5E iserith's Sunless Citadel

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
This thread is to share some techniques and experiences for an actual play of The Sunless Citadel from Tales from the Yawning Portal. If there's interest, I will keep updating the thread as we play. Please consider this a spoiler warning as well for Sunless Citadel.

While the regular DM for our Wednesday night group is on hiatus for the summer, I've stepped up to run some of the dungeons. We have a player pool of 8 players who each have two PCs, only one of which can be active in a given adventure (unless a character dies). There are only 5 seats for the session with a quorum of 4 players. The premise we're working under is that the "backup PCs" are in the Yawning Portal telling stories about the "active PCs" who are on the actual adventure. So while the focus is mostly on the active PCs, sometimes the backup PCs interject with commentary during play.

Inspiration House Rule

To reinforce the above premise, I've changed Inspiration. As per the usual way I run Inspiration, the players still claim Inspiration when they portray a personality trait, ideal, bond, or flaw (limit one time per characteristic per session). But when they spend Inspiration, instead of giving them advantage on one of their own checks, they instead add 1d6 to someone else's check. When they do, their backup characters in the Yawning Portal effectively say "That's not how I remember it!" and change the story. The backup character then gets some XP. This house rule does a couple of things in actual play: Players are really paying close attention to the rolls of other players and the players are always thinking of how they can score Inspiration so they can convert it into success for a fellow player and XP for their backup. This means the players are each earning the maximum Inspiration per session which equates to characters that are consistently well-portrayed. (It's also quite funny when everyone rushes to be the first one to say "That's not how I remember it!")

Phase Structure

When I run a game that has a basic formula, as with a town-to-dungeon scenario, I create phases that help me run the game in a very consistent way that the players can count on for making informed decisions. In this campaign, I created a Town Phase, Travel Phase, Exploration Phase, Camp Phase, and Social Phase. These phases also make it easy on me to keep up a steady pace during play and help track time. While there's no need to share these phases with the players (it's a structure for the DM to run the game more easily), I do so because I want their feedback on it since most of the players are also DMs. So far it's working quite well (more on that below).

Day One

We begin in the town of Jerkwater. (The module calls it Oakhurst, but I think that name is lame.) The party consists of a bugbear fighter, earth genasi fighter, dwarf cleric, elf rogue, and a tortle druid. In the Town Phase, they spent a little time on logistics, selling some starting gear, buying other gear, spending a little gold on their stay at The Modest Manticore in exchange for advantage on saves versus poison and disease, and hiring two hirelings - Wes Handy, a commoner porter, and Lex Spears, a retired town guard. I'm using the variant encumbrance rules, so the players figured some hirelings would be useful to carry stuff.

The Town Phase complete, it was time to start the Travel Phase which resolves traveling between Jerkwater and the Sunless Citadel. In this phase, I check the weather first for anomalous temperature, wind, or precipitation. The result indicated Heavy Rain which creates some complications: disadvantage on Perception checks for sight/sound and extinguishing open flames. The players then choose their marching order and their route and pace. I offer two options on route - via the Old Road or Off-Road - each with their own trade-offs. The Old Road is faster, but the frequency of random encounter checks (Hill Encounters (Levels 1-4) from Xanathar's) is higher; Off-Road is slower and there's a chance of getting lost, but the frequency of random encounter checks is lower. The players chose to go Off-Road at a Normal pace, a 6-hour trek. Now they choose their Activities While Traveling - Keep Watch, Navigate, Draw a Map, Track, Forage, Work Together. On this day, while one PC Navigated, another Drew a Map. One PC Worked Together with another PC to Track so they could further reduce their chance of random encounters (effectively, DM rolls at disadvantage). Another PC (the cook) Foraged. Only Lex Spears Kept Watch. These tasks were resolved with passive checks where appropriate. At that point, I make the random encounter checks. Luckily, they had no random encounters along the way - their focus on mitigating their chance of random encounters paid off at the cost of time and risk of automatic surprise.

