really want to make art orders that involve augmetic-armed samurai and shinobi peering from the darkness with electrolens eyes; of all the amazing illustrations done for my books so far, the best is definitely on its way with Mists of Akuma. More than anything else, though, the reason for mixing science, technology, samurai, and shinobi has to do with the theme: it's f***ng cool!

How long have you been designing games?  
Speaking generally I've been designing games for me and mine since I was a teenager. Professionally I've been designing games for 3 years now, working with magnates like Fantasy Flight Games, Paizo, and EN Publishing, as well as a veritable host of dozens of smaller companies. I'm also a fiction writer with hardcover accreditation though if that's your thing, and I pulled in an ENnie award for blogging back in 2013.
Game design isn't what I'd become accustomed to for work (I've spent three years of my life waiting tables for the best Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh -- I'm allergic to milk and that only rarely comes up in that cuisine -- and twice as many as a laborer and foreman) but it's extremely rewarding, even if I only sleep for a few hours each night and can count how many days off I get each year using one hand (you gotta love what you do!).

What sets Mists of Akuma apart from other eastern-themed games? 
Quite a bit! 
First of all, it's cooler! Seriously though we're creating a campaign setting with a distinctly noir feel that you're not going to find in an eastern fantasy capacity anywhere else. My editor (a great guy named Michael McCarthy) is consistently reminding me to keep the scope of the content within the bounds of cities and to focus on the details of life as opposed to what I'm predicated to do (which is national conflict or global repercussions).
Then there's the concept of Dignity and Haitoku. If you sit down to play in Rokugan, you're probably using the Honor system from the Dungeon Master's Guide and that's great -- we applaud you, distinguished scholars and warriors. Good for you. If you come over to Mists of Akuma, nobody actually gives a s#(% about how honorable you really are, they care about how honorable people think you are. So a lord with a really high Dignity score is not necessarily a person you can trust or someone worthy of esteem, they might just be really good at covering their duplicity! 
Roughly translated, Haitoku means "fall from virtue" and is a great way to understand what's really going on in Mists of Akuma: in order to survive or possibly even thrive, players have to sacrifice their own sense of self and become corrupted, warped by the same despicable power that roils in the deadly mists falling into the realm. Every game should test their resolve -- will they rise above themselves, acting with the accord, or give in to the lust for power and victory offered by the tenuous darkness that is encroaching on their world?
There's more -- each prefecture is unique and specializes in its own facet of magic, martial arts, or science, and there are 27 races and subraces that have their own roles and history in Soburin, over a dozen class options, new character backgrounds, eastern armaments and steampunk gadgets -- but if I had to pick a quiz team for this answer, it'd be "f***ing cool, Dignity, and Haitoku'.

When can people expect to get a copy of Mists of Akuma in their hands?
One of the things I've learned from doing Veranthea Codex and Hypercorps 2099 is that I want to remove agency from the process; that's another way of saying that I want to do more of the work myself. Virtually all of the promotional PDF material is the Mike Myler show (designed, edited, developed, graphically art-ed, and laid out by meand while I've got collaborators for soundboarding, having that much control making these allows me to really enforce the vision I've got in my head.
It also removes time spent messaging, directing, and generally communicating with various artists, writers, other another industry folk. Mind you, Mists of Akuma will not be a one man show! The core design team includes Michael McCarthy, Jason Sonia, Savannah Broadway, and Luis Loza, and there's a small corps of artists making custom illustrations as well (and that's not counting what stretch goals we might unlock, which include adventure support and more from folks like James Introcaso and the DM of my youth, a brilliant fellow named Chris Rippee). 
My target for finishing the PDF for Mists of Akuma is September 1st, 2016, with printed copies available before October sets in. That's an ambitious date but after unexpectedly taking over many duties on Hypercorps 2099 (and doing an amazing job, I reckon) I'm totally confident a rapid turnaround is within my grasp.

The Mists of Akuma kickstarter launches tonight (4/29/16) at 7:30pm! Go support it, embrace it, and get loads of cool stuff in the process!

And if you would like to brush up on some of Mike's other work, head on over to the Open Gaming Store. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

Feel free to stare into the mist, but don't be surprised if it stares back,
+Ed The Bard 

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

GM Advice: Why Killing NPCs Is Okay

Some may take a fleeting glance at the title of this little article, sigh a resigned sigh, and say to themselves "When isn't it okay?". A lot of Game Masters have no problem George R.R. Martin-ing their NPCs like every day was a Red Wedding. On the other hand, there is a very stringent collective of GMs who outright refuse to kill NPCs, stating that the deaths are empty and don't serve any purpose other than taking the spotlight away from the players.

NPCs are still characters. Sure, they are Non-Player Characters, but characters none the less. As such, they are as susceptible to the laws of your campaign world as your players' characters. They can die, and some of them should die. Now, I am not talking about villainous NPCs. The vast majority of them will ultimately meet an untimely end, or at the very least incarceration. No, these are your local shopkeeps, that friendly barmaid at the tavern the players frequent, the contact they have in the city's thieves' guild or even the patron the player characters are working for. They are the everyday faces you use to interact with your players.

And I am telling you right now, it is okay to kill these people. But you must know when to do it, how to do it, and why.

In fiction, as well as in your tabletop game, the death of a character has an impact, or at least it should. Randomly killing off Villager #2 won't muster much of a reaction out of your players, and it is them whom you want to react. The players control the characters, they are the minds and hearts of the characters. It is a symbiotic relationship the two share, so if you do something that has an impact the player, you no doubt impact the character as well.

