Interview with Floyd Cocklin - Author of Whiskers in the Dark

Dungeon Crate made an epic team-up this month.

The boys at Nerdarchy curated August’s crate, and it is fantastic. The crate contains all kinds of nods to Dave, Tom and Nate. But the biggest is “Whiskers in the Dark,” an adventure in which you save a trio of strangely familiar dwarves from a dark and mysterious fate.

The dwarves are, of course, modeled after our friends at Nerdarchy. Our own Floyd Cocklin whipped up the devious adventure, and we talked to him about how he came up with the story, how Nerdarchy had its stamp on the adventure and how he designed a rather cunning trap.

Dungeon Crate: The adventure revolves around saving some dwarves, which are modeled after the fellas from Nerdarchy. How did you work Nerdarchy into the adventure?

Floyd Cocklin: When I was trying to come up with ideas for the adventure, there were three dwarves and a couple of other creatures to work with. I certainly didn't want to make the dwarves the antagonists in the adventure but also didn't want them to be completely on the sidelines. I figured a rescue adventure would give the players a chance to free some helpers for the last encounter and help turn the tide of that battle.

DC: The gelatinous cube trap is completely devious. How did you come up with that one?

FC: This is a favorite I've used a couple times over the many, many years I've played D&D, and it never ceases to surprise the players. I had one player who always played thieves and was always sort of cocky about it. They would do these dungeon crawls and always find the traps and bypass them, often by rolling to detect traps across every stretch of corridor in the whole complex.

I figured a little misdirection was warranted, so I put an easy-to-find pit trap in the last corridor before the treasure vault of a dungeon I designed. They were on the last of about six sessions in this dungeon and had figured out all the puzzles and traps up to that point. The rogue found the pit trap and didn't think to do a spot check *beyond* that trap. He did an acrobatic elven leap over it and slammed face-first into the cube, tumbling unceremoniously into the pit. He only took the 1d6 falling damage and thought he had run into a Wall of Force or something like that. Then they all heard the scraping sound . . . .

They managed to get him out from under the cube but it added a fun bit of tension to the end of a very long adventure where they could finally see the finish line.
DC: I also like the "coin of fate" mechanic. How did you come up with that one?

FC: I've always enjoyed the idea of magic items that didn't necessarily always have a boon to bestow — the quintessential D&D example being the Deck of Many Things. I wanted to put something luck-related into the adventure that may or may not help a character in a tight situation. They rolled a 14 on their attack or saving throw and so they're thinking "is that high enough?" So, they have to make a decision on the margin about it. Unlike using Inspiration, where they always take the higher of two rolls, this seemed like it would be appealing to players who like a little bit of risk but wasn't game-breaking.

DC: This is more a thinking adventure than a fighting adventure (for the most part). Do you like those kinds of adventures?

FC: Several years ago, with the coming of virtual tabletops, I got to play with my old high school friends again. I put together a massive dungeon crawl as a sort of "reunion tour" from not having played together for 15 years. And the players fell right into their old roles and habits from back in the day, which meant they could mow through traditional encounters like a well-oiled machine.

Back in the day we only did "theater of the mind" using 2nd Edition rules but the games were always heavy on action. With the tactical aspects available in 5th Edition and the ease of designing battlemaps on a virtual tabletop, I started thinking about encounter design in a more tactical sense. I think this adventure has plenty of fighting but it's not designed to be something the player-characters just mow through. All the best stories we have are about encounters with elements other than just smacking the BBEG until they drop. This adventure has a time sensitivity to discourage exploiting rests and puts pressure on the player's resources, like with the rust monsters milling about right from the start. Since most of the encounters feature a singular foe against the whole party, I wanted to put in elements that forced the characters to use actions for things other than just swinging the sword or lobbing the magic missile. This adventure is very much in the spirit of how I run my games.

DC: I like the open-ended nature of the adventure. Any plans to expand upon it?

FC: When I came up with the concept, I wanted it to be something in the spirit of the “Side Treks” adventures from the old Dungeon Magazines I had in high school. The players are between adventures and something pops up right in front of them. In this sense, the DM can drop it in as-written and have a nice side quest that they can run as a break from the regular campaign.

At the same time, I also wanted to leave it open-ended. I wanted to be able to integrate this adventure with some of the bigger adventures we have in the Dungeon Crate pipeline so that it fits seamlessly into the setting. For the October crate, I have some plans on how to expand it past the Mindbender's lair and delve into the yawning depths below.

DC: What else is down in those depths?

FC: The Kron Mountains have had a lot of uncharacteristic seismic activity lately. To the dwarves of Banduhr, this means the possibility of finding some adamant deposits. But there are things down there that have their own designs that will put a real kink in their plans.

DC: Vhulk'hys and his companions seem like nasty dudes. What are their aims?

FC: I've always been a fan of aberrations, Lovecraftian-style horror and grimdark games, so these guys are obviously lifted from that. Their minds and their motives are alien to the rest of the mortals and they are being driven closer and closer to civilization by whatever else is deep in the heart of the mountains. A city of dwarves seems like an abundant food supply for both themselves and whatever else hungers below. But their goals are beyond just mere sustenance, grander designs also await. Stay tuned!