On Set Collecting

So, you've decided set collecting is a good idea.

A number of people have questioned the purpose of pitting the players against each other.

The purpose of the competition is to make the choices meaningful. If you simply require the set collection for the bonus, that just makes treasure annoying. The players will trivially solve for the best outcomes. It's like "Here, you have some treasure, but you don't actually get it yet, heh, heh, heh" and then they have to both track and wait for the outcome.

This way, the players are incentivised to have their characters work against each other to complete sets, which means that the choices are no longer obvious or trival. Yes, everyone wants the wizard to have the treasure power, but do they want to suffer the experience hit? Instead I could take that item and sell it to him and offset that. Or I could work on completing my own set. . .

I play competitive games with my same group that I role-play with. We are still friends even after playing games where we compete! I can't relate to conversations about how players might be mad that other players are working for their own advantage. I acknowledge that might be a thing. But I've played plenty of Ticket to Ride, Small World, Dominion, and more besides and am still friends with everyone who's ever won.

Here are some examples of generic sets and rewards. the #x is the multiplier to the gold value of the items.

Generic Set Items

[5 different gems, worth over 100 gp each] 1.5x
[Any 5 gems of the same type and quality] 2x
[3 different gems, worth over 1,000 gp each] 1.8x and Jewelcutter contact.
[any 20 gems] 1.2x
[4 fabric art items, made from different kinds of fabric] 2.5x
[Any 3 items using the same type of gem as decoration] 2x
[Any 6 native/primitive art items] 1.5x
[Any 6 ancient empire items] 1.5x
[Any group of 3 utensils] 10x
[Any 3 art objects] 2x
[Any 3 pieces of clothing] 10x
[Any 5 pieces of armor or weapons] 5x

Following are some more specific (yet still somewhat generic) set items. A large part about how these are created has to do with the specific lore and "snowflakeness" of your setting. Each set should represent some entity, power, culture, faction, religion or race either living or dead within your world. Even the bonuses must remain somewhat generic considering the preponderance of systems and clonesfrom the examples you should be able to trivially convert to whatever system you are running.

Each specific set should be designed to be useful for more than one character type/archetype, in order to encourage competition over them. Effects listed below stack, for characters that meet multiple criteria. An elven ranger gets both the ranger and elf bonuses for vestment of the wild.

The experience point multipliers for the generic sets are usually higher than the multipliers for the specific sets with some outcome. This is to encourage conflict between saving up for a specific set, versus turning it into useable experience right now. That 180 gp cloak might be very useful to the druid once the vestment is completed, but it's worth 1,800 xp to anyone turning in an easier to get clothing set.

The items themselves radiate faint alteration/transmutation magic. This is a simple way of telling you that you simply tell the players out loud with your talking voice what set items are and what (public) sets they belong to before treasure selection begins. Players have to have that knowledge or they won't be making informed choices. That will make the choices random instead of interesting.

Also note that any type of benefit and bonus is possible! This could be anything from allies, to magical castle enchantments, to reaction rolls against certain creatures, to statistic boosts, to psionic powers, to anything you can conceive of. Drawbacks are also possible. Set bonuses and modifiers could come from sellers, a certain merchant could pay more for a certain type of treasure. Bonus areas or sub-levels could be opened up by the players who wish to collect the set items.

Specific Set items

[Troll doll trio]
A troll doll stitched from hydra skin, with round black opals for eyes, worth 120 gp.
A troll doll stitched from leather, with small pearl button eyes, and hair of yarn worth 80 gp.
A troll doll stitched from human skin, with bone nails, and small, hard coals for eyes worth 35 gp.
Effect: 1.1x, + use baleful eye 1/week.

[Yelturb Kernal Symphony]
Sonata of dirge of death part 1 (140 gp)
Adagio of sorrow of grief (5 gp)
Minuet of moment of rebirth (250 gp)
Allegro of continuation of sin (950 gp)
Effect: 1.1x, + gain a +2 versus death saves
Bards: Performing the symphony (or an arrangement of it) adds a +5 to performance checks when making money.
Spellcasters: Studying the symphony, allows you to gain an additional 4th level spell slot, useful for preparing/memorizing any Necromantic spell you know* (*Must be able to cast 4th level spells)
Necromancers: Your caster level is considered 5 higher for the purposes of animating undead.

[Coven coverings]
A black felt conical hat, with a thin green band. (2 gp)
A set of black diaphanous silk robes. (8 gp)
An oaken broom, scarred by a lightning strike, with tightly leather-bound broomcom bristles. (22 gp)
Effect: 5x, Fly on the broom 1/night for an hour.
Females: Gain 2 first level spell slots or if already a spellcaster, an additional slot of your highest level spell.
Halflings: Gain the ability to grow to ogre size or shrink to mouse size 1/day
Witches & Warlocks: One extra spell slot per level, plus an additional use of curse or potion making abilities per day/week.

[Gear of the wandering minstrel]
A bent and battered harmonica made from brass inscribed in common with the phrase "A rolling stone" (20 gp)
A pair of elven boots, made from supple deer leather (40 gp)
A weathered sash made from grey fine linen and olive green cotton (2 gp)
A beret with a griffon feather, made of fine green linen (60 gp)
Effect: 2x, Grants a bonus to performance checks.
Bards: grants a bonus to performance checks x2.
Elves: grants a bonus to reaction checks.