The NPC that dies must have a reason for dying, either directly or indirectly related to the player characters. It could be a consequence of failing to perform a task, like getting the antidote to the poisoned child in time, or a result of the players actions in succeeding in a task, like saving the noble's daughter leading to the noble's son, who had the girl kidnapped in the first place, getting murdered by the men who were to receive a cut of the ransom.

Whatever the case, the players should have some kind of bond with the fated NPC, be it a history together or an oath of duty. They should be someone the party either likes a lot, or someone who is vastly useful to them, like the alchemist they get their potions from or the smith that gears them all at a discount. This NPC will have the most impact when slain.

But be cautious. Murdering off NPCs arbitrarily or too often is a good way to ensure that your players won't trust you, and won't form any bonds with any future NPCs. That means they won't bond with a large part of your world, and you don't want that. No bond means no investment, and you want them invested. Use a gentle hand when ending the life of your NPCs. Don't get too greedy. Either Socrates or the guy at the local buffet once said "Everything in moderation".

 "San Dimas High School football rules!"

An NPCs death should never be random. It should be well thought out. Their death signifies something, and  is meant to do one of two things, if not both;

  1. Drive The Plot: A character's death should propel the player characters deeper into the plot of the story or adventure. When Robert Baratheon dies in A Game of Thrones (The book is 20 years old. Spoiler warnings have a statue of limitations too), it sets a series of events into motion leading to an all out war for the iron throne, thus becoming a pivotal moment to driving the overall plot. The Death of your NPC should, in some way, help move your plot forward. If you cannot conjure a reason why it would do so, then perhaps that NPC should be spared... for now.
  2. Promote Character Development: The death of an NPC can deeply affect a PC, allowing for a great deal of character growth. If one of your players is running a moody, broody character that "prefers to work alone", and they had some deep connection to the NPC, they could realize that they wasted a lot of time never letting that NPC know how they felt, and now they will never get a chance to. This could break them if that cold exterior and cause them to be more open with what is going on in their head, maybe even allowing them to trust. On the flip side, if the character is a genuinely good and gentle person, and someone they care about is killed in cold blood, they could have a break down and devolve into a cold, calculating, ruthless exterminator of whatever unfortunate creature happens to stumble in their way next (it is a hoot watching paladins go through this. Lawful Good doesn't mean lawful nice). Either way, the character is changed in a significant way. It has grown from the original concept set forth at the beginning of the game and has evolved into something more complex and three-dimensional, making it far more memorable than a cookie-cutter concept.

 Your NPCs are a dime a dozen, but wanton slaughter of your cast of thousands does not make the story you are trying to tell more interesting. While George R.R. Martin is pretty good a slaughtering characters, ever main character's death has held some kind of meaning and has either propelled the plot, helped to develop a character or both. And Mr. Martin, as proficient as he is, cannot hold a candle to the Immortal Bard, William Shakespeare.

Leave it to a bard to fill a cemetery with good storytelling elements.

"Kills every main character. Greatest love story ever written."

Everyone dies, but so few get to make it mean something,

Are you looking to get the most out of your NPCs? Even the ones you don't intend to put the axe to? There are a ton of affordable resources for you over to the Open Gaming Store. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Steal This! 5 Villages With A Dark Secret

I cannot seem to get villages out of my head this week. Hommlet has a of hold on me, not that it's a bad thing mind you. Villages are fun, magical little bastions of boredom and blandness, except that more often than not there is some terrifying secret buried just below the surface that could figuratively-or sometimes literally-tear the community asunder. These are the villages that are interesting. The ones with panache!

These secrets need not all be sinister, but sometimes shame can keep lips closed and heads turned. In a place as small as a village, everyone knows each other, but do they really? What skeletons dwell in the closet of some of the most trusted pillars of their community? What lengths will these "simple folk" go to in order to ensure that the dangerous secret they keep stays buried?

 Today I offer you up 5 seemingly unassuming villages hiding a dark secret. These are system neutral, so you can place them just about anywhere in any campaign setting. They are nice places to visit, but you probably don't want to live there...

1. Stay Out Of The Basement: This lovely little village is quaint. Too quaint. It stinks of quaintness. The houses are nicely built, the inn is clean, the fields are well tilled, and the people are happy and healthy. Very healthy. It would be hard to distinguish this village from any other if it were not for the giant sore thumb that is the big stone temple to (insert good-aligned God here). The temple, which is beautifully constructed, stands near the center of the village, and every man, woman, and child in the village is a devout follower of the aforementioned God.
It is said by the townsfolk that some 15 years ago the village was beset upon by a terrible plague. Many people died, and it was thought that everyone would perish amid the pestilence. Then an angel appeared and healed the villagers. They say that the angel bestowed its divine ability to heal the sick upon the local priest, and he has been able to work such miracles ever since. An inspiring story to be sure, but the truth is a tad more unsettling.

The Dark Secret: That angel that descended from the heavens to heal the sick... yeah, it never left. The townsfolk, in a desperate bid to save their own lives, made a deal with a traveling necromancer. The mage gave them the knowledge of how to call the angel, as well as how to ensnare it and bind it. In return for this dark knowledge the necromancer made a request; when the angel was bound, the mage would take the wings. The townsfolk reluctantly agreed and called forth the divine creature.
Once it landed, the townsfolk lunged upon it, binding it with newly-forged magic chains. The necromancer coaxed the villagers to drag the screaming angel to the basement of their only church. There, the foul mage drew several arcane circles that would keep the angel trapped for all time. Suspended from the chains and unable to defend itself, the necromancer gleefully cut the wings of the suffering outsider and went on their way. Before departing completely, the mage took the local priest aside and told them how to draw the divine essence out of the angel. With this power, the priest would be able to heal any wound and cure any illness. The necromancer failed to mention that it was through their own machinations that the plague in the town began in the first place.
For nearly two decades, that angel has remained hidden in the dark basement of the church. In that time, a new temple has been built over it, with access below hidden from anyone outside the village. It is a good thing that kind necromancer taught the priest how to siphon divine power from the angel because the God of which the temple was dedicated has forsaken the people of this village for their reprehensible act.

