The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘d&d’

Alex Drummond1. Species that simply prefer living underground (either because they fear the sun like the drow or because they love the dark like the dwarves).

2. Magical construction techniques that make huge, underground constructions more plausible.

3. Magical creatures that either have an instinctual need to create underground complexes or which create them as an unintentional byproduct. (Where did all these twisting tunnels come from? Well, they started as purple worm trails. Then the goblins moved in.)

4. Catastrophes on the surface world that prompt people to flee underground are also a great explanation for underground complexes. (See Earthdawn. Or just an Age of Dragons.) Mix-and-match with the techniques above to explain how the huge cataclysm refuges were built. Then simply remove the danger and/or (better yet) introduce some new danger that came up from below and drove all the vault dwellers back onto the surface.

It’s also useful to establish a method for underground species to generate food. In my campaign world there’s fey moss, which serves as the basis for fungal gardens. Huge, artificial suns left behind in underdark chasms by the vault builders or the under-dwarves also work.

I don’t find it valuable to do full-scale urban planning or figure out exactly how many toilets the goblins need, but I do find that at least some degree verisimilitude makes for better games: If the goblins get their food from fungal gardens, then their food supply can be jeopardized by destroying those gardens. And that’s either the basis for an interesting scenario hook or it’s a strategic master-stroke from the players or it’s some other surprise that I hadn’t even thought of before the campaign started.

Untested D&D – Interrogation

November 26th, 2014

Jack Bauer from 24

Interrogation checks are made to resolve the controlled questioning of prisoners or suspects: People who have (or who you believe might have) a reason to withhold information from you.  Obtaining information through other forms of social interaction (questioning witnesses or chatting someone up at a social soiree, for example) is certainly possible, but may not be the right fit for these mechanics.

When interrogating a subject, the questioner can choose one of two approaches:

DIPLOMACY: These are “soft” methods of interrogation. Manipulation, seduction, a building of trust, a promise of quid pro quo.

INTIMIDATE: These are “hard” methods of interrogation. This doesn’t cover actual torture, but it does include aggressive techniques, threats of violence, and the like.

The appropriate interrogation skill is used to make a check against DC 10 + the subject’s HD + the subject’s Wisdom modifier. On a success, the interrogator gains one piece of information. Additional interrogation checks can be attempted, but each additional check applies a cumulative +2 modifier to the DC of the check.

After two failures, the interrogation will provide no more useful information. (The subject has broken down or their lawyer has shown up or they simple have no more useful information to share.)


Each interrogation technique can be escalated to the next level:

BRIBERY: Diplomacy-based interrogations can be enhanced with bribery. If a sufficiently large bribe is offered, the interrogator gains a +10 circumstance bonus to their interrogation checks for the rest of the interrogation. (Alternatively, you could use these advanced guidelines for determining the efficacy of a specific bribe.)

TORTURE: Intimidation-based interrogations can be escalated to actual torture. This involves inflicting actual physical damage and pain. (Or possibly inflicting the same on comrades or loved ones.) The target must make a Will save at DC 10 + the damage dealt by the torturer. If the subject fails the Will save, the interrogator gains a +10 circumstance bonus on their next interrogation check. (Of course, they can continue torturing the subject in order to gain the same bonus again.)

Both of these techniques, however, represent a gamble: Under the temptation of bribery or the desperation of torture subjects may invent information or say whatever they think the interrogator wants to hear. There’s a flat 25% chance of false information when giving a bribe. There’s a cumulative 10% chance of false information when using torture. (So after torturing a subject for the third time, there will be a 30% chance of false information.)


A couple of other skills can be useful in interrogations.

BLUFF: Subjects can attempt to provide false information with a Bluff check. If the check fails, however, the interrogator has seen through their lie and can immediately attempt another interrogation check with a +2 circumstance bonus to get the truth out of them. (All of the modifiers from their previous test still apply.)

SENSE MOTIVE: Sense Motive can, obviously, be used to opposed a subject’s Bluff checks. It might also be useful for determining what threats or promises would make for the most effective intimidation or bribery (offering a circumstance bonus in accordance with the guidelines for aiding another, but perhaps inflicting penalties if the check goes awry).

OTHER SKILLS: Other skills can also be used situationally to aid the interrogation check. For example, demonstrating a bit of legerdemain with Sleight of Hand might impress a social contact. Or a Knowledge check might produce information that would endear an expert. Use the guidelines for aiding another to resolve these checks.


An interrogation team can play good cop / bad cop by switching their interrogation technique (from Diplomacy to Intimidation or vice versa). If their first interrogation check after the swap is successful, they can negate a previous failure. (This will allow them to prolong the interrogation.)

