Writing for Popular IP (at a Wizarding School) – The Warlock’s Tunnel

Harry Potter has a special place in my creative consciousness not only because of my love for the books and movies, but also because I got to design and produce the very first Harry Potter videogame (a whirlwind of a production that I’ll save for another time, but all-in-all, fond memories of the insanity). A few months ago, I was lucky enough to get to visit the Harry Potter Exhibition in London. It’s a fantastic, museum-level tour through all the sets, costumes, and sights of the Harry Potter movies, and the sheer desire to dive back into the world overcame me.

In designing Harry Potter and the Warlock’s Tunnel, I actually got to apply a decade of expertise building games in someone else’s IP. While the guidelines vary from property to property, there’s ones that still stand out in my mind when it comes to JK Rowling’s universe:

  • Obey the Canon – This one is the most important when it comes to Harry Potter. Working on the videogames, there were strict rules around the spells Hogwarts students would learn at different years, the locations of the classrooms, the rules of magic, and lots lots more. At the time, this felt restrictive… but over the years it came to be all of those details Potter fans would love about the franchise. So when I wrote the adventure, I decided that 100% of the adventure would be canon* But to give myself some flexibility, I set the adventure a few years before Harry arrived at school, so there would still be some mystery and newness to players who were deeply familiar with the lore.
  • It is a School Story – The charm of many of the Harry Potter books (and likely the reason the Fantastic Beasts films haven’t found the same success) is that 80% of the plot is highly relatable to anyone ever attended grade school. All of the magic and wonder is set dressing around stories of clever students, bullies, and inscrutable adults. To reflect this, I made sure that the adventure stayed almost entirely contained within Hogwarts (no hexcrawls through the Forbidden Forest…), with the obstacles being other students and professors first, magical foes a far second.
  • It is a Mystery – One of the other patterns the Harry Potter books establish, especially early on, is that the primary plot is a mystery. Who let the troll into the school? What is Fluffy guarding? Who opened the Chamber of Secrets? Who is Sirius Black? There’s a lot of mysteries, big and small, all over the books. I took a similar approach and made sure that the central plot was a similar mystery — what is the Warlock’s Tunnel? Why are students getting sick?
  • A Scoop of Fan Service – Harry Potter fandom has spread like a venomous tentacula. Potter fans playing in an RPG are going to expect to see familiar faces and situations. But I also realized that it’s easy to go too far in this regard. RPGs are about original adventures, not running around in the shadow of famous characters. So I took a measured approach to fan service: I included a couple of familiar professors to make sure it felt right (welcome, Snape and McGonagall to the Warlock’s Tunnel), added more minor elements that only hardcore Potter fans would recognize (the Architect of Hogwarts statue being a main element, an elder Parkinson, a Thunderbird transfer student), and then created some original elements that will give deja vu to fans (Welsh Crimbils, a new ghost, a Syrpens Mask). Surrounding the new elements with both well-known and obscure Potter lore will, I hope, make it almost impossible to tell what’s original and what you can look up in detail on Pottermore.

With my guidelines in place, and armed with hundreds of photos from the Exhibition, the adventure took shape quickly. It helps when I’d already spent over a year of my life working in this world professionally!

I played the adventure a few weeks later, with a mix of adults and young teens. I got great feedback on the adventure, which I incorporated into the final version here. My players wanted to discover the identity of the big bad before the very end of the adventure (although figuring out who the big bad is in the last chapter is very Harry Potter…), so I allowed some smart play to uncover his identity before the tunnel is discovered. I also realized that my mystery had some big plot holes in it, so I had to go back through the adventure and create a more clear timeline for myself to fix that up. Fortunately, my players never spotted the inconsistency, but I learned a valuable lesson – if you’re going to write a mystery adventure, make sure it’s clear what actually happened before you write it!

I’m especially keen to know how this adventure runs in other groups. I imagine groups will challenge the GM in unique ways if they know the Potter world well, or push off course for some sightseeing (“let’s get Trelawny and go check out the whomping willow for signs of the Prefect!”). The adventure doesn’t really cover all these scenarios, as I think that would require it to be the length of one of the later books…

*To the best of my ability. Keeping up with all of the official Potter lore may be a full-time job. But if you spot anything terribly wrong, let me know!

