Instant Dungeon Crawling, Trial by Dragon

Last week,  I posted about a formula I devised at the New York Comic Con to  play an improv randomly generated dungeon crawl.

At the time, I had no idea how successful the experience would be. As it turns out, things went quite well indeed. Read on for the “storified”  highlights of this two hour game.

Puzzling it Out

In one room I rolled “puzzle” on my trusty chart. The map showed two pools, one silver coloured and one gold. So I devised the following “simple” puzzle. The players had to take a container made of silver to transfer water from the silver pool to the gold pool OR take a gold container to do the reverse. Doing either popped a secret latch in the wall and uncovered the treasure.

I let the players experiment for about 10 minutes, answering questions, helping them learn about skill checks to obtain hints and figure things out. They eventually caught on but no one had a silver or golden container.

Rogue: Hey wait (throws treasure token from a previous encounter my way), I have this magnificent silver liquor flask. I pour out the content and use it.

Chatty: What was in the flask?

Rogue (smiling evilly) Fine Dwarven spirits…

Dwarf: No!!!!

Obligatory Level 1 Generic Critter Fight

Later in the game, the characters  were hard at work fighting  kobolds.  The PCs were in deep trouble; everyone was bloodied as the Kobold Sligner was spreading chaos and mayhem.

Drow Ranger: I swear to god, if I get hit by another shit pot, I’m going to turn that guy into a pair of boots.

Chatty: That’s a great use of the Nature skill by the way.

At that point, another player asked to join the game, I gave him the cleric, explained that Groo (the Goblin bookie that gave the quest) was worried that his investment wasn’t being properly attended to…

Party: Hey!

… And that the cleric was “insurance”


The cleric’s timely arrival saved the day… as were the treasure tokens traded for healing potions.

It’s Dungeons AND Dragons Bro…

The last scene we played was, by far, the best of the whole convention for me. You see, when I was prepping the game, I really wanted to showcase both elements of the game’s name. When I told Wizards of the Coast’s community manager  Michael Robles about my plans, he lent me his Red Dragon mini (sorry Mike, I still have it, I’ll bring it at Gen Con).  When the party entered the room bearing a huge circular rune, I rolled “monster” and decided to go for broke and plopped the Dragon mini on the table.

Chatty: As you enter, you see an elephant-sized Dragon covered in spiked and blood-red scales. It looks quizzically at you, sniffs around and says. “Good, treasure and lunch all at the same time!”

I decided to totally Mouseburn that scene and make it into one of those “one main skill check with many helpers” skill challenges like the one I did here.

Chatty: Okay guys, this is not a scene where you can win a fight. This thing is big and powerful, you’ll have to deal with it by interaction. One of you needs to take the lead in either negotiating or bullying the dragon in not killing you all.

Dwarf Slayer: I’ll do it! I’ll intimidate the dragon!

Chatty: Anyone opposed to that?

Party: Nope, all good.

(As they were saying that, all the players were placing their minis behind the dwarf, it was hilarious to watch).

Chatty: All right, before you start roleplaying your dwarf”s attempt at intimidating, everyone else can chose any of their skills and try to help you out. Everyone gets to describe what they’re doing.  You’ll get a +2 for each helping PC that succeeds and a -1 for each failure. Are you cool with that?

Dwarf: Hell yeah!

The paladin pleaded with the dragon that everyone knew that dwarven meat was foul tasting and out of fashion. (Diplomacy, failed)

Dragon: Ha! If it wasn’t for your armour and the artificially sweetened taste of goodiness, I’d be munching on you right now Paladin, stand aside.

Drow Ranger: I want to sneak behind the dragon, and knock an arrow while standing  right behind its head. I stand ready to whisper some kind of Batman-ly threat in its ear. (Success)

Chatty: This is very cool! If this ever degenerate into a fight, you’ll be first to attack.

And so on. In the end, the dwarf had to roll a in the mid 10s to succeed. The player played his swaggering and blustering dwarf  beautifully, earning himself some generous bonuses. As he picked the d20, everybody was sitting up straight, eager to see the results.

The dice rolled… and rolled….

… And settled on a 3. (Fail!)

The players looked expectantly at me.

I made a pained expression.

Chatty: The dragon scoffs… and in a lightning quick strike, bites the dwarf’s heads off.

(Pause for effect)

Chatty: The dwarf ‘s soon to be lifeless body remains standing up… blood spurting from it’s mangled torso.

Chatty: The dragon, chewing contently, looks expectantly at the rest of you. What do you do?

Everybody else: WE RUN!

I looked at the stunned player who was, up until a few seconds ago, playing a dwarven Slayer.

Player: That… that… was the MOST AWESOME D&D GAME EVER!

I don’t think I need to add much more to that.  Many weeks later, I still share this player’s enthusiasm for that session.

That’s why, to this day, in spite of all the other fun games I’ve discovered these last 2 years, I will always remain a fan of D&D… whatever incarnation or name it takes. I plan to keep teaching it to players, old and young for as long as my inner flame remains. I’m convinced that this is the BEST way to grow our community.

Dear game designers and publishers, keep innovating and bringing out new games and material, because that’s how you keep my inner flame alive.

As for the formula? It works like a charm. Feel free to borrow it and have fun with it. I’d love to hear about the experiences you had with it.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Phil,

    Officially adding “Play in a D&D game that ChattyDM is running” to my List of Things To Do.

    I may even go to Canada for the honor…

    That is an epic visual for the players! What a fun improv game.

    Keep up the great work,

  2. Phil,

    I second Mike’s bucket list addition. My plan is to simply fly you down to Los Angeles, all expenses paid, for a week-long session of D&D after I win the Lottery. Just let me know how to make the check out.

    On a side note, I wanted to pick your brain on how you structured the Skill Challenge regarding the two pools and how they worked. I reviewed your previous article from the Dungeon Reality show and that was a great example of synergy when the PC’s have a firm end result in mind. In this case, however, what did they wind up doing (or what did you do to encourage) to determine the nature of the puzzle? I’d love to incorporate Skill Checks/Challenges into puzzle scenarios to get my PC’s on the right track if they come up blank.

    Thanks as always for sharing!

  3. @Mike: Thanks so much. The players had eyes as large as dinner plates for sure.

    @Johnny: The Pools scene wasn’t a skill challenge, just an ordinary “if they do this, the puzzle is solved” thing. The skill rolls were more like improvised knowledge checks to drop hints when they became so stumped the game started slowing down. So I gave hints about the pools transmutation abilities and such. It eventually worked out fine.

  4. You have the best blogs ever. I am reading every link you provide and I’m sort of turning into a puddle of DM goo.

  5. With all respect for your nice, simple and flexible mechanics I am persuaded that your flexibility and experience, your “professionalism” as a GM also plays a big part. I still have much to learn 😉

    I started reading your blog as a D&D GM and have moved over to Savage Worlds these last years after running into timing problems running 4e. I found that the fluid, immersive experience I relish and which shines through in your play report was blocked by mechanics of combat with power cards. I credit and value D&D for bringing me back to the hobby, but we are living apart at the moment.

    I would love it if you ever get the chance to revisit Savage Worlds: it has given me a new lease of life as a GM and opened up my creativity in games.


  1. […] the New York Comic Con offering a “Learn D&D” activity. (He wrote about some of the highlights of that experience here.) I might have to try this with my kids over the […]