Friday, December 24, 2021

State of the Blog Year 3

Welcome to the third anniversary of A Distant Chime! I'm glad to be here another year with a great community, and hope to keep writing with you all for a long time! Happy Christmas Eve! Now onto this year's reflections!


I've posted fewer pieces this year than any year prior. I attribute this to my having only a limited time and energy budget for RPGs, especially since I'm back in school now, and that budget is taken up more and more by actually running the game. I not only finished the Castle Xyntillan campaign, but started an Icewind Dale campaign in 5e and brought it to a satisfying conclusion, and started and concluded a Legend of the 5 Rings 4e campaign for most of the same group. 

My notetaking for both these campaigns is terrible compared to that of my CX game. How terrible, you ask? I don't know for sure how many sessions each ran for, that's how bad. I'm not sure why my notetaking degraded so either. By the end of the CX game, I was having great difficulty remembering funny interactions between players, which I could do quite easily at the start. Still, I wager those two games combined totaled around 60 sessions, so I've run an excess of 70 total sessions this year. This means that I'm now well above 100 games run in my career as a GM. It's a big step up from the blog's early days, when my writing was more fiction-like, ungameable, and I had quite little GMing of playing experience. 

That said, I still managed to write a bit. 

The posts which I still recommend reading include:

Finally, my favorite thing I wrote this year was The First Rat Bank, a dungeon which I submitted to JB's Out of the Sewer! contest, and won one of the two top spots. You can find the first draft of it (which has some very notable formatting errors I didn't catch before I sent it in, special thanks to Melan for taking a look at it!) at Actually Making a Dungeon: The First Rat Bank. If you want to see the cleaned-up version, keep an eye on JB's blog for when he publishes the collection. It's for charity!


My stats page tells me that I accumulated some 50 thousand views in the last twelve months, and I no longer trust it in the least. At various times in this same period I've noticed quite strange behavior in my blog views, with various unlikely countries suddenly spiking with hundreds of views in a short period, apparently driven by a single viewer. This explosion in viewership, at the same time that my posting rate has dramatically slowed, was not at all accompanied by an increase in comments or followers. I have no idea what this is, but it's definitely not real readership. Some other bloggers, such as Sofinho, have noticed very similar behavior. I'm just not going to bother looking at these stats going forward unless I can figure out how to separate the real views from... bots? I have no clue.


I've stopped really advertising myself as much, outside of just posting links to the OSR server when I write a post. I no longer trawl the OSR Pit, nor the OSR subreddit. I feel like I'm missing so much there, but can't find the time. Still, I'm having a good time writing here for the followers I already have, so i've little to complain about.

The Index

Has not been updated in... oh my that's a long time. I suppose I'll have to hunker down and work on that, but not today.

Unfinished Drafts

I have... a lot of them. Some are posts which I started writing but got sidetracked on. Others are essays which I've come back to repeatedly, but haven't been able to bring into proper form. Others are less posts on themselves and more reminders to my future self to write something. Some I've just gone ahead and discarded, while others I do intend to one day finish. I list a few here. If any sound especially interesting to read, comment below and I'll prioritize them.

Politics in RPGs: A response to Prismatic Wastelands' post Apolitical RPGs Do Not Exist

Module Doctor: Oni Mother Okawa Part 2, in case you want me to torture myself further in the process of demonstrating how to cut down narration and description.

Parable of Smake-Hands Jimmy: Some dungeon poetry and kooky short fiction of dubious worth.

A post examining the differences in medieval and modern worldviews with regard to magic and fantasy. 

Reflections from my time as a player instead of a GM, and how they contrast,

The many kinds if 'inns' and their implications for your fantasy world. 


Thus ends another year! Stay safe and spend time with your families, and special thanks to frequent commenters Tamás Kisbali, Sofinho, Spwack and Melan

Friday, December 3, 2021

Actually Making a Dungeon: The First Rat Bank

Many of you will have seen JB's Out of the Sewer! adventure contest. TL;DR, it was a contest for the month of November to write a rat-themed adventure, with a shortlist of the adventures repackaged as an anthology to be sold for charity. I was a busy bee in November, but kept it in the back of my mind, and when I finally had time to spare during Thanksgiving week, I poured myself into it. 

And it turns out... I was one of the two winners. I did not expect this, but am quite happy with it. The other big winner is Vance A. with 'Clearing the Warren,' go show him some love!

Since JB enjoyed it, I figured I'd put my process out for others to see, since it was a good learning experience. 

The adventure I made is The First Rat Bank, a dungeon-based adventure with 27 rooms in 3 pages, plus 2 pages of maps and a page for notable characters and treasures (mostly magic items). It's a pretty slapdash affair, very basic layout with no frills, no art, maps exported from mipui, and without real adventure hooks or wandering encounters, just rooms and keys. So it's by no means complex, but I think it's fairly competent for what it is.

The Concept

At the beginning of the month, I did a bit of brainstorming, and settled on writing an adventure set in a tavern, where everyone within had been shrunk down through a magic ritual conducted by a swarm of cranium rats, such that the party would have to face ordinarily trivial challenges at 1/12 their normal size. A neat idea, but tough to pull off, and by the time the last week rolled around, an entirely different, and more executable, idea came up.

JB hates rats. I'm not quite so down on the little things, though I've never lived in close proximity (that I know of). Besides their association in western countries with plague, I was more taken with their eastern associations with industry, generosity and wastefulness (according to wikipedia anyway). In Legend of the 5 Rings (which is actually one of my favorite systems to run or play, though I've written almost nothing about it on this blog) rats are the sacred animals of Daikoku, the fortune of prosperity. 

So when I thought of rats, I didn't think first of disease-ridden warrens and plague pits. My first image was of a statue of a rat holding a coin. That first image turned into the basic premise; a bank, whose icon is a rat, making use of the above associations, whose (more literally than usual) predatory practices lead a team of adventurers to break in and ???. Maybe discover some secret, destroy them, steal all their goodies, what have you, it's not very well defined in the end result either. I imagined were-rats using their control of ordinary rats to comb the city, not just for information, but stealing small valuables, a lost earring here, a coin from under the couch there, etc. This didn't really make it into the final cut either.

The Making

My first stop for making the adventure was figuring out the level and treasure, as well as the system. I settled on Swords and Wizardry, since it's the retro system I have the most familiarity with thanks to my CX campaign, and I settled on a dungeon for a party of level 6. Why? Well, because I wanted to be able to throw some neat stuff in there and the highest level I've ever run is 6, since that's where the CX campaign ended. Plus, if I ever got around to playtesting it, I could get the old gang back together, dust off the Groomsmen with all their insane magic items, and relive the glory days (the glory days were less than a year ago -Ed). If Sabatini, Dave, other Dave, or Justin are reading this, hey! Maybe don't read the dungeon if you're interested, or be prepared for a memory wipe.

So I went to my regular resource for this stuff... B/X Blackrazor. Seriously, JB's posts on Stocking per Moldvay (especially part 2) are my go-to. Level 6 party, I wanted a dungeon that could get such a party halfway to level 7 if they found and fought everything (JB pins the size for something like that around 30-ish rooms, I went for 30 to start) and last two or three sessions. 

