So recently, at Barnes & Noble, my attention was drawn to a hardback on the “fantasy new releases” table, featuring what was described as “flintlock fantasy with airships, a touch of humor, and an engaging female hero.”
I nearly burned the place down. ¬.¬
After the writing, revising, submitting, re-revising, submitting again, and so forth that Sky Pirates of Calypsitania has gone through, to see this thing sitting there made me want to scream at the top of my lungs, “THIS SHOULD BE MY BOOK!”
So. Yeah. I was upset. Deep breaths. Let’s work this thing out.
On the positive side, clearly someone must think there’s a market for the kind of books I want to write. I mean, there it is. But I have to connect to it.
And to be clear, I’m pretty sure that the author of that book worked just as long and just as hard on it as I did on mine. My own personal green-eyed-monster popping out notwithstanding, I wish them success.
That doesn’t alter the fact that I had this extreme, intensely emotional reaction to seeing “my book with someone else’s name on it” right there on the very table where I have been trying to get my book for years now. What I have to do, is direct that energy in a positive direction.
If this is the team that put the book on the table, I reasoned, then it could serve me well to hook up with that team. A little research turned up the agent of not-my-book. I went back and rewrote the opening, again, to address feedback the book had received on the previous round, getting thumbs-ups from my beta readers, and sent it to that agent. Given that this particular agent has a strict “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” policy, however, the response could easily range from an excited followup any day, to chirping crickets until forever.
I don’t intend to wait. As far as I’ve been able to make out, the main thing that makes a writing career succeed (besides lightning in a bottle) is sheer volume. The most popular and well-paid writers I know get that way by writing a lot of books. And as much as I love Sky Pirates of Calypsitania, it is only the one.
What this boils down to is, I need to work on another book. I’ll keep shopping Sky Pirates around as long as it takes, but I can’t leave my career on hold waiting for any one project to move.
I have been trying to write a more “mainstream” fantasy, and I got maybe a third of it done as part of last year’s NaNoWriMo, but I keep running into a fundamental paradox: in trying to adhere to more standard tropes in order to make the book “sellable,” I feel like I’m just aping other people’s work, which in turn makes for a book that I’m not sure I would read, myself.
Of course, it’s just the first draft of said book, and so there’s an argument that I should just finish the thing, with “rip out all the Tolkien” being one of the goals of the second draft. But if I know all the Tolkien needs to come out anyway, then leaving it in there for the first draft feels like creating work I don’t need to do.
So perhaps I should just leave that one in the drafts folder and start a whole new project that’s more like what I want to write.
But I need to do something. I need to get somewhere.
It’s weird how I go through these phases. Like, I haven’t played a game of Overwatch in months. I have signed on once or twice to update the app, but I haven’t actually played any.
It’s a side-effect of energy level. Since the heat wave around AnthroCon, I have spent most of my time pretty much as pictured above. What productivity and energy I’ve had has focused on my writing, because that mostly uses my brain and my fingertips. When I log into a game, it’s Lords of the Rings Online, for the same reason. (And also because LotRO finally got to Mordor, and there are lots of rumblings about the state of the game and the company that runs it. There’s a non-zero chance LotRO may not be around forever, and I want to get the most out of it while I still can.)
I still like Overwatch and at some point I’m sure I’ll get excited about it again. I’m a little surprised the Summer Games event hasn’t lit that spark, considering how much I loved Lucioball the first time around. But right now I’m just not feelin’ it.
But one thing this has definitely taught me: I am not cut out to be YouTuber/streamer. Not in the way the industry exists right now, anyway. I can’t (and don’t really want to) knock myself out trying to grind out 10+ minutes of content to post as-close-to-daily-as-possible. As a general rule I dive deep into projects and come up for air weeks or months later, producing something big when I’m finished (e.g., that D&D map, or a novel).
This has always been the biggest challenge of doing a comic, fighting with having to keep feeding the beast when there are other things I want to do instead. The only reason the comic actually keeps going is because a) I love it, and b) there are too few good furry comics as it is.
I’m sure that when the Overwatch bug bites again, I’ll be streaming and posting and all that jazz just as I’ve been, but purely for the fun of it. I’m not going to chase viewers or subscriptions. There’s a fair chance I won’t hit master level with Mercy because I’m not competing enough, and eh, that’s okay. It’s an artificial goal designed to give me a destination anyway, not something I had a driving passion for in and of itself. I’m still going to do my best. 🙂
But only when it’s fun. ;P
In terms of round-by-round, 5E is great. It doesn’t have the grind-grind-grind problem of 3.x/PF, nor the “everybody is a sorcerer” problem of 4E (which, I’m told, also gets ridiculously grindy in short order).
But structurally, in terms of encounter building and monster design (and how that ties in with rest and advancement), I feel like it still has problems.