[Rainment of Tempus]
Dwarf-forged breastplate of glistening steel, with the symbol of tempus in a circle. (500 gp)
A set of heavy plate mail vambraces and boots, enameled with gold. (80 gp)
A maximillian helmet of shining steel. (25 gp)
A pair of hardwood bracers lined in dark steel with steel crossed spears across the wood (25 gp)
A black silken cloak, trimmed in cloth of gold (8 gp)
Effect: 1.1x, Armor as full plate, +1 to AC in the rain or bad weather
Fighters: gain a +2 divine bonus that can be applied to a saving throw after the roll.
Priests: gain +1 to hit while wearing this armor.
Priests of Tempus: double their level to turn undead and can call lightning 1x day. They also gain the priest bonus.

[Vestment of the Wild]
A darkwood breast plate, stained dark with the blood of dead goblins (600 gp)
A forest green ankle length woolen cloak with a hood, lined in wolf fur (180 gp)
Supple calf-high boots made from wyvern skin. (80 gp)
Effect: 1.1x, provides armor as breastplate
Druids: Gain an additional use of Wild shape and an additional spell slot of their second highest level.
Rangers: Gain the ability to pass without trace and a +2 to their ability to track.
Elves: Gain heightened senses in the wild. +5 to stealth and perception checks in wilderness (surprised on a 0 in 6)

These items, by definition of being interesting treasure, define your setting. Whatever items or sets you end up creating, they have to be specific to your world and setting.. The above serve as basic examples.

On Interesting Treasure, Accomplished

I've been thinking about treasure for a long time. Almost as long as I've been gaming.

It all started with Dungeon™, the board game. I didn't play the wizard to play the wizard. I played the wizard because he was the only dude who was going to come back with the diamond. I loved finding boots of speed in a level one room. I stared at the pictures on each item, imagining what it would be like to hold or have such a thing.

Here is what I have learned about treasure in my 30 some odd years of gaming:

Players don't care.

An example of me handing out treasure:
DM:"You open the steel coffer by clicking open the last pin on the Clip Chest Deadpin lock, and find a pile of mixed coins, so—"
P1:"We start counting out the mixed coins."
DM:"Do you want to do that? It will take a turn."
P1: "Yes."
DM:"Ok, you find 10,971 silver pieces, and 27 platinum pieces, A white marble gameset, 13 badger pelts, A granite helm with an inverted 5 point star diamond inserted in the top, A pewter girdle engraved with concentric circles, and a shiny black sheepskin leather suit of armor."
P1:"We cast detect magic"
DM:"The leather armor glows, it's magical."
P1:"How much are the items worth?"
DM:"The helm is worth 6,529 gp, The girdle is worth 3,656 gp, The gameset is worth 2,400 gp,  and the beaver pelts are worth 3 gp each."
P1:"Ok, no one needs leather armor so we go back to town and sell it all."

I just wasted everyone's time. I could have just said, you find 15,856 gp in assorted treasure. Players often don't even want to keep the magic items, if they aren't immediately useful.

Now, there's caveats of course. Treasure in different situation serves different purposes. Treasure, like the above, from Numenhalla, matters to the players as far as portability and how they are going to manage to extract it from the megadungeon.

But what matters to the players are the gold pieces they get for experience and what services they can buy to buff their character. In Pathfinder, what matters is what magic items you can craft or buy. In 1st edition, what matters is how much you have for experience, and in 1st & 5th, what matters is what in-world purpose you can use the money for. Players are concerned with what the treasure can do for them mechanically.

The treasure itself? Unless it's magical and somehow useful it is just unimportant.

I think I've finally found the answer to how to make treasure interesting.

Real Interesting Treasure

The reason treasure isn't interesting is pretty obvious, now that I've been thinking about it for 30 years, but it took discovering out what players found exciting to see it.

I worked hard to find a good balance on what players could do with gold besides buy magic items in both my megadungeon games and old school style play. I've gotten a lot of feedback that these systems are super successful. Players are excited when they get treasure, because they can turn it into things and effects that they want. What players get excited about are opportunities to improve their characters. This doesn't just mean mechanically, but it does mean something concretely. It could be building a fortified castle, or buying a lordship, or getting questions answered by a sage.

Treasure is important to the degree to which it can do something for them, rather than as an end, in and of itself.

I'm interested in the treasure itself, for reasons unknown. Nostalgia, perhaps? Maybe because the idea of treasure is awesome and generates a certain internal feeling. It's lost art, hooks into the world, an aesthetic item of beauty itself.  Unsurprisingly, I'm also interested in treasure that makes players interested in the treasure itself.

Set Pieces

The problem with treasure as it stands is that there is no feature of the treasure that is interesting to the player, beyond its value, magical status, and weight. But other features also hold intrinsic value; The culture that made this mask, what is engraved on this helm, what this statue represents. What I'm proposing is that beyond gold, beyond "trade goods", that there's interesting treasure, and this interesting treasure is divided into sets. And when you collect a set, your benefit increases.

It can't be as simple as it simply being worth more as a set—that simply takes the reward and makes players wait for it. That's not interesting, that's annoying. What we are looking for is to generate interest in the actual treasure.

The first step in doing this is to not assume that the characters all know and trust each other as well as the players. In older games (and the relevant Appendix N fiction) characters would often be known by and associated with the items that they carry. Elric didn't hand out Stormbringer just because he wasn't going on this mission. The items recovered by the character are a large part of the definition of that character. A modern iteration of this is the idea of attunement in 5th edition. Items are a part of the character.