I calculated the amount of XP to put in there (about 60k for a party of 5) and since I play with monster xp, went for a 3-1 ratio of treasure xp to monster xp, smack in the middle of S&W's recommended range. 

With that down, I got cracking. I always start these things with a basic concept, and then fill in with monsters. 15k of monsters is a fair bit, and I split these up into packets for encounters. 1800xp of monsters can cover lots of things, from a single big bruiser to a truly massive rat swarm. I like smaller numbers of monsters usually, the most I ever put in a single room here is eleven, so no room full of 50 skeletons here. 

I just flipped through the bestiary and picked stuff at random, some because it made sense (wererats? Obviously! And what kind of bank doesn't have a vampiric manager?) and others that really didn't make sense (a medusa? A treant? a flesh golem? how do these fit? Don't know, I'll find a place) and filled stuff into the slots, modifying the plan at my whim as I went. 

Soon enough I had a list of monsters, and got to wondering how they fit together. I also followed JB's advice in splitting the treasure according to a power-law distribution (I think it is anyway? Oh, for the days I could rattle off the difference between heavy and light-tailed distributions! [those days were also less than a year ago -Ed]) where half the treasure was in one spot, and a quarter in the next, and an eighth in the next, and so on. 

Then I took the Moldvay stocking distribution, 10 monsters, 10 empty rooms, 5 traps, 5 'special' rooms, assigned treasure to a few of these, and just started placing. Some monsters were pretty easy to place, obviously the treant was above ground, and the vampire below. I had settled by this point on two floors, ten rooms on the surface and 20 below. 

I had not, by this point, done very much on a map, so I made a very quick sketch to organize my thoughts. The bulk of the work in the next session was a matter of seeing what ideas came up, figuring if they fit or not, and putting them in rooms if they did. By far the most difficult bit for me is in making traps. Even with a copy of Grimtooth's at hand I am woeful with them, and find myself unable to do good sideways thinking to come up with good concepts. The best one here is a derivative of the 'Roman Amphitheatre' trap, which in a characteristic display of punnishness I labeled 'Ratlas Shrugged.' It's a good day when you can squash the party with a physical manifestation of their own greed. 

Once this phase was over, I had a whole bunch of rooms, some well defined and some not, and nowhere to put them. So I sketched up a map on mipui and just started placing. Some rooms, especially empty rooms, became quite clear once I had a space in front of me. 

The rest of the work was a mix of creativity with tedium. The best is when I've got an idea and am figuring out how to put it in words, the worst is when I've got to write a trap and nothing is coming to mind. The end result here was 27 rooms instead of 30, and it came mostly out of my trap budget. 

I noticed this when I was doing my Depravities of the Dinosorcerer dungeon last year (very much the same process as this, but more ambitious, less coherent, and unfinished), I really love the craft of taking an evocative idea and figuring out how to condense and compress it with minimal loss so it fits in a few lines. I also love taking a mediocre concept and spinning out something evocative from its bones, it's so gratifying. 

The monsters especially went through a few versions before I got something that felt right. In the end result, there are some parallels and what I will tentatively call 'themes,' n.b. Eve vs Emptiness-Seeks-Form. These were not part of any plan, but once I saw them arising I put in some effort to flesh them out. 

However, a week isn't very long even with a lot free time, and I'm new at this, so near the end I still had a bunch of rooms , especially the empty and special rooms, which needed something and had nothing, not even a concept. I wound up taking some really basic stuff (mess hall, kitchen, evil shrine) and trying to make them fun and fresh without requiring too much 'content' with varying results. 

I outright stole one room from the dinosaur dungeon mentioned above, since I increasingly despair of it ever being finished. It was probably my favorite of those rooms I've made. 


It's worth noting that the layout/format for all this is effectively stolen from Melan's Castle Xyntillan, since it's very readable, dense and I'm comfortable with it. I've used it for so many of my projects that I largely no longer need to reference the original or my impromptu style guide. 


Didn't happen. I don't have an old-school group at the moment and getting one together for this is beyond my present circumstances. Fully testing, expanding and polishing this is a someday affair.
And on the pedestal these words appear,
'No playtesters are credited in this publication.'

Writing an adventure is time-consuming. Much more so than just making the framework for one for my own table. That said, the games I've homebrewed haven't depended heavily on dungeons. 

Without a deadline like this, it likely would have never gotten done. Not sure how to implement this for the future. 

I have a not-inconsiderable talent for coming up with fun ideas and applying them. I like this. 

I seriously need to work out my block with traps. 

This is fun, and I am inspired to do more. 


If you've enjoyed this rambling mess, there's more where that came from! Comment below, and be sure to follow the blog. Until next time, have an excellent week!

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Ptolus Sessions 2 and 3: Lord of the Flies

The party takes on a job from the Longfingers' Guild to earn their trust, digs deeper into the mysteries just beneath the city surface, and faces death at the hands of a powerful foe!

The Party

, human druid. Seeking out the famed druid Andach and the answer to the last riddle posed by his cousin
Jaiden Daham/Cunningham, aasimar paladin. spent most of his young life in the back of the ironworkers' guildhall, seeking vengeance on the Balacazars for the debt in which they old his family
Lucien Chenier, half-elf bard, has earned the ire of various nobles thanks to his irreverent and abrasive performances, now laying low.

Notable Deeds

Broke into the tower of Golathan Naddershrike and secured it for the Longfingers Guild
Got Terrek Nal sent to Mahdoth's Asylum
Meet the druid Andach and his apprentice Hennam
Recruit the priest of battle Tiel Lawley
Fight an opponent way out of their league. 

The Broadsheets

The Midtown Partisan, 10 Wind 721


A House Abanar member responded to requests by the Ptolus Food Bank by donating a honeycake, said, “Why stick to bread? Pastries are so much more delicious!” We look forward to our emergency supplies being full of stale sweets.

The Guilder, Friday 10 of Wind 721


An ironsmith struck a peaceful silversmith on the street last night, leading to an open brawl between silver and iron guilders. Have the Ironmasters chosen their side in the feud?

The Ptolus Herald, Friday 10th Wind 721


As the sun rises again, so does our noble paper return to your hands, dear reader. Though we struggle under the heavy yoke of tyranny, the stars are right for a change in the hearts of men. Behold the signs, and follow where they lead!

The Game
  • The night of the 9th of Wind, 721, Lucien is woken in his room at the Ghostly Minstrel by... a ghostly minstrel, the patron spirit of the place, playing a haunting tune. He tells it to go away and let him sleep. 
  • Jaiden wakes in the morning of the 10th with a splitting headache, and when he comes down, Tellith shows him his reflection; his sclera have turned pitch-black and the veins around his eyes have darkened. She gives him some makeup to mitigate the look.
  • Miranir heads out of the Minstrel in a rush, heading for the Sages' Guild headquarters. 
  • As the party is having breakfast and reading the broadsheets, a knock comes at the door. The same courier kid that tried to scam Dmitree a couple days back is carrying a message, and is conspicuously apologetic. The message is from their new friend in the Longfingers' Guild, Chelsean Featherhair. They meet up with her at the Old Goose in Midtown, and she gives the the details of a job.
  • The alchemist Golathan Naddershrike of Rivergate, whom the Longfingers have been surveilling for some time, is believed dead. His wife Ardelia went missing last year, and his apprentice, Terrek Nal, hasn't been seen since Golathan last was. Their tower, filled with a great many magic accoutrements, is believed empty, and the party is going to break in and secure the place. 