2. Dead Meat: This one-horse village isn't anything terribly special. The inn has four rooms, the general store looks like someone's living room, and the dusty roads are rutted and uneven. There are really only two things that stand out from this easily forgettable little Thorpe; the nicest places in town are the butcher's and the immaculately manicured and maintained cemetery on the edge of town.
The villagers don't say much aside from the occasional nod hello, or the other typical pleasantries one pays to folk just passing through. They all look happy, healthy, and well fed. Very well fed. Some are even borderline obease, despite the fact that there is only an orchard, one farm, and no sheep or cattle herds nearby.

The Dark Secret: About a hundred years ago a drought ran through the town, killing all the crops and livestock. The famine killed many people, and the rampant dust storms made travel without getting lost almost impossible. The people of the village were trapped, slowly starving to death, praying for rain. Without a ready food source, the people committed the unthinkable. They began to consume their dead. They soon discovered they had taken a liking to the taste of humanoid flesh. In a way, their fallen family members were able-in death-to keep the others alive. When the next season's rains came, it was those who consumed their loved ones that were there to greet them.
It suddenly seemed strange to them to bury their kin in the cemetery on the edge of town and waste all of that good meat. Over the next century, the villagers readily ate their dead, setting markers in the cemetery to keep outsiders who wouldn't understand from nosing about.
The residents were encouraged to produce large families with several offspring. In times of great trouble when food was scarce, the community would turn to eating the elderly, before turning to the lame, weak, and young as the last resort. This treatment is not just reserved for residents of the village, though. Anyone who dies within the limits of town is considered fair game. This has prompted some, on occasion, to kill  travelers to stock their smoke house. And may the Gods help anyone who attacks the town, or attempts to rob folk along the road.

"Soylent Green anyone?"

3. Children Of The Corn: There are an awful lot of children in this village. They are everywhere. Playing on the roads, helping out in the shops, and even at the inn. They seem to outnumber the adults two to one. The adults don't seem to mind, though. They dote over the children, and cannot help but tell every traveler how blessed they are. Strangely, though, there don't seem to be any young men or women. The oldest children seem to be 12 years of age, and the youngest adult is in their late twenties.

The Dark Secret: In typical Stephen King fashion, the kids are running the show. Some ten years ago a few children were playing in the fields near the village. One child fell into what appeared to be an old, buried temple. In that temple, the child managed to awaken a long slumbering demonic entity. The entity possessed the child, consuming their soul in the process. No free from its prison it walked the world again, but in its weakened state, it could not pose the threat it once did. It required souls; the souls of children. Alas, there were not enough in the village, but the demon had a plan. It slowly corrupted each child in the community, promising them a world where the adults did their bidding instead of the other way around. Where they would be the ones in charge. With the simple seed planted, the demon twisted their minds. In the night, the children gathered every weapon in the village while their parents slept, killing any who woke to witness the theft. The most battle-hardened and proficient fighters had their throats slit while they slept. In the morning, the adults awoke to find their children quite literally holding them hostage.
Those that resisted were murdered quickly. The demon in the child's body made it known who controlled the village now. Any adult who dared to defy the demon was to be killed. It didn't take long for the villagers to comply. No one was allowed to leave the village, or contact the outside world. Adults were to continue their usual activities, supplying food for the children. Any travelers that passed through were not to be tipped off about what was happening in town. Those that said anything were killed, along with the travelers. Folks passing through with children were special. The adults were to distract them while the village children lead the new found "friends" to the demonic entity. Once indoctrinated, they were to kill the adults traveling with them, and were assimilated into the town. And who kept a close watch on all the adults to make sure they never stepped out of line? Their own kids.
When children reached the age of 13, they were to be sacrificed to the demonic entity. With each new birthday, the demon grows in power, and soon it will reach its former might.

"The corniest village around!"

4. A Wolf Among Us: An average village by all accounts, its architecture and layout seem in tune with many other villages. The villagers themselves are plentiful, if not bit tired. One strange feature is that despite several stables, there isn't a single horse in sight. Not even working the fields. They don't seem very responsive to outsiders, regarding them with a sense of worry. There is an inn, but the innkeeper insists that there are no vacancies. He gladly points them in the direction to a town a full day away but insists if they leave before late afternoon they should be able to make it before the moon is too high in the sky.

The Dark Secret: A werewolf found its way into the village, and an unfortunate resident soon contracted the curse as well. When bodies began turning up, the villagers demanded justice, hanging anyone they suspected of being the wolf. The now pair of lycanthropes were very smart, and managed to lay blame on innocent people, or folk they thought suspected them of lycanthropy. The two set out to infect other. Before long a pack roamed the town on full moons, and the villagers were mere sheep awaiting the slaughter. The village's horses were all killed and eaten by the werewolves, as was anyone attempting to flee the town. Every ounce of silver also suddenly disappeared from homes and shops.
Now the residents spend their days in a constant state of paranoia, never knowing who the wolves may be, and spend moonlit nights barricaded in their homes, wondering if this is the night they die, or worse; become the next chosen of the beast.

"Don't let the turnover rate intimidate you. Miller's Hollow is a great place to live."

