Some of the best parts of tabletop role-playing are the creative ways players solve or avoid (or outright ignore) the problems and troubles the DM/GM/Storyteller sends their way.
One of the other best parts is coming up with those surprises to stump your players.
This afternoon, I sat down with the wife and kids to continue our D&D campaign. They’ve been steered (mostly by their characters’ needs and not by railroad tracks) toward tracking down a manipulative vampire clan. Members of the clan operate behind the scenes all over the realm, and it’s the heroes’ job to root these villains out.
They’re starting to travel all around the region, which gives me the chance to use a variety of settings.
I was going to use my copy of Dungeon Delve, with its pre-made adventures. But that would require getting tiles together, and I was looking for something with less prep required.
Good thing I had an unopened pack of GameMastery map tiles: Mines.
It’s 18 tiles that are made to mix and match, so that you can create a variety of tunnels to explore.
Events in the game led the wife’s and kids’ characters to a nearby mine overrun by goblins somehow connected to the clan. There are surviving miners… probably. Rescue is the main goal… as far as they know.
The intrepid heroes are ready to move in, and since it’s a dark mine, I lay out one Mines map tile at a time as they advance through the mine. I fanned out the tiles, blank backs up, and let the kids and Jami pick which one would be next. Then I came up with a brief answer for why that section of tunnel mattered. Sometimes it was tracks in the dungeon. Sometimes it was signs of battle to hint at what they might soon face. Once it was a vein of gleaming ore.
But even before all of that, right off the bat, their creative juices are flowing. I start off with a Dungeoneering check, as Beastly Tiger notices something amiss in the entrance of the tunnel. The goblins have prepared a rock-fall trap for unwanted guests. The kids discuss how best to deal with this, when I tell them their characters hear goblins chatting ahead in the tunnel.
The children gave me a pleasant surprise by remembering the idea of “holding action.” Basically, that means a character is ready to do a certain action if something specific happens. “I hold my axe up, ready to chop at the first goblin that walks through the door,” for example.
Deborah decides Beastly Tiger would make some noise to get the goblins’ attention, then she prepares to chuck a rock at the cords that will trigger the trap. Justin likes this plan, and declares that Clayface has his crossbow ready to shoot the cords at the other side of the tunnel, once the goblins are in position. Jonathan finishes up by “holding” a magic missile to hit any of the goblins who survive the rock-fall trap.
Needless to say, the battle went poorly for the goblins. It also went poorly for Jami’s new monk character, Lily-Ann, a halfling who is unfortunately about goblin sized. That explains why Beastly Tiger may have accidentally swung his hammer to smash Lily-Ann in the side of the head:
Deborah rolled a 1. We picked a fumble card, and it said “You attack your ally instead. This attack is a critical threat.” So Deborah rolled for her attack against Lily-Ann, and the die went off the table. She tried again, and rolled a 20. Murphy’s Law, I guess.
Even so, the heroes had little difficulty dealing with the goblins and some creepy-crawlies in the tunnels.
I needed a good hook to end with, and as we took a quick break, it came to me.
I’d been removing the old map tiles behind their characters in the mine, partly to save space, but more importantly, to set up the surprise.
They hit an intersection, determined a direction, and quickly came to a dead end with the section that has ore. They fought more beasties, then turned around to back-track…
And eventually they found themselves right back at the ore, even though they’d gone the opposite direction.
Deborah and Jonathan look at me funny. Jami asks, “Wait, what?” And then it starts to dawn on their faces…
Time and space are being shifted around in the mine. The path they took is now completely different. There is a monstrous creature in the cavern whose powerful twisted magic creates this effect, and they must find it and slay it in order to find their way out.
Jonathan’s eyes go wide, and he declares, “I like where this is going.”
Removing the tiles saved space and created a fun challenge.
The kids took off to play outside, since there was only a couple hours before sunset. But they made sure to ask, “Can we keep playing once we come back inside?”
I’ll chalk that up as a win.