5 Effective Combat Tactics For Assassins — RPT#528
From: Johnn Four
To give you a taste of Assassin’s Amulet, my upcoming new book for game masters, here is a very brief excerpt from the GM Advice chapter.
Many GMs struggle with running killer NPCs. One big goal of the book is to arm you with enough actionable advice that you’ll scare the crap out of your players if they ever catch wind of an NPC assassin ever again.
Part of this GM training involves learning some general principles of engagement when running assassins.
I hope you find this advice useful.
Chief caveat for assassins in combat situations: avoid combat if possible.
The most favorable combat situations involve fighting with allies. However, assassins tend to work alone, which causes tactical problems.
In all the tactics below, hit-and-run is the only reliable method to combine with any combat tactic. Using an assassin’s amulet in combination as a means of escape makes this even more reliable.
1. Maximize Sneak Attack Opportunities
Sneak attack is the best option for assassins in combat. Do anything you can to give NPC assassins this opportunity so they can cause damage while trying to get away.
It is difficult, though not impossible, to flank an opponent without an ally – anything that removes an opponent’s Dexterity bonus or causes him to become flat-footed will grant such an opportunity.
Feint/Improved Feint: using the feint option of the Bluff skill, the assassin spends his first round trying to cause the opponent to be off-balance or otherwise unready.
This denies the opponent his Dexterity bonus to his Armor Class on the assassin’s next attack, giving the killer a sneak attack.
This tactic provokes an attack of opportunity, so use it carefully. Give the assassin the Improved Feint feat when it becomes available.
Foes defeat this tactic using Sense Motive, if they have that skill, or a raw check aided by their Wisdom modifier.
Therefore, an assassin should scout out foes to determine their ability to sense others’ motives or see through such tricks as feinting.
The killer must know in advance if a foe can defeat feint. This saves the assassin a full round of futility plus exposure to a potential attack of opportunity.
Invisibility: except for class dipping with caster levels, which is not recommended, becoming invisible means using a magic item and the Use Magic Device skill.
An invisible assassin initiating combat denies their opponent a Dexterity bonus to that attack, and so the foe must suffer a sneak attack.
Blindness: like invisibility, if the opponent is blind, the assassin is effectively invisible (see above).
Possessing the feat chain Critical Focus and Blinding Critical is helpful, though unreliable, as the NPC must engage in at least one round of combat with no advantages, and he must succeed on a critical hit, which can never be counted on.
Eggshell grenades-pepper (from Oriental Adventures) are a mundane device that require use as a thrown weapon. With a successful hit affecting a five-foot area, the opponent is blind, though he gets a save to avoid the circumstance. Any magic item that causes blindness will also do this.
2. Single Striking
A one-shot kill relies on high Strength combined with Power Attack and using a two-handed weapon, granting half-again Strength bonus on attacks. Unfortunately, Strength is generally a tertiary stat for assassins, following Dexterity and Intelligence.
Focus on causing as much damage as possible with a single attack using magic, magic items and equipment to eke out all the extra damage you can.
Enhance this tactic with Dodge, Mobility and Spring Attack, as well as the vital strike feat chain. While this is feat intensive and takes away valuable feat slots to make an effective assassin combatant, the three feats mentioned allow him to strike without attacks of opportunity, so offer better survivability.
Having the Quick Draw feat also gets the weapon in hand quickly. Combine this with sneak attack and this could be a one-shot kill.
3. Two Weapon Fighting
Using two weapons in combat means more opportunities for sneak attack. The assassin should possess the Weapon Finesse feat to rely on the character’s Dexterity instead of Strength
While effective, this combat tactic does not cause as much damage as the single strike tactic, though it uses far fewer feat slots for combat.
4. Sniping Using Ranged Weapons
If the assassin can prepare to choose a hidden spot to attack from this can be an effective combat tactic. However, it requires time unseen to prepare such an opportunity.
The assassin must hide, shoot at their target, and then move to another location to repeat the process. The assassin must be skilled with ranged weapons and will spend his combat feat slots doing so.
This tactic does not accommodate being caught unawares and forced into melee, so the two previous combat tactics are more reliable.
Take the Arcane Trickster prestige class instead of Assassin so ranged sneak attack is possible to make this a more viable combat tactic.
