Friday, April 12, 2013


2 AM

Shower head's dripping.

This morning in Mech Pendragon we fought absolutely no-one for the second session in a row. It was like eating macaroni and cheese two meals in a row: really good but god damn do I want some meat next time.

Then tonight in Vertique, we decided--fairly out of nowhere--to rob the military payroll off a moving train. 60 soldiers vs. 4 PCs, mostly first level AD&D. Survived, no casualties. Insane luck.

Tomorrow I run a game here for the LA people. Including a first time player.

By rights, I should prepare, but instead I'm reading...


Just like I read the rest of it.

I figure: get enough D&D in your head and you can just run things by opening your mouth and letting it fall out.

Which is probably the best way to read this module: just stuff it in your brain without thinking about it too much and only keep what doesn't immediately drop out of your ears.

2:23 AM

Most of the stationary guards are unique monsters selected by Azarr Kul for their particular abilities and strengths in the rooms they are to watch over. These guardians do not leave their posts except to pursue fleeing characters, and even then they give up pursuit if the PCs leave the Fane entirely, returning to their posts. If they hear battle in a nearby chamber, they prepare themselves for combat but do not abandon their posts.

Because you hear the enemy's penetrated deep into your sanctum and is frying the guards and why would you go check that out, right? I mean, that might result in an EL inappropriate encounter or, worse, require the writers to think of a reason you couldn't just up and leave your room like any other Devilwall Spawnslaster.

2: 30 AM

The dungeon's a building shaped like a giant Tiamat.

Whether you think that's Rientsian Stupid or plain civilian Stupid, the fact is that we already had a boss in a giant building shaped like a lion back in chapter 3. So like dudes come onnn.

But then also y'know I've spent a lot of time in these reviews pointing out missed opportunities, right? But here's the kind of Missed Opportunity Singularity that only comes once in a lifetime. You've got the Tiamat building, right? Each of these heads seems crafted from a different type of stone -- obsidian, alabaster, soapstone, malachite, and marble -- corresponding to the coloration of each head.  And earlier you've got the stone lion building, right? So...

Right? Sooooo close.

So many possibilities.

So close.

2:54 AM

In addition to being like the 900th dragon and dragon-related thing the (6-12th level) PCs fight in this campaign, in addition to casting 2 buffs spells on himself as soon as he detects them, the big blue dragon the party meets here hides and uses magic to change his voice to sound like 5 voices and hides in the giant statue and pretends to be Tiamat talking to scare away the PCs.

That may very well be the saddest thing I ever read.

3:08 AM

After you fight that dragon you fight 5 little dragons from hell (abishai), 2 undead dragons with 2 legs (zombie wyverns), and six dragon people (blackspawn raiders).

I'm going to sleep.


1:01 AM (the next day)

Pit bull put Mandy's dog in the hospital.

Then we had a game. Because she's like "I gotta get my mind off this".

Game's over, now to finish this thing:

We are in the temple of Tiamat. Absolutely no fascinating imaginative exploration of what a religion founded on the worship of a five-headed death lizard older than time might look like.

1:17 AM

More invisible monsters.

More hell hounds.

More do I weep and sway from weeping, sipping scotch, waiting for Tiamat and praying for an ending.

1:55 AM

Mandy: "You have to find a bugbear sorcerer but they use a nighthag as a cook? People really have their priorities screwy."

Of all places to decide to start trying, why here?
Oh, the hag's alright I guess. She tries to trick the PCs by disguising herself as an enslaved maiden and haunts their dreams. And the PCs can try to trick her, too. But, man, this is Tiamat's House, this fairy tale stuff seems like it belongs in some other part of the adventure. Tiamat doesn't need a crooked crone slingin hobgoblin hash, Tiamat eats baby meat and kingflesh smeared on the butts of popes.

2:14 AM

More wyverns.

More greenspawn razorfiends.

2:26 AM

Warpriests: Dudes, you're in room 13, you're seriously just gonna be sitting here praying when the PCs show up? How did you get this job?

2:31 AM

(take a break from reading the module: Mandy makes a Mech Pendragon PC. Her mechs are 2 Geths, a Dorvack and Fei Yen from Virtual-On.)