5. The Village That Should Not Be: This village shouldn't even be where it is. The location is so remote it is a wonder that people live here at all. What's more is that there isn't a road anywhere near by, and by best account, the closest one is a day away. Te buildings look like ramshackle huts, cobbled together. An open-air smithy and a large wooden structure bearing seemingly religious symbols are the few typical accouterments of a normal village. There are no shops or inns. Not even a tavern There are no streets, either, but rather well-worn paths that traverse the distance between shacks. Each "home" has some manner of livestock fenced in adjacent to it, be it hogs or chickens.
Trees are adorned with various bones hanging from rope, swinging in the breeze (some of which are definitely humanoid)
The air is thick with the scent of mud, blood, woodsmoke and rot, but there don't appear to be any people.

The Dark Secret: This village is home to a community of misshapen, somewhat savage, inbred isolationists. All tools and structures are of simple design. The villagers represent a deeply religious community. They revere a good God or Goddess, they have twisted the religion in such a way as they can use it as justification to carry out unspeakably horrible acts of brutality, murder, and worse. The "people" spend several hours a day in church services, mutilating their own bodies, believing pain to be the truest expression of life and service in the name of their deity.
They do not suffer outsiders, and will hunt them down and brutally murder them, using their bodies for meat, tools, or macabre decoration. Time spent in this remote location has made them prodigious hunters and trackers, making escape difficult, if not impossible.  Years of inbreeding have made them psychotic and inhumanly strong, with gruesome deformities like vestigial limbs and half-alive vestigial twins jutting from their malformed bodies in strange ways.
They are a people who cannot be bargained or reasoned with. They are religious zealots that revel in pain as much as they do their insatiable bloodlust.

"This time, YOU are the Baby Ruth."

And there you are, five villages that hold a dark secret. Some, very dark. Lift these for your home campaigns and your players are sure to look at you in a new light. Sure, that light may be that of a raving psychopath with a strange preoccupation for sacrilegious imagery, cannibalism, and paranoia. But I feel that that is a good image to convey to them. After all, you never know what the next village might bring.

Perhaps it's best to just stick with the cities,
+Ed The Bard

Looking for resources to make your village top notch, or fill it with all manner of malcontents? Check out the Open Gaming Store for affordable offerings from your favorite independent publishers. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Making Monster Matter: 10 Monsters To Terrify Your Players

Fear. It can be potent, tangible, irrational or downright well founded. In tabletop roleplaying games, characters face down legions of terrifying monsters on a regular basis, often without showing the slightest twinge of terror. They are fearless. That is why it is comforting, as a Game Master, that there are still certain monsters that will give not only the characters pause, but the players as well.

When these malicious monstrosities arrive on the scene, the entire game changes. Your players enact "Panic Mode", changing their usual willy-nilly tactics for something more thought out and profound. These are enemies that won't just kill your party in embaressing and painful ways, they will play with them first. They will take away everything they love about their character before finally snuffing them out, and the players know this.

Here are 10 Monsters to Terrify Your Players.

10. Gibbering Mouther
"Never look a gift horror in the mouths."

Not so much deadly as it is pure nightmare fuel. This Lovecraftian monstrosity is literally a writhing mass of babbling insanity. Its food source? Your bodily fluids and sanity, because why not? Both are things you can live without, if you call a mad, withered husk living. But that is probably the least scary thing about the Gibbering Mouther. This... thing's incoherent babbling can penetrate even the strongest mind, driving the listener batshit crazy. This causes the character to either attack their friends (thinking they're enemies), attack themselves (because sometimes a good blood-letting is good for the health), or stand their like a blithering idiot, spouting off a tirade of insane ramblings. 
When they show up, it is usually considered good form to end the creature quickly before the fighter or barbarian decapitates themselves or the healer. 

9. Gelatinous Cube
"Who wants a hug?"

There are few creatures as classic, or as iconic as the Gelatinous Cube. While a big, nearly invisible hunk of living jell-o isn't the most terrifying thing on paper, its deadly reputation speaks otherwise. Often encountered in a variety of various dungeons, the cube does two things really well; cleaning and killing. A faint shimmer is all most adventurers see before they find themselves trapped inside this outlandish ooze. Once chilling out inside, they are often paralyzed by the cube's paralytic composition and slowly dissolved as it breaks down their bodies... in front of the rest of the party.  
If you want to be truly evil, place one of these at either end of a long hallway with no doors. Your players will love you for it.

8. Rust Monster
"I can haz tha chainmailz?"

If there is a heavily armored fighter or melee weapon wielder not opting for a stick in the party, the rust monster is nothing short of their arch nemesis. These could be the same stalwart heroes that stood face to face with a dragon without flinching, but as soon as they see those rust-colored feelers start twitching around, they turn into frightened children, demanding the mage use their most powerful spell to send the foul creature back to hell, where it must have obviously come from. 
With little else going for it aside from its insatiable hunger for all of the characters shiny metal gear, the rust monster isn't so much deadly as it is annoying. Unless you are a warforged. Run if you are a warforged. Run away and never return. 

7. Basilisk
 "Girl, I looked into your eyes, and my heart turned to stone... along with the rest of m--"

It should be noted that no artisan makes highly detailed sculptures of small animals and horrified people, and leaves them in forests or caves. Never. Your players probably already knew this when they started walking through the most messed up art gallery ever. They're not stupid. Something is turning folks to stone, and not a lot of folks keep Stone To Flesh prepared on the daily. Even the most balls-to-the-wall party will start to begin thinking tactically. Eyes cast to the ground, ears strained to listen to even the slightest movement, the party creeps through the area. It is only when the Basilisk reveals itself do the players realize that the real monster is their Game Master.
The Basilisk doesn't just turn you into stone. No, that would be too easy. A lot of things can turn you to stone. What sets this multi-legged monstrosity apart is its diet. It eats stone. Typically things it has turned to stone. All those statues in the beginning? Those are meals it hasn't gotten to yet. The party is effectively walking through its fridge. 
Fighting one of these while averting one's gaze is a daunting task, especially since the creature is more than formidable. If you really want to add insult to injury, place a few blind creatures in the area that act as scavengers, attempting to swoop in and grab an easy meal before the basilisk can finish off everything.

