Alphabet Soup

D&D, Dungeons & Dragons, Egyptian, Home Brew, House Rules Add comments

Hieroglyphics? Pffft – more like funoglyphics. This week Ben shows you how he’s turning the ancient ruins of the Pyramid of Shadows into a simple, progressive interactive storytelling element. This article uncovers the cryptic alphabet, the valuable translation code, the graphic handouts and even a sample walkthrough. So put on your helm of sleuthing +2 and follow along as these mysterious symbols take shape in an engaging skill challenge worthy of your next D&D game.

Inspiration Nation
Brigitte from The RPG Play Pen was a fan of our puzzle map reveal and did what any kickass DM would do…she took it to the next level for her own game. Instead of puzzle piece acquisition map clues, she had her group slowly find ancient letters and eventually use them to decode a special scroll (so they could find their way out of the Pyramid). Pure genius.

She was kind enough to share her work and materials with the Pile so Ben could use them in his own game (and that’s what makes our wonderful RPG community go round and round, y’all.)

Since then Ben has adapted Brigitte’s fine craftsmanship for his own game and this week’s blog will show you what he’s come up with so far.

Previously on…
Here’s a quick recap of where we’re at but Ben encourages you to read our earlier post so that you have the proper context.

Basically, players will encounter all sorts of ancient ruins and scripts throughout the Pyramid of Shadows. Ben wants to take advantage of that opportunity by introducing a revolving skill challenge that gives the characters additional clues about particular encounters and the overall story arc.

Our module villain, Karavakos, ultimately wants the adventurers dead. Learning the prison’s ancient text will ruin his manipulation plans and instead, make the group stronger. He wants none of that. So Ben is going to take a Lord of the Rings’ Sauron and Pippin) angle here. Decrypting the antiquated language may temporarily alert Karavakos and even open a brief psychic connection. Spooky, right?

Core Mechanics
Each time the party encounters some DM-deemed-worthy-ruins, the group follows these steps…

  • The DM agrees a ruins check challenge exists
  • A player creates a wall rubbing to reveal the word(s)
  • The corresponding worksheet reveals the possible letters
  • The DM says the category (person, place, thing, action, etc)
  • A countdown timer begins (probably 60 secs)
  • The group identifies any previously known symbols
  • Each participating player states their desired skill check
  • Rolling commences
  • Success: reveal a letter | Fail: next player
  • Now make a word guess or let the next player take a letter
  • Note 1: Incorrect word guesses have consequences
  • Note 2: After time is up, the letters magically fade away

Letters Rule
Ben is trying to keep this new game mechanic as simple as possible. The total number of letters corresponds to the total number of available guesses minus one. So if a translation challenge contains one word with five letters, the group only gets a max of four guesses…all within a specified time limit (which the group may not even though). Just the awareness of a timer will inevitably hasten the party.

The group is incentivized to correctly guess the mysterious word or phrase as soon as possible because failed attempts unleash unfavorable consequences and lost opportunities. The DM will make it very clear that learning this language is golden opportunity for future victories and clues.

Alphabet Crib Sheet
Ben made a version of the ancient alphabet that does not contain any translated letters. This will be the party’s fill-as-they-go-tool. The group will consult this worksheet before the start of each word/phrase skill challenge to see if there are any auto fill-ins. The DM always has his own cheat sheet as a reference. Notice how one symbol means two different letters? Devilish.

To make life easier on yourself as the DM. Ben has created a downloadable zip file containing a helpful set of images so you can create your own word puzzles.

Read the Room
Hopefully, the group will utilize their current Pyramid room and surrounding environment as a way to better guess the encoded word or phrase. You may have to hint at this in a subtle way if they totally gloss over this tip.

Sample Encounter
Let’s tie this new-found, game mechanic bliss together with another game example. Our recent Hedge Mage encounter (which already has
blog and video posts) is the perfect choice.

As the group approaches the maze’s entrance, they will see a faded wall hieroglyphic. The DM confirms that a small portion of the markings are legible enough to be decoded. A character grabs some chalk and parchment from his adventurer’s kit and makes a quick wall rubbing.

DM Ben places the language puzzle worksheet on the game table and proclaims the word is a “thing.” For fun, there’s even a supporting image on this one (a secondary clue – which makes more sense if this challenge is performed after combat in the maze has been resolved). This hedge maze turf belongs to a Howling Hag and a few Arborean Reapers who have gained mind control over a Dire Bear. The script on the wall basically warns maze goers of what’s to come and to stay clear of this area.

As soon as the party begins to decipher this word, our module villain is alerted telepathically and tries to shut this attempt down. The DM starts the countdown clock. The party does a quick cross-check against any previously solved words and fills in any known letters.

So now each character gets to make a skill check. Success permits a letter and/or word guess. The party Dwarf proclaims he will use his Dungeoneering skill. He rolls an 18 (including skill bonus). The DC was 16 so the player guesses the letter “O”. He is incorrect and decides not to try and solve the puzzle. Next the Rogue rolls a successful Insight check and guesses the letter “R” but also decides to try and guess the word. He confidently proclaims the word “Boar” but the DM says he’s incorrect and gives him 1d8 Psychic damage (as angry whispers suddenly enter his head).

Additional turns are made around the table until the word is correctly guessed or time runs out (and the wall markings basically burn up and become unreadable – think Indiana Jones and that Arc crate).

Certainly there’s some massaging and improvement to be had here but Ben’s rather pleased with his first attempt. He’ll report back on actual game play and let ya know how he evolves this homebrewed, ancient language decryption game mechanic.

Until next week.

Questions to Ponder: What do you think of our language decipher mechanics? Got any changes or suggestions? Have you ever used something like this in your game? Do you own the Hirst Arts Egyptian molds? Is there a particular D&D edition or module that shared some of these ancient script parameters or similar translation challenge (if so, please share the specifics)?

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One Response to “Alphabet Soup”

  1. Bdarcel Says:

    Outstanding idea Ben. I love the mechanics you’ve put into this.

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