Once at the ravine leading into the Sunless Citadel, we entered the Exploration Phase. The way this is structured, the PCs can explore an area of about 1000 square feet over the course of 10 minutes while engaging in (generally) one task each: Cast a Ritual, Check for Traps & Hazards (Figure out a Trap or Hazard, Disable a Trap), Draw a Map, Forage or Loot, Keep Watch, Pick a Lock, Search for Clues, Search for Secret Doors (Figure Out a Secret Door), Track, or Work Together. After each task is resolved with ability checks (if appropriate), I check for wandering monsters. The cycle then repeats if the players want to have their characters keep exploring. They are basically weighing the chance of discovery with the risk of a fight. If they decide to move on, we essentially drop back into the characters all Keeping Watch as they move around.

In Day One, there was a fair amount of exploration. They found clues as to the dungeon's inhabitants by the ravine and a trap in the crumbled courtyard, which they left alone figuring they might have an opportunity to use it to their advantage later. They poked around some an empty chamber on the way to the dragon cell. This is where they encountered the famous Meepo (more on the below). Later, they explored an empty chamber near the dry fountain, then the infested cells and disabled traps outside the lair of Baba Rata, a hag I added to the adventure. Plagued by the rat-bearer curse inflicted upon her, she was the mother of all the rats in the Sunless Citadel and step-mother to the adventure's villain, Thorn (Belak the Outcast in the adventure, but I changed the name). As they explored, they ran afoul of wandering skeletons, wandering kobolds, some giant rats, and wandering hobgoblins - that's the risk for uncovering clues and treasure via exploration! At one point, they were in a full retreat, stuck between kobolds on the west and hobgoblins on the east and had to fight their way through the hobgoblins to escape. Two PCs dropped during this battle but the party rallied to victory, saving their friends before fleeing the dungeon and heading back to Jerkwater at a Fast pace in the Heavy Rain.

When they found Meepo, they entered the Social Phase. I don't play my monster NPCs "cute." They're usually gross and tend to have motivations that are quite strange. In this case, Meepo's agenda was to regain his status in the kobold tribe so he could mate with the Chieftess who was the highest status female. In order to do that, he had to get back his white dragon wyrmling, Brain Freeze (again, renamed). The Social Phase begins with establishing to the players the NPC's attitude. In this case, Meepo was Indifferent to the PCs. Two parts to the Social Phase then commence: The Chat and The Ask. In the Chat, the PCs interact with the NPC and each other and those interactions typically fall into the following tasks: Communicate Wordlessly, Deceive, Determine Truthfulness, Discern Ideal, Bond, or Flaw, Entertain, Make Deduction, or Persuade. The idea here is that the NPC (Meepo, in this case) offers ideas or objections that the players then have their characters respond to in an effort to adjust the NPC's attitude temporarily. If they can succeed on a majority of the points, sometimes with an ability check resolving the matter, the attitude shifts toward Friendly, making The Ask easier. After the ideas or objections are handled, the PCs can then make The Ask which is when they get to the point of their request, demand, or suggestion. When they did so, Meepo was Friendly and so they teamed up with Meepo, who wanted to introduce them as his agents to get back the dragon Brain Freeze. Meepo calculated this would restore his status so he could ensure his legacy. But first, they decided to harvest some giant rats to bring as offerings and headed off to the lair of Baba Rata...

In Summation

So that's how I set up the Sunless Citadel game, including some of my house rules and the phase structure I used to run the game smoothly. I would say that it's going well so far. The pacing is tight and the players have a lot of good, meaningful decisions to make with trade-offs. When you add context to the structure, it makes for interesting choices and there's almost never a "best choice for all situations." It depends a great deal on what's going on at the time. It leads to a fair amount of discussion between the players, but since there isn't a lot of unknown, the debate is useful, not pointless speculation that takes up too much game time.

If there's interest, I'll post more details as we play. I'd also like to hear your experiences with dungeon delves like Sunless Citadel and handling things like Exploration, Social Interaction, and Travel in that context. How do you run a typical town-to-dungeon adventure? What house rules do you use to enhance the play experience?
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
I’ve done similar rules for inspiration but not transitive inspiration.

