Deadly Dungeons: Scholomance Part 1

World of Warcraft Scholomance Entry Stairway

It may be seen as a black mark in the tabletop gaming community, but I spent several years as an avid World of Warcraft player. For all its flaws, the game is damned good at being what it is. My favorite game activity was Instancing, or dungeon-delving to use the tabletop terminology. My favorite dungeon in the entire game, bar none, is Scholomance (Naxxramas being a close second). Before the numerous nerfs it has gone through over the years, it had everything I love. The grim undead motif, the unique challenges presented by each room, the numerous bosses, involving quest lines, and compelling lore all combined to make Scholo perfect for me. I’ve probably logged more hours inside Scholomance than I have in any other five instances combined.

So much do I love Scholomance, that a couple years back I sketched down the map, wrote up some quick stats for the various monsters and enemies found within its halls, and ran it as a D&D dungeon. The short session was a blast, and ever since then I’ve been determined to put more detail into the dungeon so that it can serve as the centerpiece for a truly challenging adventure. The project is a large one, though, so I’ve broken this post into 3 parts which will be put up over the next few weeks. Part 1, which you’re reading now, will include the maps, and room descriptions. Part 2 will cover monsters, enemies, bosses, and treasure found withing Scholomance. Part 3 will cover role playing details, as well as several of the quests which can be done in Scholomance.

As a disclaimer before I move on to the content of the post, not everything is precisely as it can be found in World of Warcraft. Scholo has changed a lot over the years, and here I’ve combined my favorite elements from all of Scholo’s long history. Additionally, since [Tape of Measuring] never drops for me, some of the rooms may be scaled incorrectly. I’m confident, however, that this does not adversely affect dungeon design whatsoever. Finally, I have not included Caer Darrow island, or the mansion which leads into scholomance. If I do include them, they will likely be altered to fit into my game world, and be found in part 3.

Without further ado:
Scholomance B1-1
Scholomance Map 1

B1-1 A: The descending stairs are made of dark stone, lit only by torchlight. Dusty skulls and rib cages are strewn sparsely on the landing. Rats and other vermin occasionally scuttle in and out of view.

B1-1 B: The stone stairway gives way to a wooden platform edged by deteriorating railings. The room extends ten feet beyond the platform, and the walls are densely packed with burial drawers, many of which appear to have been forced open. Elaborate candelabras, and skull-laden chandeliers light the room, and an iron gate across from the entrance leads into the next. Four armored skeletons guard the way forward.

GM’S Note: If the players look over the edge of the railing, they will be looking into room B2-1 E

B1-1 C: This is a balcony looking over a large room below. (GM’s Note: Room B2-1 A) A stairway on either side of the balcony leads down into the room below.

Scholomance B2-1
Scholomance Map 2

B2-1 A:Five large chandeliers and numerous candles light this massive library. Book shelves of varying sizes are spaced along lower walls, while stone shelves containing mummified remains dominate any wall space too high to be reached. Under the stairs in the south of the room is an alcove with a balcony looking over another room below. (GM’s Note: Room B2-1 E) Necromancers and undead gather around tables, or in the large open space in the center of the room, discussing hells-knows what. A succubus wanders amongst them, as if overseeing their conversations.

B2-1 B: More bookshelves boarder his low-ceilinged room. Six small pits in the stone floor are filled with the remains of numerous dead creatures. Around the pits stand small groups of necromancers–a teacher and one or two students. Two armored skeletons and a drider patrol the room.

B2-1 C: Stairs lead down to a small wooden platform which opens onto a small balcony extending from the cliff face. The balcony overlooks the lake below. A large iron bowl rests on the balcony’s edge, without any obvious purpose.

GM’S Note: Pouring the blood of an innocent into this bowl summons Kirtonos the Herald, a powerful vampire.

B2-1 D: The walls of this massive room are covered in stone shelves, many of which still contain mumified remains. Others have been converted into storage for books, potions, scrolls, or candles. Various bookshelves have also been set up around the room. On the north side of the room, two alcoves end in balconies which look over another room. (GM’s Note: Room B2-1 E) Here, again, groups of young necromancers converse with each other, and with their undead tutors. A skeleton the size of a hill giant patrols this room, along with three skeletons in more ornate armor than those in previous rooms, and a drider.

GM’s Note: The southern door is covered behind a tapestry. When the players walk past it, a number of rats should scamper out from behind the tapestry. Perception DC 15 to notice that the rats seem to come from nowhere.

B2-1 E: This room is a teeming pit of mindless undead. Simple skeletons, zombies, and ghouls jostle each other as they aimlessly wander within the confines of this room. A drider walks amongst them, acting as shepherd to the horde. A heavy portcullis blocks access to a chest in a small alcove on the east side of this room. The door on the east side is thick, and has an ornate lock on it.

GM’s Note: Rattlegore has the key to the heavy door. Lockpicking DC is 35. The portcullis can be raised by finding the secret torch lever in room B3-2. Lifting it is nearly impossible, requiring a strength check of 32.

Scholomance B2-2
Scholomance Map 3

B2-2 F: The floor in this large, open room is uneven, sloping gradually downwards towards the east. Like every room, the floor is covered with dusty bones and broken coffins. Dozens of student necromancers stand or sit around the room, listening to an elaborately robed skeleton give a lecture on the effects of negative energy on dragons. The skeleton stands on a raised platform filled with bookshelves, and tables covered in scrolls and urns. In the shadowy corner of the platform stands an armored zombie wielding a large sword.