6. Drider
"My drider-sense is tingling!"

A lot of people are afraid of spiders. Rightfully so. Millions of years of evolution have turned them into perfect, efficient killing machines. The only solace we medium-sized creatures can take from this is that we are significantly larger than them... except for giant spiders the size of horses. Then it us perfectly acceptable for shit one's pants in terror. However, when you slap a half-insane drow on top of that giant spider like the most unfortunate centaur ever, you enter a level of nope most folks can only dream of.
Driders are often depicted as drow who failed some manner of test and were cursed by their God, or whatever things like drow worship in the dark places of the world. Drow on their own are an intimidating prospect. Take into consideration that your average drow (a stone cold killing machine their own right) is afraid of a drider. Need I say more?

5. Demons
"Possession is nine-tenths of the law."

While devils are predictable beings of corruption that patiently play "The Long Game" when it comes to the soul of the world, their destructive counter counterparts from the abyss take the cake in the "Scary-right-the-hell-now" competition (A totally real competition). 
Demons represent destruction for the sake of destruction, which in and of itself is a terrifying prospect. What makes it worse is there is literally a demon for just about every level, each with their own little niche. From the lowly Quaisit to the Balor itself. Their abilities are as varied as their forms. Some are strong beyond belief, others are prodigious spell casters, while others can poison or burn, or freeze, or melt their enemies. Most are resistant to just about everything under the sun, and if being formidable isn't enough of a nightmare, they can posses people. That's right, they can be anyone.

4. Mind Flayers
"An hour into Netflix and chill, and he give you that look..."

I love me a good Mind Flayer. The world loves a good mind flayer, and with good reason. These brain-sucking bastions of beauty have been around since the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. While your average fighter may be terrified of the lowly rust monster, your spellcasters will be quaking at the sight of these tentacled terrors. Why? Because they eat brains, and the can smell the most intelligent and wise brains in the room. They hunger for that stuff the way I hunger for a burger from Five Guys; insatiably. But the non-brainy members of the party need not feel left out. These scions of psionics have no problem including everyone else through way of domination. There is nothing so freeing as being the puppet for an alien intelligence bent on never letting a good mind go to waste. 

3. Beholder
"World Champion of Professional Peekaboo."

Two D&D exclusive monsters in a row? Fear not, Pathfinder friends. I am not showing bias (at least not too much). These horrors are easy enough to convert for your home game. 
When the beholder shows up, because it really is a matter of when, it means a couple of things. First, it means that either the Game Master is ready to challenge you, or you have pissed them off. Second, it means that someone is probably going to die tonight.
The many-eyed floating head of teeth and more eyes has been a staple in rpgs right from the beginning, and since then it has always held a certain terror for many gamers. That reputation is earned. Bought and paid for. This thing can systematically dismantle a party. While other monsters get into fights, a beholder treats the battlefield as an operating table, and they are the surgeons. How do they accomplish this?
As of the most recent edition, they can shoot rays out of those eye stalks that can charm creatures, paralyze them, terrify them (as if that hadn't been accomplished already), slow their bodies down to a crawl, drain their lifeforce, telekentically toss them across the room, make them take a nap, turn them to stone, flat out kill them or just plain disintegrate them where they stand. Oh, and that big eye in the middle? Yeah, that keeps folks from casting spells. Beholders are dicks.

2. Lich
"I got 99 problems, but a Lich ain't one."

These guys.... oh these guys. They have end-game written all over them. These evil spellcasters are not content with the typical nefarious shenanigans. They feel they need to up the ante. How? By ripping their own soul out of their body and hides it in a phylactery, which they in turn hide somewhere else, as it is their only weakness. There are a thousand different reasons to want to become a lich, and few of them are ever altruistic.
You can typically find these guys in evil lairs, surrounded by an army of the undead, plotting and scheming, and all the other things classic villains do. While tough on their own, and often potent mages, the thing that makes a lich really terrifying is their ability to keep coming back. Like Jason and Freddy, these guys just won't stay dead for long. That phylactery keeps raising them over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. 
Finding the phylactery can be a campaign in and of itself, and getting to it is often a lethal endeavor. But, once it is destroyed, the lich is vulnerable. And if you though it was tough before, you have not seen what a desperate lich is capable of. Remember, it tore its own soul out when it was in a calm frame of mind. What do you think it will do when it fears eternal death?

1. Dragons
"Sup, brah!"

There are few creatures on this list responsible for more character deaths than the immensely powerful dragon. These winged menaces can get so big and badass that entire nations give them a wide breadth and post signs saying "Don't Go Over There". A bad dragon fight-that is a fight where the dragon sits in one spot and lets everyone whack it-can still be lethal for one or more characters. A good dragon fight-wherein the dragon uses ever advantage is has-can be lethal for an entire kingdom. 
Dragons are smart. Terribly smart, clever lizards that only get smarter the older they get. When they get to become great wyrms, you are dealing with a creature with Stephen Hawking levels of intelligence, a body that is nearly indestructible, and all the physical capabilities of an army. The only two things that have stopped dragons from taking over any world they live in is their covetous greed keeping them close to their hoards, their massive egos, and their complete disregard at considering the mortal races as any kind of threat. Honestly, would you consider ants as anything but a minor, negligible annoyance? Just remember, in the ancient eyes of a dragon, we're the ants. 

And there you have it, 10 monsters that are sure to cast a shadow of terror upon your campaign. Use them sparingly for maximum effect. There are few feelings in this world as satisfying as watching your players squirm.

