Category: RPG

An Encounter Random D&D 5e Quest

An adventure I wrote, designed, and ran for 6 level 5 players.

Here are the tables (each on a new sheet) for this session: link



Wedding at Bat Hollow D&D 5e Quest


A summary reference sheet for a quest I designed for my D&D 5e players. The goal was to design an adventure that could completed by fairly new players in one sitting. I also wanted to include a puzzle and some adventure game elements (item combination.) I ran this twice with a party of 3 and a different party of 4 and adjusted the number of enemies/their HP accordingly.


Level Layouts Designed for Discovery

These are two level layouts designed for a hypothetical fantasy RPG that are designed around setting up a sense of discovery and uncovering at a player controlled pace. One layout is good and one is bad at this.


Good Example:

  • Using a branching chokepoint level template to give the player options of how to proceed. Each has a different consequence – either a direct item reward or a new vantage point to deal with enemies – to give meaning to the player’s navigation choice.
  • Uses elevation, windows, and open angled sightlines to allow the player to control how they interact with enemies.
  • Variation in room size and landmarks (skeletons/tree) that mark branching path points so player does not feel anxious about breaking from their perceived optimal path (they can remember the space easier.)


Bad Example:

  • Using a straight on level template does not give the player much choice of how to navigate. Branches in the path have no meaningful consequence or visual differentiation to remember.
  • Enemies spawn behind the player or in halls at sharp angles, potentially chasing them to specific points and preventing the player from controlling the pace of the level.
  • Doors open toward the player, blocking line of sight on enemies.
  • Key opens both doors, both hallways functionally the same with similar space – not an interesting or meaningful choice.

Xenoterra 1.1 Rule Revisions



  • Before: I wanted to create a structure for rewarding conversations during play. Conversations were encounters that mimicked combat structure: each participating player got two actions per turn, one offensive (an accusation, lie, persuasion, seduction, or speech ability) and one defensive (a question or statement). Players would roll initiative with NPCs. This would allow players to start with a conversation before combat, give everyone an equal chance to participate, and reward clever roleplayers with additional XP (because you could chose to participate and gain addition d20 XP for each success attempt roll.)
  • After: I quickly realized that conversations among established friends flow naturally. They are unpredictable, take unquantifiable turns about random things and this is what makes them fun. Imposing structure on this is counterintuitive and makes the player constantly have to remember the rules and inevitably start the encounter over and over again because conversational flow is an innately ingrained fun pattern. I should reward conversations instead of structure them with opportunities to fail. I should push the fun forward, not the punishment. This was textbook Fail Fast and Find the Fun (Jason VandenBerghe.) I removed all rules from conversations, and now reward clever conversations with surprise dice.


Combat Complexity

  • Before: When it was their turn in combat, players got one move action, one defensive action (heal self or another PC, dodge, attune a weapon), and one offensive action (attack, use environment to attack, boost the attack of another PC, etc.) Players could hold their move and defense actions in exchange for a dodge later if a monster attacked them (with additional benefits to the dodge if the player withheld their defensive action.)
  • After: No one could remember this structure or clearly define defensive and offensive. Granted, these were new players to table top role playing games, but the experience never got easier over the first session. By session 2 I had revised the combat rules, giving each player 3 actions per turn. They could do any 3 things in their turn including duplicate move actions or attacks or otherwise. This made each turn faster as player didn’t have to continually ask what type of actions they had left. This also allowed them to think outside of the boxes of “defensive” and “offensive”, making them more open to share their combat ideas. In the new version I might try paring it to 2 actions to make combat go faster, as the three actions still created long turns.



  • Before: Players earn XP equal to the natural value of all d20 rolls they make. At 100 XP, the gain a level and a perk point, which they can spend on new abilities. Perks in their chosen talent skill tree cost 1 point, and perks in the other 2 skill trees cost 2. Each talent has a base ability and set of pinnacle perks that are unique to that talent and cannot be purchased by members of other talents. Pinnacle perks do more and cost 4 points.
  • After: Players level way too fast. They earn perks quickly, which is fun for them because shopping and spending is an innately fun pattern (for a number of factors, but including: individualization of the PCs, competition to buy limited special items, relief at replenishing lost health/ammo). However the players would only repeatedly use one or two of the abilities they learned, presumably because they forgot about the rest or didn’t value them. If the players had had to save up and buy each perk for a more meaningful amount of work, purchasing each perk would be a more satisfying and memorable experience. To put the brakes on this, I introduced a cap at level 10 so players would have to earn 250 XP to level up. In exchange, I gave them an additional damage success point (from 11 to 12) so they were harder to land hits on. In the new version I will bump up the required XP per level to exponentially grow in relation to the player’s level and start them off with a higher point requirement.


