Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Whitebox campaign state of play

I've been running a "weekly" White Box FMAG game since November 1st, 2020. Last sunday I ran the 40th session of the campaign, and in commemoration I've decided to write a post about the things I've learned and noticed while running it. 

First of all: We try to play every Sunday at the same time every week, but occasionally we've gone several weeks without playing because of one of the players work schedules. Setting a fixed time and day of the week to play (Sundays at 7:00 pm, in our case) has been essential for the campaign surviving as long as it has. I can't really recommend it enough. The "core group" at my table consist of only 3 regular players + me, the DM. The vast majority of sessions it's only been the 4 of us playing, but 4 other people have joined the game for a couple of sessions on a few separate occasions. All of the players are IRL friends of mine (or friends/partners of friends of mine). 

Due to the nature and limitations of online play, I've found just 3 players + 1 DM to be the ideal amount of players for online games. We play on discord with voice and video on, and use a bot called rollem to handle the dice rolls. We don't use a VTT or any of that other fancy stuff, mostly because we've never felt like we needed them, but also because we're too lazy to figure out how it works. Before we switched to discord, we were even more primitive: we played on zoom and used for dice rolls, but zoom kept kicking us out every 40 minutes and I eventually convinced the rest of the players to get discord accounts. All this to show that you don't need much to play D&D online. 

The average party size is usually just 3 PCs + 4 or 5 hirelings, with each player being in complete control of at least 1 hireling in addition to their PC. Given the small party size and the fact that I started them out at level 1, making hirelings cheap, plentiful and fully controllable by the players was pretty much indispensable for them to have any success. The current adventuring party consists of: 

Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa, 4th level magic-user; 

Snet, 4th level chaotic cleric of Ultrazoa, the god of all wild beasts;

Bette Davis, 3rd level fighter;

and their three hirelings: Murray, Virginia and Paulino (all of them 1d6 HP, 0-level commoners).

With the exception of Snet (who is basically a sentient colony of rats in a trench coat), all of the PCs and hirelings so far have been human because I wanted to keep the setting humanocentric and somewhat low-magic, so I didn't allow players to make elf, dwarf or halfling PCs. Snet is so weird because he rolled three 7's for his stats during character creation, and I thought I would let him roll to get a random mutation as a consolation prize. 

this is what most of the
PCs' recruits look like

The PCs have spent most of their time exploring a single "tentpole dungeon" (Bugbear Castle) that I've been kludging together between sessions, but a couple of sessions were dedicated to doing other stuff unrelated to the dungeon. One particularly memorable side-trek consisted of the PCs hunting down and massacring a company of brigands they had been fighting on and off for the entire campaign. (The very first session the PCs waited outside the Castle and ambushed a small detachment of said brigands when they came out, killing them and stealing the treasure they had retrieved from the dungeon.)

Anyways, "Bugbear Castle" started off as an attempt to make my own Castle Greyhawk or Castle Blackmoor and run a campaign centered around it. It began as a single level with around 34 rooms inspired by a reskin of B3-Palace of the Silver Princess that Gus from Dungeon of Signs did. The main enemies were different kinds of goblinoids, animated furniture and miscellaneous skeletons and stirges. As the PCs explored it I slowly started adding more rooms to it, and eventually added a small "cellar" level under the original castle to bring the total number of rooms up to 79. Once my players were almost done exploring that cellar level, I realized I wanted to keep expanding the dungeon but I was too lazy to write an entire new level myself, so I just grabbed the Hyqueous Vaults and half-assedly grafted it to the bottom of my franken-dungeon without thinking about it too much (the PCs are currently exploring this level). I plan to do this again with Diogo Nogueira's Halls of the Blood King and more unrelated modules when the time comes. 

I've referred to it as a megadungeon before, but tbh it's still quite small in comparison to, say, Stonehell. Maybe one day it will be big enough to deserve being called a megadungeon, but right now I'm happy just calling it my humble tentpole dungeon. 