5. Using Traps
Indirect combat offers a usable strategy, but also requires some time in preparation prior to engaging in combat. Simple is sometimes most effective.
For example, tossing caltrops in areas of expected movement for oncoming combatants or use of tanglefoot bags.
Consider allowing assassins to use portable traps either mundane or arcane, where the assassin can arm, disarm, move and rearm such a device in a move-and-wait or move-and-run-away tactic.
Always consider poisoning any blade, ranged weapon or traps to improve damage and escape chances, as well.
If you liked these tips, you should check out two more previews of Assassin’s Amulet:
50 Assassin Hooks
Assassins make awesome NPCs. Thing is, they often have paper-thin character development. Well, you can fix this right now. Start by giving your next assassin one of these tasty hooks. Get your hooks now!
How to Roleplay Assassins
Assassins should be compelling in every encounter in which they appear. This excerpt describes how to run assassins as compelling characters to roleplay and deadly adversaries to fight. Read the roleplaying advice!
A Brief Word from Johnn
Quick, Vote On My Next Book Cover
My next book is called Assassin’s Amulet. It’s a massive resource for Pathfinder, d20 and D&D 3.5 GMs.
Assassin’s Amulet is the culmination of hundreds of hours of work from Michael Bourke, Michael K. Tumey and myself.
We’re extremely proud of this new kind of GM supplement that fuses world design, adventure creation and NPC development.
(It even includes a wicked magic item creation system that finally brings the full potential of legends into your games.)
You can get a sneak preview of what’s in Assassin’s Amulet, plus have a say on what the cover image should be over at CampaignMastery.com.
Thing is, voting ends Thursday.
So click over right now to vote and a chance to win a copy of the book: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/assassinsamulet1
Special Deal for Roleplaying Tips Subscribers
So here’s something 11 years in the making. I’ve always wanted to hook you up with an awesome deal when one of my books launched. Because I am self-publishing Assassin’s Amulet, I can finally do this!
When Assassin’s Amulet comes out in October, I will offer people who sign up for the early bird notice a hefty discount on the book.
You will receive a special code by email you can use during checkout.
Everyone else can pay full price, but not you. I really appreciate the support you’ve given me over the years with all the tips, contest entries and feedback. I want fans of Roleplaying Tips to get a great deal on Assassin’s Amulet.
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Game World Management
We pick up where we left off in RPT#526, with more tips from readers about how to develop and manage game world details.
A reader named Beleaguered in South Africa asked for help managing the details of his extensive game world. Here’s how GMs responded:
From: Blair Giles
I recently started a new 4e D&D campaign where I wanted to begin relatively small. I gave the players a tour of the initial kingdom, and am slowly expanding them out across the world.
My website is a nice and easy way to store all the information that is available to players.
As DM, I have started using the Microsoft Onenote program to store all my information. I find it easy to link between pages, essentially creating hyperlinks between various pages or tabs.
I’ve not gone to the lengths of future planning that you have, with most of my future planning only going from a few months up to a year in advance of the current campaign. However, I do believe there are a couple of important standards.
1. Where the players should be the focus of the world
The further away anything is from them, the less detailed you need to be.
This allows you to keep fewer notes. You can fill these out further if the PCs move closer.
2. Everyone does everything for a reason
While the PCs only need to know that Kingdom Y assassinated the King of X, as the DM you should know the King ordered the assassination to destabilize Kingdom X, as there is no heir apparent there.
3. Write notes in the way the PCs might hear it
Rumors overheard in a tavern or market, letters written from one lord to another, news from a merchant hiring the PCs to guard a caravan.
In this way, you can also introduce red herrings and inaccuracies, if you are familiar with the concept of Chinese Whispers.[Comment from Johnn: great tip! I can see how writing notes the way the PCs might hear them saves a busy GM a lot of time. You get detail creation, relevance to PCs and potential read-aloud text all in one swoop. Nice.]
4. Sew seeds and information early
Don’t be afraid to start introducing some of these items, even when they aren’t in any way relevant to the PCs’ current quest.
That will definitely add to the players’ impression the world is moving without their intervention. It will also lay down the foundation for players to choose which quests they take on, without feeling like you’re railroading them. (Just make sure you read the tip on Chekhov’s Gun. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/chekhovsgun. Don’t introduce anything into the campaign if the players can’t interact with it in the future.)