B2-2 G: Bubbling cauldrons and tables filled with steaming beakers fill this room. There are fewer students in this alchemical laboratory than there are in other rooms–only three groups, each guided by a professor. Four large glass cylinders filled with green liquid hold the floating bodies of various undead creatures. Tables with straps obviously intended for humanoid creatures are positioned around the room, though none of them are presently occupied. At the far end of the chamber, surrounded by hundreds of candles, a lich in ornate robes paces.

B2-2 H: This room is filled with newly hatched dragons, each fluttering unstably on untested wings. All of the have a pallor which leads you to believe they must be quite ill, but this does not appear to concern the three handlers which patrol the room. Unlike most rooms and corridors within this crypt, no bookshelves line the walls. However, every 5 feet there is a recess in the wall, with a hole dropping into the room below.

Scholomance B3-1 & 2
Scholomance Map 4

B3-1: Heaping piles of bones fill this dirt-floored room. Most of the piles are situated under the holes to the room above. In the center of the room is the largest pile, reaching almost to the ceiling. Bone constructs with crude blades instead of forearms mill about the room. Atop the central bone heap stands the largest of the constructs, twice the size of the others, mindlessly overseeing the wanderings of his subjects.

B3-2: This room is devoted to shelves for the dead. There are even three rows of open shelves which separate the room into four “aisles.” Unintelligent zombies and skeletons wander between these aisles in groups. A small alcove on the far side of the room is filled with hundreds of candles. Within, a single spectral woman in noblewoman’s robes reads from a book.

GM’s Note: One of the torches in this room, near the alcove, is a lever. Characters with 5 ranks in Knowledge(Architecture) are entitled to a Perception check DC: 20 to notice that the sconce for the torch seems to hang oddly on the wall. Pulling it opens the portcullis in room B2-1 E. If a character reads the book which the spectral woman is reading, they will find plans for a bag of devouring.

Scholomance B3-3 & B4-1
Scholomance Map 5

B3-3 A: You emerge onto a walkway surrounding the edge of a two-level room. Like many rooms before it, the walls are covered with open shelves displaying mummified remains, while the walls below the walkway are covered in burial drawers. Six rooms can be accessed from this one, with each doorway marked by a raised portcullis.

B3-3 B: The entrance of this room is 10ft above the rest of it. Twin sets of stairs allow access to the pit below. Dozens of zombies fumble and bump into one another there. At the far end of the room, standing stock still in a small nook, is one zombie which seems somewhat amused by the poor motor skills of his brethren.

B3-3 C: The entrance of this room is 10ft above the rest of it. Twin sets of stairs allow access to the pit below. Bloody meat hooks hang from the ceiling, and stone tables covered in rotting carcases give off a horrible stench. Half a dozen ghouls pace across the blood stained floor. Across the room, with his back to the entrance, stands a man garbed in scarlet skillfully hacking a corpse to pieces with his meat cleaver.

B3-3 D:The entrance of this room is 10ft above the rest of it. Twin sets of stairs allow access to the pit below. Eerie purple flames in braziers around the room cast unsettling shadows. Three groups of necromatic pupils are gathered here, guided in their studies by a strikingly beautiful elven woman.

B4-1 A: (See description for B3-3 A)

B4-1 B: Stairs at the entrance of this room descend into water which is about a foot deep. Several sarcophagi rise above the water, and four skeletons wielding staffs and wearing robes pace amongst them. Across from the entrance, another set of stairs rises into a small alcove, where a spectral woman stands, as though waiting.

B4-1 C: A large sarcophagus dominates this room, flanked by two armored skeletons. On either side of the sarcophagus are stairs which lead down into water which is about a foot deep. Numerous smaller sarcophagi rise above the water here. Amongst them stands a man with pale skin and sunken eyes wearing full plate armor, and wielding a massive sword which glows blue. He is flanked by two armored skeletons.

B4-1 D: Five sinister looking skeletons, each with bones of an unusual hue, paces about this room. Behind them stands a hunched corpse golem, with skin as pale as snow, and powerful arms hanging at its sides like battering rams. Three 10x10ft sections of this room are lower than the rest of it, and covered under about a foot of water. A handful of Sarcophagi dot these low areas.

And there are the maps & room descriptions for Scholomance. I’ll be working on parts II and III, and you can expect to see them in the coming weeks. If my spelling or grammar errors are particularly egregious today, I apologize. Preparing this post has been more draining than I might have expected.

Alternative Fantasy Race Relations

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Players Handbook Races WomenIn 1948 America was at the pinnacle of its prosperity. It was nation of wealth and status in the world community. Russia was the United States’ great rival, an opposing superpower which seemed to us completely indomitable. The nation of Japan had lost a bitter war with us only a few years prior, and most Americans still held tight to their anger towards the Japanese people for the atrocities of that war. While China was a backwards, technologically inept nation of farmers, who were strong allies of the United States during World War II.

That was 63 years ago. Today, in 2011, the world looks a much different place. Russia’s economic collapse and subsequent failure to recover has knocked it off the radar of most American citizens. Japan, once the bitter rival of the U.S., is now one of its closest allies. China–no longer a close friend of the U.S.–has risen to become one of the most economically and technologically successful nations in the world. And America, while still wealthy and powerful, has been steadily on the decline in the decades since that pinnacle of prosperity mentioned above. It would seem that the old adage rings true: things change.

So why in nine hells do fantasy races always hold the same position, and have the same relationship, in every single universe?

