|The Vaults of Gloomy Chaos
Pacts: Lucis, the lord of Light -1
Hit Difficulty: 6
Wounds🔳🔳🔳 ◻◻◻◻◻◻ Light
🔳🔳 ◻◻◻ Moderate
🔳🔳 ◻◻ Severe
Gear: Longsword, Shield, Chain Armour, Lantern, 3 Flasks lamp oil, 50' rope, grappling hook, tinderbox, hsmmer, wedge, dagger, crossbow, 10 bolts, backpack
After the humiliation of his great-grandmother at the hands of the Mad Queen Magdha, Doraleous's family were left nobles only in name. Living like peasants in their crumbling castle, bately able to afford fuel to stay warm, and certainly not able to defend their theoretical vassals, Doraleous dreamed of finding a way to restore his family's fortune. When bandits started plaguing his vilkage, Doraleous found the pluck to wear a suit of ancestral chainmail, grab a sword, and lead a posse to protect his village. This was the start of his career as a fortune-hunting knight-errant; he hopes to restore both his family's fortune and their name.
During his wanderings, Doraleous fell in with a hideous jester-turned-wizard, Mirdon. Mirdon is well-versed in secret lore, and hopes to learn the lost spellcraft of the Dwarves of Koganusân. Being feeble, Mirdon needs a guard, a service for which he is willing to split the dwarves' lost treasure.
Blades: Longsword -1
Pacts: Lucis, Lord of Light -1
Mephistopheles, demon of ill winds -1
Hit Difficulty: 6
Gear: Black book of Magdha, longsword, sling, pouch of bullets, hooded lantern, 3 flasks lamp oil, tinderbox, 50' rope, sack, chalk, 2 bottles ink
Hideous and malformed, but sharp of mind, Mirdon served for decades as the court jester of the royal family. He served his king not just woth brutal honesty and wit, but by deflating pompous courtiers and being invisible in courtly gatherings, where he could gather gossip. By night he lurked in secret passages and peeped in keyholes for his master, collecting intelligence with incredible finesse.
None knew the secret places of the castle as Mirdon did. In fact, he knew places in the castle that no one else did, like Queen Magdha's forgotten laboratory in a secret chamber beneath the garderobe. It was there, looking through her secret grimoire that he mastered the rudiments of witchcraft. A skill he kept secret until he was forced to protect himself from an enraged duke (Mirdon was caught exchanging intelligence for... ahem... the Duchess' "favours"). Once his demonic pact became known, Mirdon was forced to flee the court.
I gave the characters backstories not just because they are fun to write, but because they allow me to adjudicate some non-combat situations more readily; reasonably sized backstories are a boon to a GM. The key is to make sure that there are hard limits to length and complexity.
Turn 1: Entering
NOTE: Deciding How It Looks
A lot of DMing is a mix of logic and theatre. Most of the time, the descriptions you get in a bog-standard adventure module are not particularly helpful... and a random generator certainly isn't. It helps to stop and think for yourself about how things should look and feel.
In this case we know the dungeon is frozen over and has extreme cold effects. Being covered in glittering rime and frost makes sense. Why is it so cold? Well its probably haunted, but being Dwarvish it makes sense that it is in a mountain, so adding snow, breath vapour, and wind makes logical sense as well. It gives me something to work with.
This also suggests a set of narrative factors: the floor is going to be slippery in places, light is going to bbounce and shed more than usual, and stuck doors are likely frozen shut.
NOTE: Keeping it Rolling
The long, dreary hallway needed some flavour, so i added the eroded frescoes to keep things interesting, and that gave me some inspiration.
It just doesn't pay to have a slow start to a dungeon, no matter how cool or evocative you can make it. You have to throw your players a bone. I decided to start by giving my PCs a leg up with a chance for Advancement.
Howling winds that are going to kill the PCs if they are not wary, strange sounds, eroded frescoes... it seemed to fit thematically with an existing pact, why not hand Mirdon a chamce to advance and Doraleous a chance to sell his soul?
At least it keeps the game moving instead of the slow start I would be worried about as a DM.
Although, switching to a player perspective, I am not sure Doraleous is ready to dabble with a demon so obviously foul... even if it would make him stronger.
Turns 2 and 3: A Long Hallway
Turn 4: Weeping Winds
NOTE: Being Fair
What is fair?
I have seen so many debates on it in the context of TTRPGs that the one thing I will say for certain is that the waters are muddy.
What I do know is that this is not a game of Munchkin! Where you get to just treat every combat as a brawl the instant the PCs open a door. It has to make sense.
And what makes sense here is that these bloodthirsty goblins would have heard these two coming and prepared something nasty. Anything else would seem improbable and break the realism and immersion a player has a right to expect.
I know it would absolutely not be fair if the players expected a game of Dungeons & Dragons and instead found themselves playing softball.