Arabian Adventures – The Third Hall of Uzrah

As much as a love themed fantasy worlds, I haven’t had a lot of luck running longer campaigns in them – they seem to fizzle out before the group can really get into the theme and discover all the interesting quirks about the world.

As a GM, running an adventure set in a themed fantasy world adds an extra challenge on those first few adventures. You need to sell the world. If you’re going to run a game in set in Athas (TSR’s old world of the Dark Sun campaign), it really needs to feel different from a standard fantasy world. Capturing that feel usually requires a lot of research and reading into the setting, and experimentation to get it just right. If you go too far into the lore of the setting, your players won’t have any idea what’s going on (“the alien race of four-armed bug creatures are friends?”) . But if you don’t make things exotic, it won’t feel any different from your regular fantasy game, and I bet things will soon revert back to the standard tropes your group enjoys.

This weekend I made another attempt at a themed fantasy game, figuring that because it was a one-shot adventure, it would be easier to get right. I picked one of my favorite old-school settings: al-Qadim, the Land of Fate.

Before I began writing The Third Hall of Uzrah, I established some ground rules to this Arabian Nights-themed adventure:

  1. Put Everything on the Table – One tendency I’ve noticed in GMs that is that we tend to “save cool stuff for later”. Perhaps this is the reason that dragons appeared in almost none of the original D&D adventures, or that I’ve started many a Star Wars game on a remote planet far from the Empire. I decided for this adventure, I was going to ensure my players saw the flare of the setting, and I was going to include as many of the settings tropes as I could. That meant my adventure was going to have genies, ancient artifacts hidden in old ruins, riddles, flying carpets (okay, pillows, actually), and a faraway desert setting. I swore my players would never not remember they were playing in an al-Qadim game! My daughter joked that the only thing I didn’t include was a bazaar.
  2. Capture the Heart – Although my adventure was going to have all of the set decoration of an Arabian Nights adventure, I also felt it was important to capture the heart of the setting and genre. I’ve read a ton of Arabian Nights stories, and the one thing they all had was a sense of wonder and surprise. The Genie in the Lamp was first and foremost a surprise to our hero Aladdin. And when Ali Baba saw the thieves open a hidden door in a mountain, he was dumbfounded! With that, I started adding some wonder and weirdness to the adventure, such as a house-sized metallic cube in the middle of the desert, an hourglass that held death and riches, and more.
  3. Start with Lore, Finish with Lore – Most themed fantasy settings have important histories to them. But unless your players are already familiar with the setting, it’s too heavy-handed to dole out lots of lore in a single adventure. To solve this problem, I started the adventure with a single piece of history that drove their quest (the story of Uzrah the Hunchback, who who hid seven great halls laden with treasure after each of his seven conquests), seeded the rest of the adventure with hints as to what happened to Uzrah, and then concluded with a great unveiling at the end. Uzrah is important at the beginning, disappears (mostly) in the middle, and then comes back for the finale. Engaging with the world history history was a breeze with this method – not too heavy-handed, and also giving an opportunity to the players who liked story to discover more on their own.

I only got through about half of the adventure when I played it with my group. But I believe my above rules worked great. The group especially appreciated the twists and surprises leading up to the discovery of the Third Hall, and found themselves inventing clever plans to overcome al-Qadim’s wondrous dangers – Ali Baba would be proud!

So what would I do different next time? Not much, actually, although I have the suspicion that it’s likely a 2-session adventure (I played it with a younger crowd and they only got about halfway to Uzrah’s hall). I think the adventure was a tad too difficult, especially for parties that like to charge and kill things (2nd or 3rd level characters are best!), although I think that fits with the Arabian Nights theme. Also, I think my creativity for generating the wondrous was running a little thin by the time I started writing the second half of the Third Hall, likely limited by the constraints of a ruined palace.

I’d love from GMs who figured out how to capture the essence of other themed settings. What’s worked, what’s failed?


Rebooting an Old Adventure – The Cold Bounty

A clear goal handed to every PC at the start…

About two years ago, my 10-year old son discovered Dungeons & Dragons. I started him and his friends in the old red box version (still the easiest to get into), then briefly into Castles & Crusades, and then into 5th edition where they completed Hoard of the Dragon Queen (an adventure I’d give a C+, but Sly Flourish does a much better job of explaining the good and the bad).