  • They accept the mission and conditions, and head on over to the sleepy residential district of Rivergate. Naddershrike's home is a quaint one-story house with a three-story tower bolted to the side, leaning over the cliff. His mailbox is overflowing with bills and notices, including from Myraeth's Oddities. Lucien hears the whining of a dog from the tower, which is swiftly cut off. They detect magical defenses, and circumvent them by tossing a rock through a window, triggering the trap at range. 
  • Inside, the building is a mess. Green-orange goop stains the floors, and one bed is soaked through with the stuff, even as one of the rooms is covered in months of dust and perfectly orderly. They move to the wizard's tower, but a wave of magic rips through the air; Lucien and Dmitree see copies of themselves step through a mirror... versions of themselves with no heads, and fanged faces on their stomachs. Jaiden sees nothing, smashes the mirror as they run away, and kicks down the door to the tower.
  • The first floor is filled with crates and boxes, mostly mundane alchemical equipment and supplies; valuable, but bulky. They hear a shuffling behind the crates, and the dog's whining is audible above. They search but fail to find the source of the shuffling, instead just getting a creepy laugh. 
  • They climb to the next floor. There they find a starved puppy in a cage, messy, goop-ridden bedding and a ramshackle alchemical contraption. They move to free the puppy, and a whisper commands them to stop. It swirls around them cackling, and Jaiden strikes at it when it gets near, revealing it. The creature is humanoid, with one side of its body flayed, deformed and oozing goop. 
Jaiden: Okay *whacks it again*
  • The party succeeded in neutralizing and knocking out the creature before it could reach the alchemical contraption and pull a switch. They tied it up, and found that, suspended in a frictionless cauldron within, was a roiling mass of black goo. 
  • Upstairs, they found the body of Golathan Naddershrike, rotting and stuffed under bedding. They looted his office and found off materials; a crystal that floated to the top of its jar, a silvery box filled with mercurial liquid, a vial of sparkling green dust. They also found his ledger, filled with abbreviated records.

Blm 8 720, dlvrd 50 frstn to Savane, 550gp

Grwth 14 720, pudding to Ardelia’s uncle, 250gp

Toil 2 720, full vlls for Dream, 300gp

Mns 27 720, more pudding for Ardelia’s, 200gp

Nwyr 9 721, hlthl for I.P. 80gp, missed a bit

Brth 13 721, 1-dose ithlrd for Khatru, for 13 Wind, 600gp

  • There was also an unmarked book at the bottom of his locked desk drawer. The inside cover was drawn with a spiral pattern, apparently drawn in blood, and the rest of the pages were blank. 
  • Noting all of this, they head back down, wake the creature up and interrogate it. They are unsurprised to learn that it's the alchemist's apprentice, Terrek Nal, whom Naddershrike cursed and was killed by. Nal is no longer strictly human, and nowadays is sustained by the fear of sentient beings. They get confirmation from him that Naddershrike was creating black puddings through an alchemical process, and was selling them to his wife Ardelia's family.
  • They pop back outside to see the tower being watched by a pair of Longfingers, a tall man named Shortman and a short man named Tallman. Shortman and Tallman take the players' report as to the contents of the tower, and recognize the blank book as a ritual item of the Crimson Coil chaos cult, which they are in no mood to take. They hand the party their pay for a job well done, which includes a mage coin; a triangular glass-and-bronze token which returns to the hand of the person who last touched it no matter where it is. 
  • Thus the party leaves the tower and its valuables to the thieves, and take Nal with them back to the Ghostly Minstrel while they figure out what to do with him. They get Tellith to put the word out to Jevicca Nor of the Inverted Pyramid in the hopes she can help. Within a few hours, they're visited by her half-elven apprentice, who is fascinated to learn the story and identifies Nal as a phobophage. He takes Nal into his own custody and drags him over to Mahdoth's Asylum, where he promises the cursed being be taken care of. 
  • With plenty of daylight left, the party decides to follow some leads. They know the alchemist was made and sold at least one black pudding before, and they hear from Tellith that there was a strange black pudding attack in the Necropolis last year, not long after the listed date in the ledger. Dmitree has also been meaning to go there and meet the druid Andach.
  • So they travel from Midtown to the Necropolis, and weave between the graves and mausoleums until they reach a lake festooned with greenery, and cross a bridge to Clasthamus Isle. 

  • They are greeted by a half-elven druidess, Hennam, who greets them and asks after any news from the city. She leads them to her master Andach, who reluctantly accepts the questions of a fellow druid. He hears out the riddle that Dmitree learned from his uncle Uilleague (whom Andach knew, and referred to as a 'little punk') and informs him that it has deep occult and chaotic significance, a close association to the rhetoric of chaos cults like the Crimson Coil, whose name he refuses to speak aloud. He also tells the party what little he knows about last year's pudding attack; it assaulted a patrol of Keepers of the Veil, nearly killing one. These sorts of monsters are not common to the Necropolis. 
  • The party thank Andach and follow up on these leads. They visit the Keepers' headquarters, the Siege Tower in the Necropolis, and speak with the knight, Damien, who still bears the pudding's corrosion scars. He shows them a device, a rune-inscribed cube pulled from the pudding's corpse, which the party suspects is a control device. 
  • Even with this, the party is frustrated by lack of information on Ardelia and her family; they put their heads together and settle on visiting the Oldtown Administration building to locate Golathan Naddershrike's marriage certificate. After several hours of bureaucratic bumbling, they land in the correct line and Lucien puts in an information request under Jaiden's name. They're informed this will take a while. 
  • They call the day there and return home. Dmitree goes out to a haircut, and learns that talk of the democratic-republican movement is gaining steam in some quarters of the populace. Jaiden sets about embossing an insignia into his shield, that of an angel's wing over a blue cross.
  • The morning of the 11th they return to the Necropolis to follow up another lead; the mad hermit Igor Reichstav is supposed to know a great deal of the local happenings, but reaching him is no easy matter. 