AD&D bugbears

The setting is fairly standard, vanilla-ish D&D. The main inspiration was Wayne Rossi's posts on the implied setting of OD&D. It's a Points-of-Light-y, mountainous, pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European region, with a few town-baronies, fortresses, and ruins scattered here and there. The wilderness is full of bears, brigands and werewolves. The towns are inhabited by grubby bumpkins and scoundrels who spit on the ground compulsively. The tentpole dungeon literally just fell from the sky near the starting town a couple of days before the campaign started, and the game began with me telling the players: "You've heard rumours that the Castle that fell from the sky is full of monsters and treasure. You want that treasure."

The campaign has been pretty easy to run. Most weeks I do less than 20 minutes of prep for the next session; I mostly just keep a record of changes in the dungeon and sometimes track the development of town happenings. This is a success in my eyes. One of my priorities when I started planning this campaign was to run something as simple and effortless as possible. Over-preparing stuff has burned me out in the past, and I can happily say that I don't really see myself burning out on this campaign anytime soon. 

The main thing that has helped me keep the campaign simple has been focusing on a small region. So far, the PCs have only (very briefly) visited another settlement besides the starting town. NPCs sometimes mention other towns and cities, but so far the party hasn't had any reason or motivation to travel to them. This is fine, tho, because I want to keep the campaign low-prep, simple, and focused on the tentpole dungeon. Every now and then the PCs go visit the M-U's teacher to trade magic items for spells and consult him about stuff, but other than that they just travel between the starting town and the dungeon.

As for the play: most sessions the PCs just spend a while planning their next expedition, go to the dungeon, explore a couple of rooms, and then return to town and sell their loot. Some days they've spent up to one and a half hour just in the planning process, wandering around town trying to recruit hirelings, visiting carpenters and blacksmiths to commission expensive contraptions, and coming up with theories about stuff they've seen in the dungeon. The dungeoneering has been very fun, tense and exciting most of the time. The PCs have killed a ton of goblinoids, undead and other miscellaneous monsters, and a bunch of PCs and hirelings have gotten killed too (see the end of this post for the on-going Roll of the Dead). Some noteworthy things I've noticed are that already at 3rd level, PCs start feeling much less fragile and much more capable, so they start getting a bit more careless about combat and traps; Sleep, Turn Undead, Light, and heavy armor are the MVPs of the campaign; and dungeon rivers are extremely dangerous. Most PC and hireling deaths owe themselves to bad luck (i.e. getting one-shotted by critical hits) or bad judgement (i.e. one player charging a group of enemies alone while the rest of the party just watches), and they have decreased over time as the players have learnt to stick together and support each other during fights. The biggest take-away when it comes to tactics is that the party should always either fight together or run away together. Lack of coordination kills. 

Lately I've been thinking that I would like to give M-Us more ways to find new spells, since they don't get any new ones by just levelling up. Something I've thought about is spreading rumours of a certain valley or swamp littered with the tombs of dead spellcasters generated with the tables from Barrowmaze. Currently, the M-U occasionally finds the odd scroll or bundle of spellbook pages in the dungeon, or trades magic items in exchange for spells with the wizard that taught him magic, but having a specific location where you can go and know for certain that there's a big chance that you'll find new spells seems like a good idea to me. Obviously, looking for spells in these mountain tombs would also be dangerous and challenging. Alternatively, I could try to come up with more ways to learn or obtain spells inside the tentpole dungeon (or maybe in town?) Hunting other magic-user NPCs for their spells is a classic and something I would also like to incentivize.

I've also been using spells as "particular instantiations of a spell-species", taking inspiration from this goblin punch post. TL;DR: each spell is an individual specimen of a certain species, but you can potentially have multiple specimens of each species in your spellbook. This solves the problem of M-Us only ever using their one or two strongest spells repeatedly, but also leaves space for them to have multiple copies of sleep, or magic missile, or whatever, if they can obtain them.

Ociro the Magnificent, the high-level
wizard who taught the party's M-U

That's pretty much it. It has been a fun campaign so far, and I'm looking forward to keep running it. Will probably write more about it in a few months.