This has bothered me for a long time. Dwarves always hate elves just a little bit, and elves always reciprocate. This hatred is never enough to put them at each others throats, though, and it pretty much peaks at rude comments. Orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, and generally anything which has a skin color no real-life human can have, are always evil monsters. It generally seems that these creatures are granted intelligence by game designers for the sole purpose of making them more challenging foes. Halflings and Gnomes are probably the most diverse, but as a rule neither race is anything but amicable. There’s never a city with sings which read “you must be this tall to enter.”

And humans. Humans are the worst offenders of all. Nearly without exception, humans are “more diverse than other races.” They are almost always a young race, with lifespans equivalent to modern real-life humans. Most settings take special note of how prolific humans are, and that despite their youth compared to other species, their diversity has allowed them to flourish and become nearly omnipresent compared to the other species.

I understand why things are done this way. A dwarf isn’t a dwarf if he doesn’t like hammers, beards, and ale. If somebody made all the dwarves in their world sober, clean shaven accountants, that would be a crime on par with that of the Twilight books. It also helps for players to enter a game already knowing who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are. Since they’re supposed to be characters in this world, they should know those things. And if the player already knows what their character should know, it helps speed things along. Besides, things can become difficult if two player races are so opposed to one another that they would refuse to work together.

And in all fairness, it has become somewhat popular for these concepts to be toyed with in recent years. Orcs, in particular, now seem to appear as a goodly race more often than they appear as a monster. But that having been said, there’s a certain appeal to a gritty and unpleasant setting where people don’t get along very well. I enjoy mixing the traditional concepts up, and letting my players run wild in a world more unusual than a typical fantasy setting.

Below is some information on a number of fantasy races. This information is for use in a future campaign world of mine which I may or may not ever finish. Any race which isn’t mentioned is one I haven’t figured out what to do with yet.


Average Lifespan: 45 years

The great human empires have come and gone in the roughly ten thousand years since the race was born. All that remains of them are ruined castles scattered across the land. What humans remain are a lost race. They have fallen so far from the heights of their glory that few humans even know their peoples had any glory to begin with. The few stories which still speak of their ancient empires are fractured and mythological in nature.

Now, most humans live in small tribal villages, or in roaming bands of nomadic barbarians. Humans will occasionally settle in the ruins of some crumbling castle, never realizing their ancestors built it. As a species, they are of little importance. Most human tribes are too concerned with finding food or waging territorial wars with other humans to become involved in more lofty pursuits.

The one thing which sets humans apart is that nearly all of them are born with the innate talent for sorcery. Though not all choose to pursue this path, fully half of humans do. And even those who do not are normally able to cast one or two simple spells.

Somewhat ironically, it is this sorcery which caused the downfall of humanity in the first place. Some four hundred years past, when human power was at its height, and human wars raged across the land, an evil king hatched a plan to put an end to his rivals. Using a ritual of unspeakable evil, this king slaughtered half of his subjects, granting the rest of his people sorcerer abilities, with the unintended side effect of reducing their intelligence.

The evil king’s genocidal rampage was successful none the less. But within a generation, the reduced intelligence of humanity had caused his government to collapse. For several generations, humans became progressively stupider, and more bestial. Since then, however, the race has recuperated somewhat. Humans are still one of the less intelligent races, but they are intellectually capable for the most part.

Babyls are an offshoot of humanity which did not cease their generational decline. Babyls appear to be human, but their intelligence has reduced them to animals without the ability to understand language. Some elven societies keep Babyls as pets.


Average Lifespan: 2,000 years.

Dwarves are an extremely prolific race, living not only in mountains, but also in underground complexes beneath plains, and even some forests. As a people, they are wary of magic, but technologically advanced, having developed both gunpowder and steam propulsion. While most dwarves still prefer a heavy axe or hammer in combat, rifles are common as a first-strike weapon. And many dwarven communities are now linked together by an advanced network of underground trains.

Socially, Dwarves are strictly hierarchical. Children obey their parents, wives obey their husbands, men obey the clan elders, and clan elders obey the king, and even kings obey The Emperor. Despite the many lands which dwarves inhabit, spread across many continents, there is only one single dwarven nation. Each dwarf is part of the regimented machine of dwarven society, and proud to play whatever role they play.

Dwarves also have a long standing and bitter blood feud with elves. The two races are constantly at war with one another. While land is often lost or gained, neither side has yet emerged as dominant in hundreds of millennia of conflict. Dwarves have access to much greater levels of organization and support, whilst elven magical abilities mean every elven life is normally paid for with dozens of dwarven lives.


Average Lifespan: 10,000 years.

Elves are numerous. Not quite as prolific as dwarves, but nearly so. They make their homes primarily in woodland areas, but sometimes construct their cities on plains, in swamps, or anywhere else, so long as it isn’t a mountain. Elves are too individualistic for centralized governments. Each elven city is a state unto itself. The laws and customs vary from city-state to city-state, sometimes wildly. Almost universally, though, these city states are governed by a mageocracy.

The elven predilection for magic permeates their entire society. Nearly without exception, every elf is a wizard. Some of these wizards govern, others are architects or military tacticians, but each is, above all, a wizard. The rare elf who is not a wizard will, at best, be treated as little better than a slave. At worst he or she could be cast out into a world which can be harsh towards the haughty and unpleasant elven race. These cast outs normally try to make their lives within orc society, but a few attempt to integrate with humans.


