Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Owlbear Run

Today, Owlbear Run was published in Dungeon Magazine #213.

Chris Perkins commissioned the adventure last fall. I sketched out some ideas, and Chris gave me some specifics in regard to what he wanted. I drew some rough maps, and Chris sent me back refined and clean versions of those ideas. I wrote the adventure over the month of December 2012 (which seems like something of a miracle now, considering all the holiday travel).

Owlbear Run isn't typical of most of the published adventures I've read. That's not to say it's ehrmagawd awezomezz or in any way spectacular. Rather, it probably runs more like one of my own home games, the type I used to run in college when I was in my late teens and early twenties. It's lighthearted and random instead of moody and dramatic. There's a lot of role-play, puzzle solving, plotting, and strategy. It's in no way straightforward, and its success is largely reliant on what the DM and players bring to the table. When I ran it for my group, I told them not to worry much about their stats, but encouraged them to come to the table with characters who had interesting personalities. We ended up with:

- a paranoid, once-mighty wizard, who had forgotten more spells than most mortals ever know
- a dwarven union boss striving to bring equality to the tunnelers of the Phantom 309 union
- an eladrin orphaned in the world: beautiful, elegant, cusses like a sailor
- a kobold prince setting out to forge his legend
- an heir to the dung-shoveling business with deep mafia connections

Before I ran the adventure, I reminded myself that an adventure is mostly what the characters say and do when they encounter the plot. It's not a stage where the DM has to dance-monkey-dance for the players' entertainment, with the success or failure of the session hinging on the DM's brilliant plot. This is a good way to approach Owlbear Run. The adventure's there as a guideline, a structure for play. The rest of it is playing pretend, playing make-believe with the weird ideas you and your friends come up with.

Using Owlbear Run with Other Fantasy RPGs
Before I close, I feel like I should address a comment I made on Twitter about how I felt that Owlbear Run could easily be adapted for another fantasy game like Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics, 13th Age, Dungeon World, etc. Here's how that works...

In Owlbear Run, the characters have to choose an owlbear and sponsor pairing. They do this by interviewing sponsors and investigating the owlbears to make their best choice.   They can converse with the competing teams, or challenge them. During the race, they'll have to force or charm their owlbears into cooperating. They'll encounter a number of puzzles, NPCs, and some fights. When the PCs fail a challenge or fail to get their owlbear to cooperate, the NPC teams have a better chance of moving ahead in the race. None of these things, with the possible exception of 4e monster stat blocks, necessitates heavy, edition-specific mechanics. The monsters in Owlbear Run have parallels in all the other popular fantasy RPGs. And since the race's mechanics are specific to the adventure itself--and not intrinsic to 4e--the adventure's form, outline, and encounters can be applied anywhere else. Just swap any 4e stat blocks or skill check equivalents to what they would be in the system you're running.

There will be some variation, since every system plays differently. In Dungeon World, for example, you'll be rolling 2d6 to charm your owlbear, succeeding on a 10+, succeeding with consequences on 7-9, and getting the adventure's failure results on 6 or less. In 13th Age, minion monsters turn into "mooks," which behave in a slightly different way, and the escalation die will keep fights brief (you could probably even come up with a way to use the escalation die mechanic in the race as a bonus, propelling certain teams forward). The crazy number of options in Pathfinder or in more free form games like AD&D or (by extension) Dungeon Crawl Classics or Barebones Fantasy will likely have players plotting and experimenting to gain an edge in the race--which the adventure encourages the characters to do.

Sure, you can do this for any number of adventures. It's just that, comparatively, Owlbear Run's encounters don't rely on a specific system in order to translate well.

In my opinion, anyway.


Anonymous said...

I'm just going through the Owlbear Run tonight and making some changes in case it's one of the adventure seeds the group picks this saturday. I'm hoping it's as big a hit with my group as the cross-city race from dungeon 176. It looks like a great adventure in the same vein, with the most interesting encounters dealing with the attitudes of the owlbears, rather than hacking and slashing at random baddies along the way. The Duke should easily squeeze in to the ongoing campaign to point them towards the next adventures. Just wanted to say it looks great, and thanks.

Steve said...

Excellent! Please do let me know how it goes!

It should be pretty flexible and customizable. When we played it, a big part of the adventure was spent in role-play and preparation for the race.

I'm always interested to hear what paths different groups took, which encounters they had, which sponsor and owlbear, who won the race, and if it was close. Let me know!

Anonymous said...

So I started out with a brief recap that quickly became less brief.
I posted it on our obsidian portal site


The short'ish version is, I made some changes to run a level 18 party through it. They quickly came up with trickery that let them scoot through the first few challenges and get a massive head start, which was a little frustrating but also well thought out and hilarious. I should have known, when they were very specifically asking if the owlbear named Kitten was friendly to them, after they had treated her well and fed her treats...
They ended up using a Reduce Beast ritual on her and sticking her in a birdcage, lol. It didn't last long, as she quickly grew unfriendly, and she was unimpressed when she get back to full size. It let them skirt a few of the challenges though.

Steve said...

Excellent! I will give that a read as soon as I can!

Sounds like it was a lot of fun. As DM I sometimes used to grumble when players found an easy out. But now I look for details that they missed in doing it the easy way and make those come back to haunt them--just as you did!

As a player, I love coming up with a strategy that makes me feel like I've been clever and that the story is under my control rather than a predetermined plotline--and as DM I love being surprised by what they do. It sounds like you had a great balance in your game. Awesome! Thanks for sharing!

David Stroud said...

Hi Steve. Looking forward to running the adventure this Wednesday night. I'm part of a gaming group where we all take turns running different games. Our group loves storytelling and problem solving over combat so owlbear run should be perfect. I'm including our site where we podcast our gaming nights so you can follow how it goes. I love to DM but wouldn't say I'm fantastic. Hope to do it justice! Thanks for writing it.


David. Sydney, Australia.

Steve said...


I'm excited to listen to the mayhem as it unfolds! I'll certainly tune in to the podcast in the next couple weeks to hear about all the crazy stuff that went down. Thanks for letting me know--I hope you guys have a rollicking good time!