I have a couple of ideas as to how you can manage the living and breathing aspect of a campaign world.
The first one depends on how many gamer friends you have who aren’t in your campaign. If you have enough – delegate! Get some friends to take on the roles of your primary NPCs. Give them the situation they are in and the resources they have, and ask them what they would do.
Evaluate those choices, and make a ruling as to their success, then update their situation. I would request one submission for each of your planned gaming sessions and they have as much in-game time as the PCs used.
The other option is to think of the NPCs as being characters in a turn-based game. You’ll probably want to use a spreadsheet program or something of that nature to track the events and NPCs.
Create a new row for each NPC. Each column will be one turn, which is the equivalent of one gaming session with your group (so a turn could be a month in-game or two hours).
After each session, run through your spreadsheet and determine what the goals of the NPCs are and what they are going to do to achieve it. After the first week, you’ll start the process by evaluating what happened to the goals set the week before, which will be dependent on how much in- game time has passed and what the PCs did.
You might also throw in an NPC named Natural Events, and use a random table to generate things like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
From: Keith Davies
I find a wiki works well for tracking things like this, including links between entities. My campaign setting and scenario design techniques articles describe how I do this.
It’s pretty easy to track the links between entities and map out various events that may influence them. If the Ss’thar attack the Kreshtar (again), who gets pulled into the conflict? If the leader of the Kreshtar tribe is killed, what might happen (his heir was killed the last time, his bastard isn’t considered remotely suitable for the position)?
For time-driven events, other entries may be included along with timeline related tags. When spring of the Year of Unending Storms comes around, what do you have planned to happen? You don’t necessarily need to log each season this way (though it’s a thought). It might be enough to have a tag for it much as Wikipedia does for specific dates; attach the tag to the relevant entities and look them up when needed.
I’ve also got a campaign started (but idle) at Obsidian Portal where I’ve described the Kreshtar Tribes. Very summarized (and there is some further detail marked ‘GM only’) but enough to design from.
From: Rob Corrina
1. Surprise Is The Enemy
Some GM’s will tell you that surprise is their stock-in- trade. However, a philosopher like yourself need not stoop to such a gimmick.
Allow me to elaborate. You know more about the game world than could fit into a lecture, and more than would be practical to type, print and hand out to the players. So, how can you proceed?
Begin with player interviews. Ask them, if their character was in a book or movie, what type of story would it be? It might seem odd to start this way, but the only way to orient the players as your information partners is to set up this type of exchange. If they think you are telling them something because it relates to their character, they will listen and remember
No matter how outrageous or mediocre their expectations or ideas are, respond using your vast world knowledge of how they could achieve the story in the game world. Do not restrict your conversation in these meetings with any notions of GM vs. player vs. character knowledge.
Later, during game sessions, the player will be inclined to react, remind, identify, track and record data points they feel are most relevant to them, freeing you as the GM to represent the world and its characters.
2. Know The Rules of The World
Details such as calendars and maps, as you pointed out, are ultimately one-dimensional.
Rules, on the other hand, have a great deal of potential. For example, knowing that the agrarian city of Ku-Man has an active Guild of Herdsman is a detail. When the players come back from the cyclops cave with sheep to sell (instead of treasure) and they are suddenly asked if they are good- standing members of the guild is a rule of the world. 2a. Don’t Act: React
A wonderful thing happens when you know the details of the world and its rules. Your personality is taken out of the equation. No longer is anything you do or say as a GM influenced by ego or aesthetics. You are simply the vessel of cause and effect.
Unlike most aspects of the campaign, relationships can be arbitrarily defined by the GM as early as the pre-game planning stages. I usually assign an underdog as the patron of the party members, such as the youngest son of a noble family.
Simply insert this patron into their backstories. A few words about how he was there, at the risk of his reputation, to help the character when no one else would is usually enough to engage the players in the world. The other side of that coin is that the players are the young nobleman’s only chance of realizing his own hopes and dreams.
Much like a story on the news, it is very different if you know someone who lives there. With a relationship, the players now feel they know they know someone who lives there. And in such a way, the details come to life.