  • They travel until they spy a mausoleum covered in flies. Absolutely covered, some the size of large birds. On their approach, two especially large flies peel off from the swarm and assault the party, spearing Lucien through the shoulder with their probosces. The party dispatch the creatures with some difficulty and find a gaunt, tall man covered in insects in the mausoleum. Contrary to their expectations, he's alive and moving. 
  • The party entreats him to share what he knows, and he demands booze in exchange. Dmitree runs back into the city and buys the first bottle of cheap rum he can get his hands on. Igor is satisfied, taking long swigs and flinging the liquor into the air for the flies. 
  •  He tells the party that he saw a cloaked cultist wielding a coil of red string not far from the assault on the Keepers, and that the cultist fled into the Reliquary, the palatial building at the east end of the Necropolis. He appears to speak with the flies, and tells them yet more; the flies say not to trust Chelsean Featherhair, and they appear to know about their search for Ardelia Naddershrike; they say her maiden name was Terian
  • The party thanks Igor for his help, and move on back to Oldtown. They inform the documents desk about Ardelia's last name, which they expect will speed up the process, and head out to lunch. 
  • Throughout the last couple days, the party has become paranoid about being watched by ravens, and are on constant lookout for the birds. At lunch, Jaiden is confronted by a member of the Ironworkers' guild, the same who tried to boss him around a few days ago, and other guilders have to drag him away before a fight breaks out. 
  • In short order, the party has confirmation; Golathan Naddershrike married Ardelia Terian six years ago in a civil marriage, unusual in Ptolus. Their research indicates that the Terians are a small merchant family that immigrated to Ptolus en masse about a decade ago. Little else is known about them. 
  • With that done, they settle on their next stop: the Reliquary. They are undeterred by tales that nobody who goes there comes back, but they pick up some insurance in the form of Tiel Lawley, a famed mercenary who fights for the joy of battle alone, and never backs down from combat. 
  • Back to the reliquary, further east than even the Deathguilders go, the colossal building stands before them. 

  • In the shadow of the entrance lie several humanoids: blood-starved vampires. They beg the party for blood, just a bit to sate the hunger. The party instead open fire with ranged weaponry and spells, and the weakened vampires fall like fish in a barrel, pounding on the shut door. 
  • The party tries knocking on the door themselves, to no avail. They also try to knock it down with little success, but succeed in getting attention. It opens slightly, and a humongous, ogreish creature in the other side demands that they leave. The party refuses. The doorkeeper takes exception to their gauche behavior and shuts the door. Then mist flows out of the keyhole, and the doorkeeper reforms in front of them, carrying a sword taller than any of them. 
  • In the following battle, Jaiden, Tiel and Dmitree engage the doorkeeper in melee while Lucien's cutting words keep the creature off balance. Despite being totally outmatched, the battle seems to go well for them, until Tiel's legendary endurance gives out and the doorkeeper fills the area with mist... and something moves in the mist. When Tiel is crushed by an invisible force, the party books it with his body, leaving the doorkeeper alive but heavily injured. 
  • They reach the paladins at the Siege Tower, but by that point, Tiel's been dead for several minutes. The paladins excoriate the party for their recklessness and take his body. The exhausted party returns to the Ghostly Minstrel to rest and regroup, finally reuniting with Miranir. The next morning, the 12th, they receive a message: a ransom note for their friend Anageo Quigg. 


A whole lot happened in the course of two sessions, even though these were relatively short. We played the assault on Naddershrike's tower on Halloween, which I had prepped specifically to see how well more directed play worked in this campaign. Answer, pretty well, though self-directed exploration + desperate GM improvisation will likely continue to be the focus.

I really didn't expect the party to try assaulting the Reliquary, though I did give them a powerful NPC to tag along and take some hits. Of course, he's now dead, but I expect we'll be seeing more of Tiel in the future. 

We're also reaching places where I'm inserting some of my own content into the book; the connections between the Crimson Coil and Naddershrike didn't exist in the original.  

The tone continues to be semi-serious, with the comedic elements arising from in-character interaction with the absurdities of the world, which the players take deadly seriously. I quite like this tone. 


Thanks for reading! If you're keeping up with the campaign then comment below, be sure to follow the blog and share it with others. until next time, have an excellent week.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Ptolus Session 1: Meet the Rats

We return for our first full (though in practice second) session of Ptolus: In The Shadow of the Spire. After establishing themselves in the city and building a few connections, the party gets down to the business of making hard cash and figuring out how to bring the fight to the Balacazars.

The Party

, human druid. Seeking out the famed druid Andach and the answer to the last riddle posed by his cousin
Jaiden Daham/Cunningham, aasimar paladin. spent most of his young life in the back of the ironworkers' guildhall, seeking vengeance on the Balacazars for the debt in which they old his family
Miranir/Meep, half-elf warlock, an orphan raised by the Sages' guild, almost died when their headquarters suffered a fire, was rescued by his patron's intervention. Nicknamed for his first word
Lucien Chenier, half-elf bard, has earned the ire of various nobles thanks to his irreverent and abrasive performances, now laying low.

Notable Deeds

Lost membership in the Ironworkers' Guild
Found a hidden Longfingers Guild dead drop
Made contact with a Longfingers Guild member
Found a ratman nest in the sewers and slew many of them

The Broadsheets

The Courier, 8th of Wind 721


After his arrest two days past for treasonous speech outside the Oldtown Admin, D-R leader Helmut Itlestein is released in order to ‘not impede his duties to his congregants.’ Meanwhile, HI’s little helpers rot in jail. So much for a man of the people! Watch out for the city’s most heretical high priest, and stay safe Ptolus.

The Midtown Partisan, 8 Wind 721


Balacazar head gave a speech declaring the KCL’s recent attack against him shows how bad crime is. He’s taking to the streets to ‘keep people safe’ from them. We’re sure Lord B. knows more about Ptolus’ crime than we do, and wish him the best in his holy crusade.

The Noble Record, Wind 721



Who is Lady Erthuo’s most recent beau, and why is she hiding them? The NR’s secret sources have the whole sordid tale, and this is one for the books. 

The Guilder, Wednesday 8 of Wind 721



The Silver Guildmaster sat down to dinner with the head of the Masons. Is this a friendly chat, or muscle deal for his fight against the goldsmiths? Find out!

The Market Voice, Wed 8th of Wind 721

The allure of the far east can be yours, with Faraway Scents! Just off Horseweed St

Your posters and flyers, printed at Blackstock! Intersection of Iron St and Carriage Row