3:39 AM

A canopied four-poster bed sits to the southeast, and to the southwest is a large mound of cushions and furs, next to which stands a bejeweled water pipe crafted to look like a five-headed dragon--it appears that up to five people can partake of the pipe using the long, flexible dragon-shaped pipes extending from the body.

3:43 AM

Mandy points out that "Francesca" and "Lucia" sound less like the names of erinyes concubines than someone's maiden aunts.

3:49 AM

Trying to think if there's anything complicated or interesting about the traps in the trap room. Nope. You speak the passwords to get in here or you set off the first trap and you just need to roll a lot of dice properly to deal with the others.

3:52 AM

The interior decorators here sure do like the dragon motif.

3:57 AM

Climax: Boss, lightshow, 4 of a monster you already fought. "...they probably won't notice the PCs until they enter the chamber". 

I know how it is man, one time I got out of the shower and the Army Corps of Engineers had broken in, built a 1/32 scale model of downtown Paris during the 1889 World's Fair with an Eiffel Tower and post-Montgolfier-style balloons with real helium in them and everything in the living room and I was just like What 

Protip for High Wyrmlord Azarr Kul: even if you win this scene and kill the PC party and summon Tiamat, she's gonna have some hard questions about how you let 44 of your friends, highest-ranking employees and lovers die in high level fireball-tossing combat before even so much as leaning out the door for a "Hey Francesca, how's everything going out there?" Middle management is just like that, ok?

And he, of course, turns invisible.

4:22 AM

When/if Azaar Kul dies, Tiamat shows up. A crappy, Encounter Level 12 "aspect" of Tiamat with less than half the hit points of a garden variety max size max age regular dragon. At least she doesn't drink any potions first.


11:18 AM 


"What characteristics would something Zak could use out the box have?"

Good question. Let's not be all like hippos wallowing in hate. Let's do something good.

What do we know now?

What did we learn from all this madness?

What's important in a module?

1. Efficiency is Beautiful, Efficiency is Art

Old news:

The entire point of a module is it's convenient. If it takes more time to find information in a module than it takes to make up stuff just as good then it's taking the only unsullied virtue a module can lay claim to and forcing it face first into a bucket of rancid toad semen.

Who does this right? The one page dungeon contest winners. Stonehell.

2. ...As Is Art.

All that said, you will have to put sentences and pictures on the page to have a module. Make them good sentences and good pictures that contain evocative images and ideas that don't already exist somewhere else, or at least not in some other product by your same company, and especially especially especially not in the last chapter you just fucking wrote.

This does not mean write a lot. It often means the opposite. Here's Noisms describing an entire setting in 25 words:

Tibet, yak ghosts, ogre magi, mangroves, Nepal, Arabian Nights, Sorcery!, Bengal, invertebrates, topaz, squid men, slug people, opiates, slavery, human sacrifice, dark gods, malaise, magic.

Who does this right? Death Frost Doom.

3. If You Want To Design A Module, Do Some Actual Designing 

You are in the only profession in the world where people explore possible structural set-ups for open-ended tabletop RPGs. This is your chance to invent something no book or movie or comic or even video game even tries to invent. So do that. Don't short-shrift it.

If your set-up opens up a new possibility (generating rules or structures which the players could use to work through a mass combat in a city environment--to pick a totally not random example) run with it, don't rely on easy and staid structures like railroads and scene-setting: if your audience likes those, they already know where to get them for free.

Who does this right? The Great Pendragon Campaign. Keep On The Borderlands, I guess. Vault of the Drow. Tomb of Horrors. Masks of Nyarlathotep. Nightmares of Future Past. A lot of setting books.

4. Take Advantage Of The Fact You Made People Buy A Book And You Had A Budget

It's a physical thing in the reader's hands.  For the GM it's specifically one more goddamn physical fucking thing in his or her hands. This does not have to be a bug though, it can actually help.

Like maybe put the information on the map. Like maybe put the clue in the picture. Like maybe let the map and the picture describe the place for you. Like maybe let the entries be in an intuitive order that lets them be their own index.

Who does this right?  Oddly, the one page dungeons: and they don't have a budget and aren't physical things.

5. Fuck Off With Your Boxed Text

"Well beginning GMs may need..." ...a crutch so that they never learn to engage their players?