The arbitrary nature of this relationship can also be called upon during the campaign: “You are all in disguise as Shuck-Dul Raiders crossing the border of Aevenskull under the cover of night. “Is a fine way to start a session, even if that is not where the last session left off, provided the mission is for the young nobleman. And since you are not trying to surprise the players, you hinted several times they might need to sneak into Aevenskull.
Do you see? When the all the details of the world are crisp and certain so must the objectives of the players be. Only when the world is an ambiguous sketch is there an option to make the players’ inclinations and whims drive the narrative (or what exists where a narrative is supposed to be).
4. Protect What You Have Built (Player Psychology)
Now that you have started to bring the world to life with rules and relationships, you are going to have to protect your investments. For example, if the players leave town on an expedition their young patron is not to be murdered, kidnapped or replaced-with-a-doppelganger. I blame some bad T.V. and movie scripts, as well as 1970? s gaming, for putting these self-destructive notions in people’s heads.
Why, though. Why not swat the young nobleman while the players are out? Indeed, why not have him assassinated right in front of them!? That would be dramatic, wouldn’t it? After all, it is a violent world and what a swell way to illustrate that than to destroy the players’ primary conduit to that world.
Because, it is not an NPC you are destroying, it is your entire campaign. The patron character is a symbol of trust between the GM and the players and, as such, must be respected. You have only just begun to build the players’ confidence and interest. Even the most reticent among them are stepping out of their comfort zone to roleplay a little bit. Do not slam the door in their faces.
If you do, some players will never show up again. They won’t even know why, just that they gave something a try but it didn’t work out. Some of those that do stay will stab everyone and everything you put in their path. Why not? You cannot trust anyone or anything in the game world, starting with the GM.
That being said, many things happen to the young nobleman. He gets a letter warning him of a conspiracy against the city. He falls in love but does not have the money, stature or unique dowry items required to win the father’s approval. He is appointed treasurer of a guild that is about to go bankrupt. His haughty, well-to-do uncle (who the players know to be a villain) goes missing and they later find him dead. There are political, martial and romantic demands that he cannot navigate on his own. There is intrigue which sounds too dangerous. But the players will always be there, more or less at the right time. Because they have to be.
I know this all sounds awfully specific. But there doesn’t have to be a young patron. Anything that becomes a psychological anchor for the players is no longer a data- point or a detail. It is home and family to the player characters.
It could be a sanctuary or a base or a herd of animals or a vehicle. Many circumstances involving this anchor can and do happen. But it must never truly be threatened unless the players are present and in a powerful position to judiciously punish the perpetrator.
Bad things happen too. People and places are destroyed. Just not the one person or place the player characters depend on.
You may have to go as far as to specify what is and what is not safe as if you were explaining the mechanics of a board game.
5. All Together Now
Generations ago a noble would bring back a sand-colored mare from beyond the southern desert as a wedding gift for his bride to be. (detail) Currently this tradition lives only as commerce. (rule) There is a certain horse breeder who specializes in gift mares. (detail)
To help their patron win over his future-in-laws the players decide to invoke the old rites and take the actual journey beyond the southern desert and bring back an actual mare. (player initiative/ rule-breaking)
The GM guarantees he will not employ the clock against them. In other words, if they go south, get the horse and return they will be on time instead of ‘too late’. (secrets are bad)
6. The GM Emerges
The best source material in the world is only prep for the big show. Tabletop role-playing is not a solitary act, and there is nothing quite like bringing a world to players live. Just remember, you will learn more, and faster, from mistakes.
From: Jane Sill
I have recently encountered the same issue of keeping track of an entire world. I have taken my cues from some study techniques I used in college. I have a 3 ring binder with dividers. Each page is a quick reference for the GM.
Nations and Politics
I have one section for nations and their politics. It has a brief description of a given city or nation’s politics. For example, do they have a prejudice against elves, or maybe there is unresolved turmoil from a big monster, warring factions, wizards experiment gone wrong, and so on.
The information should not exceed one-page front and back, and should make note of a given population by race and profession. For example, 75% human 10% elf; 65% commoners, 10% experts 12% military.
It makes random city encounters easy to roll at a moment’s notice. It is also the page to make a note on notable characters, history and adventure hooks.
This section will also have a page for notable wilderness areas such as a haunted forest or the mountain region the giants inhabit.