Average Lifespan: 50 years

Halflings are a slave race. They have no real culture or identity left to them save that of countless generations of servitude. Halfling slaves are what make elven society work, with each elf owning perhaps 2 or 3 halflings. Orcs keep halflings as slaves as well, though not in such great numbers. There is likely to be one halfling slave for every ten orcs in a community. The orcs consider them very useful for sea travel, since halflings don’t take up much room, or eat many rations.


Average Lifespan: 80 years

If you need to travel on water, talk to an orc. This coast-dwelling species is master of the open sea. On a whole, they’ve managed to remain neutral in the conflicts between other races. Some individual orcish towns have thrown in their lot with either elves or dwarves simply as a matter of necessity.

Colorful Characters 4: Baron Ika of the Treebreaker Tribe

Gobling Dark Forest Baron Ika of the Treebreaker TribeIka of the Treebreaker tribe was born twenty six years ago. Like all goblin children, Ika was raised in an environment where her ability to bite and claw the other children was the only thing which ensured her next meal. Early childhood served to hone a goblin’s devious instincts, and had the added benefit of making Ika tough-as-nails. By the time she was a year old, she already had a reputation among the other children for being absolutely fearless.

When Ika was four, she and some other children were hunting snails in a small copse of trees not far from the village. Quickly bored by their task, the other children decided to test Ika’s fearlessness. They set fire to a bush, and told Ika that if she ran, she was a coward. They then scuttled off to wait just outside the treeline, and come up with jeers and taunts to throw at Ika when she eventually came out.

The fire spread from tree to tree, and the goblin children continued to wait. The fire eventually drew other goblins as well, and the children told them about Ika’s test. Not being a particularly nurturing race, most of the adults started trying to come up with jeers of their own. But Ika never emerged. As the fire smoldered, the goblins returned to their village, believing the young fool to have died.

Ika had, in fact, remained in the flaming death trap much longer than she should have been able to survive. But, as the fire became omnipresent around her, Ika’s need for self preservation overrode her need to prove she was tougher than any of the other goblin. Badly burned, and coughing violently from smoke inhalation, she stumbled out of the cluster of trees on the opposite side from the one the other goblins were waiting at. And it was there that the hunting party of Baron Greegorg found her.

Greegorg of Stok was a human lord who could best be described as arrogant, amoral, and cheap. So when he found a coughing young goblin child separated from the rest of her tribe, he saw it as a golden opportunity to improve his small castle’s plumbing. So Ika, biting and scratching the whole time, was thrown in chains and taken to Castle Stok where she was forced to clean the stables, chamberpots, and even the dreaded brown chute, for six years. In that time she had ample opportunity to observe the baron, and the goings on of human lords.

In the seventh year of Ika’s slavery, a human she had not seen before approached her while she was dumping shit from her small cart just outside the castle walls. He asked her if she would like to be free, which she said she would. He then asked her if she was willing to kill, and she answered that she was eager to. The man went on to explain that he was an assassin, and that he had been hired by a rival to kill baron Greegorg. But the deed had to be done that very night, and he had no means of entering the castle.

Ika smiled a devilish smile, and told the assassin about the brown chute. A long shaft, angled at 45 degrees, which ended five feet off the ground on the castle wall, and began in the Baron’s own bedchamber. An easy entrance for an assassin with the fortitude to brave the slime and the stench. The man grimaced and told her he would come for her if he was successful. Seven hours later, the assassin returned, smelling horribly, and freed her.

Able to determine her own destiny for the first time in over half her lifetime, Ika didn’t quite know what to do or where to go. The assassin, whose name she learned was Blavid, offered to allow her to travel with him. And so, for some years, Ika aided him in his work as he traveled about the kingdom. She was not quite as subtle or skilled as the assassin, but her strength in combat proved to be a significant asset to the human.

During the fifth year of her travels with Blavid, he and Ika were helping a merchant dispose of some competition when she recognized the village they were in. It was one which her clan had raided shortly before she had been enslaved. After the mark had been slain, Ika bid farewell to Blavid so she could return to goblin kind. He, having grown fond of the little green woman, told her to look him up if she ever needed anyone killed.

It took nearly a fortnight of traveling and searching, but Ika found the village she had been taken from as a gobling. Reintegrating with her tribe was not easy, though. Her fellow Treebreakers were suspicious of her. So many goblin children die as a matter of course that few even remembered her. Those who did remember her story were unsure if the goblin standing before them was indeed Ika of the Treebreaker, or just a tribeless goblin looking to infiltrate their village.

Shunned by her people, Ika determined to prove herself the only way a goblin can: through violence. She recalled a tale from her childhood of a blade of legendary strength, used by Treebreaker chieftains in generations past. According to the tale, it rested in a dangerous crypt deep in the forest of Umulgar which bordered the Treebreaker village.

Ika offered a gold to one of the village elders to tell her where the crypt could be found. With that information in hand, she set off to find the sword. She braved the many wolves and the giant spiders of the forest to reach the entrance to the crypt. Within she faced further danger from deadly traps, and undead goblins. Through all these, Ika survived. And when she pulled the sword called Gorgok’s Tongue from the pedestal on which it rested, she felt its power sear her skin and rattle her bones. When she returned to the surface, she found that she was a changed goblin. Her contact with the sword had awakened a latent sorcererous power within her.