Or so I thought. What I had originally thought to be a 30-minute revision turned in several hours of heavy, plot-changing rebooting. The theme of my update was better adventures get smaller:

  1. A Smaller-scale, More Focused Opening. The original adventure had the PCs start the session in the mountains, just hours after a large clash between two armies. Lost and freezing, their first task was to find shelter fast. I decided this was too much of a cold, open-ended start for newer players (although ironically, I used the same opening in the Black Mine of Teihiihan – I swear not all of my adventures will start with the players lost and temperature-challenged!). I feared that newer players, with unfamiliar characters and an unknown world, might just end up staying lost in the wilderness. To fix this gap, I did two things. First, I started the PCs with a stronger objective. Before they got ambushed, they were out hunting a nefarious, murderous outlaw, Fat Farlsbag! Second, I shrunk the prior battle down. Rather than an epic clash of thousands, it was a now small skirmish between the bounty hunters and mountain orcs. I hoped the smaller scale meant that the players wouldn’t tarry long looking for survivors, looting bodies (a favorite of 10-year olds), or building defenses vs. another attack.
  2. A New (Far Less Ambitious) Villain. In the original adventure, the PCs stumble into the path of an evil mind flayer, who had an ambitious, barely-competent plan to destroy civilization with a giant golem. Reading this part ten years later made me wince a bit, for all the obvious reasons. So first, I decided to change the villain into something more unknowable, so I removed the face tentacles and made him I’Zor’zah the Azure, a blue, maybe-undead, maybe-unaging sorcerer who had a personal vendetta against the wizard cult he founded. This change meant that the PCs could more easily discover the villain’s history and motivations. A successful skill roll like History or Thaumatology roll enabled the PCs to recall this northern cult of fascist wizards, and their legendary infighting – which is far more interesting than stumbling across a brand new Big Bad, fresh from his lair, no history behind him. Also, this change made I’Zor’zah’s giant golem plot more believable. If you want to knock down the tower of your old buddies, a giant metal golem is conceivably, just the thing. Scoping this villain to have a smaller, more achievable goal gave the PCs more opportunity to have a debate on how to handle him.
  3. Escaping is a Physical Thing. As I reworked the adventure, I realized that I had unlocked additional emotionally-satisfying win conditions. Fat Farlsbag could be captured or killed! I’Zor’zah could be stopped… or ignored entirely because the PCs had just discovered a legendary dwarven mine. And with more loot to be found along the way, I knew newer players (especially 10-year old boys) might just claim all-out victory after having found a couple of magical axes. The original adventure funneled the players towards I’Zor’zah’s golem, but I wanted to give the players more strategic agency, and feel like surviving was just as satisfying as any of those other wins. I metaphorically shrunk the wilderness and added a familiar landmark, St. Bernard’s Peak, at the halfway point of the adventure. Now, when the players see this peak, they’ll know they can escape to civilization… whenever they choose. This single landmark becomes the physical representation of escape, and hands the players additional agency and interaction during the game. Once the peak is found, they can debate the value of escaping vs. tying up other loose ends.

Satisfied with my changes, I renamed the adventure to The Cold Bounty, and ran it for my son and his friends. They had a great time in the freezing mountains, and it was clear that the smaller scope helped. I embellished the dark crimes of Fat Farlsbag, so by the time they found him, they were pumped and ready for vengeance. Also, the kids appreciated the extra deadliness of GURPS (vs. D&D) after one of the cave yetis body-slammed and nearly killed one of their warriors — they immediately stopped the screaming full-frontal charges and became a highly-coordinated team. Suddenly, after seeing St. Bernard’s Peak, escape became a very good option.

You can download and give The Cold Bounty a try here:

If I were to run The Cold Bounty again, I’d make a few more tweaks. The most obvious is that I’d flesh out the lost mine at the end of the adventure. Fortunately, our group ran out of time, otherwise I would have been improvising a full-on dungeon.