This core assumption is important in making set items work. Each player is in competition with each other player. They must all have their own separate resources, such as gold. We are going to reinforce this mechanically, because without this, it isn't interesting. it instead becomes just like handing out a magic item, because the players will be working together to (trivially) find the most effective result.

How it Works

Here's how it works. There's gold, There's Trade goods, There's Experience, There's Magic Items, There's Consumables/Craftables, and finally, there are Set Items.

A set item would be something like:
"A troll doll stitched from hydra skin, with round black opals for eyes, worth 120 gp."
 It would arbitrarily belong to the sets:
"[Troll doll trio]"
"[Four Dolls stitched from different fabric types]"
"[Three items using opals as decoration]"
"[A dozen Native/Primitive art items]"

When selecting treasure, divide gold according to shares, and then divide magic items and set items. Set items are picked at the same time as magic items.

Once selected as a players magic item pick, they have several options.

  • Set items may be sold for their gold piece value and the player gains experience equal to that gold. 
  • Or the player may sell the item to other players at whatever cost they can extort, and gain experience equal to that gold total. 
  • If a player sells an item for the listed gold piece value to a merchant, the merchant will resell the item in one week for 2d4 times the base price, and if there is a player who wants it, they can buy it from the merchant.
  • OR the set item may be kept, and the set collected. Once a set is collected, the player doesn't have to sell the items, and they get the experience point value for the items as if they did. 

What's more is the multiplier.

If a player in a group completes a group of set items, they get a multiple of the total gold piece value of the set in bonus experience, with one caveat.

This bonus experience is deducted from the other player's earned experience in play.


Let's look at some basic set items:
[5 different gemstones worth 100 gp or more]: When this set is complete, gain 1.5x the value of the set in experience.
[3 different gemstones worth 1,000 pieces or more]: When this set is complete, gain 1.8x the value of the set in experience and the friendship of a jewel crafter who can increase the value of your raw gemstones by 10%-60% by cutting them.

Frank the cleric has a 1,200 gold piece pearl, and while adventuring finds a 225 gold piece ruby and a 800 gp sapphire. Later he finds a 102 gp rock crystal, and a 200 gp ruby, and a 2,650 gold piece emerald.

He has enough to complete the first set right now with a ruby left over, but doing so would prevent him from completing his second set. Because the sets specify different gemstones, Frank can't use both rubies to complete the first set.

We can see why he might want to wait, but let's say Frank wants to go ahead and level, because he's close. So he turns in the first set. He gets a total of:
Pearl 1,200 gp
+ Ruby 225 gp
+ Sapphire 800 gp
+ Rock Crystal 102 gp
+ Emerald 2,650 gp
For a grand total of 4,977 experience, PLUS another 2,488 experience due to the multiplier right now. This experience is deducted from the experience earned in the future by the rest of the party, but not the player turning in the set. Or alternately, this total could be divided by the number of other players and subtracted from everyone else's experience point total for ease of record-keeping. They wouldn't lose levels, but their experience total required for the next level would be higher.

Suddenly, it seems like players will be very interested in the type and features of non-monetary treasure!


  • Interesting items belong to a public list of sets.
  • The public list contains the bonuses for acquiring a complete set. 
  • Individual items may be sold and experience gained for the amount they sold for.
    • They may be sold to merchants for the listed value, or to other players for whatever you can extort from them.
  • Only the original owner of the item (the person who picked it at treasure distribution) may gain experience points for items sold this way. There is no benefit to cyclically selling the item back and forth within the group.
  • Merchants will buy the item at the listed price and resell it in one week at 2d4 times that amount.
  • When sets are collected and turned in, the collector receives experience equal to their total value, plus the bonus multiplier, plus any bonus effects.
  • The experience granted by the multiplier is subtracted from the other players experience point totals. This does not cause a loss of levels, but does increase the experience point requirements.
  • If a set is completed and experience received, and it is sold or lost, the character loses the experience gained from the set (though if sold, they do receive the base gold piece value, plus the multiplier value.)
    • In our example, selling those gems for 7,465 gold when they are actually worth 4,977 gp might be something a player wishes to do, even at the expense of losing the experience

Further ideas

What we have above is very basic. There are some further twists that might make it even more exciting.
Rumor, Class, and Race Bonuses: Each player receives a personalized version of the set list, with bonuses that are available from each set only for their specific race or class. Or when selecting rumors, the player may receive a rumor that provides them (and only them) with an additional bonus to collecting the set. The worth of a set might not be equal to an elf wizard or a dwarven fighter. Alternately, this information could be public. Each set should have different effects for multiple classes and races to encourage players to compete against each other for them.
Turning in set restrictions: This places restrictions on turning in sets—whenever you turn in a set it removes (or uses) your next treasure pick. So either you give up your first pick of the next treasure haul, or during the pick process, you use your pick to turn in one of your sets.
Restricted Set List: Provide a limited generic list (5 gems, etc.), and as interesting treasure is found, provide information about the sets it belongs to, to the players. This can be a gradual way to gain knowledge of the setting.


Should I design the sets based on what characters my players choose to play?
My opinion is no. I'd design most of them before the campaign starts. But I encourage multiple characters per player and sometimes have tables with up to 20 or 30 rotating players. Your milage may vary.

