My sister Kelli just gave me Dragons of Summer Flame by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman. She got it for $1, and it’s a beat up paperback, and has been sold more than a few times from the looks of it. Anyway, a Dragonlance book, and I haven’t touched Dragonlance for years. Decades. The floodgates of memory open wide…


Back when it was new, I ran the Dragonlance campaign. It was my first story based, rather than encounter based, campaign. I know we made it to DL 8 (Dragons of War), but can’t remember where the campaign fizzled.

I have both fond, and not so fond, memories of the adventures. This has me thinking about story based adventures. And giant campaigns made of linked adventures, or adventure paths. I’ve got some adventure design coming up after The Gods Have Spoken, so what lessons can I learn from my Dragonlance experience?

As a player, I love to feel I’m part of some big epic story. I also want to feel I’m in control, not  a passenger on a railroad.

If you never played the original Dragonlance, it was very much a story. TSR released three novels, and each novel covered four adventure modules worth of epic feats and terrible dangers.

The players started off with pre-gens,  the heroes of the novels: Tanis, Raistlin, and the rest. This took the character creation away from players, but they got to see your character in the classic 1980s rpg art. Caramon the fighter (2nd from the left) was all about the mullet. Business in the front, party in the back.

Dragonlance characters

Look at all that variety. Unless you want to play a humanoid of color, or a woman whose armor covers her actual flesh.

I gave Raistlin the evil mage to a good friend. A good friend who dropped out of the campaign without a word. The story often turned on Raistlin, so that didn’t work so well.

The characters came with serious backstories, including who hooks up with who. Some great family ties, history to live up to, and the cleric who had to rediscover clerical magic which had vanished from the world many years ago.

In many ways this was a serious railroad. Of course my group went off the rails all the time, but as we moved to the next module I would yank them back. Eventually we lost interest. But not before having some great times.

All this nostalgia got me thinking about how to make a compelling story based adventure while preserving player agency.

Rather than focusing on mullets and railroads (plot, gender, and ethnicity), what worked?

  • Roots. These characters had deep backstory. One of the characters, Sturm Brightblade, a knight of Solamnia, got to go to the Tomb of Huma, the founder of his order. A large part of an entire module revolved around the backstory of one character. Sturm’s player loved it, and it was fun for the whole party.
  • Epic plot arc. Dragonlance created the format for all the adventure paths that came afterwards. No longer was a campaign a collection of dungeon crawls with no overarching plot arc. Each session was about winning the War of the Lance. Dragonlance showed us PCs that were anything but murder-hobos.
  • Variety. Dragonlance had dungeon crawls, politics, war, diplomacy, magic that felt magical, mystery, and intrigue. Every module had a different focus, and kept the game fresh.
  • A world. Krynn, the world of Dragonlance, was massive in scope and history.

In some cases, I think we’ve learned some better ways to get achieve some of these effects, but they are great effects.

Anyway, if your sibling gives you a dogeared Dragonlance paperback, go ahead and take the time to dig in. You may find ideas for your own games.


Instant Adventures, Part III — GM Intrusions

Let’s return to the subject of Instant Adventures. In part I we took them apart and saw how to build our own. In part II we had an example using Numenera, complete with toadling queens.

Today let’s talk about GM Intrusions. You need to have GM Intrusions for your players to get xp and to keep the game interesting. We want to be sure to use GM Intrusions in our own Instant Adventures.


Many GMs new to the cypher system say they forget to do GM Intrusions. Hint: pass out physical objects for xp when you do a GM Intrusion. Use cards, poker chips, dragon tears, whatever.  The deck/pile of xp objects in front of you will remind you to keep on doing it.

Monte Cook Games sells xp decks; I like them, but anything will do.

Almost all creatures for Cypher System games come with a built in GM Intrusions. (All of the creatures from Dread Unicorn Games’ Cypher System books do.) I like to start combat with a GM Intrusion. It shows off a cool ability and I can do it again if the players roll 1s.