If you are looking for more nightmare to throw your players way, be sure to check out the Open Gaming Store, where you can pick up a plethora of new and deadly monsters to take your game to the next level. Tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

Have a monsterous day,
+Ed The Bard 

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

GM Advice: Creating The Perfect Starting Area

First impressions are important. This is as true in real life as it is in your tabletop game. The first session you run of a new campaign sets the tone for the rest of the game, and in very rare instances does that tone ever change. The first session should introduce the players and their characters to your world and give them an idea of what the rest of the campaign will be like. That being said, the place where the characters begin the story should be the embodiment of that first impression.

You gotta sell it!

Where To Begin
This really depends on the level of the game you are running. If you are staring at a relatively high level, it would make sense for the starting area to be something grand, like a keep or castle under the control of the characters, or a massive city where they hold a lot of clout. Likewise, if you are starting low, it makes more sense to begin small, in villages or small town, or in a large city where the characters are strangers or hardly known from any other person on the street.

The level dictates the tone. Higher level equates to a larger amount of power and experience. Those things would be wasted on menial tasks that can often be found in villages and towns, unless they hold some powerfully dark secret. Lower levels are about building up that power and experience, so the menial tasks are more than just a simple distraction for them.

Personally, I like starting off small. Low level characters have the entire world in front of them, and untold promise, so for the sake of this particular guide, we will be focusing on them. The same suggestions I make here can still be applied at high levels with few few adjustments.

That Little Slice Of Civilization
The starting area for the player characters should be a place where the hand of civilization has touched. This could be a village, a town, or a city. Even if you intend on running a wilderness adventure, there should at least be a trading post. This point of civilization is important for a few reasons.

Respite: It gives the characters a place to retreat to and rest, especially after a grueling battle or two. Here they should be able to get some uninterrupted rest and perhaps a good meal. This could be a village, a trading post, a wayside inn or a single district in a large city. This is the characters' safe harbor during the beginning of the campaign, and should have that feel, even if evil is lurking around the next corner.

Helpful NPCs: These fine folks will resupply your characters if their resources have dwindled while out and about, like rope, rations, weapons, and other specific accoutrements. They can offer services that the characters might not have readily available to them, like healing if there is no healer in the party or the ability to remove certain ailments. A sage is always good to have around, be it someone local or an NPC just passing through to the next location. The sage can answer burning questions about the area, give clues that the players might be missing, or identify unique items, magical or otherwise. And while it is not as common these days as it was in the halcyon days of my youth, hirelings are a good thing to have handy. They could be locals, more folk just passing through, of people just trapped in the area, looking for enough coin to move on.

A Point Of Reference: The starting area is your introduction into the world. This piece of civilization if there to show the players what lay in store for them. If your are running the sort of campaign where the world is a largely unexplored place, still wild, with settlements being tiny dots of light in a world of darkness, play that up. Show the players what this kind of world does to people. Perhaps the village is walled with large logs banded together to keep the horrors that lay beyond at bay. Maybe people disappear off the roads frequently, so it is considered common practice for farmers and merchants to hire on guards, even for just a single wagon.
If a sprawling city is your cup of tea, determine where you want the players to begin, and how the rest of the city views that section. Maybe it's a slum, or rough part of town. Maybe it's a district primarily populated by another race, like halflings, elves or dwarves.
This starting area becomes the standard by which every other settlement or area they happen upon is judged. If they come to a town populated by body-snatching parasites, their impression of that first time may give them a little more insight into how regular people act and that something may be amiss here. On the flip side, it the starting area is full of shady, duplicitous and paranoid people, and they move onto the next settlement only to find happy folks welcoming them with open arms, they may have some reservations about where they just spent the night.

 "They look legit. Let's go say hi."

The Perfect Starting Area
Some 36 or so years ago, a little company called TSR (you may have heard of them) created a little adventure set in a small village. The village was very detailed, with colorful and interesting people that lived there, and a dark secret hiding below its seemingly peaceful surface. That adventure was called The Village Hommlet, and it is, by the numbers, the perfect starting area.

"Who's house? Moathouse!"

The Village of Hommlet had a lot going for it for only being a mere 16 pages. The material is nice and condensed, but doesn't lead the Game Master by the hand. It gives them free reign to unfold events as they see fit. The reason for its success is the simplicity of its design. In 16 short pages they gave Game Masters everything they needed to propel the player characters from greenhorns to hardened, seasoned adventurers. I've spent long hours dissecting Hommlet, scrutinizing what works in it, and I think I have found the formula for the perfect starting area.

Hommlet is advantageously placed a stone's throw away from the sketchy little village of Nulb, about 35 miles southeast of the town of Verbobonc, and a few days off from the walled city of Dyvers, which itself is a few days off from the free city of Greyhawk. All around Hommlet there are forests, hills, and a few days southwest  are the Lormil Mountains. To the north a river, to the east another river and the Wild Coast. Somehow Hommlet managed to get placed next to a little bit of everything, and that is the beauty of it.

"All eyes on Hommlet. If you get that joke, you are a good person."

Because of the varied environments around Hommlet, it allows for a greater variety places for your players to explore and experience. That is exactly what you want for a starting area. Trudging around forests can get old pretty quickly, but of you can mix it up with hills, a swamp, a nearby mountain or a coastline. The more environments you can smoosh together (believably), the more you can switch things up and keep things fresh for the players. 

This idea works just as well for large cities. Think of districts, neighborhoods and quarters as different environments, each offering their own challenges and dangers. A dockside tavern could be a watering hole for pirates. Street gangs could control one or many neighborhoods, making traveling through difficult if the characters don't have gold coins or a silver tongue. Furthermore, these Burroughs have their own feel, sights and flavor to them, and vary just as much as a forest does from a swamp.