Armed with her newfound talent and her mighty blade, Ika returned to the Treebreaker village. She arrived just in time for a post-raid feast. The goblins were dancing and eating and drinking; all of which Ika interrupted by cutting off the chief’s head. And, as the head rolled across the ground with half a chicken head still hanging from its jaws, Ika shouted, “Ika is leader now! Ika is baron of Treabreakers!”

The tribe did not attempt to block her ascent, and have prospered in the many years which she has led them.


Baron Ika is more worldly than most goblins, and has a great deal more pride. Her self-bestowed title of Baron is a good indication of how she sees herself, and how she thinks others should see her. She is a goblin to be feared, and she knows it.


Baron Ika always tries to cast Mage Armor on herself before combat, raising her AC to 24 for an hour. If she’s unable to do so before combat, she will use her first action during combat to do so.

Ika keeps her spells in reserve, and attempts to attack the weakest character whenever possible. Her preference is to quickly kill this character, then use her sword’s ability to raise them as a skeleton to assist her. If she is accompanied by other goblins, which she most often should be, she directs them to attack more powerful party members to keep them distracted.

If Ika is reduced below 75% health, she will begin to cast Magic Missile when it is convenient. She will use one of her potions at 50% health, but save the rest in case she needs to flee. If reduced below 25% health, she will use a withdraw action to attempt to escape and hide from her attackers. If they are too persistent in attempting to find her, she will prepare an ambush.

Thoughts On Use

Baron Ika works well as a boss in a first or second level adventure. If you were so inclined, however, she could be the sidekick or lieutenant of a boss in a level 3-5 adventure.

Baron Ika of the Treebreaker Tribe (CR 3)

XP: 800
Female Goblin 3 (Fighter 2/Sorcerer 1)
NE Small humanoid
Init +7; Senses Perception +1, Darkvision 60ft


AC 20, Flat Footed 16, Touch 15 [10 + Armor(4) + Dex (3) + Amulet(1) + Size(1) + Dodge(1)]
hp 29 (2d10 + 1d6 + 6)
Fort +5 Ref +3 Will + 1 (+1 vs. fear)


Speed 30ft
Melee Gorgok’s Tongue + 7 (1d10 + 5/19-20 x2)
Ranged Dagger + 5 (1d3/x2)
Sorcerer Spells (CL 1st; Concentration +3 (+7 when casting defensively); Spell Failure 20%)
1st (4/day)–Mage Armor, Magic Missile (two missiles)
0 (at will)– Bleed, Mage Hand, Message, Detect Magic
Bloodline Elemental (Fire)
Bloodline Powers
Elemental Ray (5/day)–Ranged touch attack, 30ft, 1d6 fire damage.


Str 15 (+2) Dex 17 (+3) Con 15 (+2) Int 12 (+1) Wis 9 (-1) Cha 14 (+2)
Base Atk +2; CMB +3; CMD 16
Feats Improved Initiative, Dodge, Weapon Focus (Greatsword), Combat Casting
Skills Intimidate(+7), Perception (+1), Ride (+10), Spellcraft(+5), Stealth (+9), Survival (+4)
Languages Goblin, Common
Gear Gorgok’s Tongue, Chain Shirt, Amulet of Natural Armor +1, 10 daggers, 3 potions of cure light wounds, 12 gold pieces.

Weapon: Gorgok’s Tongue

Aura Faint Necromancy[Evil]; CL 4th
The hilt of this goblin-sized greatsword is engraved to look like a goblin’s head, with the ears forming the cross guard, and the hair wrapped around the grip. The goblin’s mouth is open, and the waving blade extends from it like a tongue. This is a +2 Greatsword. Once per day, a creature killed by Gorgok’s Tongue will rise as a skeleton under the wielder’s command as the Animate Deadspell.

It is very unusual for a blade of this quality to bear the markings of goblinkind. And, in fact, it was not crafted by goblins. A century ago, an evil halfling wizard conquered several tribes of goblins and forced them to raid nearby towns. He had this blade crafted as a gift for his most effective goblin chief, Gorgok of the Treebreaker tribe.

Magic Items: By Deed or by Craft

Beautifully Glowing Magical Blue SwordOne of the great legacies of Dungeons and Dragons, a legacy continued by Pathfinder, is the strong presence of magical items. Ever since Gygax and Arneson first published their “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns,” magical swords, helms, rings, and so on have been a staple of treasure hordes around gaming tables everywhere. These wondrous treasures have served not only as motivation for players to delve ever deeper into the dungeon, but have played a role as an essential part of character progression and enhancement. This has remained true even as games moved beyond the tabletop. Modern games, such as World of Warcraft, can often be simplified as a quest to get magic items, so you can engage in more difficult challenges, which result in better magic items.

In Pathfinder, most of the magical items available can be gathered in one of three ways. The most traditional way of acquiring such treasures is to find them; whether it’s at the bottom of a dragon’s horde, or resting on a pedestal in the tower of an evil lich. A character might also earn magic items, either by gold, or by deed. Finally, with the right skills, a character can simply make the item they desire. Pathfinder (and D&D 3.5 before it) provides detailed information on creating magic items, including the cost of raw materials, and the amount of time the work will require. All a character needs are a few prerequisites: ranks in a crafting skill, a few feats, maybe a spellcasting class, and they’re good to go.

Some magic items which can never be crafted, regardless of skill. These exceedingly rare items are known as artifacts. The most common artifacts have perhaps a couple dozen iterations in existence. Most are even more rare than that, and many are one-of-a-kind. The exact reason why an artifact can’t be replicated varies from item to item. Some are simply of mysterious origins, such as the Deck of Many Things. Others might be ancestral treasure, created in time immemorial, such as the Axe of Dwarvish Lords.