Floater; Numenera; Dread Unicorn Games

Now if you just made up a bunch of creatures, like my toadlings in the example Instant Adventure, you can make up GM Intrusions for them. Let’s go!

  • Margrs and Nibovian Wives are from the Core book, and already have GM Intrusions in their callouts. See pages 244 and 249. The Nibovian Wife’s GM Intrusion is an escape, which is great for avoiding combat, particularly if time is running short.
  • Toadling GM Intrusion: a swarm frenzies, attacking at 2 levels higher (6) and doing 12 points of damage.
  • Toadling Queen GM Intrusion: She spits a glob of acidic poison at a character’s face. Level 6 attack for 4 points of ambient damage, plus the character has to make a Level 6 Might defense check or take another 4 points of poison damage.
  • Toadling King GM Intrusion: He hops into the air and lands on a character. This is a level 7 attack which does 5 points of ambient damage and dazes them for one round.

Note: these attack GM Intrusions are extra attacks, so the creature can follow up with it’s normal attack.

MasksNow, let’s make up some social GM Intrusions:

  • Uncle Liskal GM Intrusion: a character in Liskal’s chamber must make a level 6 Intellect defense roll or for the next 28 hours refer to the AI as “Uncle Liskal” and feel compelled to impress the machine. “When Uncle Liskal hears how I dealt with this problem, he’ll really be impressed.” (Probably not.)
  • The Song of Love GM Intrusion: if none of the male characters are falling for Klaru’s charms, use a GM Intrusion to change one of their minds. “Despite you better judgement, there is something about her that makes you throw your caution (and clothing) to the wind.”
  • Faux pas with the Queen GM Intrusion: the slimy floor is too much for a character, causing them to slip and fall, right onto one of the queen’s offspring. The little toadling croaks in pain!
  • Jealous King GM Intrusion: If the characters fixed the moon pool to gain the queen’s help, she plants a slimy kiss on a character before they go to see the king. He sniffs the character “You’ve been fooling around with one of my queens! I can smell her on you!”

You get the idea. Things to make the game a little more interesting, to keep the story exciting, and to give everyone at the table a good laugh. And xp.

GM Excuses VII: So That’s What An Invisible Man Looks Like


GM Excuses, Part VII

droodWorldWithoutTearsIf you’re new to this blog thread, I’m following the Writing Excuses master class on writing, and transmogrifying it to be about adventure design. In Part 2, I mixed up ideas from Part 1 to create a mash-up, an adventure based on Drood, the novel by Dan Simmons and  World Without Tears, a song by Lucinda Williams. In Part 3, I auditioned NPCs for the lead role in the adventure and let the blog readers vote for their favorites. In Part 4, I sent three of these NPCs to do a dead-drop.

Homework Time! Who Are All These People? Have a listen.

Writing Prompt: Pick one of the dead-drop characters  and turn them into a secondary character. Now take one of the characters with whom they interacted, and write the same scene again, but from this new character’s POV with the characters focused on the other NPC.

I’ll pick Anton, Nalo’s brother, as they had the only dead-drop with two characters. Last time Anton was unseen. Again, I’ll do it as Read Aloud text in an adventure.

Anton In the Market

Read the following aloud, or paraphrase it in your own words.

You cast your spell to make the invisible visible and the silent heard, then search the crowded marketplace. Sure enough, when Nalo D’Costa enters the market, her invisible brother fades into view right there at Nalo’s side. Unlike his sister who is well dressed, Anton wears threadbare clothes and is shackled, dragging a chain behind him.

They are only two black skinned people in the market, but others only see one. 

“You hear these English talk?” Anton asks his sister. “They hate you. You are too smart, too pretty, too well dressed, and most of all, too black. They will kill you like they did me. See how they stare?”

Nalo struggles not to look at him. Under her breath she hisses “Yes, I know they are looking at me. Always me, and not you. Why don’t you make yourself useful and create a distraction?”

