D&D: The Tiers of Play for DMs

I made a post about the different tiers of play in Dungeons and Dragons. I mentioned that as the PCs progress in power, so do the monsters.

Today, I want to talk about how the tiers of play affect the Dungeon Master.

Contrary to what some people might think, the DM’s goal is not to kill the PCs.

The goal is to almost kill them.

Remember that scene in the Return of the Jedi where the Death Star is operational, the deflector shield is still up, Han and Leia are captured, and Luke is with the Emperor? The Emperor taunts Luke describing how deeply the Rebels’ plan has failed.

That’s the point the DM wants to get to with their players. Where all seems lost and only a sliver of hope remains. And then the PCs are miraculously delivered from their despair, defeat the villain and save the day.

The perfect encounter in D&D will incapacitate about half the players before the foe is defeated.

Designing challenges at the low and middle tiers is easy enough. A bunch of Orcs, a Troll or an Ogre. There’s plenty of simple bad guys that provide credible threats to the party.

With multiple enemies it’s easy enough to modify an encounter to get just the right challenge. If the PCs are having an easy time of it, reinforcements arrive. If the encounter looks as if it may overwhelm them, perhaps the enemies retreat. After all, the PCs have surely slain a few of their foes and those who remain may not be willing to die for their cause.

At the high tiers, encounters become a little more difficult to design. Most anything in the books can be thrown at the PCS, dragons, devils, giants,you name it. But it’s difficult to gauge exactly how challenging a monster will be.

At any tier it’s okay if an encounter is too easy, but the advantage of high tier play is that it’s okay if an encounter is too hard as well.

The monster kills two of the PCs and they have to retreat? That’s okay, they can just bring the PCs back from the dead, research the monster’s weakness, and return two days later to slay it.

Epic tier challenges have even more problems as the players can often just wish the encounter away. The DM needs to be firm about what can and cannot be wished away to prevent all future challenges from being trivialized.

As powerful as the wish and miracle spells are, they usually won’t entirely invalidate playing D&D beyond 17th level.

The DM’s job is to limit the scope of what the wish and miracle spells can do through careful interpretation. Additionally, the in game mechanics give severe consequences to using the spells. Finally, the players may limit their usage themselves as they don’t want to take the fun and challenge out of the game either.

Regardless, epic level challenges still need to feel different than the previous tiers. I’ve been DMing at the epic tier for awhile and have designed a few encounters that should hopefully prove useful for others in the future.

But I’ve reached the end of this blog post so I’ll talk about the design of those encounters another time!

-GoCorral

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Cimmerian Timeline Part 6

Previous: Cimmerian Timeline Part 5

Continuing to include more events from the Characters of Cimmeria in the timeline. In this post I’ll be adding dates detailing the events in the lives of Delain, Amalgami the Hero, Toffoun, and new events in Cecilia’s life. A few events from previous timeline posts are included here as well to provide context for the new material.

989BCE: Delain was born to a young milk maid. She claimed his father was Ares the Battle Rager.

966BCE: Baelund’s Wolf attacked the outskirts of Phoenix, sending the city into chaos for years.

964BCE: Delain killed Baelund’s Wolf. He was proclaimed King of Phoenix as reward for this deed.

963BCE: King Delain set about fixing the civic problems of Phoenix and reforming the city’s legal code to recognize the power of the guilds. Delain ruled well for many years.

961BCE: King Delain took the Halfling, Stofara, as his mistress.

960BCE: Toffoun was born as the fourth son of the Firebeard family.

933BCE: Zeus mates with and impregnates Brina, a priestess of Hera. The Queen of the Gods curses Brina, stating that she will not give birth on dry land.

932BCE: Brina wanders the land unable to give birth like Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis. She entered labor but could not deliver. Traveling from place to place she collapsed in the Jenarild River. The river’s god allowed her to give birth for the riverbed was not “dry land.” The child was named Amalgami. Jenarild married Brina and raised Amalgami as his adopted son.

930BCE: Toffoun takes his vows as a priest of the Olympic Pantheon, swearing to serve all the gods as a holy man. He left his family to live in a temple with the other priests.

925BCE: Toffoun became enamored with the rites and rituals of Ares. He devoted more and more time to practicing with weapons and armor. He began to challenge every armed visitor to the temple, wishing to practice his skills in duels.

920BCE: Pressure was put upon old King Delain to produce an heir. He married Stasia, the daughter of the Fighter’s Guildmaster. His new wife was ignored as Delain continued to spend most of his time with Stofara.

