We do mostly one-shot Dungeons & Dragons sessions. The role-player in me seems to long for a long-term campaign with time to develop characters and weave and wind plot threads, but at this time in my life and in the life of my fellow players, it’s either one-shot or no shots at all. So, when the whim strikes us, we pull a short roster of players, put together a one shot and have a great Saturday.
Last month, I put together a one-shot for the express purpose of experimenting with game-play that’s not standard to how we normally prefer to do things. Comfort zones are great and that’s one reason I really like D&D – you can play how you want. You have room to focus on the aspects of the game you and yours enjoy most. But I also wanted to step outside our box, so I recruited a team who I knew would be most amenable to trying some specific things, namely, a very RP Heavy session.
- Hidden Hit Points
- In-Character Candle
- An un-armed combat scenario
I pitched the adventure thusly:
You poor souls. You are imprisoned in the land of Droom and the only stay of execution are the whims of your captors. Droom is a horrible mountain land, teeming with vile demons, wastelands, forests, and strangling quagmirew. What is your crime? Theft. Murder. Trespassing. Only you know, and it matters not. The sentence is death and Droom will take its retibution in blood (which sells very well in Droom).
Upon further questions from my party about the conditions of their imprisonment, I clarified that Droom was a land with no master, just roving knots of evil things bound together by loose tendrils of insanity and bloodlust. You happen to be imprisoned by a band of orcs who serve the Deepcrow, and whose tribe name roughly translates to “The Orcs What Hate Everything”.
The willing players were instructed to roll a character and send me their sheet (we prearranged who would have what roles). ”Do not buy anything,” I told them, “No implements, no armor, no weapons. You have a metal cup and some shabby clothes.” I asked them to decide why they were imprisoned and why “dared they venture into the fetid hostile hellsmear that is Droom? What madness possessed you?”
Crazy Un-Armed Combat Scenario
Basically, the players rolled naked characters – no armor, no weapons. I then re-created their characters with armor and weapons that would be available to them. This adventure was more linear and DM-driven than how we normally do things, so I felt comfortable pigeon-holing them for this adventure, just this once, because who cares.
When I got their characters, I realized that they’d all rolled magical characters except for one Fighter, and I knew that relying on the unarmed rules-as-written would not actually have any great effect, so I hand-crafted a different way of doing things and provided instructions to the players at the table. I revealed the information to them in a slow drip – not as this complete explanation.
The air in the prison is heavy not only with putrid odors and stale air, but with a buzzing, maddening aura that dulls your abilities. Attempting to cast out an arcane spark, or utter a prayer to your god results in pitiful nothingness. You are crippled.
You can’t use any magical abilities. You may benefit from passive magical attributes of your race or class, or others races or classes.
Discover A Hope
With a skill check you can investigate the source of this dampening through focus or meditation. This is a standard action. (I set a DC for their major source of magic. Religion check for the Ardent and Invoker, Arcana check for the Sorcerers.) If you are able to Discover Hope, you now know to Try Really Hard.
Try Really Hard
Roll a saving throw before you begin your actions. If successful, you may use magic abilities this turn. If you succeed three times, you officially Have This Handled and can use magic freely from now on. Otherwise, you’ll get the Hang Of It after you have three attempts at Trying Really Hard that includes one success.
When not using their magic, and for the Fighter, the unarmed rules were as written. The Fighter, feisty dragonborn Haraan, pre-arranged that her missing weapon was a giant club named Thwacker, but that her time in the prison had been spent crafting a sharpened rock called the Thumper. When she used the Thumper, I let her roll a d6 for damage instead of a d4. She was able to rescue the Thwacker from the mitts of one of the guards.
One of the Sorcerers didn’t feel like regaining his magic back, and so never followed up on that. I think that was kind of fun. Just not the kind of guy who’s going to Discover any Hope or Try Really Hard, so said the player.
I am not very much into hard numbers when I DM, and in every other adventure, I really do my best to be faithful to the numbers mechanics of damage and hit points and junk – it’s good when I do it right. But because the feel of the encounter was more important than the accuracy of the encounter, I didn’t do very much in the way of keeping accurate accounting of their hit points, or the bad guys hit points, or how hard the bad guys were hitting, or how many of them there would be. I prioritized story and pacing over accurate combat. This does take away some agency from the players who are aware or not that their good playing won’t have as direct an impact on how things go. I think for an experiment, this worked well, but I don’t know that it’s really sustainable.
Hidden Hit Points
I kept track of the players defenses and damage behind the screen. So what the players heard was all flavor and in-character information.
“The Orc What Hates Everything swings at your head with the purloined Thwacker. You’re quick, but not quick enough and you get wholloped.”
I was sure to make obvious the important ability-based indicators like Bloodied.
This was all exceedingly helpful because I didn’t accidentally kill any naked PCs. Since everything was behind the screen, I could come up with results that were exciting but not discouraging. I didn’t actually have to fudge all that much, but I know the encounter was not balanced numbers-wise for all the naked time.
I just wanted an adventure with more role-playing in it, so we agreed that when the candle is lit, we’d be in the game. If ya say it, its in the game. We had a good time – it wasn’t executed perfectly, but it did refocus everyone. This kind of thing is definitely about making priorities clear when people are agreeing to the session, rather than bending others to the DM’s will.
The over-arching plot of the game was escaping the prison and then some encounters as we escaped Droom. Hunted by wolves, some fun stuff like that. I wanted to create a mechanic that would move the party forward at some haste, so I came up with this idea of geists. I was inspired by those roving groups of enemies in World of Warcraft that were called geists. On their own, they weren’t really a problem, but if they got mixed up in another complicated pull, they’d interrupt spells and junk. I just liked how they swarmed in so so fast.
A sound like the roar of the wind, a gust of rustling leaves and rushing watter fills the ravine. Coming towards you is a mass of creatures that look like horizontal humans, with six arms and legs organized like a beetle’s, and with flesh falling off in tatters and rags from their bodies and eyeless faces.
I put eight mobs on the field and they’re all like, aaaaah! Immediately they start wailing on them.
Geists don’t take damage. Their outlines seem to quiver with a clicking static when cast upon or struck. And then they split in two.
The look on the chaos sorcerer’s face when his chain-reaction attacks hit giests one after the other, and then I doubled the number on the field. Behind the screen, I listened patiently as they told me the damage done to Killian’s Red, Hornsby’s, Guinness and Xinga. But nothing was going on. Mischief!
The geists have a slowing aura. Any character adjacent to a geist can only move a speed of 2.
The geists attack any enemy adjacent to them, as one group – not individual attacks for each geist. Damage is moderate. (Balance for your own party.)
The geists do not pursue their enemies. They move with the blank-mind of a herd, blowing leaves, through the ravine. They don’t hunt or seek out a fight, only hurting things in their way.
Geists move fast, all in one turn.
Basically, it’s a fight that can’t be won. The players caught on after a fun while (save one chaos sorcerer who wanted to play more) and got out of the way. Geists are more of a force of nature like a rockslide than an enemy can complicate things like camping at night or otherwise simple encounters.
So that’s the fun stuff! I’m not a D&D scholar or a very experienced DM – I certainly don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules, but I like experimenting with some fun forms. I’m sure that other DMs can expand on these ideas, polish them up, create hard numbers, balance them – I’d be happy to know your thoughts!