And I’ve informally used phases, but I handle them more like scenes. I have to say though I feel pretty compelled to try the structure you’ve outlined here. I drove pacing differently but my goodness some structure might be just what the doctor ordered.

What are you doing at the end of the session to get them back to where they start over in phase 1?
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I’ve done similar rules for inspiration but not transitive inspiration.

And I’ve informally used phases, but I handle them more like scenes. I have to say though I feel pretty compelled to try the structure you’ve outlined here. I drove pacing differently but my goodness some structure might be just what the doctor ordered.

What are you doing at the end of the session to get them back to where they start over in phase 1?
In this game, I don't worry about it. In a previous campaign, I set up the premise such that the dungeon would vanish after a set time which prompted the PCs to return to town and start the phase all over. Here, the session ends after 3 hours and, wherever the party is, we pick up from there the next session, swapping out characters as necessary given which players play that week.

As an example, I mentioned the party for the first session above. The second session had only four players - the player of the bugbear couldn't make it, nor could the player of the dwarf. But one of the other players jumped in with an elf wizard to help us get to quorum. We just narrated that the bugbear and dwarf went outside the dungeon to help protect the hirelings and their food/water supplies. The elf, having just arrived from Jerkwater, then helped the party explore the hag's chamber which is where we started the action in Session 2.

After some harrowing battles, the party did retreat back to town on Day One (session 2), long rested, resupplied, and then went back to the dungeon. We ended in a newly found chamber. Perhaps different PCs will explore that further next week.
 

hbarsquared

Quantum Chronomancer
I'm definitely interested in hearing how your game develops, especially with your unique house rules and methods. Looking forward to continued updates!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
As DM, I'm particularly interested in decisions points for the players and setting up structures and situations that provide no "right" answer, just a series of "good enough" answers with reasonable trade-offs. Sometimes there's a right answer if the context lines up that way, but generally, the PCs might have several decent options to pick.

In this campaign, the PCs have a couple of long rest options: Travel back to Jerkwater or make a camp in the wilderness. In Session Two (still Day One of the adventure), the players retreated from the dungeon. Three of the characters had reached 2nd level and one was still 1st level. But they were low enough on resources that they figured a long rest would do them some good. So now they had to make a decision...

They had initially traveled to the dungeon from Jerkwater off-road at a Normal pace, which took 6 hours, in order to mitigate their chances of a random encounter. A heavy rain was coming down and that imparts a penalty to Perception meaning being surprised was a good possibility. They didn't want to spend resources on the way to the dungeon and some of the random encounters from the chart could be quite deadly to 1st-level PCs, so this is how they dealt with that exploration challenge.

But of course that created something of an issue later. If the PCs travel more than 8 hours in a day, they risk gaining levels of exhaustion. If they got more than one level of exhaustion on the trip back, Day Two would start with exhaustion and that wasn't ideal. If they traveled back to Jerkwater on Day One, they would have to go on the Old Road at a Fast pace since that trip takes only 2 hours. However, the Old Road comes with a higher chance of random encounters. Plus a Fast pace means a -5 to passive Perception. The rain further imparts disadvantage to sight- and sound-based Perception checks. That's a big penalty and almost certain surprise if a lurking monster was indicated! And the DM would be making one random check per hour.

Alternatively, they could make a camp. I created a Camp Phase to handle this aspect of the game. Basically, it involves taking an hour to locate a decent spot and build a defensible camp. There's a group Wisdom (Survival) check with a DC of 15 for this area and that includes skilled hirelings like Lex Spears (but not unskilled hirelings like Wes Handy). If a PC has a tent, he or she gets advantage on the roll. But once again, the heavy rain conspires to interfere - disadvantage on checks to make a camp during a heavy rain. If the PCs succeed at the group check, the defensible camp is created and there are no random encounter checks during the rest. If the PCs fail, there are two random encounter checks. If a random encounter forces the PCs to quit their camp (as in a chase scene), the rest is interrupted. There's a bit more to the Camp Phase than that, such as deducting rations and water supplies, setting watch order, and whatnot, but the major decision point is between camping or traveling back to town.