It’s exceptionally difficult to play good cop to your own bad cop: Apply a -10 circumstance penalty to the first check of an individual interrogator after the switch in approach.


Kenneth Hite has a technique he uses in investigation games: When the characters have gained all the information they’re going to get from a scene, he holds up a sign that says “SCENE OVER” or “DONE”. The statement cues the players to let them know that there’s no reward to be gained by continuing to ransack the apartment, while using a sign is less intrusive on the natural flow of the scene (so if there’s something they still want to accomplish in this scene of a non-investigative nature, the scene can continue without the GM unduly harshing the vibe).

The core of this interrogation mechanic is designed to do something similar: It’s sending a clear and specific “we’re done here” message to the players, allowing you to perform a clean cut that keeps the pacing tight.

It also has the added benefit of answering for the GM, “How much information does this guy really know?” in situations where that isn’t immediately clear. (This is a question I frequently struggle with when some random mook gets interrogated.)

Collectively, that’s why the difficulty cranks up after each question: I want the mechanic to terminate the interrogation for me.

You might also want to check out my Advanced Rules for Diplomacy. And my thoughts on Social Skills and PCs might also be of interest.

Hack & Slash posted On the Visual History of the Illithid the other day and pointed out that, in the original Monster Manual, the portrait of the mind flayer was surrounded by an irregular octagon that was completely unique within that tome:

Mind Flayer - Monster Manual (1977)

“Although several creatures in the monster manual have borders, most are square. Only two other creatures, the Bugbear and Type V demons have octagonal borders and both of their borders are more regular. Each pane of the mind flayer border is of a different length, no two matching.” Which feels oddly appropriate, given the dimension-rending origins of the mind flayer in many versions of their mythos.

I was struck by the idea that you might be able to take that octagonal border and turn it into an iconic symbol or badge. An Icon of the Flayer. A couple dozen minutes of fiddling around in Photoshop gave me this:

Icon of the Flayers

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Wolfgang Baur, Steve WinterAfter the review I wrote, several people have asked me whether I’ll be doing a remix of Hoard of the Dragon Queen to “fix” it the same way that I did for Keep on the Shadowfell.

Short answer: Nope.

Why? Because nothing about Hoard of the Dragon Queen made me want to run it. Which means I’m not going to run it. Which means that I’m not going to put the necessary effort into revamping it.

With that being said, while discussing the campaign over the past few days I have had a few thoughts about the approach I would take to remixing the campaign if I were going to do it.


As I mentioned in my original review, the basic back story of Hoard of the Dragon Queen kinda screams out for a node-based design: Multiple factions of a cult simultaneously pursuing multiple artifacts should lend itself pretty much instantly to the PCs being able to choose which threats they want to prioritize.

One thing to consider, however,  is that D&D characters increase in power level over time, so you can’t just have a wide open playing field without risking either crippling difficulty at the beginning of the campaign and/or push-overs at the end of the campaign. With that being said, my understanding of 5E is that the “bounded accuracy” design is specifically meant to increase the range of tolerance for this sort of thing and pre-4E had at least a 3-4 level range of tolerance.

So what you need to do is design around funnels that refocus the investigation. (Or, alternatively, layer cakes while accepting that occasionally the PCs will backtrack and roll over some easier material.)

Having a bulkier initiating node that the PCs can gain a couple of levels during also makes sense (to take the edge of fragility off their characters). So it makes sense to keep the general idea of “siege on Greenest, followed by investigations at the cult camp.” In the camp you’d want to seed clues to three different nodes:

  • Leads to wherever they’re transporting the stuff.
  • An envoy from another faction of the cult.
  • Reports from agents who are currently spying on a third faction of the cult (that somehow threatens this faction’s interests).

This 1st Funnel is primarily focused on figuring out what the cult’s true agenda is. The second prong of clues within the scenarios of this funnel, therefore, would show their fascination with Tiamat, hint that they’re looking for Tiamat-themed artifacts, and also reveal the “five-headed” structure of the cult. The first prong is the structural branch in which clues point them to the conclusion of the 1st Funnel: An “all-faction” meeting of the cult. At this meeting, the PCs would discover (or verify) that the cult is specifically interested in the five dragon masks. Furthermore, they would get clues pointing them towards 2-4 more dragon masks. These might include:

  • Ongoing expeditions being run by the cult.
  • Expeditions that are about to begin. (Do the PCs sabotage the mission? Race to meet them to the site?)
  • Fortresses where the cult is keeping masks they have already obtained.