914BCE: Amalgami turned 18 and left home to travel the world and gain fame as a hero. He went downriver, slaying gnolls and bandits on the way. He stopped in Phoenix, where he fell in love with King Delain’s wife, Queen Stasia. Amalgami and Stasia fell in love and the son of Zeus stayed a long time in the city.

913BCE: Jovy and Cecilia began their voyage on the Mira Miro. They sailed the ship into the Caspian Sea where they slew many sea monsters.
Amalgami impregnated Queen Stasia of Phoenix and fled the city towards the south.

912BCE: Amalgami joined up with Jovy and Cecilia, serving on the Mira Miro and slaying the occasional monster alongside the captain and the first mate.

910BCE: After having his fill of the inner sea, Amalgami left the Mira Miro. He consulted an oracle who told him to climb Doom Peak. He fought and killed a handful of white dragons as he ascended the mountain. At the top he was struck by lightning and blacked out. He awoke with the power to fly and summon lightning.
Delain grew too old and unfit to rule Phoenix. Power transitioned into the hands of the Guildmasters.

909BCE: Amalgami traveled east to visit his family. While stopped at Greshendale, the city was attacked by a modest band of trolls. Amalgami fought them using his electric powers alongside the wizard, Tentineh. The two became friends before Amalgami left town to continue into the east.

908BCE: Jovy and Cecilia removed the greatest threats to sailors on the Caspian. Cecilia retired to her hometown, now named after her.
Greshendale is attacked by trolls. Tentineh summoned the inferno slaad to kill them, but lost control of the demon. Tentineh spent months researching a way to contain the slaad.
Delain died. The parentage of his heir uncertain. The guilds of Phoenix ruled on.

907BCE: Tentineh bound the slaad in a prison. Fearing a similar attack by trolls or some other threat in the future, Tentineh decided to secretly break the dragon’s edict prohibiting humanoid armies. He began teaching the people of Greshendale how to use magic in tactical formations.
Amalgami arrived at the temple where Toffoun served as a priest. The two dueled to a stand-still and Toffoun agreed to adventure with Amalgami. The pair traveled around the Aral Sea, defeating monsters and bandits as they went.

905BCE: Hargath the Orc warlock attacked the town of Cecilia. Cecilia the Salt Champion defended her eponymous birthplace along with her childhood friends. The warlock was defeated, but his sorcerous eye forced Cecilia’s friends to attack her. Left with no choice she slew them. Cecilia fell into a state of severe depression.

903BCE: Rounding the southeastern edge of the Aral Sea, Amalgami and Toffoun saw a massive Goblin army led by a monstrous half-dragon. The army was moving towards the peaceful villages in Zeus’s Canvas. The Lightning Knight and his Dwarf friend led the people of the Canvas to the Dirt Plateau. At this defensive location they defeated the army and slew it’s half-dragon leader. Knowing a counterattack from the dragons was coming, Amalgami left to get help from Tentineh.

901BCE: A horde of giants attacked Greshendale as Amalgami arrived. Left with no other choice, Tentineh revealed his army in open violation of the dragons’ laws. The giants were defeated, but greater dangers would come as a result.

900BCE: Tentineh called the heroes of the land together and the Dragon War began.

-GoCorral

Next: Cimmerian Timeline Part 7

Characters of Cimmeria: Amalgami the Hero

This post needs a little bit of clarification. As much as possible I try to avoid two characters having the same name in my campaign world. It happens often enough in real life and in real history, but it easily confuses people (Just try and explain the Norman Conquest of England to someone). Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid having two people with the same name in this case because one of my players wanted to name their character after an imagined hero of the past. I’m getting around to filling the gaps and now that hero of the past has his own story below. This post details Amalgami the Hero of Old, not Amalgami the Betrayer.

amalgami-the-heroAmalgami the Hero was known as the Lightning Knight. He joined the other heroes of the Dragon War in casting down their draconic oppressors.  He was a son of Zeus and his father gifted him with power over lightning and storms. Amalgami made friendships easily and if it weren’t for him the heroes of the Dragon War may never have worked together to accomplish their great deeds. At the conclusion of the war he slumbered along with the other heroes to return when the world needed him again.

Zeus found himself attracted to Brina, a priestess of his wife, Hera. Zeus will be Zeus, so he had his way with Brina and then left her to the anger of his wife. Infuriated that one of her own clergy would betray her (regardless of Brina’s own wishes in the encounter), Hera decreed a similar punishment that was given to Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis. Brina would never deliver her child on dry land.