Hunting ratmen? Get Bith’s best! Calabis St

The Game
  • The party woke in the Ghostly Minstrel on the 8th of Wind, 721, their third day in the city of Ptolus. Their gnomish partner Anageo Quigg has made his way home last night. They dug into some cheese, oats and cold fish as they read the broadsheets. 
  • Their breakfast was interrupted by an eight-year old courier carrying a message for 'Jaiden Cunningham.' It was a note from the Ironworkers' Guild, reprimanding him for failing to do his guild job, and giving him another task: going to the Darkbirth Madhouse and getting a guild member, Spyncer Coil, out. The courier energetically demanded a silver shield from Jaiden until Lucien pointed out that couriers in Ptolus get paid up front. The courier left in a huff, his con unsuccessful.
Darkbirth Madhouse
  • The party discussed their next move, and settled on checking out the Madhouse. However, once at the site and learning about its history, they decided that signing out a patient would be someone else's problem. Jaiden took the guild note and scribbled 'Unsubscribe all' on the backside, and handed a silver coin to a passing courier to get it over to the Ironworker's Guild. 
  • With Jaiden soon to be an ex-member of one of the city's most powerful guilds, the party returned to Delver's Square and geared up for another shot at the dungeon. They settled on following the trail of chalk marks they found in the northern sewers in their last delve, and at the end, found a loose brick with a note hidden behind it. They read it, copied it, and then replaced it as best they could. 
Alley off 83 Yarrow St. Wait at least half an hour
Codeword, Rutabaga 
This symbol was also on the note
  • As they were doing this, Lucien heard a voice speaking in his head, alternating between pleas for help and food. A slimy tentacle snuck out from the sewer muck, but the party sprang away. The voice declared it only wanted to shake their hands. Miranir stepped forward and offered his hand in friendship. He barely avoided being grappled and dragged into the muck, as a great, bulky mass swelled out. They struck at it and ran away, the telepathic voice cursing them.
  • The party resolved to follow the clue on the note, and traveled up to Oldtown. There they found a dead-end alley right where the note said, and after some searching, found the same symbol on the note carved into a brick, which was not loose. They waited at the mouth of the alley for some time, and then a voice came from behind Dmitree. 
"Whaddaya want?"
  • The voice had no obvious source. Dmitree gave the password, and the voice cackled. It complained that this job had been unusually difficult, but it had discovered that two days earlier, Malkeen Balacazar had entered the city with a rusted iron box, which in fact contained a Dwarvenhearth key. Lucien and Miranir knew stories about the ancient dwarven city below Ptolus, untouched by surface dwellers for many centuries at least. A key into Dwarvenhearth could be immensely valuable.
  • The party thanked the voice for the information, and informed it that another person would be coming by later for the same report. They observed that across from the alley was Menasa's, a boarding house, and after considering waiting on the roof, decided to rent a room there for the night and stake out the alley to see who else came by.
  • Soon after getting the (remarkably cheap) room, conveniently endowed with a balcony, they settled in to watch the place. Lucien checked out some of the neighboring rooms to ensure they were secure, and barged in on a couple in the throes of passion. Meanwhile, Dmitree remembered he was still on Quigg's payroll as an advertiser, and decided to grow out the nearby plants and fashion the vines into a banner. With several hours' work, during which nobody went to stand at the mouth of the alley, Dmitree, hung a net of vines which advertised Wondrous Tattoos in North Market. 
  • Several interested customers came into the boarding house to ask about the banner, and Dmitree, who unconvincingly gave his name as 'Mossy Silverthorn' got a stern talking to from Menasa for failing to pay her for use of her façade, and Lucien had to advocate on his behalf and take down the banner himself. 
  • Some hours later, well after sunset, an elven woman with silvery hair stops at the mouth of the alley and leans against the marked brick. With the exception of Lucien, she notices the whole group watching her from the balcony. She stealthily performs a magic spell, and shortly afterwards subtly beckons to the group. 
  • They descend to meet her, and Miranir brazenly asks if she's a member of the Longfingers Guild. Lucien has to work hard to salvage the situation, but does eventually convince this woman, Chelsean Featherhair, that his companion meant no offense by it. Chelsean casts a sound-muffling spell around them and questions the party. The party make their services available to the Longfingers in any operation which would harm the Balacazars or Killravens. 
  • She tells the party she'll send word once she has a job for them, confirms the intel on Malkeen Balacazar, and excuses herself. The party decides the night is young, and that since it's always dark in the dungeon, there's no wrong time to delve. This time, they went looking for ratmen, since they'd heard the bounty per tail got raised from 2 to 3 gold pieces each. 
  • That night they located and fell upon a heavily infested ratman nest in the sewers, slaying many, but receiving heavy wounds of their own in turn. When they realized the nest extended far beyond their expectations, and heard the rumbling of many rats further in the tunnels, they turned tail and ran for the surface. They stayed in Menasa's boarding house that night, the couple in the other room making sleep difficult. 
  • The next morning, they waited with no reward for a message from Chelsean and the Longfingers, and returned to the sewers for more rat tails, this time encountering a patrol of rat-men, including one armed with a rusty pistol. The party made short work of even this foe and returned to the Ghostly Minstrel to count their hard-earned coin.


The end of the session was dominated by combat in the sewers vs ratmen, and I felt that it was insufficiently engaging or dynamic. I can do much better. I also gave some very heavy-handed hints to the players at various times, letting them know that I was perfectly willing to throw challenges that their 1st-level asses couldn't handle, namely the otyugh and the swarm of ratmen. Have you seen the roster on that dungeon?! That's a lot of ratmen. 

Speaking of which, as much as the format of Ptolus is excellent for the city sections, it really falls apart for me in the dungeons. Large blocks of text with the relevant contents buried inside. Unlike the standalone locations of the city, individual dungeon rooms are much, much less sticky, and it's harder for me to get a good handle on them. I think I'll wind up making a bulleted roster for the dungeons, especially so that I can organize enemy responses to incursions, especially for these large ones with many rooms and many, many enemies. These are no lair dungeons.

I expect to make broadsheet cards for my players each session, though perhaps not for every paper each time. This time, for example, there wasn't anything from the Ptolus Herald, since their headquarters had just been raided by the guard. Giving them a fuller complement this time served to introduce the different papers, their subjects and biases. 

With the Longfingers cache, I was sort of running by the seat of my pants. I'd figured it would leads them to Shim's meeting point in Skulk Alley, but I wasn't sure what Shim would have for them. I let the encounter play for a little while before the party convinced him to give the report, by which time I'd settled on the Dwarvenhearth key lead. 

Regarding Miranir's blunt approach of Chelsean, I'm not sure how much of that was him playing his character and how much was a mismatch in expectations between player and GM. I try to play NPCs are more or less realistic people, and just going up to someone and asking them if they're a member of a criminal organization is not likely to be a good approach. In this scenario, the Longfingers now consider the party a disposable asset to be burned as soon as is convenient, whereas if they'd done a better job, Chelsean may have seen them as more reliable agents. 

Not sure what Jaiden's player was going for with dissing the Ironworkers' Guild. it's going to come back and bite him in the ass not too long from now, though. Nobody disses the Guild.


Thanks for reading! If you're keeping up with the campaign then comment below, be sure to follow the blog and share it with others. until next time, have an excellent week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Ptolus Session 0: The First Steps

Why the lengthy silence? Well, besides my return to class, I've started a new campaign. It took a couple weeks, what with getting college students to agree to a schedule being like herding cats, but I managed. Just a few hours ago we had our first session of Ptolus: In The Shadow of the Spire

Clearly I was inspired by the Alexandrian's campaign set in the same city, and then recent release of the book in 5th edition (by far the easiest game for people to agree on) was a godsend. It's huge, but planes offer plenty of reading time. I'll write up my process for starting the campaign later, but now I want to put finger to board and actually record the events of the game, like I did back the olden days of the Xyntillan campaign (which ended not even a year ago. This is weird). 

