This is the beginning of the GPTS (Good Place to Start) Exercise series. An explanation of GPTS can be found HERE.
This is a series of dialogues – I share how I make things, and readers may reply with their alternatives, or their iterations on what I make. The actual responses may be on Discord, in the comments section here, or on peoples’ own blogs.
Context: I was tasked with giving a 5th Edition D&D dungeon master some suggestions of how to run a festival, in the middle of an existing campaign, in a town that nonetheless could lead to adventure. I don’t remember if there were other requirements for the prompt, but this is what I came up with.
Jojiro’s Cheese Festival
Roll 1d4 on the table and count DOWNWARDS. Cross out all items up to the number rolled, telling players all those events are happening now and giving them a choice. When you reach the end of the table, the Festival has ENDED.
1. The Talk of Three C’s
Muenster von Pumpernickel gives a talk about how the three C’s of cheesemaking are Cheese, Creativity, and Community. He calls up some major husbandry experts who have put in years to their craft of raising healthy dairy cows, as well as some cheesemakers who have pushed the envelope with aging cheese with new cultures and infusing it with new flavors (cranberries, wine, griffon peppers, crystallized mandrakes). Finally, he calls for community – a group of druids have been attacking dairy farms to the south, and adventurers are needed. The crowd is quiet – will the PCs speak up?
2. Tasting Lessons
Various cheeses/wines are brought forth. Players immediately (no skill check or other roll required) recognize some of the winemakers and cheese-mongers serve evil rulers or are cruel to the local populace, either villains already existent in the campaign or as a larger statement about the campaign world. This recognition is simply by reputation.
Nothing of note necessarily occurs, but new NPCs can be introduced.
3. Elemental Cheeses
Cheeses are introduced that can grant dragon-breath abilities. Normally these cheeses are very expensive, but there is a raffle which players can enter to win one. Various festival representatives will urge them to buy more than one ticket.
Players are guaranteed to win so long as they buy more than one raffle ticket, but roll for a random form of dragon-breath and roll for the player that wins the cheese if multiple players buy raffle tickets.
4. Promotional Armors
A bunch of leather and hide armor are being sold at a stall; they have the names or guild names of famous cheese-makers proudly emblazoned upon them. Players are encouraged to wear them as promotion material. If players do so, they may get people talking to them in a more friendly way, but leather and hide armor aren’t great for AC…
5. Cheeseletics Endurance Relay
People will run from one end of a dairy farm to the other, a distance of approximately 4 kilometers, before exchanging a relay baton with the next runner, who will do the same. Constitution checks are made to see who manages to finish the run – a failure means that the person simply stops running and starts throwing up due to cheeses they’ve been sampling throughout the day.
After eliminations in a round of the relay with Constitution checks, Strength checks among those who finish should be made to see who is the fastest. Winner gets 1000 gp. If the winner is an NPC, try to flesh them out as either an overwhelmingly wholesome ally or an exasperatingly arrogant rival to the party for future plot points.
6. Cheese Wheel Combat
A giant cheese wheel has been prepped and people are to fight upon it. The cheese wheel rotates on odd-numbered rounds, requiring Dexterity saves to stay on top without being flung off. Combat is nonlethal. Winner gets their choice of magical item (these are mostly homesteading items like a Fork of Poison Detection or an Apron of Fire Protection).
7. Fondue Forensics
Great large cheese fondue has various “treasure chests” popping out the top before they drop down the sides of the fondue fountain, carried by melted cheese. These chests are all fist-sized and basically serve the same purpose that Easter Eggs do on an Easter Egg scavenger hunt. Participants in the game must place a picket inside the giant fondue fountain where they think a chest has settled under the cheese. Closest picket to a cheset gets a reward. The contest is adjudicated with Perception (Wisdom) checks, and the reward is whatever is in the nearest tiny chest (some sort of magic ring).
8. Pasta in a Cheese Wheel
Chef teaches how to make pasta in a cheese wheel. Requires proficiency with cooking tools to join the advanced class, payment is 10 gp, reward is a hearty meal so inspiring that the person who eats it gains 1d4 max HP when they first experience the meal.