A second section should be made for NPC stats. It is nice to have a quick reference for each NPC the PCs fight, do businesses with, or any other reason they might interact with them.
I have a section for random encounter tables I use often, and ones I have made for specific areas. It helps speed the game along.
I have a section for maps. Some are for the PCs and some are for the GM only. Quests
Two other sections that might be useful:
- Active quests to keep tabs on given clues and goals
- Battles fought (helps to keep track of xp gained in dungeons that last over several games)
You can add sections as you need.
Do not to fill in every detail. It is a quick reference for the GM, not an expanded history. If you need more than a page or two of information, maybe a separate notebook on the topic can help.
While adding more depth enhances the game, it adds to a GM’s workload as well. I really enjoy the stories I weave, but I have killed a campaign trying to get ALL the information down.
Just focus on a good outline and let the PCs do the rest.
How to Turn A Haunted House Into An NPC
From the GMMastery Yahoo Group http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/gmmastery/
A GM asked for help making a haunted house become an interesting NPC. Lots of ideas poured into the thread, which I thought I’d highlight here.
I fully support giving locations personality. And as you’ll see below, creative GMs can also make places interactive and dramatic.
The Initial Request from Eric
I could use some help. I am four sessions into a new campaign. People have low magic, it’s loosely renaissance and its fantasy. There are sometimes more powerful magical effects in the world.
On campaign day one, a person unleashed magic onto the world. Now the PCs are magical and trying to figure out how to not get ostracized from society. So they’re forming a guild. The guild needs a house and one of the aforementioned powerful magical effects poses a possibility.
An abandoned monastery rebuilt itself into a new configuration on the day that magic was unleashed into the world. I have had the idea all along the building could become the PCs’ guildhall. The players had the same idea and now they want to explore it.
I want the building to be an ongoing NPC. It needs some quirks, personality and purpose. Though it won’t dialogue, it will continue to reconfigure itself occasionally.
I also want the guildhall to be infected with a variety of magical maladies and it needs to be cured. What the problems could the PCs encounter when exploring the building?
I need some descriptions. If sentient magic created a building, what would it look like?
Thanks in advance for suggestions.
Create A Personality
From: Mark of the Pixie
Personality would come first. If it is a grandmother type personality, caring for her tenants, protecting them when needed, spoiling them a bit, then she would be very different from living in a building that had an accountant’s personality. Both would be different to the personality of a passing rat infused into the main hall.
But if we go with abandoned monastery, then we can assume it may be something like an abandoned monk in personality. It is a calm and serene place, but lonely. Perhaps it wonders why everyone left? Perhaps it worries deep in its cellars that it wasn’t good enough. If there was a fire, then it may be afraid of flames, suffering a form of architectural Post Traumatic Stress. Create A Purpose
Once you have personality purpose follows fairly logically. The monastery is lonely and wants to guide people to wisdom. It wants to shelter them, keep them safe, but above all, it doesn’t want to be abandoned again.
This leads you to quirks.
It is lonely, so it loves having people around. It will open doors and try to make people comfortable. It will be warm and inviting.
There is a downside though. It desperately fears being abandoned again, so it will not let the last person leave. Doors will slam and bolt themselves, windows will prove unbreakable, corridors will lengthen as you run down them. New people can come in, and then all but one of them can leave.
Because of the old fire, it is afraid of flame. Candles are constantly extinguished by drafts; no one can start a fire in any of the fireplaces, no matter how skilled they are. Lanterns are ok, but even then you get the feeling you are being watched constantly (Light spells would be much better).
That said, if a someone does start a fire in a room (or throws in a burning bottle of oil) then the house panics and the fire spreads like something from a nightmare.
It wants to impart wisdom, so books are welcome. Any books inside the building will be protected as fiercely as the people. There will always be more room in the library. Anyone who is wise, kind or helpful will be rewarded as their rooms gets bigger and nicer. Anyone who is unkind or mean will have their rooms shrink.
Another good one for buildings is flashbacks. Perhaps the roof collapsed in a storm. Now every time there is a storm, an extremely convincing illusion occurs where the roof collapses and rain pours in, people are trapped, etc.
