Leave it in a Broken State

Untitled by Maria Rubinke

Bryce Lynch over at 10 Foot Pole reviewed The Sepulchre of the Serpent’s Servant yesterday and it's gotten me blogging.

But, it also has some extraneous information, like “The goblins keep the toad well fed so they can pass it by.” Great. Why do I care about that, when running a game?

I think the designer was trying to include a cool thing, but it doesn't work because they did not leave it in a "broken state". As presented, the designer has left the toad "fixed". By this I mean:

If the toad is hungry, it is a problem. If the toad is well fed, thus sated, it is not a problem. It potentially becomes "extraneous information" as Bryce calls out because of this. To be fair, I haven't read the adventure, and I'm only going off the potentially drunken ramblings of one of my favorite bloggers, but I think there's still a good point here.

From later in the same paragraph:

Room one’s first bullet is that there is a giant toad in the room. And bullet two is that the muddy floor conceals the toad. We dont do things this way. Obvious things first. First things first. The floor is muddy. It hides a giant toad. That’s the way we order information, the the manner in which the DM is likely to need to use it.

I'm reposting this in part because it's excellent advice that everyone should take to heart, but it also gives some other clues about the dungeon, and my thought process. My assumption is that this is a different toad than the well fed toad. I think we often associate frogs and toads together, and associate them with eating flies, but the thing is (as this recent article on cane toads in Australia restates) toads will eat anything that fits in their mouth, including insects, reptiles and small mammals. So toads, especially giant toads, should be threats.

There are a couple things going on here: 

  1. Toads fall into the "vermin" category, where people don't normally take them seriously as a threat. I think we're so familiar with them as low level "level up" fodder from video games (and RPGs, but mostly video games), that the visceral reality of their potential threat level if they're truly giant, is underestimated. So calling out that the goblins keep their toads well fed (to protect themselves) needs a bit more on the threat level to get the point across. It doesn't have to be much, maybe a line like: "After 10 goblins were eaten by toads, the chieftain demands the toads be kept well fed except the week before going into battle."

  2. Building on that, having some well fed toads, that ignore the party, in a dungeon full of mud and other toads, is a good thing because it communicates potential threats. I'd say it enhances the surprise of other toads jumping up out of the mud in forgotten/abandoned/unused rooms. It's very nice to have a "moment" where you see a thing that you should be afraid of, but it's not going to hurt you. Show the threat so it doesn't feel like a "gotcha" when it shows up later. Build up tension. An "empty" muddy room becomes scary, especially if people are meta-gaming.
Because of these, I don't think the callout of the well fed toad was inherently extraneous. I think some of the designer's assumptions may have simply been left out of the writing.

That said, if you're going to have a hazard in a hallway in a dungeon, leaving it in the "broken" or in this case "unfed" state is usually much more interesting for the game. If we assume there's only one toad and it's well fed and leaves the party alone, it becomes nothing more that set decoration. However, if it's left unfed and "broken" then the party has all kinds of options.
  1. Fight: Obvious low hanging fruit. Players can fight it, but this isn't a 5e D&D blog is it?
  2. Go Around: If they aren't surprised (or if they've been gaming long enough to know that you can always run from combat), having a big/obvious/known threat can encourage the party to explore other doors/hallways/options to try and find a way around. It's also something that can add a real edge later on in the dungeon because it can setup a situation where: "We discovered a hungry toad in a small hallway that tried to eat us. We ran, then explored and found a circuitous route that got us around it. However, now we're in the back of the dungeon and there's some sort of pressure and we need to escape. Do we go the safe but long route, or do we risk the known threat of the toad." It becomes a delicious choice.
  3. Placate: The players could also choose to turn around and try and find something to feed the toad. Giving them alternative motivations to explore and do stuff.
  4. Weaponize: Possibly related to placating, the players could choose to weaponize the hungry toad by luring it out to eat goblins in the dungeon. Or they could act as bait and have goblins chase them down the hall.
If you leave the toad in a broken state, instead of being set dressing, it can easily become an interactive toy for players to play with. And I think we always need more of those.


  1. I haven't read the adventure, so this could be off-base, but I wonder if the explaination that the goblins keep the toad well-fed is just meant to clarify that the goblins can traverse through that area unharmed. Which is a question the DM might otherwise have ("wait a minute, why doesn't the toad attack the goblins?").


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