Beginner’s class happens at the same time with a different chef. Payment is 10 gp, reward is gaining proficiency with cooking tools.
9. Parmesan Golemancy Demonstration
Golemancer demonstrates that cheese is an appropriate medium to make a golem, and does so. An adventurer is asked to hit the golem as proof of concept. Due to the flakiness of the parmesan used, the golem has 1 HP and only 10 AC, though it hits as hard as a stone golem. If the golem knocks the adventurer out, everyone is horrified and the golemancer is ridiculed. If the golem breaks, the golemancer is laughed out of the festival. Players can choose how to influence PR and maybe gain a golemancer sidekick (use 5e Essentials Sidekick Rules).
10. Cheesecake Solo Competition
Musical competition where you play an instrumental solo to honor the beautiful cheesecakes on display. There are some mediators present, helping people with nerves and with tuning their instruments. If you join without any proficiency, you lose but gain proficiency with instruments as a mediator takes pity on you and teaches you how to play basic tunes. If you join with instrument proficiency, roll Performance. Winner gets a cheesecake. The cheesecake is considered a delicacy and is given to you in a Box of Ever Cooling, so it remains fresh. Can be used to bribe virtually any intelligent creature, due to the legendary deliciousness of the cheesecake, including even the current villain of the campaign, if any exists.
11. Breaking Up a Brawl
Two people unfortunately got drunk and have come to blows. One is the husband of a beautiful woman, one is her ex-boyfriend. The players could ignore this event perhaps but if they help, the woman will reveal that the whole “husband” thing is actually a ruse – she is a diplomat needing to travel safely and pretended to get married to give her bodyguard a cover. Her ex-boyfriend is real, and after how her bodyguard unprofessionally got into that brawl, she has dismissed him from service and would like the PC’s help as an escort farther northward. She is in possession of enemy intelligence vital to the realm’s safety.
12-15. Closing Remarks
Closing remarks for the festival. Potentially interrupted by Muenster von Pumpernickel bursting into tears at how great the festival was. He will attempt a pun like “this was the cheesiest fesetival I’ve ever been honored to attend” but it is a bad pun and also he will be crying and it will just not be a great showing by poor Master Pumpernickel.
All NPCs which players have interacted with during the festival come up to speak with them, giving them contact information should they want to meet up again, as well as offering them shelter (mirroring however you tend to run the Shelter of the Faithful background feature in the 5th Edition PHB) should they come to visit.
A Good Place to Start, a Bad Place to End
Let’s talk a bit about the above table from the GPTS perspective. We have a blog post we can passively read, but we want to hopefully take away more from it. By the time we’re done, we will no longer need this blog post, because we can make our own.
We’ll cover some exercises for stages 1, 2, and 4 of the GPTS hierarchy.
Level 1. Comprehension
Make sure you actually understand how the table above is used to generate a festival. A lot of people who read my cheese festival, when I first posted it on Discord, just found an entry or two that they thought were awesome and went “wow this is so cool!”
But many of them were confused about the way the festival would actually work. A lot of them were like “how is 1d4 supposed to cover a table with 12 entries on it?”
This is explained, but it’s actually fairly common for people to lose track of procedure when reading a longer post like this.
So comprehension is important. Don’t just have your eyes glaze over when it comes to procedure, or just skip over something like
Players can choose how to influence PR and maybe gain a golemancer sidekick (use 5e Essentials Sidekick Rules).
Yes, that’s mechanical talk, not fun cheese festival talk. But if you don’t know how to run a 5e sidekick, and you intend on using my festival table, you need to actually do the legwork of looking this up. Decide if you want to actually have the golemancer be a sidekick. Will it be a headache? Will you struggle to run or balance your combats with an added golemancer?
Reading something is not the same as comprehending it.
As part of the GPTS exercise: do a close reading of the festival, and try to catch the places where your attention wanders. Identify why it wanders. If it wanders because it is irrelevant (let’s say you are running Knave and so all the skill checks of 5th Edition are irrelevant to you), then that’s fine. If it wanders because it’s badly written (let’s say you think I’m a bad writer), then that’s fine, you can go do this on a blog you think is well-written.