I’d also plant some more clues about I’Zor’zah up front. Maybe an escaped slave, or a dead sorcerer, signals to the PCs that there’s an evil wizard on the loose in the area. While none of these suggestions are in the adventure above, I did prove that I can learn, and fixed one of the problems I saw with The Black Mine of Teihiihan– all the pregenerated characters in the adventure have intertwining backstories. Since my group created their own characters, if someone plays this version with these characters, let me know how it goes! Tweet me @SageThalcos

Old West Horror – The Black Mine of Teihiihan

I was drawn back into Call of Cthulhu when one of my friends started running one shot adventures for his teenage son. Suddenly, even old, barely-remembered adventures like The Haunting were magical again, and we were all having a blast tromping around abandoned cabins, fleeing cultists and Deep One-infested lighthouses, and laughing as we inevitably went crazy and died horribly (and in one instance, vice versa). I was inspired to write my own Cthulhu-esque adventure, and set myself four goals:

  1. Historical setting. I love the limitations of the 1920s in Call of Cthulhu. Even more, I love that as you go further back in time, communication gets harder, weapons get less effective, help is further away, and people become more superstitious. I’ve always loved the Old West as a setting, so I picked 1883 and a remote, dusty location for the adventure, set between Kansas City and Arkansas City.
  2. Scary and Unheard Of. I always enjoy adventures where the big bad is something unpredictable, unknown, and freakish, and can’t be easily found flipping through a Monster Manual or Lovecraft compendium. So I spent a few hours researching Native American mythology to find something that I had never heard of, and would surprise my players. I settled on the wonderfully strange, cannibalistic Teihiihan as my foes.
  3. Multiple Threats, Multiple Tools. My own favorite horror adventures are the ones where the PCs are faced by tough odds from different directions — vs a single monster or bad guy driving the threat level. I spent some time thinking about multiple physical threats (the Teihiihan, a wounded and betrayed outlaw), environmental threats (the scorching desert, the caves themselves), and mental threats (the bodyswitching plot of Rufus and Hoowooni). I also enjoy adventures where tools can be found, but not always needed, so I made sure that there were always hidden supplies (bear traps, unpredictable flintlocks, books with legends) were there to be found — but never necessary to finish the story.
  4. Make it easy to run. I did my best to surround the adventure with lots of handouts, premade characters with good diversity and motivations, and optional encounters for GMs who want to customize the adventure, or shorten or lengthen it.

I think the adventure resonated. The PCs’ health (and sanity) was whittled away over the first half of the adventure, motivating them to keep moving. They figured out Hoowooni’s weird plot in the last half, made it to the final encounter in the mines, and then everything went to hell due to poor planning and worse luck. I think only one or two survivors limped back to civilization… which was everyone’s favorite way for a one-shot horror RPG to end.

All adventures have flaws, and The Black Mine of Teihiihan is no different. If I spent some time revising it, I’d make some changes:

  1. Works Best in a Certain Order. It’s possible for PCs to skip Dunker Cabin and head right to the further-south Fort Rufus. While this doesn’t derail the adventure at all, I suspect the mystery would be harder to solve, and the PCs would certainly have less tools to survive. I’d advise GMs to plant a few more clues on the way to Fort Rufus, for those survivors who decide to skip the cabin.
  2. Hosaa is Too Important. Hosaa, the Arapaho medicine man, is a bit too convenient, showing up a the perfect time to fill in the gaps in the story and push the PCs towards the Black Mine. If he gets killed or the PCs mistrust him, the adventure could possibly stall out. In retrospect, some more self-contained clues about the Black Mine, either at Fort Rufus or Dunker Cabin, would help give the PCs more agency.
  3. PC Relationships. The pre-made characters are literally “Strangers on a Train” with no connection to each other. While this setup works fine with players who love to slow down and roleplay, newer players, or players who need some help meshing with each other, could benefit from more concrete, in-character reasons to interact. GMs who run this adventure might give some of the characters familiarity with each other.

So that’s how the inception and design of The Black Mine of Teihiihan went. You can download and give it a try here:

If you run the adventure or play in it, all that I ask is that you let me know what you thought and how it went. Especially if you get blown up by your own stick of dynamite in the mine. Tweet me @SageThalcos

Coming up next… a fantasy adventure.

One shot game design

Yup, that’s the purpose of this blog. A collection of one-shot RPG adventures, great for exactly one play session, along with my thoughts on what inspired me, how I designed them, and how it all played out (or utterly failed) in reality.

If you enjoy any of these adventures, or get a chance to run one for yourself, please let me know how it went. Tweet me @SageThalcos or leave a comment! Enjoy!