Town of the Dead: When You Have a Hammer

By Bay Posted Sunday Oct 23, 2022

Filed under: D&D Campaign, Epilogue 27 comments

This post is written by Peter. Due to a needed overhaul of the backend of the site, his post will be marked as written by ‘Bay’ for the time being. Sorry for any confusion.

A few weeks ago, I introduced myself as ‘the D&D guy’. And in the wake of that, I have to preface this with an official confession; I have until recently spent a lot more time daydreaming about planning and listening to other people play D&D than I have spent playing or DMing.

This is mainly to note that I’m not by any means experienced. I could rattle off about TTRPGs for hours, but knowing and actually experiencing are very, very different things. DMing specifically is a practical skill. It needs hands-on experience unless you’re some kind of savant. Some people are, just not me. My unique social deficiencies, short and long-term memory issues, and obsession with rules that ‘make sense’ have produced some particular hurdles in my journey to run a game of my own without the years some of you fine folks might have under your belt. So, it’s been trial and error thus far to balance these issues and the actual goal of a DM, which is ‘make sure everyone, even you, is having fun’.

My current project is a Monster of the Week game. I tried to run it once before, a few years back, but due to some issues with my choice of players and their ability to enjoy each other’s company, it ended after the second session. A rough first lesson, but an important one that I, unfortunately, had to learn about three times before it stuck for realsies.

I tried again recently, thinking I’d fixed everything I’d been doing wrong the first go around. I gathered some friends and set off to Clown Town.

Mistake number one was I built a world. A unique, and well-established world. With its own unique, and limiting, rules.

The game runs like this: players will enter a strange town, full of people who are friendly but closed off. The town is secretly a pocket dimension in ‘limbo’ created by one of many strange eldritch beings, directed by a larger force. The pocket is a ‘sanctuary’ for people who are dying, to allow them to live a full life before they run out of time, in order to prevent them from turning into Monsters, or ‘Husks’ when they die.

Husks are the primary monster of the game. They are the remaining impression of the souls of people who have died suddenly. They have no memory of their original life. And without a physical body, the only way they can sustain themselves is by hunting and absorbing the life force of others. They are generally trapped in limbo; drawn to sanctuaries and the easy food they would provide. The husks are ‘themed’ after their death, and the only way to kill them permanently is to replicate the original cause of their death. The players’ investigation follows them trying to puzzle out who the person was and how they died by comparing news articles on deaths in the area and what they know from the Husk’s behavior.

It’s a solid premise! Unfortunately, Monster of the Week revolves around a ‘monster of the week’ not a ‘mystery of the week’, which is a key difference. Not to mention it conflicts with some of the playbooks because I didn’t really read through them the entire way.

Another unfortunate issue is…I didn’t consider that MOTW is built to take place in a world full of strange things, not one where there’s one secret strange thing, in a corner, being secret and strange far away from everyone else.

But I’ve already made my bed, might as well bury myself in it! So, here are a few things I’ve been doing to fix the issues.

First off, my players were kind enough not to care that I asked them to ignore certain playbooks…and certain sections of other playbooks. And overall, they have been very patient with their status as lab rats as I learn how to do my job as a keeper. I could definitely rework the playbooks so they’re playable someday, and add some more seasoning so there are fewer conflicts, but for the time being, patience is my ally.

Second, I needed to make the mystery more interesting. So far, part of the mystery was just a very awkward game of twenty questions punctuated by the occasional dice roll, which meant I needed something to make things a bit more engaging. A simple solution, in retrospect, would have been to make a few pretend articles for a fake newspaper and let them glean information from those. Keep it hands-on without making it overwhelming.

What I did instead was make a Twine game: Newspaper-clippings

Twine is a simple program where you can make text-based games with minimal coding. Using that, I made a small ‘game’ where I sent them a website, and they would click on ‘newspapers’ from around the area and look through articles Which were a mix of things I wrote myself, and ones I pulled from news sites in the area my game is set in. Any articles I included that involved a death, I wrote. I didn’t pull any that were about real peoples’ deaths. for clues. I made a few mistakes here, one of them being, the first person I had to playtest it does ARGs for fun, and their first piece of advice was to add more challenges. This ended in me slightly overwhelming my players with too many articles to look through, and not enough pertinent information mixed in. Which lost some of the fun of solving the puzzle. I also made some formatting errors, which just made it harder to read and remember what they had already looked at.