What you’re trying to catch is this: if your attention wanders because you didn’t understand something and you’re just like “well, that happens”, try to catch yourself and make it a teaching moment, rather than a lazy one.
Level 2. The Confidence to Challenge
A few people actually ran through festival generation, including the original GM who asked me for this. They commented that the festival seemed to take longer or shorter than they expected, and they were curious how many days I envisioned it taking, or if it was a one-day festival.
The actual replies I gave were pretty uninteresting (yeah the length is intended not a mistake, yeah a day I guess). But actually doing the exercise and asking questions is the next step. Often, especially in OSR spaces, people will at least try out a random table if they are given one to see if it works as intended.
But don’t take this for granted! A lot of people see a random table and don’t ever try it out, just porting it into their campaign because “it’s neat”.
There are other ways to use things like the Cheese Festival, of course. You may just like a single idea from it, and not the rest. So you only take that single idea. That’s perfectly fine too. But for people who intend to use the whole thing, it’s worthwhile to test it out and ask clarifying questions.
If you expand this away from the random table to things like Armor Class, or Hex Crawl Procedures, it can be more and more labor on the reader’s part to actually test an idea out or to ask questions. They may just look at something and think “this looks like it would work” and call it a day, because that’s how we’re trained to read blogs.
I’m not saying that it’s a good use of your time to test out everything you read. But if you do take the time to test out more things you read as a mental exercise, it’ll sharpen your critical thinking skills as a GM and designer.
As part of the GPTS exercise: ask me your own questions about this table. Don’t try to disagree for disagreement’s sake, but treat it as a close reading in a classroom – your job is to come up with a question worth asking.
Level 4. Your Own Accomplishments
Given a festival like this, you now have a template for creating other festivals.
So at this stage, the questions that are worth asking are no longer “does this work” or “did you intend this” so much as they are “how did you come up with this step”.
If you want to remake a festival for your own campaign, completely unrelated to cheese, here are some tidbits that might be useful to know, yet not immediately apparent just from the table itself:
- A huge amount of the table is inspired from real life. That’s why (I hope) the festival feels grounded. In order:
1 is from how frequently acronyms or letters are used to help make an occasion or instruction memorable. The COVID-19 era has the three W’s of Wear, Wait, Wash. Caesar has veni, vidi, vici.
2 is from actual tastings I got to do on a cruise
3 is from going to the NC State Fair and participating in raffles
4 comes from watching NASCAR and being floored by just how much advertising there is on the cars
5 is from training for a 5K in real life, and being warned about what to eat or not eat before the big day
- The structure of the table, counting down from the top and crossing entries out, is from a form of procedural generation introduced in the Freebooters on the Frontier 2nd edition play-test. I’m not even sure if the rules made it into any of the official books, I just remember thinking it was a cool structure to use for other things outside of woodland generation.
- I do have ulterior motives in making parts of this table. This was asked of me on a 5th Edition server, not an OSR space. At the time, I wanted to really make 5e GMs there consider the use of hirelings more frequently. The golemancer entry could be seen as me sneaking that OSR idea into 5e, while still following 5e’s culture (such as by calling it a sidekick, not a hireling)
- I actually had a lot of concerns in making this. I didn’t think it would be used, and actually to this day I’m not sure it actually saw use at any real campaign table, though I was told in a private message that and unrelated lurker had taken the idea of the Cheese Wheel combat (where it rotates on odd-numbered rounds) and used it in her game to great success.
These bits of meta always exist behind every creation. Get into the habit of asking creators, “what inspired this” or “what was your design goal behind this” or “do you have any concerns or regrets about making this”. Not only does that humanize the creation, so you don’t put it on a pedestal and have an easier time making it yourself, it also makes the process of creation a lot more digestible and less daunting for you, if you’re new.
Anyway, as the final part of this GPTS exercise: make your own festival table, and share it with me in the comments!
All GPTS entries will be like this – going over hiccups I think can occur in comprehension, going over what I think are useful questions to challenge the author (and to practice your own self confidence), and finally going over the meta of how a thing is done or made, so that the reader can do or make the thing themselves.