And so forth. This 2nd Funnel would lead them to Tiamat’s Prison where the final ritual is being performed (or whatever). If I was invested in the idea of the cult getting all five masks and raising Tiamat, I’d probably arrange things so that the masks have already been shipping to the final site before the PCs ever arrive at the various expedition locations. Given my predilections, however, what I’d probably do is design the ritual in a way that the PCs holding a single mask won’t completely disrupt it. Maybe something like:

  • Each mask allows the cult to summon one Aspect of Tiamat (i.e., a deity-infused dragon of matching color). Or maybe the ritual just involves an appropriate dragon wearing the mask and, thus, channeling a shard of Tiamat’s soul. Either way, the point is that if the PCs manage to hold onto one or more of the masks… great! They have substantially reduced (but not eliminated) the effectiveness of the plans and Tiamat’s manifestation on this plane.
  • Also designing 2-3 proactive nodes of assassins or thieves or the like that the cult would send after the PCs in order to retrieve the masks they’ve “stolen”.


If I’m looking to preserve as much of Hoard of the Dragon Queen as possible, I’d probably look at something like this:

Node 1: This consists of Episodes 1-3 from the book.

1st Funnel:

  • For tracking the looted goods, I’d use a possibly abbreviated version of Episodes 4-5 but have it conclude at the Roadhouse. (With records there pointing to the conclusion.)
  • The envoy would be from the Hunting Lodge (Episode 7, with the same relationship to the Castle in the Clouds for the conclusion).
  • The agents would be spying upon Castle Naerytar. (Preparations are being made to send their delegation to the conclusion.)

The conclusion of the 1st Funnel would be a meeting at the Castle in the Clouds (Episode 8).

Remember to include cross-node clues: So, for example, the Hunting Lodge is also shipping goods to the Roadhouse (providing a place where you might be able to use additional material from Episodes 4-5) and has a spy from Castle Naerytar. And so forth.

The 2nd Funnel would be a hypothetical remix of the material from Rise of Tiamat (if it proves to have anything usable upon release).


 The other thing you have to do if you’re going to run Hoard of the Dragon Queen is fix the opening scenario.

First, the hook of “you have some vague reason to be in Greenest, but when you get there you find that the town is being attacked by a dragon” is far too fragile. One option would be to drastically ramp up the importance of whatever they need to accomplish in Greenest, while also making it massively time-sensitive and also being of a nature that a dragon besieging the town doesn’t render it moot.

Nothing comes to mind that fits the bill, though, so I’m going to recommend an easier fix: The PCs are already in Greenest when the cult attacks.

The far more problematic aspect of the first episode, however, is the lengthy section with the World of Warcraft quest-giver standing atop his castle walls and ordering the PCs to venture forth over and over and over again. I suspect you could probably salvage this section of the adventure by having the players receive a complete tactical overview of the situation in town and then venturing forth once to accomplish their missions all at once. That would look something like this:

  • Dragon Attack (the dragon assaults the wall shortly after the PCs arrive in the castle)
  • Old Tunnel (after the PCs prove themselves against the dragon, Escobert immediately tells them about it)
  • Sallying Forth (Save the Mill, Sanctuary, and Prisoners)
  • Sally Port (as they return to the keep, the sally port buckles and they have to help drive the raiding parties back out)

They can then question the prisoner with Escobert and you can cut that interrogation short whenever it becomes boring by having the half-dragon champion issue his challenge.


Pearce Shea summarizes the big problem with Hoard of the Dragon Queen eloquently at games with others:

What we learn about kobolds [in Hoard]: They are small and they like dragons. They comport themselves menacingly.

When Paizo released Rise of the Runelords they reimagined goblins with Wayne Reynolds, and Goblins lit themselves on fire by mistake, drowned in half-full barrels, feared and hated horses (horses are kind of like their dragons) and one eats a man’s face off (is eating it, through a hole in the wall, when you find it). They roast limbs for fun, carry molten tongs and try to shove adventurers into a furnace. There are optional feral goblin babies to kill (or to try to raise). They have a song (it is lame), and a druid that moves through their bramble walls as if the brambles were no obstacle at all, and a chief that rides a giant gecko. There will be a man encased in glass, an aasimar becoming a demon, a barghest, seduction, romance, betrayal, two patricides, a boat hunt, family squabbles, rangers giving reports about goblin activity, flirting, grave robbing, lost mega weapon-type defense systems, ancient temples and fonts of evil power, demons, a mutant goblin and an imp that imagines itself queen. That’s in 60 pages or so (the first of six chapters). Half the length of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. fuck.

So the biggest thing you’d have to do during a revamp of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is liberally inject the scenario with awesome stuff: The cult needs weird rituals. Strange Tiamat lore needs to be scrawled in living inks. Feel free to take advantage of the bassabal culture I created for kobolds in my Shadowfell remix. Yank open your fantasy spice rack and start using it liberally.