World of Warcraft TCG Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the WindseekerMy favorite type, though, are the artifacts which are created by intersecting with greatness. Good examples of this tend to come from D&D, since Pathfinder’s mythology is not yet well established. Take the hand and eye of Vecna, for instance. If a player were to cut the hand and eye from just any lich, and attempt to replace his or her own hand and eye with the lich’s, it wouldn’t work. Like as not, the character’s shortsighted plan would leave him or her short handed. Alternatively, attempting the same thing using The Hand, and The Eye will work, and it will grant the character fantastic abilities to boot. These artifacts gained their power because they were once part of Vecna. Other items which gained their power through association with greatness are The Mace of Cuthbert, The Sword of Kas, and the Wand of Orcus.

I find these items so much more engaging than other magic items, or even other artifacts, because of the inclusion of a history. When my fighter hefts the Sword of Kas, she knows the blade was forged for one of the most evil swordsman in history. She knows the blood of countless innocents have run over the handle she now grips. That knowledge transforms the blade from a hunk of metal and a bonus to my attack roll, into something which my character cares about. That kind of interest in the game world is something which game masters should strive to instill in their players.

That excessive buildup brings me to the main point of this post:

What if all magic items were created by deed, rather than craft?

I’ve been toying with this idea for a couple months now, and I think it has potential. Such a dramatic shift in gameplay mechanics is perhaps best suited to an entirely new system. But I’m a Pathfinder GM, so I’ll present it as a house rule (probably a campaign-specific one) for that game.

Link draws The Master Sword from The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time Official ArtworkThe immediate problem with this idea is one of supply and demand. Pathfinder is designed with magic items in mind, and a character without them is going to have a much more difficult time dealing with encounters of his or her level. That isn’t to say that it’s impossible, many people enjoy low-magic games where magical treasures are much more rare than they are in standard play. But even in standard play, a high level character is lucky to have even one artifact. Clearly, that gap needs to be bridged for the idea to be viable.

The obvious response is to simply lower the threshold of awesomeness required to transform a normal item into a magical item. I think it was probably clear from the start that we’d need to do this, but there’s a danger in going too far. If we try to use this new method of magic item creation to simply supplant the current system without any additional changes, then killing five people will need to be enough to create a +1 bonus. That completely defeats the purpose of the new method, since the backstory for 90% of items will simply be “used by a nameless soldier for the three weeks he survived such-and-so war.”

The best solution to the supply and demand problem is to meet in the middle. Any game using this method needs to be a low-magic game, where players can’t expect to be able to find an upgrade in every dungeon they delve into. The threshold of awesomeness required to create a magic item will also need to be lowered drastically. Low enough so that magic items will be accessible starting as early as level 1 or 2, but high enough that the story behind the creation of the items will still be of interest to the player. I’ve given some possible examples below.

One other problem with this system is any kind of run-of-the-mill magic items which give simple bonuses. Items such as +1 daggers or +2 armor inherently lack flavor. In certain rare circumstances they may be appropriate (I detail a +1 bow below), but as a rule, magical equipment created through association with greatness should reflect the nature of that greatness more specifically than a flat numeric boost can.


Boarslayer’s Blade: This blade grants a +2 bonus to attack and damage rolls when wielded against creatures of the Animal type. It was created by legendary human ranger Hassif Annandar when he was only 12 years old, and protected an injured playmate by slaying the boar which had attacked them.

Bow of Winning Accuracy: This is a +1 shortbow. It was created by a mysterious stranger who appeared at an elven archery tournament held annually in Mahgtinton Wood. The stranger won the competition easily, astounding the crowd by striking her own arrows in twain eight times on a target twice the normal distance from the shooting line. The stranger disappeared before she could be congratulated, but she left her bow behind. Legend says that the stranger was none other than the fiendish bandit of Mahgtinton Wood: Shora The Fox.

The Immovable Rod (as Immovable Rod, found on page 484 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook.) This unusual magic device was created when the kingdom of Queen Darsus was beset by demons. The queen led her servants and children into her bedchambers, and barred the door with this rod. For three days she single-handedly held the door closed using only her strength, and what leverage she gained from the bar.

The Devilsblood Blade This is a Flaming Burst Battleaxe. It was created during the battle of Obrent’Kel, when an army of dwarves fought off an invading force of hill giants. The giants had hated the dwarves for years, and made a pact with devils to finally wipe out the clan. During the battle, a lowly Axe Hand named Torel Anvilchest (who would later become a general in the clan’s leadership) faced down and slew a horned devil after being separated from his unit.

Ring of Invisibility (as the item of the same name on page 481 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook) When master assassin Arcturus Iammad accepted a contract from the price of Galnar to slay his father, the king, Arcturus didn’t know what he was in for. After sneaking into the massive Castle Galnar, it took the assassin no less than a month to finally finish what he thought would be only a night’s work. The labyrinth of secret passages, illusions, and magic portals within the structure were enough to nearly drive him mad. But not once was he seen, and once he found the king, he finished the job he had been given.

The Problem with Feats

The Problem with Feats...FEETSIn both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, feats are special abilities which are gained once every few levels. They are roughly equivalent to a minor class ability. And, in fact, several feats are simply repackaged class features. The idea behind the system is a good one for a game which favors in-depth character building. While a character’s class controls their general progression, and the selections they make for their skills determines their effectiveness with mundane tasks; feats offer characters the opportunity to excel at something special.

