Monday, August 3, 2015

Red Herrings and Reaction Rolls (Plus Kickstarters)

A couple of brief observations from my last game this past Saturday.

Reaction Rolls: These can be funky things. One NPC gets extreme positive reaction rolls – 11s and 10s – and the other negative ones – 4s and 5s – and you wind up with one accompanying the party and the other getting killed (after using Charm on the hobbit). It's kind of an inspired mechanic.

Red Herrings: I keep placing things in my dungeon that appear promising but are ultimately not useful in terms of finding treasure. In play, this can turn into a massive time sink. Players want the good treasure, so an area that appears like it might have treasure but doesn't can lead to a lot of time spent with no serious experience point gain.

So here are half a dozen ideas to spice them up:

1: Add a timer to the area. Rising water, sinking ceiling, clanking noise getting louder, treasure that only exists during the current planetary alignment, etc. Give the players ample notice and such timers can make their exploration at least much quicker.

2: Red herrings with teeth. This works especially well in D&D if it's a big, slow monster. The danger is that the players might think it has treasure and stand their ground for a fight, but the next group will know better.

3: It's a trap! Exploring too closely leads to various cave-ins, pit traps, arrow traps, explosions and flattenings. Especially good if there is a warning prior to the red herring area. For a fun variant, trap them inside and make escape a challenge.

4: Just wandering by. Increase your wandering monster rate in the red herring area so that it becomes prohibitive. Again, this has the disadvantage that too many player groups will try to fight it out.

5: Tell them it's a red herring. Mark off a torch or a flask of oil, let the players know they found nothing after diligent search, and get on with the game.

6: Fuck it, it's a special. Sure, you had planned on this being a time sink and nothing more, but they've spent long enough on it already. Grab your copy of The Dungeon Alphabet and throw the players a bone (roll 1d8 for type).

So with that said, I want to highlight the Kickstarter campaigns I'm currently backing.

Primeval Thule 5e is, well, a 5e campaign setting. It sold me quickly by listing "Conan and Cthulhu" as its reference points. Howard and Lovecraft are still big reasons why I game, and I think having a 5e book that supports this style will be really useful. I like Sasquatch Studios's material for 5e (Lost Mine of Phandelver, Princes of the Apocalypse), so I'm happy supporting this.

Metamorphosis Alpha: Epsilon City is Jim Ward's big city level for the Starship Warden. Followers of this blog know I'm a fan of MA, and I'm extremely happy to see that Goodman Games is putting out another adventure for the system. There are noises about expanded material and a boxed set, but the Kickstarter isn't exactly rolling along despite a fairly rapid start, so folks should get their pledges in already!

Ernest Gary Gygax Jr.'s Marmoreal Tomb Campaign Starter is a dungeon module by Ernie Gygax and Benoist Poiré. This one is growing quickly, with the Gygax name and some good press driving it. Benoist is a superb mapper whose work can be seen in issue #3 of the AFS zine and issue #3 of Gygax Magazine; he is doing all of the project's maps. Ernie is the son of E. Gary Gygax, and is writing this as a module in the tradition he learned from his father, as well as other luminaries like Rob Kuntz, in Lake Geneva. It's a wonderful project and I felt I simply had to back it.

One final note. I've been quietly using the Arduin Grimoire's critical hit chart without telling my players. It is monstrous, but I understand why people made so many imitations. I doubt whether I'll continue using it, but I always reserve the right to have it in my back pocket.


  1. Personally I like option 5. It keeps the resource management part of the game the same, for them as likes that, without shifting the danger one way or the other (presuming you do the normal encounter rolls for the time spent exploring the area). It does remove some decision points, but it's those decisions (generally just "are you bored yet?") that are slowing the game. The one thing I might add is some specific procedure for doing a less-than-thorough search. Since the players don't know it's a red herring, they might invoke the cursory search of an area that does contain something, and it's probably best if you have a standard way to figure out if that search happens to run across an actual point of interest. Something like if it'll take 6 turns to search and they say they'll only devote 2, then a roll of 1-2 on d6 indicates they actually pass an area of interest and you play that out normally (rolling for secret door detection or traps or what-have-you).

    1. Yeah, making it more procedural / standard would be one approach. The others are just thought processes about interesting design twists.

  2. I play B/X but give xps for traps. I actually give xps for red herrings. They waste spells, waste time, trigger more wandering monster checks, etc. They can prove dangerous when combined with other lethal monsters/traps needing the same resources squandered by the red herring. I have taken a cue from players reactions and converted an intended red herring to something else like 2/3/6 when the mood strikes.


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