The Party

Dmitree, human druid. Seeking out the famed druid Andach and the answer to the last riddle posed by his cousin
Jaiden Daham/Cunningham, aasimar paladin. spent most of his young life in the back of the ironworkers' guildhall, seeking vengeance on the Balacazars for the debt in which they old his family
Miranir/Meep, half-elf warlock, an orphan raised by the Sages' guild, almost died when their headquarters suffered a fire, was rescued by his patron's intervention. Nicknamed for his first word
Lucien Chenier, half-elf bard, has earned the ire of various nobles thanks to his irreverent and abrasive performances, now laying low.

Notable Deeds

Investigated Shilukar's bounty
Entered the dungeon for the first time
Recovered a Runihan signet
Aided Anageo Quigg

The Game
  • While Miranir and Lucien had prior acquaintance, the group as a whole met in the spring of 721, when they all sat outside the South Gate to enter the city, most returning from an errand or travel, Dmitree coming for the first time. 
  • The Commissar's Men interrogated the crowd and searched them for contraband. It came out that Jaiden had no citizenship papers, but his letter of recommendation from the Shuul and a sympathetic guard sufficed to get the young man through the gate.
  • A young woman, Tellith Herdsman, was in the same cluster as the party, and she recognized 'Meep.' He stayed at the inn she works at, the Ghostly Minstrel, for a while after the fire. She recommended everyone stay there, and handed out coupons for the Shadow Theater (a copper penny off!)
  • While they were waiting to get in, a hooded man with a black sun tattooed over one eye and his crew rode up to the gate. They were allowed passage without any questioning. This was Malkeen Balacazar, scion and presumed heir of the Balacazar crime family. 
  • Some time after the eight bell, the party was allowed into the city, and took their morning meal at the Welcome Inn. Their mutual interrogation quickly forged bonds. It came out that Dmitree knew nothing of city life and Jaiden knew much less than he should, while Miranir and Lucien knew the city well. They became fascinated by a poster seeking the capture or death of a dark-elf thief named Shilukar, and resolved to visit the noble House Abanar to inquire after the 1000gp bounty.
  • Then they saw a man at the bar, wearing the sigil of the Balacazar family, stabbed in the back. The party did nothing to interfere as the assassin finished the job, announced 'nobody gets away from Korben Trollone!' and ran. The proprietor shaking and crying, the party snuck out the back. They gathered afterwards that the killer must have been an agent of the Killraven Crime League, a new crime empire taking on the entrenched Balacazars; the turf war is escalating.
  • They head over to the Guildhouse of Iron, where Jaiden became an official member and got directions to get citizenship papers in Oldtown. He was also given a list of errands and deliveries to make in the area, which he promptly discarded.
  • At the Administration Building, they witnessed a gathering of the democratic-republican movement, with the priest Helmut Itlestein presiding and preaching radical social transformation. The small crowd was soon dispersed and Itlestein was gently led away by the guard. 
Party: Silly priest, democracy will never work!
  • After even more bureaucracy, Jaiden finally had his papers. With that, they went over to Oldtown and, after further grilling by the officers at the Dalenguard fortress, were permitted to enter the Nobles' Quarter. They made haste to the Abanar estate, where a  high-falutin' footman at the gate filled them in on the bounty, and the fact that nobody had any leads. The party resolved to search for this elusive figure, theorizing that he was robbing noble houses on the behalf of the Killraven Crime League.
  • They knew dark elves live underground, and there's one organization which knows more than any other about the tunnels beneath Ptolus; the Delver's Guild. They high-tailed it to Delver's Square and down the stairs below the statue of the hero Abesh Runihan into the Undercity Market.  
  • There they asked about and were shown to the Maproom. The guild librarian, Shad Livbovic, attended to them. He persuaded them to enroll as associate guildsmen and gave them a simple job to get them started, instead of letting them go chasing through the dungeons beneath North Market.
  • So the party went down into the dungeon with a pile of crates to restock the safe rooms underneath Midtown.  On their way back, they came across a ghoul and two zombies feeding on the corpses of fallen delvers. They slew the undead monstrosities, with Miranir taking a few zombie fists to the face, and determined that these delvers had been fleeing from the deep dungeons and got ambushed by the undead. 
  • They took up the bodies and returned them to the guild along with their equipment, and found one of the dead clutching a silver swallow signet. After asking around, they identified the signet as the symbol of Abesh Runihan, a trinket that may be worth a pretty penny to a collector.
  • They returned to the surface and decided to take up residence in the Ghostly Minstrel, just a few steps away from the entrance. Tellith showed them to their rooms and they took dinner in the taproom. They were surrounded by well-known delvers and adventurers, including the wyvern-rider Daersidian Ringsire, Inverted Pyramid representative Jevicca Nor, and paladin Steron Vsool
  • The next morning they woke to the bells of St Gustav's and returned to the Delver's Guid. Shad gave them another assignment in the direction of North Market, restocking and refining the maps where the dungeon meets the sewers. While down there, the party encountered a pair of rough-looking humans climbing up out of the sewers onto the street. They hailed them, got rebuffed, but passed in peace. 
  • They climbed up to an alley in southeast North Market, and got a noseful of a smell much worse than the sewer from a passerby covered from head to toe. They trailed him to a shop named 'Wondrous Tattoos' and snuck around to the back entrance. They heard an argument between a deep, raspy voice and a gnome about the gnome's debt. They realized they had trailed a creature named Durant, a local Killraven crimeboss known as 'the Stink Man.'
  • Dmitree went back through the front door and declared he was looking for a job. He saw Durant wasn't human, but a scaly, lizard-like humanoid. The gnome grew increasingly tense and Meep followed Dmitree, posing as a customer. Durant the Stink Man twigged to the situation and left the gnome, Anageo Quigg, to his 'customers.'
Anageo Quigg and Durant the Stink Man
  • The party all came in and learned of Anageo's woe, deep in debt to Killraven and with almost no customers to support his expensive shop. His trade was not just in tattoos, but in very expensive magical tattoos, well outside the party's price range. With further discussion, the party realized Quigg had neglected to advertise his shop in the least, and was surprised to learn the nature of his wares was not apparent from his sign. 
  • Dmitree got himself hired for a silver piece a day as Quigg's marketing agent, while Miranir got a tattoo of a crossed bow and arrow on the back of his neck. They also invited the lonely gnome to go out drinking with them in the Minstrel. That night, after returning to Shad for their pay and putting up signs and posters in the guildhall, they got Anageo to loosen up. They also met one of Ptolus' more unusual residents the ogre mage Urlenius, who swapped heavily embellished stories of his own heroics and seemed sincerely impressed by the party's own, more meager tales. 
Anageo: Mr Urlenius, sir, would you like a magic tattoo?
Urlenius, the Star of Navashtrom: WOULD I LIKE A MAGIC TATTOO!?
  •  The party turned in for the night, knowing they had done some good today. 


With the exception of introducing a few family members to roleplaying in a brief,  haphazard session this summer, this is my first time running a game in-person for ... almost two years. I've gotten a lot better since then. 