Who does this right? Most people who aren't paid by the word. By some shocking coincidence.

6. Give Players As Many Things To Do And Ways To Do Them As Possible

No, just because it's a module does not mean its a railroad. Put things there that can be interacted with in multiple ways, that can interact with each other in multiple ways, and make them desirable (rather than mandatory) to interact with

Who does this right? Death Frost Doom, Caverns of Thracia.

7. Minimize The Stats

This is really an aspect of 1, but deserves a call out because it requires special thought: your stats for your game system are a pain in the ass and a lot of times they don't have anything in them your GM needs to know.

On the other hand, flipping around to get them when you do need them sucks, too. So find a way to manage their presence on the page.

Who does this right? Carcosa, Death Frost Doom

8. Don't Write The Module Cynically

This is pointless advice because nobody who would do it cares about doing a good job in the first place, but here goes anyway:

Don't put things in there you know are shit and you know you yourself wouldn't even use just because hey, fuck it, they're paying you. And, also, pay attention to what you're writing.

And sadly, honestly, I think 1-7 are equally pointless because probably a lot of these things were written by people who didn't care about 8 anyway.



  1. There's a bit in LOTR where Gandalf doesn't even want to use magic to start a campfire because it will alert Saruman to their presence. On the other hand, fireballs and lightning should have the kind of sound that a grizzled veteran bad dude can tell at a significant distance and react to accordingly. Are there any modules that describe how the enemy forces might re-organise under these circumstances? Do they ever do flanking movements or just run away out the back door?

    1. The Sazdorf Ruins of RuneQuest 2nd Edition (reprinted as the Haunted Ruins for 3rd edition) described the ruins and their inhabitants and then gave a pretty good rundown of their tactics: either shuck and jive to throw off a party's perception of who is in charge or full details on how the trolls' warriors mobilize (which would turn out very bad for just about any party). That's an example of it being done right.

    2. There's something about the way they use invisibility in modules. It wants to think that invisibility is very rare, LOTR style, so it takes people by surprise but at the same time it's everywhere, so everyone ought to have anti-invisibility traps about the place, with guards tossing bags of flour at mysteriously opening doors and puddles blocking access bottlenecks. This doesn't stop the terror of invisible Beholders, but frankly if an invisible Beholder wants to come in and rob you, the fact it's invisible is the least of your problems. Also fairly low down on the list of questions it raises.

  2. This is good and helpful as always.

    I'm curious about your love for Tiamat. I was surprised when I read your original alphabetical monsters post about her because I've always run into Tiamat in module settings like the above and a giant five-headed five-colored dragon seemed bad... have you run a game featuring her before? what was it like? what are your influences? Would be great if you got time to hear more about how you'd do it.

    1. Oh you have to save Tiamat for the very last day...

      And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having five heads and ten horns, and upon her horns ten crowns, and upon her heads the name of blasphemy.ürer,_Apocalypse_of_St_John,_The_Dragon_with_the_Seven_Heads.JPG

    2. That reply is totally how Tiamat should really be like!
      Alas, Tiamat in most modules wouldn't be like that, or most monsters and even NPCs for that matter. Is it any wonder most GMs I know don't just change, but avoid modules altogether?

  3. I think Zak described a pretty decent way to do a module in during the last post. Provide a map of a city and surrounding areas full of potential choke-points and combat areas to choose from. Provide an army with stats and a destination that leads through the mapped territory and some rational of why the players want to slow or stop said army. After that LET THE PLAYERS DECIDE where and how they will do the job. Provide a timeline so the players can goof around or start smashing buildings to create walls and dead ends or whatever and I think you'd have a pretty kick-ass bit of fun.

  4. Hope your poor dog gets better.

    Re: Tiamat. I have always loved Tiamat. I also went to an apocalyptic right-wing Sunday school when I was a little kid where _everything_ was the Book of Revelations, End Times, 666, ten horns & ten crowns, The Beast, Armageddon, Satan, Satan, SATAN, SATAN, SATAN!, SATAN!!, SATAN!!! all the time. Weirdly, I never made the connection until now.

  5. Isn't that "blue dragon pretending to be Tiamat" stolen straight from a 1E AD&D module? I can't remember which one, but I definitely remember it - a blue dragon using illusions to pretend to be Tiamat.