Given the particular PCs on this adventure and the state they were in when they had to make a decision, the opted to go back to town in the pouring rain at a fast pace. I found that somewhat curious. After all, a fast pace on the Old Road back to Jerkwater was 2 random encounter checks. Making a camp would be at most 2 random encounter checks and possibly none if they rolled well. I think they wanted to get some additional supplies, but I probably would have stayed put in the wilderness in this case. As it happened, their choice paid off - no random encounters occurred on the road. But it might have gone very badly, too.

What choice would you have made? What kinds of decision points like this do you see in your campaign?
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
With one or two competent outdoorsmen, I’d have opted to make camp. Particularly if foraging could help us conserve supplies.

I don’t think I’d have risked exhaustion AND random encounters unless I had some pressing need to return to town. But if I did go to town, I’d be buying a load of goats, mules, carts, etc.
 

Emerikol

Visitor
Interesting Iserith. These are exactly the sorts of decisions I like to see in my games. As for what I'd decide, it's a tough call. If I felt really vulnerable in the wildnerness I'd risk returning. If something bad does happen we are just that much closer to town. If I felt the group could likely handle anything that appeared fairly easily then I'd stay in the woods. I'd also have to consider if I was returning to the dungeon. The longer I take to return the better prepared the bad guys might be.

I don't use inspiration so I have no comment on that part of the game.
 
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pogre

Adventurer
Interesting approach for sure. I think I would have pushed for town, but you have made that a debatable choice. You have incorporated a lot of choices in areas that I typically hand wave to great success.

BTW - I am jealous of your player pool.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
With one or two competent outdoorsmen, I’d have opted to make camp. Particularly if foraging could help us conserve supplies.

I don’t think I’d have risked exhaustion AND random encounters unless I had some pressing need to return to town. But if I did go to town, I’d be buying a load of goats, mules, carts, etc.
They ultimately went back to town and used some of the treasure they found to buy a couple of potions of healing which they found useful as they savaged the kobolds. They didn't buy a mule train, but they've been talking about doing it. Wes Handy has (their porter) been arguing against that, figuring he'll be out of a job if they do.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Interesting Iserith. These are exactly the sorts of decisions I like to see in my games. As for what I'd decide, it's a tough call. If I felt really vulnerable in the wildnerness I'd risk returning. If something bad does happen we are just that much closer to town. If I felt the group could likely handle anything that appeared fairly easily then I'd stay in the woods. I'd also have to consider if I was returning to the dungeon. The longer I take to return the better prepared the bad guys might be.

I don't use inspiration so I have no comment on that part of the game.
The scenario is one in which the PCs will continue to visit the dungeon until it is completed. At the point where they made that decision, they had only really invaded a portion of the location which was inhabited by rats and a hag and that area won't repopulate. As compared to a place where more intelligent creatures might do (kobolds, goblins in this case). Later, they considered resting again after battling the kobolds on their turf before retreating and they did have a concern that they'd have to cede ground they gained. So that appears to be something they worry about.

Interesting approach for sure. I think I would have pushed for town, but you have made that a debatable choice. You have incorporated a lot of choices in areas that I typically hand wave to great success.

BTW - I am jealous of your player pool.
Thanks! One of my players thinks that going back to town is always the best choice since the risk of being attacked during the long rest by something they can't take on will result in the PCs quitting the camp and interrupting the rest. But I think this is offset somewhat by the additional risk of encounters on the way back to the dungeon from town which may mean the PCs hit the dungeon with fewer resources. So I don't think there's a default "best choice," just choices that really depend on their goals and their state at the time.

The player pool for this game is only 8 players. My regular Planescape campaign pool is 11 players. My one-shot hub is 31 players.

If the DM can play, there is a game!
 

Don Durito

Adventurer
That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.

Sorry. I posted in the wrong thread. Ignore.
 
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