The room we commandeer for our sessions is spacious, with a great long table, so I have space to get up and walk around. In the first scene where the players were getting harangued by guards, I went up to each player and got in their faces, grabbing their 'papers' (character sheets) and generally adding a lot of physicality to the roleplay on my end. It's a whole new dimension I've not been able to put to use, and I'm making up for last time. Also, in the few months I got into the habit of pacing about during online games, and it's stuck, such that I only sit down when I need to check my notes. When improvising or roleplaying I'm on my feet.

Also a part of being in-person for the first time in a while, I have access to physical props. While I'm not a crafty person, I make extensive use of flashcards with the names, locations and descriptions of NPCs which I hand out like business cards. They're very good for players, especially with the spellings of fantasy names, and their status as physical objects and reminders make the NPCs who get them stand out more. 

This being our session 0, they just made characters and jumped right in. Consequently, the backstories and their integrations into the world don't make perfect sense, such as how Jaiden spent his whole life in the Ironworkers' Guild, yet needed a letter of introduction from the Shuul to become a member. This stuff just happens. 

I used this first session to not only set up characters and factions, but also set up themes. One of the biggest is that Ptolus, though it can be dark, is not grimdark. Evil exists alongside good, and the players are agents with the ability to do both. Very often, problems aren't solved best, or solved at all, with combat, as with Quigg's tattoo parlor; the party is rewarded, monetarily and emotionally, by engaging in creative, interpersonal problem solving through roleplay. 

I wasn't expecting to play a decently long session, and so didn't have all that much prepared. I was able to keep things running with some improvisation and by inserting some encounters/events I had in the back of my head, but I feel the game suffered for a lack of some ready detail; I didn't give a good sense of the Undercity Market, for example, and I don't think Shad Livbovic is supposed to be there. 


That's all for this week. I'll be writing up some of my notes and prep later, and I think I'll keep up with thorough notes for the campaign. If you enjoy reading these and keeping up, be sure to comment below, follow the blog and share these posts. 

Until next time, have an excellent week!

Monday, August 9, 2021

Principles of RPG Narration

Over on the OSR Discord, user Sahh vented about her experiences with an unsatisfying DM, apparently running Hoard of the Dragon Queen in 5e. Near the end of that conversation, she asked, "anyone here got any good resources on how to condense Tolkienese into a few simple sentences to set a scene?"

This is where I got pinged in to the channel, with another user referring her to my previous post, Module Doctor: Oni Mother Okawa. I read through the conversation background and figured this would be a good subject for a blog post. Today we'll be looking resources, advice and processes for both improved narration at the table and improved writing for modules. 

Tiamat flies down from the skies, shimmering with
infernal energy, her five glorious heads roaring as one...

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, best to address the claim that boring, stuffy narration, or having to listen to NPCs talk to each other, is a '5e thing'.

On the one hand, there's nothing about the D&D 5e system that requires bad narration that overstays its welcome. If that's happening at your table, it's because the GM is choosing to do so, not because the rulebook says so. Whether this is an informed choice on the GM's part is another story.

However, this trend is most certainly a part of the expectations and culture surrounding the system. The published materials from WOTC tend to have blunt boxed text, as I complained in Stop Writing Lazy Quest Intros. I haven't read Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but I know by reputation that it's a boring and railroady module, so I wouldn't be surprised if this trend was even worse there. But official WOTC materials are heaven-sent next to some of the 3rd party products I've seen. 

More than anything, it strikes me as cargo-cult thinking. Many GMs, for a variety of reasons, don't fully understand the purpose and nature of narration, and so engage in imitation instead of deliberate problem-solving based on a situation, what Robert Pirsig called 'original seeing' in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is a phenomenon with roots in the surrounding culture of 5e, though the same may be said of other systems, perhaps to a greater degree. 

So now we come to the object-level question: how does one condense Tolkienese into a few simple sentences to set a scene?

Breaking Down the Object-Level Question

We have a problem: Tolkienese narration at a D&D table. We have a desired state: a few simple sentences. We have a known process to achieve it: condensation. And this is all in the service of a known goal: setting a scene. 

Breaking down the question in more detail will help us clarify what we need and ground our conclusions. 

First off, what is Tolkienese? In this context, it's referring to bloated and fanciful narration. It may be related to the 'High Gygaxian' dialect. Tolkienese is undesirable because it is at odds with the needs of the table, at least for Sahh, who wants to engage with the game world instead of listening to the GM drone on. 

As a sidenote, while Tolkien's actual prose of famously long-winded, it is also very economical, with little bloat. As one commentator once said, economy of language and getting to the damn point are two different skills, and it is possible to have one without the other. The GM in question lacks both. 

Rather than Tolkienese, we want a few simple sentences. That is to say, we want our narration to be short and easy to parse. We can get there by condensing existing prose to a more desirable state. And let us never forget our purpose: to set a scene at the table. Any tools, principles, rules and advice we make here are in service to this, and if they do not accomplish the goal, they should not be followed. 

More on Condensation: Joseph Manola

OSR blogger Joseph Manola has an excellent post which I revisit frequently: Conceptual Density (Or, What are RPG books *for*, anyway?'). Manola's thesis is that a good RPG book is dense with unusual, detailed, creative or otherwise inspiring material, while a bad one will endlessly detail an orc tribe with the exact tropes one would expect from an orc tribe. This claim is made at the macro-level of adventure design, but a symmetrical argument can be made at the micro-level of description and sentence creation.

Only give details the players wouldn't imagine for themselves upon hearing the base description, or which deserve emphasis. If my players encounter a troll (assuming they're familiar with trolls) I'm not going to ramble on about how it has bad breath, warts and a leathery green hide. 

However, if I really want to play up those aspects, I may give them more attention and really infuse them with detail, describing how the troll's hide cracks open with every movement, how pustules across its body pop and spill their sticky lymph with every step, only to coalesce and regenerate the next moment. 

I didn't add new information per se, but I made the perception which was already there more vivid. Alternately, I can add unusual details. Is this troll draped in the heraldry of knights it has killed and eaten? Are there half-formed screaming faces bubbling out of its skin, the beginning buds of another troll which must be routinely scraped off? These are things that players don't immediately think of when they hear 'troll' and so can be used to great effect. 

You'll know you succeed when, instead of following up your narration with, 'does anyone have fire damage?' they instead scream, 'HOOOOLEEEE SHIT KILL IT WITH FIRE!'

If you aren't doing either of those things, don't bother with detailed description of the troll. Your players have already imagined what you are about to say. Spend your narration budget on other elements. 

Objectives of Narration

Skerples, of the Coins and Scrolls blog, writes 3 Types of Modules, in which he lays out three approaches to the design of modules, namely, modules as manuals, as art, and as novels. Once again we can shrink this down to a micro-level point. There is no single goal to optimize for when narrating a scene. 

While Sahh and I both endorse terse and straightforward narration, this isn't because it's the One True Way, but for the results it achieves, namely, it gets the players back into the driver's seat as quickly as possible. There may be times when you want to lavish more detail on a scene, or build a particular impression or emotion. In those cases, economy of language falls by the wayside. 

Always keep in mind the goal of the narration and use the tools for the job, instead of mindlessly swinging around a hammer because an internet blogger wrote something about nails.