And now, last but not least, a list of all the PCs and hirelings that have died thus far. Funnily enough, I think it does a pretty good job of capturing some of the more memorable encounters and occurrences that have come to pass:

Krebb the M-U, stabbed by goblins.
Robin Hood the henchman, devoured by a mountain dragon.
Unnamed mule #1, carried off by a mountain dragon.
Regend the M-U, disemboweled by a hypno-peacock
Igor Ironteeth the henchman, gormandized by a carnivorous cottage.
Herr Cooles the M-U, ripped apart by a cloth dragon.
Tyson 2 the potbellied sellsword, shot by a goblin, heroically saved the party's lantern.
Circe the warg, crushed by an avalanche of bones.
Tyson 3 the sellsword, crushed by an avalanche of bones.
Kovacs the henchman, killed by orcs.
Lukacs the henchman, slain by brigands.
Tyson 4 the sellsword, slain by brigands.
Tyson 1 the fighter, slain by brigands.
Mamú the bodyguard, slain by brigands.
Morlak the thief, slain by brigands.
Calypso the fighter,  slain by brigands.
Ha Cin the fighter, flattened by an animated cupboard.
Kaína the hireling, trampled by a stampede of animated chairs.
Zwann the hireling, suffocated by a crawling fume. 
Morgana the fighter, head ripped off by a skeleton.
Koolhaus the hireling, consumed by a vermin grotesquerie.
Xer the dog, eaten by bears.
Unnamed mule #2, eaten by bears.
Moebio the hireling, assassinated on the PCs orders.
Olufemi the carpenter, assassinated on the PCs orders.
Macario the hireling, drowned by a vodyanoy.
Britney the hireling, drowned by a vodyanoy.

A lightning-breathing mountain dragon


  1. Hell Yeah! Thanks for showing a peek behind the curtain. I'm glad to see more no-nonsense posts like this on how a campaign is panning out.

    Few questions:
    - How long are the sessions?
    - How do you rule criticals (you mention it sometimes one-shots PCs/hirelings)?
    - Given the low number of players and thus their need for hirelings, does this conflict with hiring new ones when the previous die? Meaning do you keep track of their reputation, increase prices, have less on demand, etc? Or just handwave it for simplicity and lending a hand to the players?

    1. Hey man! Happy to answer all your questions :)

      1. When we first started, sessions were around 2-3 hours long, but lately they've been 3-4 hours long.
      2. Criticals are absolutely brutal in my game. You get max damage AND additionally roll an extra damage die. I.e., if a goblin normally deals d6 damage, on a critical hit it would deal 7-12 damage (6+1d6). So it basically ALWAYS one-shots hirelings and most 1st level PCs. Astoundingly, it was actually my players who asked for crits to work this way.
      3. I don't have much of a system to track their reputation or the hireling pool, but I do keep track of it in a very informal/"common sense" way. Due to the high amount of casualties and their tendency to mistreat hirelings, the hireling pool *has* gotten progressively smaller and of lower quality, to the point that a few sessions ago they started paying the town crier to find new recruits for them. The important thing is that players have the option to just wait some days/weeks for it to refill, OR they can go to look for them in another town. But I do try to lend a hand and be generous with them.

  2. "Moebio the hireling, assassinated on the PCs orders.
    Olufemi the carpenter, assassinated on the PCs orders."

    Wow, this got me intrigued :D What the hell happened there?

    1. Oh, yeah, that was pretty nuts:

      -The PCs hired Moebio and Olufemi for a month and bought them equipment.
      -The PCs treated both of them fairly poorly, to the point that it triggered morale rolls (which the hirelings failed).
      -Moebio and Olufemi decided to run away from the PCs, taking with them some of the equipment and money that the PCs had originally given them.
      -2 of the PCs felt betrayed or robbed and flew into a rage, so they put bounties on the hirelings' heads.
      -An assassin took up the bounties, killed the "escaped" hirelings, and delivered their heads to the PCs.

    2. This is why we have trade unions :D :D