Pitting the players against each other? Losing experience? Have you gone mad?
Set collecting as a game mechanic is neither thematic or interesting on it's own. It's only interesting when there's hidden knowledge (poker), competition for similar resources with a penalty for not getting them (rummy) or a cost to collecting the set (ticket to ride).

I think the above addresses that problem in a way that keeps it interesting, since in the long run, it all comes out in the wash. (don't tell the players).

Wait, doesn't this just make sets unusual magic items you have to wait for? Or alternately treasure you have to wait for?

It would, if each item only fit one set, and the players weren't in competition for them. Because any given item can fit more than one set, it means there are multiple choices all down the line. This prevents it from just being a multi-part magic item.

How will they tell what is a set item and what isn't? How do they know what items are in the set?

You tell them. Or you give them a handout.

This sounds like a lot of work.

Tune in tomorrow.

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On 50 Interesting Pieces of Treasure

Since the next Blog Compendium is in progress, I'd figure I'd share some work from it. The values for such items can be set as you wish, or determined by rolling one to three dice and multiplying by 10 gp, 100 gp, or 1000 gp.

"Random" random items can have a quite samey feel after a while. Some of the most interesting tables are those formed by simply abulafiaing an already interesting random table of items. Since we actually don't need to generate an infinite amount of treasure for our games, tables like the following can be quite useful.

  1. A polished obsidian orb.
  2. A lantern with a bejewled hood, when lowered, it casts a multi-colored shadow.
  3. An engraved platinum toilet sponge rod.
  4. An onyx comb, shaped like a raven that has common cabochon ruby eyes.
  5. A bone clip inlaid with gold that resembles the teeth of some long dead rat.
  6. A small silver coffer set with three agates in a uneven triangle. The sides are sculpted to resemble tiger paws.
  7. A porcelain doll, that looks like a troll.
  8. A pair of brass bookends shaped like ram's heads.
  9. A small marble birdbath, inlaid with gold.
  10. A thin silver crown set only with a very small diamond. It has an inscription in elvish that reads, "stature is not the veracity of faith"
  11. A marionette with a ceramic face that has a long hook nose and blue eyes, covered in flowing multi-colored silk, and a cross of light blue-silver metal and resilient strings made of the same. The toy is 5 feet from top to bottom.
  12. A battered iron helm made for a boar, with an set of three ivory spikes jutting from it.
  13. A supple wineskin, died a rich red-gold, with a polished maple drink spout. Water kept in this container tastes particularly wonderful.
  14. A curved horn of dragon bone, inlaid with gold. Produces a rich brassy tone.
  15. A small wooden box, filled with a dozen polished turquoise buttons.
  16. A pair of bronzed child's boots.
  17. A small platinum sculpture of thin bent cylindrical twists that form the shape of an egg. At the center rests a golden topaz.
  18. A dwarven iron bracelet inscribed in runic dwarvish "Our bond is that of metal"
  19. A stack of golden coins, each meticulously defaced and crudely carved with the face of a grinning goblin.
  20. An earring shaped like a demons ear, made of finely worked light gold and set with point-cut rubies. It fits over the rear of the ear changing the shape of the wearer's ear.
  21. An ebony statue of a bear standing of exquisite workmanship. A small fairy ring of mushrooms cast in silver rests in the base
  22. An incense burner of the grim reaper sitting in a tree, holding a snake and a crystal ball. Two skeletons kneel in front of him. It is made of ceramic and set with tiny simple rose-cut diamonds and rubies.
  23. A set of salt and pepper shakers shaped like the front and back half of a unicorn, made of porcelain and inlaid with gold and silver
  24. A meticulously woven reed mat, with the phrase "YOU GO AWAY! YOU DIE!" written in golbin.
  25. A small series of molds for baking, each shaped like different holiday features, roses, hearts, gifts, etc.
  26. A series of five carved gems, a ruby carved in the shape of a strawberry, an emerald carved in the shape of an apple, a sapphire carved in the shape of a blueberry, a topaz carved in the shape of a banana and a diamond carved in the shape of an onion.
  27. A pair of burnished steel gauntlets shaped like giant ogre fists, studded with octagon cut agates around the wrist.
  28. A waist high ebony sculpture of a pair of hooves of a large animal, with a hollow interior, such that one could put ones feet into them.
  29. A small haversack filled with gold dust.
  30. An electrum sleeping mask shaped like the eyes and nose bridge of a cow.
  31. A hollow globe depicting the planet, that hangs over a small brass candle stand and chain. Wax covers the small brass candle stand.
  32. A set of small silver figures, each representing a different circus performer in a different pose. There is the Master of Ceremonies with his arms outspread, a strongman lifting up a barbell, an acrobat standing on her hands, a lion tamer with a lion, and a monkey riding an elephant.
  33. A small ceramic piggy bank, unbroken, shaped like an orc.
  34. A taxidermied goblin that is strikingly realistic.
  35. A golden mechanical songbird. It plays three different tunes.
  36. A thick leather collar, plated in sections of silver, each inset with four small oval-cut sapphires. There is a large iron ring where the collar attaches
  37. A toe ring made of gold-plated iron, that is set with a marble claw. Around the base of the claw are a dozen pinhead-sized common cabochon cut topaz.
  38. A neck chain of small bones strung on a wire. On each is carved a different pair of letters. Several of the bones appear to be broken off or missing, rendering the goblin inscription illegible. 
  39. An oaken backscratcher set with 4 high cabochon-cut rectangular jade.
  40. A mirror set in a silver pointed starburst setting with wide triangular leaves.  The top has a large round intaglio black opal, and each of the wings are cameo-set with round moonstone and onyx.
  41. A crystal beaker with the measurements in some long forgotten standard, etched in platinum. 
  42. A knife block carved from jade, holding four knives, each with a handle made from jade and set with pearl fasteners. The blades are of bright, sharp, steel.
  43. A platinum mug, set with a star sapphire that has a needle brilliant cut and enameled in gold. The interior is dark, polished maple.
  44. A small sack made of supple, high quality leather, with a dyed design that makes the entire pack when carried look like a chicken.
  45. A 120 piece puzzle in a large oak box, inlaid with jet. The pieces are made from different pieces of rock crystal and quartz, that form an abstract pattern.
  46. A painting of an ogre eating a sheep that has a dark somber quality to it. The frame is made from silver and is set with a handful of intaglio-cutstar roze quartz
  47. A small steel box, set with a single piece of coral on the top. Each side of the interior is mirrored.
  48. A set of china plates, inlaid with gold, each with a different zodiac symbol enameled in the bottom.
  49. A finely wrought chain barding covered in a knitted sweater for a dog.
  50. A pair of giant brass door knockers shaped like the faces of the fairy king and queen. 