Experience Points Honor System:

  • Before: Players have to keep up with their own experience points. If they forget to tally a roll, then they lose those points. If they lie about how many they have, the DM has no way of knowing they are telling the truth.
  • After: While I believe that the friends I was playtesting with would be honest with me, I don’t think this system would fly for games with different friend dynamics, strangers, or in a competitive setting. This system also rewards the skill of memory. This was partially intentional, as I was in part designing for a friend who loved figures, stats, and quantifiable symbols of rewards. Keeping track of the XP was a source of fun for him. However, another player who had difficulty multitasking and took much more pleasure from engaging in the narrative often forgot to tally his XP. At the end of the arc he was at level 3 against the stat lover’s 12. This isn’t quite fair, since memory isn’t everyone’s type of fun and the system should be robust enough to accommodate different playstyles like this. However, keeping track of each player’s XP is too large a task for the DM in this case (that would also remove the stat lover’s fun.) For the next version I’m going to try validated XP sheets that are bright and colorful to remind the player to keep track. These are simply formatted sheets given to each player to add their XP on in a uniform way. The sheets are kept by the DM after play to be ‘checked’ for true values. This sense of accountability (whether or not the DM actually checks) I think will be enough to keep players honest.


Abilities: Death Whisper

  • Before: Death Whisper was a pinnacle perk only social talent players could learn by purchasing it with 4 perk points. This meant that one player got the perk at level 4, which allowed them one definite kill on one enemy per encounter. To whisper to an enemy to kill themselves was such an alluring idea that several players chose the social talent just for that perk. My initial logic with this was that since social players have limited combat benefits, this perk would give them an edge in battle.
  • After: Death Whisper was way too overpowered. This problem was compounded by the levelling pace, meaning that that level 4 player could death whisper an enemy with 100 HP, but could only do damage with his standard issue d4 blaster the next turn. This led to some creative workarounds, such as covering that players mouth in tar for one battle and having the party fight creatures with no ears for a while. None of these are sustainable. I’ve removed this ability and must be careful in the future with the power of abilities and at what level they can be purchased appropriately.



  • Before: I introduced a language translation puzzle to fix a narrative problem and allow the players to play through their frustrations with the story.
  • After: I think the players enjoyed this puzzle the most out of all the battles and riddles and NPCs. This was their favorite, most invested moment. The puzzle allowed them a concrete answer while rewarding them with a question that gave them a clear direction of where to go next. I want to make puzzles a more common element in future campaigns.

Xenoterra Session 4


In the last session, my players completed a story arc. They earned a new spaceship, a bunch of strange alien loot, and were given three major directions to take the next story arc: follow a set of coordinates to a planetary system around a blackhole the previous villain had targeted as a location to summon the Emberons (a race of extra-universe beings of unknown motive one of which they had just defeated), report to the Agnate (the Federation of this universe) of their deeds and what had happened, or seek out a criminal (simply noted as Blackwater) the previous villain had made contact with. The player chose to look for the criminal, for several different character reasons. I think they chose this option because it had the least info.

In Blackwater, which ended up being an ancient planet converted into a black ocean of rotting corpse ooze (harvested by the Agnate as fuel), I had set up another puzzle for the players. This puzzle came in two phases: they had to seek out translucent ‘keys’ to form an image indicating the location of a crime lord’s HQ, and then use the colors and shapes from those keys to unlock a door by pressing the correct buttons.