Aside from that, they liked it! And with some tweaks, it will probably be a recurring start to their mystery, with some small changes to keep it interesting. Is it a better approach than a simpler puzzle I could have set up? Probably not, but I can’t call it worse either. And my players needed the enrichment.

Riding high off that near success, I then decided to solve another, more niche problem.

My players all come from a group who are very into character-building and writing. This means the game’s roleplay section takes up quite a bit of time. And sometimes a character gets left behind to kick their feet while the rest have an important conversation. The solution?

I made another Twine game: Headquarters

This one’s simple enough, it’s a chance to explore the most common gathering space This NPC’s house is basically my players’ base of operations, so they’re here a lot. without me having to be there to exposit over the other PC’s conversation. They get to mess around, nose through her things and learn some details about her as a character. It’s not a permanent solution, but I’m hoping it will be a fun way to allow for some passive interaction with the world they’re in.

If it ends up successful, I plan to make some more for other places. But I haven’t had the chance to mess with it yet, so the jury’s still out on this one.

And finally, I tackled a problem that wasn’t really a problem at all.

There are a lot of weapons in use in this game. I’m liberal with things like guns because the monsters are less vulnerable to them as a general rule. But several of the PCs are…less skilled with firearms, or avoidant of them altogether.

Now, I could have them roll when they have to shoot a gun, like I’m meant to…

…or I could make a Twine game: Gun

This one is pretty simple. You click some buttons, and either get no result, unload the gun, or shoot it, accidentally or otherwise.

It’s probably not going to see frequent use, but it was fun to make. The idea is if they get too nosy and pick up a gun, I send them this and say ‘have fun’, then let them mess with it until they hit an ‘end’ state of shooting, unloading, or putting it down. Or, in combat, they go to shoot, and I give them a link and a timer and see what happens.

As I said, this one probably isn’t going to be as popular, but I’m banking on it being fun at least once.

I’m fully aware this is a product of the age-old issue of only having a hammer. But until my information recall and ability to describe things improve, it’s nice to have things to toss at my players to gnaw on while I figure things out. And as an added bonus, they’re really fun to make.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Which were a mix of things I wrote myself, and ones I pulled from news sites in the area my game is set in. Any articles I included that involved a death, I wrote. I didn’t pull any that were about real peoples’ deaths.

[2] This NPC’s house is basically my players’ base of operations, so they’re here a lot.



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27 thoughts on “Town of the Dead: When You Have a Hammer

  1. ShasUi says:

    Very relatable intro: for as much time/money I’ve spent collecting and obsessively pouring through different rules systems, I’ve only actually played… 1.5 campaigns of 5e D&D. A prewritten-module campaign, at that. On the plus side, it’s proven a big confidence booster for my thoughts of DMing, as WoTC didn’t set the bar particularly high.
    The twine games are neat way to present info; the News-Clippings is a fun challenge from the outside to guess what’s story relevant vs filler. May be able to adjust difficulty by having another version(s) tied to character skills/rolls; removing some of the fluff, or otherwise highlighting key bits; or perhaps adding annotations/marginalia relating to their character’s skills/interests/knowledge. Of course, that’s a lot of extra work which may or may not help.
    Firearms one is a fun idea; brought me back to my days as a range safety officer, and the many varied & occasionally inventive failures people had. There’s a reason manuals specifically state which way the ammo is supposed to face in the mag…

    1. BlueHorus says:

      I’m morbidly curious what happens if the ammunition is loaded into the magazine the wrong way round now.
      I’m guessing that the hammer just hits the end of the bullet, nothing goes off and the gun is jammed?