Fish MongerAnton smiles. “Only because I can’t hold the bag myself. Stick it in that barrel while I overturn the fat man’s fish cart.”

Aha, so this is a big change from the scene in Part 4. While it relies on a spell, I like this one better as far as getting the action going. The other one distanced the character watching. Now that they see and hear Anton, they are more in the game. I think in games with mystery, you can wait too long to really engage the players, where only the GM has a clue what is going on. The players are so lost they don’t know what to do.

And why can he overturn fish carts but can’t hold the bag?

Interesting when you try a scene where the PCs are spying on Nalo, then try it again, when they spy on her invisible brother Anton.

GM Excuses IV: What Do You Mean My Main NPC is Boring?

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GM Excuses, Part IV

Because of my hiccup, I’ve gotten behind in my homework! Time to file for an extension and get back to work.

droodWorldWithoutTearsIf you’re new to this blog thread, I’m following the Writing Excuses master class on writing, and transmogrifying it to be about adventure design. In Part 1, I came up with five adventure ideas. In Part 2, I mixed up the ideas to create 4 new ideas. One of them is a mash-up of two of my ideas from Part 1, an adventure based on Drood, the novel by Dan Simmons, and one based on World Without Tears, a song by Lucinda Williams. In Part 3, I auditioned 5  NPCs for the lead role in the Drood/Williams adventure and let the blog readers vote for their favorites.

Take a listen to the Writing Excuses Podcast, What Do You Mean My Main Character is Boring? (only 15 minutes, and time well spent).

Today’s Homework: Take three different characters and walk them through a scene. Convey their emotional states, their jobs, and their hobbies without directly stating any of those. The scene in question: walking through a marketplace, and they need to do a dead-drop.

Fish MongerCool! We’ll take Nalo D’Costa, Robert McTavish, and Elizabeth Dixon. You can see their biographies in Part 3. I haven’t created hobbies for them yet, unless you count looking damned suspicious. We’ll do these as Read Aloud text from a published adventure.

Nalo D’Costa:

You hear a hubbub from the city marketplace in front of you. Shoppers and stall owners comment on an unseen woman. You hear a lot of “Who does she think she is?” and disparaging remarks about the woman’s dark skin color. You spot a fidgety brown woman dressed in a teal day dress wearing a deep bonnet that prevents you from seeing her face unless her head points straight at you. The fingers of her left hand are stained with ink.

She seems to be arguing with someone, but you see no one walking with her. Her accent is both educated and Jamaican. “Yes, I know they are looking at me. Always me, and not you. Why don’t you make yourself useful and create a distraction?”

A fishmonger’s cart collapses, but you can’t see the cause. Cod spills across the cobblestones. While all eyes are on the fish, you see the woman stuff a brown sack into a barrel, close the lid, and walk away.

Robert McTavish:

You enter the city market and are surrounded by the calls to buy fresh fish, produce, and the like. An old gentleman with long sideburns and a mustache hurries past you. You meet his watery blue eyes for a moment, then turn away. There’s an intensity about those eyes that is unnerving.

The gent marches up to a grocer and points to turnips. When the grocer turns to grab the turnips, the old man looks around, then puts his hands on the lid of a barrel. He stares across at a fishmonger’s cart, where a woman calls out “Snakes! Snakes under the cart!”

You see the old man stuff a brown sack into the barrel, close the lid, and walk away, turnips forgotten.

Elizabeth Dixon:

You enter the city market and are surrounded by the smells of fresh fish, poultry, and the like. A bespectacled woman, perhaps in her 30s, rummages through a cart selling old books. A black ankh pendent graces her neck. She’s talking to a corpulent Turk, fez and all, and they seem to be arguing. She points at a fishmonger’s cart with a folded hand-fan, and says something sharp to the foreigner.