Based on the title of this post, however, I’m sure my readers know there’s a ‘but’ coming. So lets get it over with: BUT, individual feats often suffer from poorly considered design. By which I don’t mean that there is poor balance between feats (though there really really is, it’s just not my point.) The problem is that some feats allow characters to perform tasks which they should be able to perform whether or not they have a feat.

The damage this causes may not be readily apparent, but it weakens the very foundation of the entire game. Anytime something which should be available to all players becomes a feat, it arbitrarily steals that ability from everyone who doesn’t take the feat. Such arbitrary theft of possibilities dulls the most potent edge tabletop role playing has over video games: a limitless amount of options.

I first noticed this problem years ago, when I was rolling a character who would go on to be named Zalekios Gromar. Among the many horrifying things I wanted this dark and evil character to be, was a self-mutilator. And, as it so happened, I knew that a feat existed in the Book of Vile Darkness called Willing Deformity. It was accompanied by a whole host of deformity feats which could be selected after you had Willing Deformity as a prerequisite.

I spent some time weighing whether or not the feat (which didn’t have a mechanical effect I was interested in) was worth it, or whether I should just give up on being a self mutilating character. It took some time before I realized that there was no reason a feat should determine whether or not I could take a knife and cut on my face. The act requires no great skill, it is not a feat by any stretch of the definition. Why should the game disallow me from mutilating myself simply because I don’t want to waste a feat on doing so?

I started noticing the same issue elsewhere after that. Feats which shouldn’t be feats, but should instead be handled on a case by case basis by the GM. Fortunately for me, Zalekios’ GM not only allowed him to mutilate himself, but gave him a mechanical benefit for it in the form of a +2 to intimidate, -2 to diplomacy. That was a pretty clear cut situation, though, and other players might not have such understanding GMs. One might point out that the Book of Vile Darkness is a D&D 3.0 book, but even the Pathfinder update did not fully address this issue. To illustrate that fact, I’ve included several samples of gameplay below. Each demonstrates a player doing something which would not require any special ability on the part of the character, and the GM granting them a benefit for that. Each of these will also represent a feat from either the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, or the Advanced Players Guide.

Player: “This giant slug monster can’t dodge for anything. My fighter is just going to swing at it wildly and as hard as he can, rather than attempting his usual finesse.”
GM: “Very well! Your fighter will take a -1 penalty on attack rolls for as long as he attacks this way, but will gain a +1 to damage on any successful hits.
Feat: Power Attack

GM: You’ve saved the Orc’s life from certain death at the hands of the grotesque mistress of webs. He falls to his knees and thanks you for helping him. He offers you anything you desire as a reward.
Player: “My cleric speaks Orcish. I would like to ask that the orc reward me by aiding me in my adventures henceforth. In exchange, I promise he will always be granted the fullest benefit of my healing ability.
GM: Make a diplomacy check.
*clatter clatter*
Player: “A twenty seven!”
GM: “The orc agrees to follow you henceforth, so long as you always treat him with the same kindness which you have shown today.”
Feat: Leadership

Player: “Since I use a rapier, which doesn’t really lend itself well to strong-armed attacks, I’d like to focus my weapon fighting style on quickness and style, rather than brawn.”
GM: “Sure, just add your Dexterity to your attack rolls rather than your Strength.”
Feat: Weapon Finesse

Player: “Geeze, there’s a lot of guys here. Um…hey! I’ve been using a Halberd for a long time now, and even have some feats to improve my ability with it. Do you think I could do a bunch of fancy moves with it to try and scare some of them?”
GM: “Make an intimidate check.”
*clatter clatter*
Player: “A 17.”
GM: “You’ve successfully intimidated those who can see your display. They seem demoralized.”
Feat: Dazzling Display

Player: “Since the humans in this city are xenophobes, my halfling rogue would like to disguise himself as a human child.
GM: “Alright, you can have a +2 circumstance bonus on that disguise since you picked one which isn’t far off from your current appearance.
Feat: Childlike

Player: I’d like to attempt to protect the wizard from the goblin’s arrows while he casts. The last thing we need right now is this spell getting interrupted!
GM: Sure thing. You’ve got a small wooden shield, so I’ll give him a +5 bonus on concentration checks while you protect him.
Feat: Shielded Caster (Teamwork Feat)

I could go on, but I think the above examples sufficiently illustrate the point. The players and GMs above were doing things right. The player was coming up with responses to situations, and the GM was altering the mechanics of those situations based on the efficacy of the player’s responses. There’s no reason any of those actions, or many others within the Pathfinder game, need to be feats. And yet they are.

Before you go thinking feats are all bad, though, I didn’t just pull these off the top of my head. I had to sit down with the books and carefully consider which feats made sense and which did not. The fact of the matter is that most feats do work. Feats such as Two Weapon Fighting allow players to handle a difficult task more easily, but it does not prevent them from attempting to fight with two weapons unless they take the feat. Skill Focus allows players to become unusually skilled at a group of mundane tasks such as diplomacy or wilderness survival. These types of feats improve characters which take them, but do not imply a restriction upon characters which do not.

The fact that most feats are good does not excuse those which are bad, though. As gamers, we have to point out failures such as this. Role Playing games are essentially nothing more than rules and imagination, so the rules must be well crafted. If a rule can’t be well crafted, then it should be left to the players and the GMs to work out for themselves.