And what is the goal of narration? Well.

Elements of Narration

The Angry GM writes How to Talk to Players: The Art of Narration, and stresses for us that narration is not about 'painting with words' or 'immersing the players.' Those are (largely) desirable things, but they do not spring from narration alone, and they are not the goal. The goal is to impart information, and do so concisely. 

As we've pointed out before, players will create a mental image even with minimal detail from you. You don't need to paint a whole scene with words. You can take advantage of player imagination to fill in scenes for you, and focus your narration on relevant images. 

Product Examples: Narration in Print

Narration is made easier when you have material to reference, in the case of both read-aloud and DM text. Two products come to mind for this. One is Gabor 'Melan' Lux's Castle Xyntillan, a megadungeon which I will continue to shill until I take my final breath. The second are the modules of Joseph R Lewis.

(Incidentally, Lewis was party to that same Discord conversation referenced above)

Both exemplify terse, economical, and evocative text which can be translated easily into narration, in addition to possessing other sundry virtues. Your narration will improve with your ability to recognize and write effective text. 

The Limits of Narration

Xavier Lastra writes The Limits of Description part 2, and points out that descriptions in narration don't do what you think they do. Contrary to the above, painting an image with words is not nearly so desirable as one may think, because the ability of human language to describe sensory experiences is not as expansive as one would hope. Of the seven categories of descriptions, size, age, shape, color, origin, material and quality, few can be used effectively to do so effectively, and fewer still in RPG narration.

Size adjectives are narrow and mostly inadequate unless you reach for comparisons, and likewise for age. Words to describe non-geometrical shapes are particularly lacking, unless you are a mathematician or, again, reach for comparisons, 'leaf-shaped,' 'saddle-shaped,' and many natural shapes are so particular that the only point of comparison is itself. Color is rarely imprtant, and requires reference to existing objects unless you're sticking to ROYGBIV. 

Origin is an odd duck here, as its worth depends entirely on contextual knowledge. If I'm running a group that knows FR lore, then I can talk about Ostorian or Netherese ruins, and that will communicate a great deal. For games set in our own world, I can likewise appeal to history if my group is sufficiently cultured to know the implications of an Achamaenid saber. But if we're running in a brand new homebrew world, or a setting that most don't know too well, the origins of an object are a very weak descriptor. Material is in a similar predicament, especially if you're trying to appeal to the obscure or strange. 

What does effective description look like then? Again, don't try to paint a picture with words, you haven't the time. Describe relevant attributes and focus on a smaller number of effective descriptors. An NPC's eye color doesn't matter unless it matters. If an assassin had blue eyes and there's only a small group fo blue-eyed people, that's relevant, but not otherwise.

Sentence Level Examples: Oni Mother Okawa

'Alright, Mr Big Shot,' asks the hypothetical reader in my head, 'this is all well and good, but how do I actually do it?' To wit, some more examples are in order.

I'll take from my own previous post, linked up top, and show how I condensed the opening readaloud of Oni Mother Okawa, in even more detail than before. 
‘Trudging through the snow, the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy. Whether it be for experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders, this trail is by no means easy. Even less so due to the noises that accompany it. Out of fear that a demon might hide at every step, every rush of wind is cause for concern. One can never be too careful around these parts. But that is now all in the past. Not long ago, you found yourself at the entrance to a beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around. And there you are now, inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
Let's color code this
Trudging through the snow, the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy. Whether it be for experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders, this trail is by no means easy. Even less so due to the noises that accompany it. Out of fear that a demon might hide at every step, every rush of wind is cause for concern. One can never be too careful around these parts. But that is now all in the past. Not long ago, you found yourself at the entrance to a beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around. And there you are now, inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
Red is outright repetition, blue is unnecessary prose, orange is redundant/overwrought, and green is the stuff we actually want, the bits describing the actual scene or setting the tone. They're not good here, but they are what we want to focus on and polish.

So we cut out everything else.
Trudging through the snow the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy experienced travellers (sic), weary adventurers or just determined traders fear that a demon might hide at every step every rush of wind is cause for concern beautiful wooden building, with shining lights all around inside the warm interior of the bathhouse, taking off your large winter coats and scarves and finally revealing your faces once more.’
Now that your read-aloud looks like it's been de-fnorded, we can get to work. We've identified the parts of description doing actual work, and need to put them together.

'Trudging through the snow'
'the trip to Okawa’s Bathhouse is by no means easy'
A contrast between 'experienced travelers, weary adventurers and determined traders'
The fear of demons
The paranoia created by the wind in conjunction with the above
Arrival at a beautiful, well lit wooden building
Warmth, comfort, relief

[Reader exercise: Before reading further, try to take the above and rewrite it yourself. The exact way you do it will depend on your own style and ability.]

[Done? Read ahead.]

In the end, I wound up reversing and joining points 2 and 3, condensed 4 and 5, 
'Trudging through the snow, neither experienced travelers, weary adventurers nor determined traders find the trail to Okawa's Bathhouse easy. Even worse is the rushing wind that might cover a demon's approach at every step. But now you find yourself in a beautiful wooden building hung with shining lights, where you cast off heavy winter coats and scarves and reveal your faces once more.'
If you want to cut it down further, remove 'trudging through the snow,' which confuses the scene a bit, and let the 'heavy winter coats' communicate the season and weather. That, and consider exchanging or removing 'weary adventurers' which doesn't quite fit in the set.

This will look different for you, and the goal should not be to imitate any one style. Still, I get a lot of mileage out of rearranging clauses and joining them together. 

Fully General Speech Advice

I joined a new RPG server at the start of lockdown, which has profited me two solid campaigns which are just now coming to a close, as well as several one-shots. Like a good online citizen, I keep my personal information locked up tight, and the image my fellow players and GMs form of me are created entirely by my speech. 

On several occasions, that image has been 'college professor,' which I find hilarious. The reason for this is the way I speak. I will now give my #1 piece of advice for public speaking

Eliminate filler words from your vocabulary. I'm speaking primarily about hesitation markers, exclamations like 'um', 'ah,' 'like,' 'I mean.' This same advice applies, to a lesser extent, to hedge words, such as 'just' or 'really.' Hedge words can serve a purpose, though they must be purposeful instead of reflexive, but the hesitation markers must go. Start practicing today. When you notice yourself using them, take a moment to collect your thoughts and say your piece fluently.

"But what if I can't figure out everything I want to say and need a little time?"

What do you mean, 'what if?' It's not a matter of if. You will have moments where your sentence gets away from you, where you need to clarify, or just need a spare moment to consider your next words. In those cases, which happen to everyone, don't try to replace those filler words with anything. Use silence.

Silence is very effective when used as part of a speech, or even a conversation, so long as you can maintain the floor during that silence. This is much easier in person where you can use body language to indicate you're still speaking. 

"But won't it be awkward?" 

Only if you make it awkward. I've gotten immense mileage out of randomly stopping in the middle of sentences, looking pensive for a span of no more than three seconds, and then continuing as if there had been no pause. 


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