My Players’ Favorite Cold Open

When beginning a new campaign, I’m a huge fan of starting right in the action. I’ve tried doing it a handful of different ways, but the one that my players seem to remember the most fondly is this situational puzzle:

They awoke, together, one at a time in a pitch black room with no memory of how they got there. At first they felt around in the dark, trying to get their bearing on their surroundings. The floor was made of rough wooden boards, and there were large wooden beams – almost like benches but not quite wide enough to sit comfortably – running flush from wall to wall at regular intervals. There were also some miscellaneous supplies including rope, a hammer, and a lantern with no oil. Some of them were able to perceive innately that the room was at a tilt, and once one of the players was able to produce light, they could see that the only door into the room was up at ceiling level.

At that point some of them began to correctly suspect that they were upside-down. Or rather, that the structure around them was. The tilt of the rooms became more noticeable the more time they spent walking around. After they climbed up to get through the door, they crossed the next room and took a ladder stair down into the next level where they found a hall with living quarters and small rooms on either side. This level had the same regularly spaced floor beams and ceiling-level doors, which were mostly ajar or broken off their hinges, belongings and furniture that were overturned and scattered, and – after 40 or so feet – the whole hallway ended abruptly as it descended into dark blue waters where a dead body bobbed.

One of them dived and swam past splintered walls and beams to look around before coming back and confirming. “We’re on a ship. Um… half a ship. On the ocean floor.” And that realization cause some of them to remember some things. They remembered being passengers on this ship and a little bit about why they were there, but they couldn’t yet remember what caused it to capsize or the events leading up to them waking up in the cargo hull. I didn’t have a solution in mind while designing this particular situation, but I left them with ample supplies to see what they’d come up with. They ended up scavenging materials to create a makeshift buoy and then tying a rope to it to help guide their ascent. Using that, which mitigated the number of checks they’d have had to make if they were strictly swimming, they were able to all make it to the top with only mild to moderate exhaustion.

The ship was actually resting on an ocean shelf since I didn’t want them to be at an impossible depth to swim from, and the angle of the ship had trapped a large enough air bubble to allow the to survive and also to give them a space to return to and work from. Placing the ship upside down was a decision I made to add a little mystery and hopefully keep them from figuring it all out too soon (the floor beams I described were actually joists as they walked on the upturned ceiling).

A bit of a stretch in believability? Definitely. But often when we talk about our favorite adventures that scene invariably gets brought up, and it makes me kind of proud.

Craft Projects

Making a Card Spellbook

After several years solely occupying the DM seat, I finally got the chance to play D&D 5e as a player! My last D&D character was predominantly a melee fighter, so I decided this time I wanted to try my hand at playing a warlock. After coming to that conclusion, the next step was obvious: I needed a bitching spellbook!

Some of you may remember that back in the early 2000’s there was a trading card game called “Zatch Bell! The Card Battle”. What made that game unique was that it wasn’t played by drawing from a deck, but was instead played out of spellbooks (miniature, 1×1 tcg card binders). Back then I actually used one of those books to hold spells for my then paladin/druid. I found it mixed in with my old RPG things, but it was a little beat up and stained and I just generally wanted to make it look a little nicer — something more appropriate for a warlock’s book of shadows.

I started by carefully removing the pages and backing material from the spine. I was prepared to need an X-ACTO knife, but I was able to peel it apart with my fingers fairly easily with minimal damage to the thin plastic film.

Truth be told, I actually had a few more spellbooks still new in their packaging. Knowing that, I decided to finish this one up on the spot using spare craft materials as a proof of concept.

The next step was to pick out materials for the inside and outside cover. I decided on a scrap of dark brown leather for the exterior and a parchment-pattern cardstock for the interior. For the leather I traced the outside edge of the cover, added 1/2 inch all around, and cut the corners at a 45 degree angle so they wouldn’t overlap when folded over.

For the inside cover I wanted to make sure I got straight, clean edges, so instead of tracing I measured the cover with a ruler and cut a piece of cardstock one millimeter smaller all around. I marked and carefully added the initial folds by hand to line up with the cardboard base, and then used a leather burnishing tool as a makeshift bone folder to achieve really clean, uniform creases.

Normally in bookbinding you would glue the exterior material in place first and then glue the end paper on top. However, the leather I used was actually too heavyweight for something this size and the bulk from folding it over would have kept the cardstock from laying nicely. Because of that, I decided to use a hot glue gun to glue in the interior paper first, and then to glue the exterior leather on top of it.

I completed the look of my spellbook by gluing the pages back into the spine and adding some decorative metal embellishments intended for wood boxes.

And that’s it!

If I were to make a version 2.0, I would probably ditch the cardboard cover entirely and make a cover from scratch using chipboard panels and lighter weight leather. With a lighter leather you could also add ridges and other decorative elements more typical for books, and afterwards you could also choose to add things like a ribbon bookmark or bookplate.

Want to make your own? Spellbooks like the one I used as a base are still relatively easy to find on eBay by searching “zatch bell spell book”. If you do decide to make one, I’d love to see it! Send me your pictures at and I’ll share them in a follow-up!