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Characters of Cimmeria: Delain

Delain

The Conclave that once ruled mortals lives became unbalanced by the departure of the different races. The Dwarves left the Conclave first due to disagreements between Dwarven and Human leaders about intercity coordination against the Goblin threat. The Elves soon followed suit. As the Humans turned the goal of the Goblin Wars from eradication to enslavement, the Orcs left the Conclave to continue the war’s original purpose. In time the Orcs saw value in preserving the Goblin way of life and in fact protected the Goblins from Human invasion. The Halflings were the last to leave the Conclave after the end of the Goblin Wars. They felt the organization had served it’s purpose and that it was time to start fresh.

The adversarial nature of the Humans that remained within the Conclave incited wars with Continue reading

Characters of Cimmeria: Cecilia

Whew! This one took a lot longer to write than I thought it would. A little late for “D&D Mondays.” I should still be able to keep up with one post a week though.

Cecilia

Cecilia the Salt Champion was the daughter of Zeus and the mortal Hymniara. The founder of the city that now bears her name and liberator of the Caspian, Cecilia slew the great sea beasts that prowled the sea. She accomplished many other great tasks on land as well as befriending the dolphins and the people of the sea. During the Dragon War, Cecilia imprisoned the black dragons. All her tasks were done in the name of her lord-father, Zeus, while wielding a shining sword that he gave to her. The sword was buried with her deep beneath the earth where Cecilia slumbers, awaiting the return of the black dragons.

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Characters of Cimmeria: Danar

My friend, Zigfried, chose a character that already existed in Cimmeria’s history as his PC. I gave him a lot of leeway to design the character how he wanted and Zigfried ended up shaping the history of Cimmeria in a big way through his choices. He wrote the backstory for his character, Danar, which is presented here. I have edited it, but this is primarily Zigfried’s work. As such this post is written in a different style than my own.

Additionally, Danar’s history is still a work in progress. I will return to this to edit existing information and add more events in Danar’s life at a later time.

Danar

The Nameless Childhood

Danar was born into a hatch of six brothers and sisters, himself included. This hatch was the 10th royal-blooded generation spawned from the mating of the bronze dragon, Rilopenarol and his human mate, Izalith. From birth, each child of Rilopenarol’s blood was destined to have a brutal upbringing on account of Sheerzen’s laws of royal succession.

For the 10 generations prior, the throne of Sheerzen had been decided by natural selection: every child with a claim to the throne was made to compete in a fraternal contest of might and deception. Only one child could live to assume the throne of Sheerzen, the rest must die. Traditionally, the royal family’s worth was decided through magical duels to the death. A dangerous future loomed before Danar, as he was considered in court to be the “runt” of the litter in terms of magical aptitude.

Danar’s difficulties in harnessing his magical abilities were further compounded by his compassionate spirit. He could not bear the idea of bringing pain to his brothers and sisters during their sparring sessions. Filled with despair, he went to the grand dragon Rilopenarol, who showed compassion to all of his broodlings, and asked for his wisdom. Rilopenarol heard his pleas and said “Henceforth, you are exiled from the city of Sheerzen. Cast aside your surname and flee now.”

The words were harsh, but the tone and meaning were not. Danar understood what it was that he must do. It was forbidden for any broodling to leave Sheerzen before an heir had been decided, so that night Danar fought through a number of guards as he escaped the city and the contest for the
throne. He fled deep into the wilderness until hunger, exhaustion, and his wounds began to overtake him.

Deep in the marshlands east of Sheerzen, Danar saw the flickering lights of a small village. Danar called out to the villagers as he approached and collapsed as several men ran over to meet the wounded young man.

The Rise of Danar

Danar was nursed back to health by the village that had taken him in, and he soon realized that this humble settlement was plagued by all manner of monstrous beasts. Sympathetic to their plight Danar steeled his will and made a resolution: he would protect these people that had saved him or die trying. He borrowed the largest axe he could find from one of the village’s woodcutters and sat himself in a pose of meditation at the center of the town.

That night a black dire wolf approached. The villagers of the town quickly fled into their homes leaving only Danar outside, waiting in the firelight at the center of town. The wolf lunged at him with intent to kill! Danar dodged and struck it down with a furious and desperate assault from his axe. The villagers emerged from their houses as the wolf howled its death throes. Seeing Danar there, standing over the dead beast, they felt truly safe.

In the years that followed Danar became masterful at slaying dangerous creatures with only an axe and martial prowess. Those that saw him were inspired by his strength and courage and in turn Danar was thankful for the humble people that supported his newfound livelihood. Danar began to teach the other men of the village how to fight and soon enough, he had grown a stable troop of warriors brave and strong enough to easily defend their homes.