      1. ShasUi says:

        In theory, correct, though it can’t usually get to that point, as the round won’t chamber, as the case is wider than the bullet. Can get quite stuck, esp if they tried forcing the slide/bolt, but usual corrective action is: drop mag, pull slide/charging handle, vertical shakes into bumps into poking stick as needed to dislodge.
        Most cases were caught at the mag-loading stage, as people that inexperienced tended to wait until they got to the range to do anything, which in some cases is def the right call.

        Overall, the number of technical malfunctions isn’t as high as you might think; the big tasking is teaching grip/posture/sighting; seems easy to where people don’t think they need to consider it, but something as simple as “which part of your finger are you pulling the trigger with” can force the hand overall to move enough to consistently miss a 2’x2′ target at 10 yards.

        1. Gautsu says:

          I saw a PV3 try to clear an AT-4 down range. Fun trying to run away from that

    2. Peter is still experiencing techinal issues says:

      I actually considered the difficulty thing! I originally tossed it since it seemed too complex to do. but now you’ve presented it again a more pared-down version for better roles ect sounds quite doable, so I might revisit the idea! (this might be hubris on my part, but we’ll just have to see)

  2. Ian says:

    Peter – I have to say I recognise so much of your preamble. My luck as DM/GM was that I came into by virtue of being the only person willing to host a TTRPG back in the day (anything from D&D 3e, T&T, Traveller, CoC, etc). If I had been doing that in the post-Critical Role/Oxventures era, where you can see competent (or even skilled) DMs and players, I would have died from impostor syndrome there and then!

    I think your willingness to experiment, to think about “who is going to get bored”, “who am I not entertaining”, is an incredibly important factor that a lot of us fail to consider in our first outings.

    I’d say that if you are thinking about the group having ‘fun’ (for whatever definition of that word that works for your ruleset/world/theme), then you are pretty much in the top 10% of DMs/GMs, It’s a social hobby, often played by people that think they are ‘asocial/anti-social’,

    Anyway, credit to you for building actual Twine games to support the rest of the game (in pre-digital ages, some of us spent days making aged maps/fake languages/newsheets, but the motives are all the same, I think). If the players (and you) are having fun, then that’s more important than anything else!

  3. Dogbeard says:

    This ended in me slightly overwhelming my players with too many articles to look through, and not enough pertinent information mixed in. Which lost some of the fun of solving the puzzle.

    Some of the best advice I’ve heard on this is to really keep in mind that your players don’t know the whole plot like you do. The smoking gun that you’ve alluded to like four times and the thing all your hard work spent preparing for this hinges upon, to them could be a random doodad they wrote down on their character sheet and forgot about. It’s good to plan the hints you give and run them from “subtle” to “all but literally spelling it out for them”

    1. Peter is still experiencing techinal issues says:

      Oh yeah, I’m learning that the hard way. This time I’m planning on backing up what they deduced, and whatever conclusion they come to is magically going to be right. They deserve a reward for the work they put in and I don’t want to dash them because I mucked up the puzzle. Next time I’m going to put more obvious clues in, and remember that the game doesn’t instantly end when they figure out what/who the monster is. They also need to figure out what to do with that information, so that part ending too soon is the LEAST of all the problems in this game. I’m playing with, not against them is my new mantra.

    2. Joshua says:

      The way that I try to explain it is that it’s like a Jigsaw puzzle that’s being put back together, but only the DM has seen the picture beforehand. OF COURSE it seems obvious to the DM about what’s going on because they know how the different pieces are supposed to fit together, but they’re the only one working with a complete data set. They don’t know the mistakes or bad assumptions PCs are making in trying to construct the plot.

    3. Algeh says:

      I like Justin Alexander’s Three Clue Rule: https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule as a good rule of thumb for this sort of thing. Basically, you don’t plan that players will find all the clues after hiding exactly the clues needed to fit together and solve the puzzle, instead you plan at least three non-interdependent ways for them to get pointed to the next thing if that thing is a chokepoint and you need them to figure it out to progress the adventure.