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On the Thursday Trick, Collapsing Walls

"In spite of the artificial setup of this room, collapsing walls don't show up often enough in published materials." -Brendan S.

I agree!

The room in question:
"At the top of the stairs are the remains of a door, beyond which is a room. The floor here is almost entirely gutted as is the floor below. 30' below is the gray stone of the cellar floor. There is an open door-way on the opposite side of the room on this level. Any exits from the first floor or the cellar have been completely filled with rubble. There are three possible ways to walk across the space—a charred and crumbling section of floor clings to the left wall, a narrow pathway of fallen beams stretches across the center like a bridge, and a sounder section of floor, only burned at the edge, runs along the right wall. All three paths are accessible from this end and lead to the doorway on the opposite side."
If the crumbling ledge is probed, large pieces of burned wood will crash to the floor. If any character steps on the ledge, it will collapse beneath them. The center path is narrow and will wobble slightly when stepped on. Plaster and ash will fall and the wood will creak and groan. As unsafe as it seems, the path is sturdy and may be crossed without falling. The ledge to the right is sound and solid. However, when the lead character reaches the halfway point, their weight will cause a loose beam underfoot to shift. The wall beside them will collapse inwards, knocking the figure off the ledge. If characters are roped together when this happens, each figure after the first must roll a successful bend bars/lift gates to stay on the ledge. Characters that fail will be pulled over the side. The fallen wall will block this ledge. A fall to the cellar will do 3-18 points of damage. (FOR TOURNAMENT USE: 12 points of damage). -A1:Slave Pits of the Undercity

The Collapsing Wall (Restraints/Hazard)
Trigger: VariesEffectsMultiple Targets, Never Miss
Save: Dexterity
Duration: Instant
Resets: NoneBypass: None (Avoid)

Description: A wall is unstable or has been designed to collapse. A falling wall can expose the party to new hazards, such as basilisk, poisonous monsters or snakes, rushing water or lava, or anything better kept hidden. It can move party members or knock them over causing them to fall or separating them. The falling wall itself can do damage, or even release dangerous substances like asbestos, yellow mold, or acid. It can create new passageways and routes through an area for both the party and their allies.

Detection/Disarming: A collapsing wall is difficult to detect. As noted in the above boxed text, there is no special characteristic or description given to the wall, and indeed, it appears to be the most stable of the paths. The clue is given in the surrounding area. Collapsing walls may not be mortared or may even be described as walls of rubble. Walls designed to collapse may be plastered and smell or appear to be different. Depending on the type of collapsing wall, dwarves should automatically get their chance to detect this. Elves should also be able to use their sense of detecting secret doors to detect plastered or disguised walls.
Other indicators that the wall is unstable include:

  • Bulges or sagging walls, walls that are no longer completely vertical. ("The walls of this room bulge inward", "The convex walls of the chamber frame a. . . ")
  • A non-standard wall or a wall formed of a different substance. ("This chamber looks formed by rock collapse, the walls being piles of boulders stacked atop each other to the ceiling", or "The grey cemented bricks give way in this chamber to bricks surrounded by loose mortar")
  • Sounds or other descriptions could clue the players in ("The sound of rocks shifting as you enter this chamber gives way to dripping water. . ." or "There's a light static sound, as if sand were falling or settling")
  • There may be visible signs of wear on the walls. ("The stone walls in this room are cracked and worn with disrepair")

The Tricks and Traps series examines original and classic traps discussing how to present the traps while maintaining the agency of the players. A complete list of sources and inspiration may be found here. The Tricks and Traps Index page contains a complete listing of all the tricks and traps on this site, or you may browse by tags.

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On the Special Snowflake Setting

Today we talk about the most important fact in gaming.

There's been a lot of talk about Special Snowflake Settings and experience with a variety of Dungeon Masters. Hell, tens of thousands of people have used my Guide for New Dungeon Masters to start running games, including my wife.

She killed the entire party in her first game. It was awesome.

The problem is, all of these are polite guides and statements that allow people to continue to ignore the most important thing about gaming in the entire world forever.

The Special Snowflake Setting

So what's the problem with the special snowflake setting? Why does it even have a bad rap at all, much less one that's so bad that it's considered gauche to use it?