Although it was only a small militia, in Danar’s eyes they were greater than any king’s army. He began to lead his men on expeditions to tame the surrounding marshlands and begin more settlements. Danar showed his people what they were capable of by doing it himself first. He never asked a follower to undertake a task that he himself was unwilling to perform. In this way the small village began to thrive and grow.

Invernix Cometh

Stories of Danar the Beastslayer and Hero of Men spread far and wide. His brothers and sisters heard of him in Sheerzen, but cared little. Danar was the runaway that had cast off his responsibility to fight and struggle for the throne. Officially he had been exiled and his existence was no longer of concern of the royal court. But the tales of Danar the Beastslayer and the prosperity of his growing federation of villages reached further to other, more sinister ears.

Invernix, the great red dragon and infernal wyrm, heard of the broodling of Rilopenarol who had arrogantly cast aside his draconic heritage to gallivant with men among the swamps. Enraged by the thought of a mere dragonkin believing himself to be greater than his draconic bloodline, Invernix took wing and flew to Danar’s Marshlands. For weeks Invernix burned out settlement after settlement among the riverlands in order to force Danar into confronting him.

Danar hesitated to confront Invernix directly. Not for fear of his own life, but for fear of what would become of his people should he fail and allow Invernix to destroy him. He spent this time evacuating his people safely and trying to devise some means by which to defeat the great red dragon. His hand was forced, however when a brave young elf approached him with a plan to confront Invernix.

Danar had met the elf named Eathirilu before. Eathirilu was a druid, a priest and defender of the wilds. Eathirilu wished to halt the spread of civilization into the unspoiled marshlands which hmade him an enemy of Danar’s in the past. He had been causing issues with Danar’s settlements by destroying dams and foiling the attempts of hunting parties. Despite this, the intrinsic value of human life still held a place in Eathirilu’s heart. Invernix’s wanton destruction was far worse than the slow encroachment of civilization. Eathirilu sought the only one strong enough to standup to Invernix, his previous enemy Danar.

Danar and Eathirilu battled Invernix for hours, surviving by the skin of their teeth by using the dense cover of the marshlands to their advantage. Invernix rained down hellfire and would dive only to find his prey had eluded him. Each time he became more and more enraged by the insolence of the mortals. Inevitably, the brave duo succumbed to Invernix’s power. The young druid was unconscious and on the edge of death and Danar found himself pinned beneath Invernix’s massive foreclaw. It was then that Danar made a final desperate plea to Invernix. He shouted that he would do anything the dragon wished, but spare the elf and his people. Invernix was pleased.

Invernix made Danar a solitary offer. Return to Sheerzen and take the throne with extreme prejudice. Should Danar fail to become king of Sheerzen, Invernix promised that he would hunt down every construct of man west of Sheerzen and raze them to the ground. At this time, a small group of Danar’s men charged Invernix hoping to free their endangered champion. Invernix quickly smote them to ash and a large swath of greenery with them to punctuate his conditions.

Danar’s heart sunk as he watched the men die. He steeled himself and agreed to the great dragon’s terms. With his pride satisfied, Invernix moved his claw from Danar and departed as swiftly as he had descended on the marshlands. Danar pulled himself up. Seeing the spirits of nature approaching to care for Eathirilu, Danar left the elven druid and trudged his way back to his village to lick his wounds…

Ascent to the Throne

Danar healed quickly and began to make plans for the return to his city of birth. He had always attempted to fight and lead without the use of his magical potential, but still practiced it all these years, combining his magical talents with his martial abilities in secret. Danar instructed his best blacksmiths to forge a new weapon of his design. This axe was not merely a large implement to behead creatures. No, this time he had his men make a truly elegant weapon of masterful design.

Danar told his people that he needed to seek protection for their settlement from the grand city of Sheerzen, and to know that they were always in his heart. And thus, the hero left the people he had saved to confront his past.

There was a great uproar when Danar showed up at the court of Sheerzen. All were outraged at the audacity of returning to claim what he had cast aside, whilst his siblings had been battling their entire lives for the throne. Furthermore, the heir of Sheerzen had all but been decided already. Danar’s eldest brother, Einhart, had proven himself to be the strongest and most gifted and all of their other siblings had undergone voluntary sterilization rather than be executed. Danar challenged Einhart to mortal combat to be held the next day. The court hissed, saying that Danar no longer had the necessary standing, but Einhart ignored them. The heir apparent confidently accepted the duel with the prodigal son, eager for any chance to further prove his right to the throne.