Stuff To Do
One area in which Hommlet is not lacking is the plethora of things to do. If the townsfolk don't have a laundry list of things they want the characters to accomplish (which they do), there are woodlands crawling with all manner of nefarious beasts. An evil cult has infiltrated the town, and if the characters start becoming too heroic, they aim to put a stop to that quickly by ventilating their throats while they sleep. All this, and there is are a couple of nearby dungeons that are hours of entertainment for the murder hobo at heart; The Ruins of Moathouse and the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Right there is a pretty damned good template for what you would want out of any area, especially a starting area. Here are four things that you can use to make that area nice and three dimensional.

  • Wilderness Exploration: The world can be a wild place, stock full of danger. Some monsters wander or move into an area. The question that you, the Game Master, must decide is why these malevolent monstrosities are massing. Are they drawn to or called by something? Does something command them? Were they driven there by something, and if so, what worse thing could have done it?
    These would be some interesting things for your players to answer, but word to the wise; while a few one-offs can be fun, you will want to ensure that whatever force is behind the accumulation of evil in the area has some tie to the larger story you are trying to tell. In the case of Hommlet, these dastardly ne'er-do-wells are drawn by the power of the Elder Elemental Eye.
    In a city, this could be the rise of a new guild, drafting booth human and non-human creatures to gain it a bloody foothold in the area or a malevolent mage trying to awaken something or summon something into the city proper.

  • Creatures In Need: People, animals, and even some monsters need help. When capable folk make themselves known (cough-player characters-cough), they see a means to aid them in whatever problem is plaguing them at the time. NPCs dishing out requests is a great way for characters to get to know the area, the people, and to gain a little renown.
    Grateful creatures usually offer some manner of reward, be it small things like a free night at the inn or an evening of drinking, or something larger, like a hand-me-down magic item that has been a family heirloom for generations.
    Ideally there is someone or something in the starting area that require the player characters' assistance. This can-and usually is-the first step they players take towards the larger story, and usually snowballs from there.
    "Hey, something is stealing my ale!" leads to the discovery of a hole in the wall of the local tavern's basement, that leads to a tunnel, that leads to an abandoned mine overrun by kobolds, who are at the command of a young green dragon who was taken from its mother and given to the kobolds as a gift by a mysterious man in a gold mask, and who the hell is this mysterious golden masked man anyway?

  • Dungeons: A loose term to be sure, but effective none the less. Dungeons can be anything from strongholds and temples to cave systems and actual dungeons. They are great places to house lots of creatures and keep lots of treasure. After all, being evil isn't cheap. The overhead is ridiculous.
    Dungeons are classic RPG, and Game Masters sometimes try to give them a wide breadth because they're "overdone", which is a shame, because they are classic for a reason and denying your players an exciting experience. That being said, it is not a thing you want to use too much.
    Two dungeons really seems to be a good balance. One should be relatively small, possibly implementing the 5 Room Dungeon Method. This should be able to be completed in a session or two max. The second dungeon should be substantially larger, requiring more time and resources to complete. This gives them a reason to keep trekking back to the starting area for supplies, services, or just a safe place to rest.
    In the big scary city, dungeons look a little different, but have the same feel. Cave systems become sewer systems. Guild houses, a Lord's manor, an abandoned warehouse or a hidden temple deep under the city can make for exciting dungeons, and they are close at hand to the starting area, allowing the players to return to some familiar ground.

  • Interesting NPCs: Settings come and go, but NPCs can remained burned in your players' minds forever. Populate your starting area with unique personalities. Your players will want to keep coming back, of for no other reason than to interact with them again. But it it takes more than just personality to make these fine folks interesting. A few of them should have some secrets. Secrets that, if discovered, could shake the community to its foundation. Maybe the mayor or constable is a werewolf. Perhaps the barkeep is an adventurer that retired after his actions lead to the deaths of his companions, or his stable boys alerts nearby bandits of departures so that they might ambush wealthy travelers on the road. Mayhaps old farmer Jenkins is actually a necromancer, carrying out unspeakable rituals in a hidden chamber beneath his barn. Extra points if you can make the secret pertinent to the overall plot.
    And remember, NPCs aren't just one use items. Let them grow a relationship with the player characters. Allow them to help the party out when they can, or hinder it should the NPC be evil. You can have just as much intrigue in a small village as you can you can in a big city. 

The Village of Hommlet created a pretty high benchmark for how to begin a game. There is no doubt as to why it remains a cherished classic that has withstood the test of time. It is one of the best modules ever written and leads to the epic Temple of Elemental Evil. And it all starts with that unassuming little village of Hommlet, arguably the greatest starting area for an adventure ever written, with one possible exception...

"These caves haz the chaos!"

Start off on the right foot,
+Ed The Bard

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Monday, April 18, 2016

GM Advice: You Need Random Encounters

Walking back to the inn after a nice day of adventuring can be a daunting process. You're feet ache, you muscles are sore, and though the cleric managed to keep your spine from being fully severed by the hobgoblin with the greatsword, the ordeal was at the very least mentally draining. You're looking forward dull of cold ale, a hot meal, and soft company. That is when the owlbear that has been tracking you for two miles jumps out of the woods at you.

"Well, shit." you think to yourself as it becomes personally acquainted with the flavor of your liver, "That was random."

"I'm an affront to the laws of Gods and man! Gimmie your kidney!"