NOTE: Adapting Monsters to New Systems
It is pretty rare that a monster makes an easy transition from one system to another. When adapting, I find the best two questions to ask are:
How tough do I want it to be relative to the PCs?
What are the monster's defining abilities?
Using these questions to guide you generally will let you make something that "feels" right, regardless of game engine. With bugbears, making them good at ambush and tougher than a man covers most of its essence.
NOTE: When the Dice go Bad
For a moment here it looks like a difficulty 3 baddie will beat Doraleous into a bloody pulp. If I was DMing someone else, I would feel at least a little edgy about what is happening. The temptation to fudge the dice is strong... not because I want the players to win, but because I want my players to have a good time.
I have found the best compromise is to let the players do the fudging by giving them the power to re-roll once per session or using a "battle rage" mechanic where players get a cumulative bonus each time they fail a roll, only resetting when the player finally makes a roll.
Giving the players a little ability to fix a streak of bad luck, so that they don't feel helpless has, to me, been the best compromises to keep players happy while remaining fair.
The real trick is to call for rolls as seldom as you can manage; players should only roll when there is a cost to failure. And if it would bring the story to a halt otherwise, let them fail forward.
As it is, this turned into a story worth telling: a turnaround from near certain death.
NOTE: Partial Success
In Pacts & Blades parital successes are not well-defined. When a weapon attack misses, your enemy gets to roll an attack against you. If you fail the roll, it gets automatic damage.
This is pretty straightforward... and brutal to Doraleous throughout. But for other situations I often find that Partial Success can be one of the hardest things to adjudicate in a TTRPG.
Breaking Mirdon's spell and costing him his invulnerability seems like a pretty good choice in this circumstance, because it is connected to the same pact.
Partial success is one place where being logical and consistent are absolutely necessary.
NOTE: Emergent Stories
In a traditional role-playing game, story is an emergent phenomenon. It comes out of play, rather than being the goal of it.
No system does a great job of making a story happen. Although, this is the pivotal difference between an role-playing game and a more modern "story-game". Story-games try their best to help story along, even if it needs to be forced a little.
Honestly, the scene I imagined between Mirdon and Doraleous over the shield is some of the best story I have created in solo play, mostly because it is not something I forced. There was no reward for doing it except the reward of seeing it on the page. No mechanics dictated that Doraleous mourn the loss of his shield. That was just what I thought would be right.
Doraleous' Wounds◾🔳 ◻◻◻◻◻◻ Light◾🔳 ◻◻◻ Moderate◾◻◻ Severe
NOTE: The Value of Resource Management
Light, encumbrance, and food are often hand-waved in modern TTRPGs. I understand why they do it: they are some of the most fiddly bits of Dungeons & Dragons to play with... but it is so valuable.
When a player is forced early on to think about light and shadow. When they are forced to choose each piece of gear - and treasure - wisely, and when they are finessed into thinking creatively and making decisions with forethought.
At-will light spells, bags of holding, decanters of endless water, goodberry, etc., don't just remove fiddly gameplay: they change how the players engage with the game.
I have observed that if players get these resource-savers too early, they come to expect solutions to be handed to them. They want the DM to provide for their characters, rather than seeing the game as a series of creative challenges.
This is why light spells were limited and expensive in early editions of D&D, and why spells like teleport only appear at high levels.
Turn 5 & 6: Through The Bone Door
Turn 6: The Ogre
NOTE: Character Death
Character Death shouldn't be the complicated topic people make it into. This is a game about taking dangerous risks for fame, fortune, or the glory of one's gods. Characters die doing that, just as real people do. If there is no threat of injury or death this world you are making can't feel real.
But this is part of the culture of story gaming that bears a lot of consideration.
Turn 7: Flight Across the Ice
NOTE: "Fly, You Fools !"
Running away and fleeing the dungeon just does not occur to a lot of players. And modern games don't enable it very well.
Even the most experienced players sometimes need to be reminded to exercise the better part of valour.
I often rack my brain as to how to encourage it more... and here I fell into the same trap. Doraleous and Mirdon could have backed up and ambushed the ogre with magic in a tight space, getting narrative advantages to make up for the Ogre's sheer nastiness.
This is a problem that needs working on. Maybe finding a way to reward discretion with more than longer-lived characters is in order?
NOTE: Rewarding Player Creativity
If you want an enjoyable game and happy players, reward creativity!
Saying "Yes" all the time is a terrible idea, but saying "Maybe," or "that is so crazy, I want to give it a chance to work" is important.
Whenever possible, I like to reward players describing their actions by letting them avoid rolling. For example, if you tell me how you are using your tools to jam a pressure plate, I will never ask you to roll a disarm traps.
In this case, once I imagined Mirdon skating on slick patches, I decided to let him go without dice rolls to fall.