This blog is, as the header says, about games. However, even those who are not familiar with the world of games are aware, at least in passing, of the phenomenon of the game Minecraft. I’ve often heard Minecraft compared to Lego bricks, in that their simplicity of design and ease of access allow imagination and creativity to blossom. As a kid, I spent hours with my family’s of tub of assorted lego bricks; no plans, just play. As an adult, I’ve spent hours hours in Minecraft building castles, palaces, complex transport systems, and often just exploring the winding depths of tunnels and far away biomes.
By the way, this post isn’t about Minecraft, at least not directly. However, I find it hard to think of Terraria outside of the context of Minecraft.
Glitterdoom is an adventure for 5th Edition D&D that I didn’t seek out. It came into my possession because it was included in the same gift bag as my copy of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was an appropriate accessory, but nothing about the product description (you can read it on the page I linked to) really screamed to me “RUN THIS ADVENTURE, IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” But after running two sessions (with different player groups) based on this little book, I have found that playing through Glitterdoom has made me feel very successful in doing what I want to do with D&D.
As I wrote about very early in this blog’s history, I’ve become quite weary of dungeon crawls where monsters lack any sense of self-preservation or motives of their own and only exist to wait for the players to arrive and then fight them to the death. I also feel like the true potential of the game is squandered when everything about a battle is reduced to numbers, even if there is a scripted “morale check” or something in the encounter notes that are provided to the DM. In a game that not only allows but often encourages the narrative to change in real time based on many different players making choices, what good is it for any of us to insist on limiting ourselves to running a meat grinder powered by dice?
In Glitterdoom I have found a group of foes that really make it easy to threaten the player characters with hostile undead monsters while at the same time avoiding tedious roll play. The Stone Ghosts are nasty creatures, but they exist for a reason other than waiting for some chumps to come fight them. The lore in the book is well-written but not especially innovative in its narrative. Dwarves grow too fond of their shinies, become too obsessed with mining, dig too deep, then doom their own civilization with an amalgam of greed and foul curses/magic. That is a tale at least as old as Tolkien. But that’s okay because this is written for games rather than for publishing as literature. There was just enough there to give me a good starting point from where I can start improvising. For the DM running a game, that’s better than a finely crafted story that doesn’t leave any space for making up a few things on the spot.
This is accompanied with good mechanics; I have heard from players of both sessions I have run that the Stone Ghosts strike them as tough and dangerous yet not so far out of their league as to make the conflict pointless. Hearing that fills me with glee, as I often struggle to make foes seem like a genuine threat without being practically invincible. This adventure demonstrates what I consider to be great encounter design in being able to give me, as DM, everything I need on the page in front of me to present a difficult but not hopeless challenge to the power of the player characters to fight their way to victory.
There was one more thing I needed to feel successful in showing the Stone Ghosts as effective defenders of their home in The Knuckle. And that is retreat: using their supernatural abilities and home-field advantage, they have slaughtered other (off-screen NPC) adventuring parties. Neither of my player-character parties were killed because they were evidently a bit tougher, having been able to force the Stone Ghosts to withdraw but at such a heavy cost that they too find themselves unwilling to penetrate further into Steelhand Hall (the building that sits on top of the mine). In this, the Stone Ghosts have a purpose other than to wait for the players to arrive and fight. They are there to use whatever unholy means are necessary to keep intruders out of their haunted mine. In this they have suffered a casualty or two, but have largely been successful since Okkar Ironeyes led the first expedition to take place in hundreds of years. Who knows how long they can hold it together against the most recent group?
Whatever happens, I have already been successful in portraying a group of enemies as beings with their own motives and desire for self-preservation. I can feel confident in saying that because the players have indicated that although I only promised it as a one-off that they are interested in giving it another go. A DM knows they have done something right when the players are asking for more.