The two brothers fought the next day in the central elevator for all of Sheerzen to see. Einhart was a truly gifted sorcerer, but Danar had spent years facing overwhelming odds and teaching others how to accomplish the same. He would not be defeated. He cleaved his eldest brother in twain, but not before losing his right eye to a bolt of energy. Danar proved himself the true heir of Sheerzen and no other would challenge his claim to the throne after that day…

Danar, King of Dragonkin

Danar’s coronation was a momentous occasion for the city. The nobles hailed him as a prodigy tempered by the wilds, returned to restore order to the city. Danar was disgusted by the insincerity of the court he now presided over; however, he was overjoyed to be welcomed back by his ancestor Rilopenarol, who seemed truly unsurprised by the events as they unfolded.

Days after Danar’s coronation, an elder earth elemental named Rhinston arrived bearing a gift from the king of earth elementals. It was the fossilized gem eye of one of Rilopenarol’s own ancestors. The eye of an ancient dragon in crystal orb form, magically resized with the intention of serving as Danar’s replacement for the grievous injury he had suffered. The orb looked much like a living draconic eye and glowed with a pale green magical aura. Danar accepted the gift and allowed the earth elemental to place it in his gaping socket. All surviving portraits of Danar display him after this day, wearing an eyepatch of royal status over his crystallized draconic eye.

And so Danar was king of Sheerzen, but in his heart he was biding time. His hate for Invernix and the tyranny he had suffered festered, and Danar dreamt of the day that he could truly ensure that his people were safe. He honed his skills as a warrior, and developed his potential for magic much further than any would have thought possible for the “runt” of his hatch. Under Danar’s wise rule, Sheerzen prospered and the king cared greatly for his people regardless of their dogma for draconic superiority.

The people of swamp, however, forsook his name. They believed their savior had abandoned them for the glory of the throne. They no longer saw him as the hero that had led them to survive and later thrive when it seemed impossible. Eventually, without Danar’s immediate protection, the people of the swamp lands drifted away from the Fingers, leaving it the uninhabited waste that it is today.

To be continued with stories about the Dragon War!

-GoCorral

Cimmerian Timeline Part 4

Previous: Cimmerian Timeline Part 3

1070BCE: Human raids into Eastern Cimmeria discovered that the Orcs now staunchly defended the Goblins.

1068BCE: The Conclave declared war against the Orcs and their new Goblin allies. Halfling slingers and Humans riding chariots brought the Conclave victory in set-piece battles. The Conclave sold prisoners of war into slavery, both Goblin and Orc alike.

Hades marched upon Colchis once more. Aeëtes fought the undead off with a combined army of trained soldiers and Goblin slaves used as shock troops.

1065BCE: The Human attacks pushed the Orcs and Goblins further east. Meanwhile, the Goblins integrated into the Orc tribes and switched from their old pantheon to worshiping the Olympians alongside the Orcs.

1050BCE: Time passed and the borders between the Conclave, the Orcs, and the independent Goblins stabilized. One hundred years of war resulted in the defeat of the Goblin gods and their absorption through syncretism into the Hellenic pantheon. The Olympians began to entertain themselves with their new sandbox full of people.

1049BCE: The Olympians longed for the exciting times prior to the Trojan war. What was so great about the Heroic Age? Monsters! The Olympians dredged up all sorts of monsters from Tartarus. Trolls, sea serpents, krakens, giants, chimeras, basilisks, beholders, lycanthropes, dinosaurs, and even dragons! All of these beasts and more were set upon the mortals of Cimmeria.

1047BCE: The new dragons of Cimmeria found the spartoi soldiers that sprouted from their planted teeth severely weakened in form but extremely loyal to the dragons themselves. These new soldiers were dubbed Kobolds.

1046BCE: A red dragon named Kenderax attacked Fangaroot along with thousands of Kobold soldiers. Kenderax incinerated Karnafaust in the initial attack, preventing any organized defense against the draconic invasion. Without leadership the Dwarven citizens fled south.

1045BCE: The new sea monsters in the Caspian all but ended the fishing industry. Certain death awaited any ship that goes more than a few dozen feet from shore.

1044BCE: Orc culture always promoted physical combat as a rite of passage for the young. After the end of the Goblin War young Orcs had started fighting each other to prove their worth. The elders of the tribes saw the self-destructive path this would lead the Orc race down. They directed the violent energy of the Orc youth outwards instead of inwards, specifically towards the Shacklack Desert. Many Orcs traveled into the Shacklack to slay the myriad of monsters there.

-GoCorral

Next: Cimmerian Timeline Part 5