  4. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    The Twine stuff is pretty fun, but I think it should be more of a between episodes kind of thing. If some people are roleplaying while others are playing a text adventure, I feel like something is wrong. Some players’ RP shouldn’t be boring for the others, the solution might just be to switch between the groups more regularly.
    I’m a big fan of the episodic format myself. In my recently concluded Orpheus campaign I started with a very formulaic contract of the week/discovery of the ghost world, then started introducing the campaign arc, and near the end of the campaign the contracts went away and it became less and less episodic as tension ramped up. It worked very well.

    1. Peter is still experiencing techinal issues says:

      Haha! I can’t really *stop* them from RPing. It’s not actually related to the main arc yet, they’ve barely scratched the surface of that since I’m not really keen to throw them into a whole lot of intrigue when I’m still catching my bearings. No, it usually takes place in downtime while they’re cooling down after figuring something out, which is peak time for that kinda thing.
      ?
      But like I said, a group of ex-theater kids running around in a high-stakes world *all* want to have in-character conversations that take some time, and forcing them to stop mid-conversation to give the other guys a turn to have a separate conversation ain’t fun for anyone involved. And they *have* to all take turns if they want to know what happened to the other folks characters. (which they do, for all my struggles getting folks invested in each others stories so far has only been hard for one player.)
      ?
      I will fully admit I’m probably going to use them as a bit of a crutch while I learn when the right time to say ‘this scene has run its course’ is. But that’s sorta the point. It’s easy to say ‘here’s the solution’ but when you don’t know the signs of ‘this needs to be over now’ it’s harder to apply them. Which is part of what I was thinking about in this post. You see a lot of advice on how to be a DM, but it requires some particular social and improv storytelling skills that not everyone starts off well-versed in.

  5. Sleeping Dragon says:

    Believe me, I think all but the most casually interested tabletop players/GMs carry in them way more ideas than they can reasonably run. I have about 6 or 7 long form campaigns bouncing in my head for the last ten years or so and every time I just skim a sourcebook for a setting I immediately get inspirations along the lines of “oooh, this magic system sounds interesting, i could have someone try to abuse it to gain immortality and things could go wrong and would cause such and such situation…”. Same as a player, I’m currently playing in a Dark Heresy campaign and aside from my actual character I came up with two more solid ideas that I’d love to play as (keeping them as backup for now).

    Regarding the “rules that make sense”, I’m not 100% sure if that’s what you mean but generally I say that the mechanics are there to facilitate what events can reasonably happen. If mechanics make no sense, for example requiring an attack to kill someone who is completely incapacitated, or on the flip side allowing the player to do the entirely impossible, like convince the utterly irredeemable villain to just abandon his plot with a critical persuasion roll, then it is the GM’s job to ignore, circumvent or alter them.

    Hearing your description of the Monster of the Week I immediately want to explore it more (I have mentioned I tend to run more long form and involved games). How much will the players learn about the setting through the campaign? How and why are they even there: are they unaware “citizens” of limbo? accidental travellers who just stumbled into it through some cosmic happenstance? “troubleshooters” sent or lured in by the eldritch entity? Is it normal for husks to get into the enclave or is someone behind it? Could I spin it into character arcs for the players were maybe they need to avoid their own huskification or they were rescued from it and have to “pay back” the favour? Oooooh, the possibilities! In my experience even the “we’re going to do simple monster of the week/dungeoneering campaign” tend to gather character defining moments and story building events.

    1. Peter is still experiencing techinal issues says:

      Oh the ‘rules that make sense’ thing is, unfortunately, a very subjective personal problem. I struggle to deviate from rules, whether they’re rules I made myself or arbitrary orders passed on from a handbook. It’s just something I have to work on as a DM!

      And I gotta say you’ve asked some delightful questions, and produced some ideas I may steal if I ever try this again with more experience. I hope my answers aren’t too boring for what you’re thinking. But here’s the rundown starting with relevent to my game and ending with worldbuilding nonsense. Apologies for the length!:

      The party entered Limbo by inadvertently traveling with a potential resident! The Chosen of the party was unknowingly summoned and ended up taking the others with him on the road trip to, as far as he believed, nowhere!