This is a problem with definitions. Chris Kutalik in his second post on Special Snowflake Settings  describes an evocative mythical forest environment, and how enjoyable it was to play in such a unique and creative setting.  This is in counterpoint to the extensive world-building and how nobody cares about what color hats people wear and how he's glad no one is complaining about that anymore, because good riddance.

This is, I believe, a conflation of two different things.

He notes that in Harald Wagner's game the setting was described with a series of bullet points. Other than those changes it was by the book Labyrinth Lord. The Special Snowflake Settings are not like that.

Instead Special Snowflake Settings required large amounts of knowledge, a significant buy-in before play, and had many firm and unchanging elements that were considered both integral to the setting and immutable. Why? Money and politics.

I'll give you an example of a broken special snowflake setting and how I fixed it.

The Specialist Snowflake Setting of All

The best example is, of course, the Forgotten Realms. In the beginning, it was not a Special Snowflake Setting. Some of the early role-playing game books by Greenwood and Jaquays are the best supplements in gaming. But it has turned into one of the worst offenders of the Special Snowflake Settings that exist, due to the weight of the accumulation of years and popular characters.

Drizzt and Elminster are the worst offenders. Others, like the human, Mirt the Moneylender, who's still alive even after the timeline was shifted forward a hundred years are also included. Why did that happen? Well, Mirt is one of the key figures of the setting (as one of the masked lords of Waterdeep, ooops, spoilers) and Wizards of the Coast, who owned the Forgotten Realms decided:
"Hey! This will sell better if we steal popular ideas from Ebberon. We can have dragonmarked people, except call them 'spell-plagued', and put in a bunch of cool stuff with our new cosmology like flying islands and add in stuff like Dragonborn, because people like dragons. Oh, we will also need to destroy all the necessary history Dungeon Masters feel they need to run the setting so that they don't have to worry about it, so we'll advance the timeline 100 years."

Of course, immediately this causes a problem for the fiction department who says
"Wait! The books that have Elminister and Drizzit in them sell the best. So we've got to find away around the attempt to wipe history away to keep these beloved characters around otherwise how will we keep the fiction line profitable?"

Also, they made Ed Greenwood cry. Which was a totally shi**y thing to do.

The point is, that these conflicting forces leave the actual Dungeon Master at the table struggling to run his sometimes years-long game, without being subject to the cognitive dissonance of needing to deal whatever changes are being wrought to the system based on the most recently published book. The setting ends up even more convoluted in order to reconcile all the conflicting needs of the forces of profit and politics.

Of course it isn't that the Dungeon Master has to adapt to the changes. But his players might expect him to, otherwise, what's the appeal of the Realms? And that's the damming thing—the thing that brings us to our original point, the downside of the Special Snowflake Settings is their immutability. You can't kill Drizzit, Eleminster bumping into your party seems like a cheap shot, you are no longer a player in a game, you're just waiting until you can play again once the Non-Player Characters leave.

How did I solve it in my Forgotten Realms Campaign? Simple.

Everything published in any Forgotten Realms book or story is simply a fiction of Ed of the Green Wood who lives in the dales, or R.A. Salvatore who lives near the Spine of the World. Their penny dreadfuls and stories are the popular myths of the day. There are no Harpers, No Elminster, no Drizzit. Those are just storybook characters that we tell children to make them feel safe at night.

The Special Snowflake Conflict

The point is, that Special Snowflake Settings are in direct conflict with the most important thing in gaming.

  • They require a large amount of buy in at the start
  • They contain numerous items that remove agency from the players
  • They constrict play by having certain, immutable things
  • It's impossible for any one person, off the cuff, to do something without conflicting against something that someone wrote somewhere.

All Special Snowflake Settings: Shadowrun, Star Wars, the Forgotten Realms, et. al. have these problems.

Let's talk about how that relates to play at the table.

A 16% Enjoyment Rate

That's a pretty terrible percentage of fun for our hobby. But it's exactly the experience that's related here.

She relates a sequence of convention games with Dungeon Masters who took scenarios and made them unfun. She talks about saying no. She talks about listening to the players. I talk about Player agency and the Quantum Ogre. Chris talks about Special Snowflake Settings.

We are all taking about the most important thing in gaming.

Gaming is a social activity where we engage in shared, structured play, for enjoyment.

The reason the my Guide for new Dungeon Masters, the Quantum Ogre, The Alexandrian's "Don't Prep Plots. . . (The Principles of RPG Villainy) and blog posts like The Surest Way to Become a Better Game Master get shared, and reshared, and shared again is because they are being shared by players because five out of six Dungeon Masters are still making people miserable at an event for the purpose of enjoyment.

  • If you are already saying you're a good Dungeon Master, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are already justifying your behavior, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are already deciding I'm wrong because your players don't complain, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are feeling defensive about anything being written or discussed here, that is the surest sign that you are part of the problem.

In fact, if you are doing ANYTHING but thinking about how you need to listen to your players and ways in which you can improve your game, you are part of the problem.

The reason people are talking about this is because you, the Dungeon Master, aren't listening. It's why people keep writing about this. It's why people moved away from more freeform games towards games for more rules. It's why so many books on advice for being a Dungeon Master include saying yes.

Anyone who ever in the history of the world who robbed a bank had a very good reason for doing so.

That doesn't make it right.

A Bit of the Solutions

What does this post do to help the situation?