On that note: Check out the remix Hack & Slash is embarking upon.


Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Wizards of the CoastMeh.

The primary arc of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is disappointingly linear. Disappointing because the concept is so delightfully ripe for a non-linear approach: The Cult of the Dragon has abandoned its previous plans of turning dragons into dracoliches and has allied itself with a variety of living dragons and their half-breed offspring to free Tiamat from her infernal prison. In order to do this, feuding factions within the cult are seeking out five powerful artifacts which take the form of dragon masks (one for each of Tiamat’s chromatic heads).

Five masks lost in disparate locations? Multiple cult factions simultaneously pursuing semi-compatible goals?! When I first read the background I was absolutely convinced I was about to read the D&D equivalent of Masks of Nyarlathotep and have my brain blown at the prospect of node-based scenario design being used as the introductory campaign for an entire generation of gamers.

Sadly, not to be.

Instead, the campaign is a pretty rigid “go to X, then go to Y, then go to Z” affair. Hoard of the Dragon Queen makes up for this, however, by designing most of the individual scenarios along its path in a delightfully non-linear fashion: Enemy strongholds are set up to reward frontal assaults, physical stealth, and clever infiltration. Fractious factions can be turned against each other using a variety of methods. Alliances can be forged and broken in myriad ways. Enemies surrendering and being questioned (instead of fighting bloodily to the death) is gloriously well-supported. Token guidance is even given for PCs who go wandering off the intended path on wild goose chases. And all of this goes hand-in-hand with a very utilitarian presentation which is starkly at odds with the overwritten-to-useless style which has afflicted a lot of published adventures in the last decade.

Which makes the scenarios where this liberal and refreshing approach is supplanted by a rigid railroad all the more puzzling.

This really only afflicts a couple of the scenarios, but unfortunately one of them is the first scenario and it’s laughably atrocious: There’s a lengthy sequence where the PCs are besieged in a castle (after getting railroaded into it, of course). The PCs are then supposed to go to the local duke (who basically has a yellow exclamation mark over his head) and get a quest to fight their way out of the besieged castle and accomplish some goal in the town. Then they fight their way back through the respawning kobolds on the drawbridge, return to the duke (who the adventure literally says waits for them in the same spot on the castle battlements), get their next quest, and then fight their way out again.

And if they do that two or three times, they’ll unlock a dialogue option where the duke tells them about a secret passage leading out of the castle so that they can bypass the respawning drawbridge encounter going forward.

It’s kind of astonishing that I kept reading the adventure after that.

Can I also take a moment here to point out that the campaign hook for Hoard of the Dragon Queen is absolutely ridiculous? The PCs are approaching a random town, crest a hill, and discover that it is being attacked by a dragon. Okay. That’s fine. But then the campaign assumes that the 1st level PCs are likely, when confronted with that sight, to decide that their best course of action is to walk into the town.

(Did I mention that the dragon is also accompanied by an entire army?)

Maybe I’m just spoiled by having players who aren’t seriously brain damaged, but I literally cannot imagine a scenario in which that hook would work.

But what kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not its inconsistent design. Nor its occasional absurdities. Nor the plentiful continuity errors. Nor the horrific editorial shortcomings. Nor the completely inadequate maps (some of which appear to be missing entirely, some of which don’t match the text, and many of which lack keyed entries they’re supposed to have).

No. What kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is that it’s so incredibly boring.

And I’m not talking about one of those adventures that’s just boring to read on the page. I mean that the contents of this adventure, basically from top to bottom, are generic and dull and trite and uninteresting: There is no kobold that isn’t a generic kobold. There is no bedroom that isn’t a generic bedroom. There is no swamp which isn’t a generic swamp. And there is absolutely nothing fantastical or wonderful or unique or memorable.

(The obvious rejoinder here is that a good GM could still take this material, work miracles upon it, and make it totally awesome during actual play. Of course they could. But a good GM would also know better than to use such a flat and uninspiring foundation in the first place.)

To be fair, there are a couple of exceptions to this general dullness. (Flying stolen wyverns to intercept the flying castle of a giant is the most notable one.) But for a campaign which I’m assuming will take at least 40-60 hours of table time to complete, those slim exceptions are wholly inadequate.

Which, ultimately, brings me back to the reaction I had most consistently and finally to Hoard of the Dragon Queen:


Outside of a few truly awful sequences in the first scenario, there’s nothing here that’s really terrible. But there’s also nothing to be found between these covers to justify spending $30 on it (let alone another $30 on the essentially mandatory second volume). Most damning, however, is that Hoard of the Dragon Queen also lacks anything which will reward the countless hours of ponderous and forgettable playing time that you would languish upon it.

Grade: D

A guide to grades here at the Alexandrian.



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