      Husks getting into the Sanctuary varies on husk strength, and setting. In this case, they’re going to slowly increase in frequency because the Entity in charge has gotten bored. And she’s putting in her two weeks by siphoning the power she normally uses for the barrier into Chosen in an attempt to free herself (As I said, these entities are under a higher power. Not all of them like it, and while some of them roam free a lot are trapped). Telling him he’s special for being stronger and having visions, and then sending him off to go fight monsters while the town dies. I’m also playing with the idea of some sort of radiation-poisoning potential from all that power to put to the side depending on what happens, but really that’s just a side-thought.

      On avoiding huskification, one of them was a Monstrous, who was previously a husk. But was unknowingly resurrected and returned to his normal life by a roaming entity that took a liking to him. (Other reasons I’ve had in a previous game was in order to accrue a debt, and force the monstrous into helping take over the sanctuary) And found that entering Limbo/Entering proximity to so many folks close to death de-stabilized what was done to fix him, prompting more husk-like traits and ‘episodes’. I unfortunately won’t be able to explore this more, as the friend who played this character was forced to drop the game for college. But the plan was slow degradation of his humanity, also encouraged by the Entity.

      The player who replaced him WAS a normal human, who stumbled in accidentally while running from the police. And is now hanging out to hide from them since while normal folks CAN enter, it’s not easy! Though that varies from sanctuary to sanctuary, because-

      In-lore, there’s loads of sanctuaries across the world. And every sanctuary is different! The residents of this Sanctuary are aware, but If one ever wanted to run an ‘outsider perspective’ of this game unaware residents could be a very valid roadblock if they went from town to town! Each is run by a separate entity and they all take different approaches. They start cults, wipe memories, run for mayor, and whatever they feel like. The sanctuaries are also shaped by their inhabitants, small towns of 100 to full cities of people who refuse to age. It’s all a matter of setting! Personally I only really chose a single town because I wanted a confined area with lots of recurring characters to play with (and give solid personalities to give their possible deaths a good Punch). But the setting is very easy to mold if you know what you’re doing (And i’ll get there eventually!)

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        RE post length: oh that gave me a chuckle.

        So like honestly this is good stuff. From the initial description I was expecting a much more rough around the edges concept of a “monster of the week” adventures you’d intend to run in perpetuity but between this and the post below about “the entity” not only is there a direction you can take this but there are actually multiple!

        My personal opinion is that when planning a campaign it’s important to have strong broad strokes but to not get too focused on the details because if you do you’ll either end up railroading the players or they’ll end up derailing the storyline. With broad strokes you can start filling as both necessary and beneficial and this has basically all of those advantages: you can escalate to cosmic horror, you can keep it simmering, you can play it light, you can play it really dark, you can make it more actiony or more cerebral… Yeah, this sounds like a really great idea to run.

  6. Randy says:

    This honestly sounds like a fun game; when you’ve done more playtesting and development, are you considering releasing it to the unwashed masses? (Most likely as a free no-support kind of thing, since actually releasing a commercial game is a much bigger undertaking, plus one likely to result in spending money for little-to-no profit.)

    1. Peter is still experiencing techinal issues says:

      I mean, if folks want it i’ll absolutely share it if I ever get it coherent enough for the masses!

  7. eaglewingz says:

    Very relatable to my DMing days.

    The Twine Game : Gun reminded me of a mechanic from the old GammaWorld setting. Whenever the players came across unfamiliar tech like weapons or computers, they went to flowcharts to find success/failure. Each node had the usual roll with modifiers. You picked the chart that matched the complexity of the item.

    The most fun was making my own with specific ending states. Sure, it took a lot of time, but it was always fun when the players decided to mess with the pretty lights inside a bunker armed with nukes :)

    1. Chuk says:

      I *loved* those flowcharts from back in 2nd edition (I think — maybe 1st? it was a boxed set in the early 80s).

    2. Peter is still experiencing techinal issues says:

      Wow, that sounds like something I would have loved. That’s so awesome! I love it when real-world skills and knowledge get to interact with the game. It’s always so fun to see what happens!

  8. Lino says:

    That definitely sounds like an interesting way of doing things. It would be cool if you could tell us more about the world and the backstory for the campaign. E.g., is it an X-Files sort of deal or is it more like Lovecraft?