It is all fake, but it also can give clues as to the building’s past. For example, they see someone put a signet ring under a floorboard before running off to help with the collapsed roof.
Fixing up a ruin that has been abandoned for centuries and is now magical should provide quite a bit of trouble. Rooms might be repaired, only to “heal” back to their ruined state.
The building may have a fractured personality, and the PCs may need to merge them or even kill parts of the building to make it safe.
Rats, crows, spiders and other animals who lived in the ruins may now be magical as well. An awakened fox mage who is now smart enough to organize the other magical animals would be a cool rival who can compete with the PCs for ownership of the buildings, especially if she has already got the basements and cellars on her side. She doesn’t want the PCs dead, she just wants them to leave. After all, this is where the fox has lived her whole life; it is her house.
Some parts may be haunted. Some rooms might hold the emotional echoes of their last inhabitants. For example, terror if the last occupants of the room happened to die in the fire. It may be that anyone stepping into the room feels like they are on fire (no actual damage though), and only the strongest willed can stand it for more than a few seconds.
A nice balance would be that the PCs have to feed the house magic to keep it going.
From: Roger Barr
My initial thoughts were small eddies of magical power that flow through the guild house, particularly in certain rooms.
There might be a closet that gets visited now and then by a dust storm from another dimension. Once every week or so, everything in the closet is covered in dust and sand.
A spot in the hall will cause any food taken through it to spoil.
There was a cat in the abandoned structure when the magic hit, and now it is anchored to the house and cannot be put outside. If someone tosses it out a window, it returns inside in a different place. If they try to kill it, weapons pass through it harmlessly.
A closet will enchant clothing so the next time the clothing is worn it automatically fits the person who dons it. Borrowing clothing could get interesting at that point, as well as all of the PC’s wardrobe suddenly radiating a magical aura.
A spiral staircase designed to make it easy for older wizards to get upstairs by allowing you to walk downstairs until you get to the basement; if you keep walking downwards, the next landing is the attic. Fun thing can be to not let it work in the other direction.
- A box on a table is always cold, like a tiny refrigerator.
- A barrel of water never runs dry.
- A chamber pot is self-cleaning.
- One window always has beams of sunlight streaming in, even during bad weather outside.
- Ever lit candle that will not burn out. (May not even have real heat, just light.)
- Give It a Helpful Personality
I would be tempted to have it work like an old butler commanding a household staff in a manor house. “He” is sometimes forgetful, but very dedicated for service.
Things get done, albeit slowly. Dishes get washed and put away in the kitchen. Laundry gets cleaned, armor polished and weapons sharpened. The garden is well tended. Horses are groomed and fed.
If you want to make it more challenging for the players, have things the butler performs happen sometimes, but not always, so the PCs will end up being used to check on what has been done and what has not. Did the horses get fed? Better go checks.
This makes it more of a pleasant surprise that they sometimes get to skip a chore, then to always have things done for them.
Some mornings there is a nice breakfast laid out in the dining hall, other days just a pitcher of milk or juice.
From: Douglas E Knapp
After reading the others’ ideas, I got to thinking about a person who moves into a bedroom but the house does not like them.
At first, the room is safe and in a good place in the house. However, with time it is moved to the outside wall of the house and made to have a hallway into the main building.
One time the PC goes to sleep and the door locks. He wakes up to find half the roof gone and part of a wall. He can’t get back in because all the doors are locked. A lot like a cell getting rid of toxic stuff.
The building has a near-random opinion of new people, depending on their resemblance to former occupants. As a former monastery, it dislikes elves and opposing priests, but likes anyone who is bald. If the person can somehow prove to the building they are different, it will change its opinion.
Different parts of the building have different personalities and different magical effects. The kitchens are warm and inviting, and any food prepared there is tastier and more nutritious.
The infirmary was basically a hospice, and until rebalanced it will make people sick. Rebalancing will require building a monument to all who died there, or properly sanctifying the mass grave.
The library encourages people to stay a while (and lose track of time).
The twist is that the areas may not be immediately identifiable; the library may look like another storage room, etc.
I had a creepy idea that may not fit with your vision or your campaign, but here it is anyway.
Two similar horror stories come to mind. One is the story of the rich old woman who kept building and renovating her giant mansion because she thought she would die when she stopped (when she did stop, she died).