Puzzle Insights – NPC Motivations as Puzzle Mechanics, Single Player Tasks in Multiplayer Environments, UI

The goal of the first phase of the puzzle was to get the players to explore the NPCs of Blackwater more in depth. Mechanically, I also wanted to add party members as we were down about half our players that week. So, each major NPC had one of these keys – all of which were needed to progress. My players had formed different relationships with NPCs in the previous arc, but none of those NPCs could join the party. For this, I wanted them to have to pick the party members they chose (the NPCs had different motivations) or negotiate between them. For example, Ssonass the shady butcher will only give you his key if you promise him he will protected from the local crime lords. He insists he must join your party, which makes getting the key from Phobos and Demos, agents of that crime lord, rather difficult. This structure required that each NPC have a foil with slightly asymmetric goals:

  • Ssonass will give you a key if you promise he will be protected from the crime lord.
  • Phobos and Demos will give you a key for 800c (quite a sum) or if you prove yourself by stealing from Ssonass.
  • Zeera the bounty hunter will give you a key if you promise to kill the crime lord on sight. She’ll come with you to make sure.
  • Galahad will give you a key for doing noble deeds (or you can steal it from him/call it to his attention on successful perception rolls.) Stealing and killing are not noble in his eyes.

The players interacted with each NPC, though only added Ssonass, Zeera, and Galahad to the party, killing Phobos and Demos for their key. They agreed to protect Ssonass, successfully lied to Zeera about wanting to kill the crime lord, and convinced Galahad that killing Phobos and Demos would help in his quest for the grail (side bar this was also a tie in for our wizard PC’s personal quest.) I consider this puzzle a success because the players later applied their learned ability to problem solve around NPC goals later when they met the crime lord and convinced Zeera to begrudgingly accept him as a party member, and managed to convince the crime lord to accept Ssonass, who had killed and was selling the meat of the crime lord’s beloved pet.

This puzzle was less successful in nearly all other areas. While the party was discussing how to procede which their collection of volatile NPCs, the one player who happened to have all the keys in his hand solved the image puzzle alone. This was not what I intended, as I was hoping for another group solve moment like in the third session puzzle only this time with a fun and new material. This may indicate that the scope of the puzzle was too small a challenge for a group to comfortably solve, or that the social dynamics of the puzzle were more fun than matching the images. This portion of the puzzle was also weak for its non-inherent answer. While yes, it did have a correct answer that was somewhat recognizable when achieved (the solving player announced he had finished when he got the complete picture, though he didn’t say what it was), the solution was random to the players. The scarab image presented a new question that did not build out of the natural conclusion of the puzzle, like the translation puzzle earlier. The players had not seen that image before, and one of the NPCs had to explain to them what the image meant. This could be solved with a better integration of the symbol into earlier play, perhaps with a minor riddle with the NPCs or worked into the visual motifs.

The second part of the puzzle was unplayable due to a printing error. The colors on the printed material were too dark to distinguish, and I had to scrap the puzzle mid play upon realizing. Always pretest your materials.


Combat Insights – Structuring Luck with Monster Damage

After gathering these NPC party members, the party had a final battle. This was also our last session before I left for NYU, so I wanted to make this battle special. Talk had been floating around the players about monsters they had heard of (like gelatinous cubes) that they’d like to fight. One of these was a skeleton army. So I delivered.

While attempting to cross a field of rotting corpse tar to an elevator to the crimelord’s temple, the party was confronted by ~100 skeletons, a gelatinous cube by another name, and a faceless horror. The cube and horror were statted to be predictable but medium/hard monsters for the party’s level (60 HP versus the players’ average 30 HP, two attacks, AI to target the nearest player). They were included in the initiative order as individuals. The skeletons attacked together, twice in the initiative at equal spacing. I used a d60 to determine how many skeletons would attack with 1 point of damage that ignored armor, and a d10 to see how many party members (there were 10) based on initiative order would receive damage. If the skeletons criticalled on their check roll, each did 3 damage. This happened twice, and nearly TPK’ed both times. The first time it was interesting, with the conscious players scrambling to heal each other. They found it satisfying to successfully help their friends. The second time was frustrating for the players. I should have lied and not rolled with this. My goal is never to kill my players, just present the possibility of death.  Overall, I would remove the critical 3 points from the skeleton stats. Statistically, the d60 rolls high enough to cause thrilling damage even if each skeleton only does one damage. I should have also chosen another way to distribute the damage. Statistically, the players higher in initiative have a higher chance of taking more damage each skeleton turn. They are always the ones getting hit, and only by random chance (players in Xenoterra do not have abilities to affect initiative order). I should have chosen a more agent way of distributing damage, such as a choice earlier in the game. (Example: If a player ate Ssonass’ strange meat early in the session, then the mate of the creature the meat belonged too would later attack that player after smelling the residue.) Overall the skeleton war took an hour and a half, but was generally well received by the players.

Session Materials