I was struck by this quote in the article:
"I believe that all these GM's whose games were failures from the player's perspective actually wanted the players to have fun, the player characters to shine, and extraordinary magic to happen during the adventures. Unfortunately, they wanted this to happen along a specific path perhaps dreaming of the way they would love to play through the adventure themselves. And none of us gave feedback because frankly, after a GM has been deaf to your input for six or seven hours, it doesn't seem very worthwhile to tell them "Look, you're not listening."

This is an opportunity missed.

We keep writing over and over the same advice. The trouble is, that studies have shown, that the bottom 25% of people frequently believe that they are in the top 5% because they lack the mastery to understand what mistakes they are making,  the middle 50% all believe that they are way above average, and the top 25% believe themselves to be below average, because they have enough insight into their mastery to tell where they went wrong.

The problem is, that the people who need this advice the most aren't going to listen to it. This is obvious by the experiences people have with public play Dungeon Masters. Clearly articles on the internet aren't cutting it. A refutation of every strange, bizarre, bad faith, misinterpretation of the "listen to your players and give them agency" has already been written. Seriously. If you post any sort of refutation in the comments, I won't have to reply with anything but a link.

So, the problem at this point is that people aren't giving the feedback to the actual Dungeon Masters in an assertive way. This is a concrete skill that can be taught. It isn't easy, but if we want Dungeon Masters to improve, taking the step to give them this feedback is important.

  • We don't want to be aggressive and cause them to be defensive because this will cause them to reinforce their bad habits.
  • We don't want to be passive and stop going to their games, because they won't realize that it's their responsibility that people don't want to play with them. 
  • And we don't want to be passive-aggressive and try to subvert their game, because this provides them justification for their behaviors and makes you feel better at the expense of everyone else. 

We want to be assertive. This will involve some confrontation.

The X-Files Season 03 Episode 20 - Jose Chung's... by mutterz
Be part of the solution.

Also note that this assertive method of interaction also works for people engaging in passive-aggressive, sexist, racist or otherwise unacceptable behavior.

Steps to Assertive Interaction

  1. Ask For Time
    • What this step is about is allowing the listener to prepare themselves to hear what you are saying. What you are really asking for is attention. This will give the Dungeon Master the opportunity to focus and really listen to what you are about to say, with their full attention
    • Note that "No" is a perfectly acceptable response to this question. Your best bet in this case is to avoid playing games with people that don't want feedback.
  2. State your thoughts and feelings. 
    • This has three essential components. First, you have to empathize with the listener. Second, you need to state the problem, and lastly you have to state what you want.
    • If you do this, and you do it correctly, it will be one of their foundational Dungeon Mastering experiences and they will carry it with them to every game they ever run in the future.
      • Empathize with the listener. This contextualizes your interaction as an assertive one instead of an aggressive one. In an aggressive confrontation, you're trying to win. An assertive conversation involves attempting to reach a balance, where your needs are met as well as theirs.
      •  State the problem. The important and hard thing to do at this point is let go of your anger and sorrow. Yes, you didn't have fun. But if you use this opportunity to lash out or attack the other person, you are back to an aggressive interaction. 
        • One good way of managing this interaction is to avoid the use of "you language" instead of saying "You said no and railroaded us." say "I felt we had a good idea/were ignored/had no choice in this scenario."
        • It's important to stick to and mention facts, not judgements. 
        • Use assertive body language. Speak clearly and calmly. Face the other person.
    •  State what you want. This is where you make a specific quantifiable request for change of the persons behavior. It needs to be specific and quantifiable so that there's no confusion about whether or not the person is meeting your needs. If it's not, what they consider "Helping" or "Doing better" might not be.
  3. Listen
    • This is important because here the Dungeon Master is going to tell you why she made the choices you did. They will justify their behavior, and in doing so, give you the insight you need to understand why it's more important for them to meet their internal need, rather than focus on the enjoyment of the shared, social activity. It is important you listen closely so that you can understand what their motivation is. 
    • Once you've sussed it out, it's important to acknowledge their reason and validate it. Once you understand their reason, repeat it back to them to make sure you understand what they mean in your own words. In most cases, it's because the Dungeon Master has a specific idea about how their game is going to go. This is something they will likely feel very strongly about. After you've acknowledge it, you can state your original point, which is that "I felt ignored." or "I didn't feel like I got to make any choices" or "I felt like my enjoyment wasn't important to you." 
  4. Conclude
    • After repeating steps 3 & 4 until both sides have been heard and had their feelings acknowledged, and the other person either has or has not agreed to your specific and quantifiable request for a change in their behavior, thank them for their time.
    • To manage your expectations, remember that no one who was wrong in an argument every went "Oh my goodness, you were so right! Thank you so much, I now see the error of my ways!" Frequently when confronted with their shortcomings, they become defensive and angry. If you follow these steps and allow them to speak their mind, they may defend their actions at the table, but if you're calm, the next time they encounter this situation, they can't help but remember what you said.

Using the example of the session where the players were playing goblins and the Dungeon Master didn't allow the players playing goblins to set fire to a building.

DM: "So, does anybody have any feedback?
PLAYER: "Yeah, I've got some feedback if you want to have it. F--- YOU AND YOUR S----- GAME!" [Flips table]  
Oh, wait, that was the aggressive interaction.

PLAYER:. . . "No the session was great" [Gets up and leaves the table]
Oh, wait, that's the passive interaction. I'm sure I'll get it this time.