For decades, random encounters have been a part of Tabletop RPGs. Little tables of chaos that can turn a peaceful walk or a night at camp into a bloodbath in the blink of an eye and the roll of the dice. These little beauties introduced a degree of, well, randomness into the Game Master's campaign world. Somewhere down the line, however, some games started rolling their eyes at the prospect of random encounters. Suddenly they were too cool to be spontaneously molested by a tribe of goblins. They heard the dice and started groaning when giant wasps came to make them the new decorative addition to their hive. And with all this negativity surrounding the whole thing, many GMs just stopped using them.

That is a shame because random encounters are more important than you know.

 "But the table says roll twice..."

What Is A Random Encounter?
A random encounter is a sporadic or random confrontation with an enemy, enemies, or potential allies in a hazardous or hostile environment.  That last part is especially important, " a hazardous or hostile environment."

The world of an adventurer is a dangerous one. Sure, there may be some safe harbors for the players to roam through, but the rest of the world is a scary and brutal place. It is no wonder that a lot of adventurers never make it to retirement. Random encounters are a perfect way to showcase how dangerous the world can be. Only in bards' tales do the heroes fall heroically atop a mound of the bodies of their enemies (except this bard's). More often than not, adventurers are felled randomly and without warning by any number of awful things lurking nearby.

 "Hey bro, you like bling? Come here... don't mind the wet dog smell."

How Do I Use A Random Encounter Table?
The tables that you roll on for random encounters determine what challenges await your players. These should be homemade. The reason being is that your campaign world is a living breathing place with its own flavor, an asset generic tables cannot capture. To get it right, you should tailor each encounter table with three factors in mind;

  • Location: Where is all this randomness happening? Like I said above, these encounters tend to happen in hazardous or hostile environments. Your average village isn't very likely to come with its own random encounter table, but a haunted or abandoned village might. There could be danger there that exists beyond the typically planned encounter.
    Verisimilitude is another good reason to keep your location in mind when you are designing your table. It makes little to no sense having a shark burst out of a hill to attack your player characters, only to die of asphyxiation within a couple rounds as it flops around ineffectively. Let the creatures on your encounter tables make sense for the area they are in. No dire bears in the middle of the ocean, no shambling mounts in the middle of the desert (unless it happens to be in an oasis... hmmm... stealing that one). To add a little spice, throw something that isn't usually found in the area into the mix, like a lion in temperate hills or an angry gorilla in the city sewers. How did these creatures get there? A simple random encounter could open up some new story elements, and the clever GM could connect the threads from that to a larger story.

  • Level Of The Party: If your players comprise a group of 1st level characters, and your random encounter table includes a Great Wyrm Red Dragon and the legendary Tarrasque, you will not be making many friends around the table.
    Creating encounters by level with the number of players in mind is a good  way to challenge the characters and give out some much-needed XP. Breaking these down into challenge ratings should have some range to them.
    Personally, I enjoy throwing in a couple of easy encounters that the party can tear through and feel mighty, a couple medium encounters to keep things level with their capabilities, a hard encounter to challenge them and remind them that they are not the scariest thing running around out there, and one deadly encounter that could easily kill one or more characters that they should most certainly run from if they are not well equipped, well-rested, and at the peak of their abilities. This keeps things interesting, empowering, and humbling. I really enjoy utilizing a d6 for these tables, because you don't want to bog yourself down with what could happen. After all, you have the whole rest of the game to prep. A d6 is quick and easy but offers enough variety to ensure that the encounter isn't the same slog over and over again.
    The best tool I have seen for this exact thing is donjon's random encounter generator for D&D and Pathfinder

  • When To Use It: This has been a point of some debate among gaming scholars (if indeed there is such a thing, and if there is, where the hell do I sign up?). Some feel that a random encounter is best implemented during travel. Others like using it when the party sets camp and rests for the night. Others still believe it should be tapped when the party is still for too long. The fact of the matter is that all of these are right. But it is important to know in what context they are right.
    It all comes back to that concept of a hazardous or hostile environment. If someone is traveling through camping or lingering in a dangerous place, every moment they spend there significantly increases their chance of running afoul of something that would like to peel off their skin and wear it like a pretty hat. The amount of danger in an area should dictate how often you utilize the table while they remain in said area. A relatively hostile area would call for maybe one roll on a table per every day or two that passes in-game. A more dangerous area could require daily rolls, or even a roll every few hours. Keep this in mind when you craft dungeons, as there are fewer more dangerous places in the world. 

It Doesn't Always Need To Be About Combat
It is very easy to fall into the trap of using random encounters as combat encounters. This need not be the case. In a lot of situations, social encounters can be just as challenging, if not more than combat encounters, especially in a populated civilized area where random acts of violence are looked unfavorably upon.

This could be an interesting method of introducing new NPCs, plot hooks, or plot elements into your ongoing story. I find it is good to put the players on the spot for half of these encounters, with encounters that are directed at them, and events that concern others making up the other half, with their intervention leading to either a reward or consequences (or both if you're me).

 "My coin purse! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal, lovable street urchin!"

Why They Are Important
The world, even (or especially) those of a fantasy setting are rarely an orderly place. Very little ever goes according to plan. The world is a chaotic place. That is the beauty of the random encounter. When your players are licking their wounds after having narrowly escaped from the orc tribe, it would be bad timing for a band of goblins to descend on the players' campsite. Fate is as prone to give vulnerable people a break as it is to kick them while their down. That, in essence, is the random encounter. If you are wondering whether to use one, just roll your percentile dice. If the result is a 1-50, nothing happens. If the result is a 51-100, it's time to roll on the table. Your dice, more so than your players', represents the hands of fate. Work your mojo. They have just as much of a chance to cry, forever cursing your name as they do never knowing they didn't just have to fight a dragon.

Does anyone else use random encounters? Any hilarious tales of encounters gone comically wrong? Let me know in the comments.

Randomness is the spice of life,
+Ed The Bard 

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