The Turk nods, and ambles over to the display of cod and mackerel. He stops, closes his eyes and falls into the fish-cart, hands flailing and grasping. The cart tips forward, spilling fish and causing a scene.

You see the woman stuff a brown sack into a barrel, close the lid, and walk away.

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GM Excuses: Audition Your Lead NPC

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GM Excuses, Part 3

OK, class is in session again, and we have more homework. If you’re new to this blog thread, I’m following the Writing Excuses master class on writing, and transmogrifying it to be about adventure design. In Part 1, I came up with five adventure ideas based on the homework assignment. In Part 2, I mixed up the ideas to create 4 new ideas. One of them is a mashup of two of my ideas from Part 1, an adventure based on Drood, the novel by Dan Simmons and one based on World Without Tears, a song by Lucinda Williams.

Check out the latest (15 minute) podcast from Writing Excuses, Q&A on Ideas.

WX-bannerThe podcast is well worth a listen, but instead of dealing with the very interesting questions the cast answered, I’m jumping right to the homework:

Take one of the ideas you’re excited about, and then audition five different characters for the lead role NPC in that story. Make sure they’re all different from each other.

I changed the idea from the lead role, to the lead NPC because your player characters, lovable idiots that they are, are already cast in the lead roles. The question is who do they get to bounce off of? It could be the antagonist, an ally, or a another important person, perhaps one around whom the adventure revolves.

drood WorldWithoutTearsLooking over the ideas from the last GM Excuses, I’m going to go with Drood meets World Without Tears. Everything revolves around the famous writer, Charles Dickens. I’m going to mix it up, and replace Dickens with a fictional writer, but we’ll say they are a famous and successful Victorian author.

Elizabeth Dixon Liz is a popular writer who has an aura of scandal around her. She’s been seen traveling with another man while her husband stayed home with the children. Somehow the scandal has only increased her sales. She’s taken a bizarre turn since a railway accident, and can now be found wandering graveyards and dealing with foreigners and other odd people. She’s the daughter of a wealthy shipbuilding family and something of an expert in Egyptology. Secretly she believes she is the reincarnation of Hatshepsut, a woman pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty.

George Kingsport George is a popular speaker and writer on occult topics. He’s known for his seances and being able to make contact with those who have past beyond the veil. A happy charlatan, George has been milking the naive since he was a teen, but now thing have taken a turn for the strange. For the last few months, George’s fake powers have started to work. He speaks in tongues, recites ancient Egyptian poetry, and has the power to bend people to his will. Which would all be great, but for the blackouts. George wakes in odd places and has no recollection of how he got there.

Nalo D’Costa Nalo is a Jamaican woman who has burst onto the literary scene in England. Aided by a following in the upper class, she has transcended racial and gender barriers and gained a popular following. One worry is her belief that she will be fashionable only for a brief moment, and then the English will find another “exotic” author to pay attention to. The other worry is Anton, her fraternal twin who died at birth. Nalo sees and hears Anton, and while she used to believe he was a harmless hallucination, recent events have proven him neither.

Connor Synge is a celebrated Irish playwright and poet. Intense and brooding, he’s a bit of a walking contradiction — often seen in bars, he never drinks; popular with the ladies, he never marries; said to be gifted in Irish, he only works in English. Connor has recently been frustrated in his work. The play “The Droods” just will not write itself. He’s torn up more versions than he can count. And each time he stops writing, he sees a pale face in the window. When he looks, he sees a figure vanishing down the block. He follows, and then finds himself lost in the most peculiar places. He’s been talking to himself, and his friends are worried.

Robert McTavish was unknown outside of his Scottish landholdings until he reached the age of 70. He claimed he found a Pictish burial site and vanished for three days. When he came out, he began writing at a furious pace, and soon started on well attended speaking tours. He has watery blue eyes that force people to avoid his glance. He’s also taken up poetry, and his latest poem is entitled “Before Man, Serpents.” His dark writings have embarrassed his offspring, and they are looking for someone to rein in the old man.

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