Another is the tale of Rose Red, the mansion of a rich oil baron in the 1900s. The lady of the house swore that it was haunted and that it claimed the lives of a few tenants. She swore it was alive, and the creepy lady actually became an avowed Satanist, if I recall correctly.
There are many places you can go with such ideas, from the slightly creepy (fitting for a formerly low magic world) to the outright scary. Perhaps the monastery is somehow tied to the spirit of its founder? Perhaps he was secretly a mage or alchemist, or alternatively, perhaps he HATED magic. His spirit can be trapped in the place, or the effects of his metaphysical experiments could still linger in the place, causing all the changes.
Perhaps the place needs blood (or the blood of a mage) every so often? If the owners don’t realize this, the place causes accidents (minor at first, but increasingly serious).
If you flesh out the founder, you’ll be able to explain the weird shifts in the hall. The founder might have hated mages or been a secret mage, but he might also have loved innovation or study, so the hall may help any residents engaged in such activities.
Before you get to work, ask yourself what you want out of this whole idea. Have an end goal. Though this isn’t well thought out, my gut says I would want a place that is tempting and inviting for PCs, but one that is equally dangerous.
This would create tension for the players (which is good for games), for they will always be craving the new and exciting (and seemingly limitless) perks the house can provide, while dreading the increasingly serious dangers.
Give the building a no-go dark or bad area. Work this into the backstory and personality. Be ready for the PCs to want to go there first, but try to block for several sessions. The mystery will gnaw.
I side with others who give the house control of rooms, lighting and furnishings. This offers you interactivity.
Have doors lead to different places, at the house’s control. A nice way to block, trap or confuse.
Traps! Just thought of that as I wrote trap above. Mouse traps (elf-sized mouse traps preferably), coughing chimney, sliding stairs.
Give the building a sage area. A meditation room or part of the ceiling with a changing paint splotch. Gives you a way to provide clues and communicate.
Put Cthulhu in the toilet. PC has a seat and boom goes the dynamite.
More from Douglas E Knapp
As a bad person sleeps, the house forms a drip on the ceiling and drips it into the person’s mouth. God only knows what this is a drop of.
As the person sleeps, the floor goes mushy and the bed drops down into a pit of hell, a dungeon or just a musty old basement.
Can we animate the house goods? Player eaten by chair, anyone?
Player wakes up to find himself mummified by wallpaper.
Heater goes super nova.
Age old stairs turn into slide.
House sucks player into a wall to save him from….
Plain old creaking can be scary. I know this from being a kid in an old house.
Flickering lights are always scary.
Doors of closets and such will not stay shut for bad people, but shut by themselves for good ones.
Clothing is made damp or clean for players if they leave it out, perhaps food and stuff too.
Room is always dusty or clean by itself. Good air or bad depending of course on the player.
Might want to look into fung shui. They have a lot of info about good and bad houses and what can happen.
I always liked the blood from the water taps in movies.
One More Tip
Start World Design with NPCs
I love Greyhawk. I’ve spent much of my life in that world. One of the best things about it was the famous NPCs. Mordenkainen, Bigby, Tenser and all the others.
These NPCs were so famous they had game rules named after them!
To make your game world or region tingle with atmosphere, start by naming a few famous NPCs from history. Give each NPC a short background, including the reason they’re famous (or infamous).
Then start naming things in your worlds after the NPCs.
For something so easy to do, you will get a lot of mileage from this tip.
Once players start to hear these names, over and over in various contexts, the NPCs will become legendary.
Should you ever tie an adventure to one of these people of distinction, it will be very meaningful to your players. It will add an edge to that adventure.
You should probably start with about two dozen NPCs. While the 8 in Greyhawk formed the backbone for spell names, magic item names, location names and more, you want a larger cast than that for your world to give you more depth and options.
Find a random name generator and generate 25 names: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/namegenerators
Give each a primary life motive: Chaotic Shiny
List at least one reason or plot about why they are legendary:
With these NPCs defined a bit, you can start naming things after them, or creating stories about them, or designing things they have influenced in some way.
This technique is so effective because it gives you material to work with rather than starting on empty. Designing in a vacuum is difficult. (It sucks. Ba dum bum.) So have plenty of details like famous NPCs ready as you build your world.