DM:"So, does any body have any feedback?"
PLAYER:"I'd like to mention some things, if you're interested in hearing them."
PLAYER:"It's clear you did a lot of work to prepare for this scenario. I'm sure it was pretty hectic for you to come to the convention and run it for us. I'd like to thank you for putting in that time, it means a lot to me." [pause]
PLAYER:"I'd like to talk about some of the things that happened during the game, is that ok?"
DM:"Sure, uhhh, what?"
PLAYER:"Well, I feel kind of sad. I felt like our plan to burn the house down was a real good one. When we were talking about it, I thought you looked uncomfortable, and I don't understand why we weren't able to burn it down. I think that would have been a real funny thing for the goblins to do. I feel it's important to listen to your players, to get an understanding of what they enjoy in a game. In the future, I'd like it if you listen to the players when they are excited about something and consider how you could adjudicate it instead of saying no."
DM:"Oh, well, If you did that, you would have missed all the treasure in the house and the fight wouldn't have been fair, and all that work would have been wasted!"
DM:"Well I put in a lot of preparation!"
PLAYER:"I hear that you spent a lot of time getting this game ready. I could tell, that's one of the reason I thanked you for it."
DM:"I don't want all that to go to waste, and you would have missed all of that treasure."
PLAYER: "Yes, its true. That preparation would not have been used today, and our characters would have missed that treasure. That would have been a good in-game consequence of our choices."DM:"You just wanted to make the game unfair. That idea would have ruined the challenge of the combat."
PLAYER:"I hear that you really value providing a fair challenge, and there were a couple of encounters that were really hard later on. That horse gave us a lot of trouble. But not every encounter has to be a tactical challenge. There were consequences to us doing it that way too, losing the treasure like you mentioned."
PLAYER:"So, all I'm asking is that next time the players ask for something that seems like they are excited, you say yes and adjudicate it fairly."
DM:"Yeah, well, I don't like my work going to waste."
PLAYER:"I think you'd eventually find a use for that material, either when you run the module again, or put somewhere else in another adventure. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to listen to me. I hope you at least consider what I said. Thanks for devoting the time and energy to run a game for us."

Maybe it won't do any good. But maybe it will change a bad Dungeon Master into a good one.

We'll never make any change if we don't try.

On a Hoard of the Dragon Queen Index

Just a note, that I've added an index to both my posts and other Hoard of the Dragon Queen Resources on my blog. This index makes it easy to find and use the articles written about it on this site, as well as other useful resources around the web.

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On A New Year

I've got a life filled with news.

  • I just turned in a 397 page manuscript. So, there's that. Sometime this year is the answer. More information coming soon is the other answer. I wrote it twice and laid it out once and am glad to be done. It frees up my time to work on lapsed projects here. Expect a return to form on the blog, now that I've got more time
  • Patreon works. Better than self-publishing. Better than Kickstarter, (and kickstarter works a fair sight better than many people give it credit for).
    • The Alexandrian is one of the best gaming theory blogs around. Since starting the Patron Campaign, we've gotten 17 posts so far just this year. That's the output of the entire blog last year from January to June! And good posts too; We're in a revival of gaming, but the real work of discovery is just beginning. Take his posts on an in-depth examination of what exactly constants a citycrawl and why a good one hasn't really be done yet. Patreon for the Alexandrian
    • The comic about philosophers playing D&D is now being produces regularly instead of erratically. Instead of not being made consistently, it now is. Patreon for Existential Comics
    • Take my blog for example. 145 posts were written that otherwise wouldn't have been. Over 1,000$ was funneled back into the gaming community, supporting artists, writers, and creators. More cool things are around then were before. Patreon for Hack & Slash

Patreon isn't a temporary thing, or a passing fad. It is effectively the new method of supporting the creative class, and does so in a way that produces free product for everyone!

  • My 32 year-old wife has cancer. Fuck Cancer*. In the spirit of Fuck Cancer, 10% of Patreon Proceeds are going to be donated to the Cancer Research Institute. This institute has a 95.76/100 rating on Charity Navigator Ratings. My wife has breast cancer, but breast cancer receives a much greater proportion of funding then incidence. People like boobs. The Cancer Research Institute is trying to eliminate cancer as a problem.. If you want to help, donate to the Cancer Research Institute. If you want to help us, become a patron of the blog

Normally, I'd use this week to have a pledge drive week. I'm not going to do that. I think I produce useful stuff. If you think that's worth supporting, then do it. I am going to tell you what that sort of support is going to produce this year, that would not exist otherwise, without the giving, caring, group of supporters taking action to make the world a place they like a little bit more.
On the to do list, this year:

  • Perdition: Role Playing in Hell
  • Ecology: Monstrous creative monsters.
  • Blog Compendium: Cities & Villages
  • Blog Compendium: Treasures, Weird & Magical
  • Blog Compendium: Character Portraits
  • Blog Compendium: Hoard of the Dragon Queen Collection
  • Numenhalla: The God Halls Megadungeon
  • Continuing work on the multi-level rumors content
  • More Tricks and Traps
  • Reviews of great content & products
  • an index for my Hoard of the Dragon Queen Reviews. 
  • More Hack & Slash TV with interviews, commentary, and discussion!

So that's what we're working towards this year! Come be a part of the team that supports it! Benefit from it even if you are not.

*I don't swear on this blog and try to keep it family friendly, but, seriously, FUCK CANCER. 

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