    1. Peter is still experiencing techinal issues says:

      Sure! I think I answered a little bit of this in another comment but I can go into a bit of Background detail here.

      It’s not really X-files, but there’s not quite enough madness for lovecraft. I suppose in answer to that part I’d say something in between if they were on a scale?

      And as it exists now the ‘setting lore’ is that Husks used to be a pretty big issue. Limbo didn’t exist, sometimes your loved ones died and then came back to hunt you. It was a known and accepted problem.

      The Entities are intentionally kept somewhat vague in the plot. But functionally they are being held hostage by an even higher power that just, likes humanity. Like watching ants, maybe. It likes humans. And it saw the Husks and decided in order to keep humans safe from themselves it would make limbo, and put the Entities in charge as cosmic babysitters. Any Entities that resisted got ‘glued’ in place, and others were let to roam around and catch and Husks that didn’t get immediately yeeted into Limbo.

      It’s a pretty loose concept, but my primary idea is to focus on how that effects the current state of affairs. Which now that I’m reading it is probably what you were asking about. So here’s that too!

      The individual Entity running the Sanctuary is not pleased with her job, or that she personally has been forced to adopt a ‘human’ body and behaviors in order to be more personable. And wants to find a way out, and is willing to manipulate and hurt her tenants to do it. She will end up being the core antagonist, but outside of that the players will be competing with the problems of existing in a small town of old folks and young folks all trying to come to terms with the inevitability of their death and whether they will ever want to go at all. Who ostensibly fear it, and have been kept safe so long they don’t understand the danger that slowly encroaches as the Entity breaks out!

      1. Lino says:

        Neat! It sounds very interesting – it kind of reminds me of the game Control, but it’s still definitely your own thing!

  9. Nathan says:

    As others have said, can definitely relate to the difficulties in the preamble, though I have actually played quite a few games. Mostly as a player, but I have GMed some sessions of Shadowrun in the organized play system, and had some abortive attempts at DMing D&D.

    One thing that I have noticed in my games has been that, while building the world for itself is cool, and it’s always desirable for the world to have a solid internal logic, in the end, the parts that matter most are the ones that the players can interface with. Seems like you have already recognized that, since you are building custom subgames for your players, and even customizing them to particular interests and skillsets of their characters. Sounds like a good start!

  10. Joshua says:

    One of the things that DMs have going for them is that so few people are willing to do it. There’s a reason why most of the people willing to DM for strangers on Virtual Tabletops are charging for their services.

  11. RCN says:

    I like how this was a “well, I wanted to play D&D and accidentally ended up adding a bunch of unrelated stuff.”

    Congrats Peter. That’s the right way to do it. Fretting too much about the rules is a lesson people take a LOOOOONG time to overcome. Especially DMs.

    In any pen and paper RPG the rules are at best a guideline. RPG tables pick and choose what they like and the DM is the final arbiter of what counts and what doesn’t count. The only real rule is making sure everyone is having fun by doing what they like and the real job of the DM is providing everyone a chance of doing what they like. Adaptable plans and cool ideas always overrule “this is not in the rules”.

    Every.

    Single.

    Time.

    Take it from me, as also the spawn of an RPG player and currently someone who played in 3 different generations of tables (my father’s, my own and now as a player in a younger table): The DM’s plans are the least important and the first you can sacrifice for a better time. I had my players faff over minor NPCs and ignore the important ones, so I just focused on the one they liked. I had players ignore the clues and do something else entirely, so I just adapted to have other clues the way they went. I’ve seen short quests go long and long quests being abandoned for the better of everyone involved.

    But this doesn’t mean to be aimless. I played in aimless tables. They are not really fun. At the end of the day, players want to achieve something within the game with their characters.

    And one last thing: don’t worry too much about the players being idle sometimes with nothing to do. It is unavoidable. The DM has only so much attention spam. People naturally find something to do when they are idle.

    You’re doing good.

  12. William H says:

    My latest idea for a campaign is for all the characters to be some variety of droid in a Star Wars setting

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