My GMing Methodology for The Ascendant Crusade

The Hand and Eye of Vecna, Holy SymbolMe: “The mass of shambling undead have been largely dispersed, and the townspeople have taken refuge in the buildings which Morrie didn’t set on fire.”
Morrie: “I said I was sorry!”
Me: Jashel has managed to fell the strange creature which appeared to lead the attacking force.
Jashel: “I loot the body.”
Me: Aside from the greatsword which it used to attack you, there’s nothing here but bones, meat, and a white tabard depicting two hands holding an eye between them. Jashel, do you have the Knowledge(Religion) skill?”
Me: “Then roll a wisdom check, please.”
*A twenty sided die clatters across the table*
Jashel: With my wisdom modifier, that’s 12.
Me: “That’s enough for Jashel to recognize this symbol as similar to one which you’ve encountered in the past. The Cult of Vecna uses the same hand-and-eye motif. However, they only use one hand while this uses two. You also notice that one of the hands is distinctly smaller than the other.”
Morrie: “…fuck.”

The skills which a game master must cultivate are many. At the table they must be quick improvisors, skillful arbitrators, cunning liars, and more descriptive than an erotic novelist; among other things. But it is when a GM is away from the table that they must become the architects of whatever fiendish danger their players will soon face.

There are countless approaches to constructing a game session. I would guess that there are at least as many as there are Game Masters, and probably more. I’ve never met a GM who didn’t have his own thoughts about how things should be done, and I’ve rarely met a GM who used the same methodology every time. The task requires an ambitious and creative individual. Most just aren’t interested in doing things any way but their own. Nor should they be.

One of the two major campaigns I’m running at present is titled The Ascendant Crusade. Not everybody titles their games, but I do just so I can label my binders with something. The Ascendant Crusade has been running since about 2009. It started as an online game played with members of my World of Warcraft Guild. After a hiatus lasting through 2010, half the players didn’t want to return to the game, and the other half lived near enough for us to start playing around a table.

There are a number of different facets to the way I approach The Ascendant Crusade, so I’ll begin with the one which has the most affect on session-to-session design: the big bad evil guy, or BBEG for short. I won’t say too much about the specifics of my BBEG, because my players read this blog, and as of now he’s still an unknown player. And I use the word “player” very deliberately.

From the very first session, I had a plan for what I wanted the players to come up against in the final encounter of the game. However, as all good game masters know, guiding your players towards a specific end point is one of the cardinal sins of running a game. So I didn’t treat the endpoint as my goal. But, rather, I made it the BBEG’s goal. Ever since the first session, I’ve treated the BBEG as though he were a hidden player. He succeeds and fails in the background of the game, and I make sure that his plots never exceed his current resources.

Even in that very first game, back in 2009, my players lives began intersecting with his plans in ways which I did not foresee. Largely because my players forced me to continue the game for four hours after I ran out of planned material, and I had to quickly improvise something interesting for them to stumble into. Let that be a lesson for anyone who thinks improvisation skills are overrated. The group continued to encounter his plots as they traveled through the world, but thankfully never uncovered the grand scheme which wove everything together.

Which isn’t to say they never had a chance. I’ve left dozens of clues and dropped several large hints over the years. Sometimes I thought I was being so transparent and obvious that they would surely find my BBEG out, but he always remained safely outside of their awareness. Once, the PCs even encountered the BBEG in the middle of something extremely incriminating. I thought I was caught, but I made up a feeble and obviously false lie to try and get out of it. And it worked.

Let that be a lesson to any GM who plans an entire game around their players finding and correctly interpreting a single clue. Players need a little more help than that.

Being discovered is not a problem anymore, fortunately. The snippet of gameplay I began the post with occurred two sessions ago. It was the BBEG’s little way of saying “you missed your chance.” After years of planning, he doesn’t really need to hide any longer. From here on out their only hope is to disassemble the infrastructure he already has in place, if they can even find it.

Corruption is another theme which has played a major role in my adventure design throughout The Ascendant Crusade. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of very clear ethics. Good and evil are active forces which drive the actions of those devoted to them. Villains are rarely nuanced and complex characters with understandable justifications for their evil deeds. They’re just plain evil. However, evil being obvious, and evil being attractive, are not mutually exclusive. Attempting to corrupt the PCs by making evil attractive to them has been a hallmark of this campaign.

My notes for the first adventure are actually split into two parts. At the start of the game, a bandit approaches them and offers them a fair share of the booty if they help his gang attack a wealthy caravan. After that, half of the notes are for if the players accept the offer, and half are for if they refuse. As it happened, most of them refused the bandit’s offer (long story), and eventually killed him and disbanded his band. But I made it clear from the outset that the path of the hero was not the only one open to them.

In later games, I tempted them with magic items. My favorite among them was when I allowed the chaotic good cleric to find a greatsword (her weapon of choice) which was far beyond her level in power. It was called “The Bite of Reason,” and aside from its attack bonus, it could be used to instantly rust away many common metals. The drawback was that the item was intelligent, and strongly lawful neutral in alignment. So in exchange for this powerful weapon, the cleric was forced to engage in a battle of wills anytime she wanted to subvert the law in the name of good. If I recall correctly, it was one such battle of wills in mid-combat which caused her to lose an arm whilst fighting a lich.

This is just how I run The Ascendant Crusade, though. I’m also running one other major campaign and a third campaign which is relatively low key so far. Each one of them uses a completely different approach. Not so much because my players need it, but because it’s fun for me. Trying new things is one of the best parts of being a game master.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.