The Resource Management Game Nobody Plays
The “15-minute workday” is still a thing in 5E. The game is balanced around the notion that every two encounters (or so) the characters will take a short rest, and that after their sixth encounter of the day they’ll take a long rest.
In order for that to work, most of the individual encounters need to not be that tough. The party uses a big spell in one, the fighter loses some hit points in the next, and so on, but they can soldier on through. Because no one encounter is likely to wreck the party, they can keep on going until they’re out of Adventure Fuel (i.e., hit points and spells), and then recharge with a long rest.
The problem there is that, narrative wise, this can get real boring. If the stakes are that low for almost every encounter, and you have limited game time, there is a strong desire to “skip to the encounter that actually matters.”
So there is a strong inclination to beef up individual encounters, so that each one feels more significant. Instead of six rooms with six orcs each, the party finds three rooms with twelve orcs each. (Of course, in a well-built dungeon, there’ll be more variety than that. But you get the idea.)
But! When confronted with tougher encounters, players inevitably go nuclear on them– the wizard opens every fight with a fireball, the fighter uses their action surges, etc.– and it makes perfect sense for them to do so. The players don’t know how tough the encounter is or isn’t, or what the GM might have up their sleeve. Better to blast the hell out of everything and be reasonably sure you got it all, than to get one-punched by something without ever getting a spell off.
And what do players do after they’ve gone nuclear? They want a long rest to recharge! If that means backing out of the entire dungeon and coming back the next day to take it one room at a time? That’s what they’ll do.
Fighters get the shaft in a situation like this– their strength relative to magic-users is they can keep fighting all day without expending resources. But if the wizard gets recharged every time, the endurance of martial classes is irrelevant. (This is why everyone was a sorcerer in 4E.) Action surges and stuff like that make fighters a little more bursty to compensate, and of course 5E rogues are OP no matter how you slice it, so it’s not as bad as it was in 3.x/PF, but it’s still a thing.
The NERF™ Monster Manual
My campaign currently has a very large party. Six PCs, plus 1-3 NPCs of varying power levels depending on the scenario. This utterly breaks the action economy as it is, but even moreso once Bounded Accuracy comes into play.
Far from making it so that “even goblins can stay viable threats,” with a party this size B.A. makes it so that “even dragons are never a viable threat.” ;P In my last session, the 5th level party went into a fight with three wights and six zombies, and didn’t break a sweat. They were a little annoyed at the way the zombies kept standing back up again… but it wasn’t scary, so much as a nuisance.
Dammit, I want wights to be scary. -.-
When you have an edition in which levels 1-2 are pretty much intended to be skipped, but 60% of the monsters are CR 3 or lower, you end up with things like this. When you then combine NERF™ monsters with beefed up encounters, you suddenly have 5th level parties facing beholders. Combat then becomes very, very swingy, a game of rocket tag in which the only roll that matters is “initiative.”
Not great for “heroic fantasy” style gameplay. Also not great when the players have six chances to roll higher initiative than the monsters. ;P (Savage Worlds, a game that deliberately has rocket tag combat, also makes you check initiative fresh at the beginning of each round to at least add a little more uncertainty to this.)
Encounter Inflation and XP
The other danger of beefed up encounters, using the default assumptions of XP and level advancement, is that characters get beefed up XP, which in turn makes them advance faster, and the whole thing just explodes geometrically.
This can be avoided by decoupling XP from monster CR (or at least minimizing it), which a lot of my favorite RPGs of the past did by default. The HERO System for instance gave a pretty flat “3 XP per session, +/- 1-2 points for dull/easy or awesome/tough sessions.” You could (and our group often did) go through whole sessions without anyone so much as throwing a punch– and as long as everyone had a good time, you didn’t feel like you’d been shafted in the XP department for it.
The most recent Unearthed Arcana column has an interesting take on this, proposing a “100 XP per level” model in which exploration, interaction, and combat all have 1-4 tiers of difficulty, and any given encounter would give (10 x tier) XP.
I think this is a neat idea, although the first thing I notice is that it flattens XP progression back out. 5E is famously designed so that you fast-forward through levels 1-2, slow down for 3-10, and then pick up a little from 11+. The XP for monsters might still need work tho– it basically boils down to “5 XP per normal monster, 2 XP per minion, 15 XP for something way out of your league.” In the case of my party vs. the not-terribly-scary wights, that would have been 22 base XP, halved for having more than 6 characters, or 11 XP. Was that encounter really worth 1/10 of a level?
The tiers for treasure and interactions are also sorta arbitrary. Tier 4 exploration (worth 40 XP) is the discovery/wresting from monsters a “location of cosmic importance,” for instance. If a campaign starts doing the whole plane-hopping thing later, you’ll be discovering cosmic locations all the time, won’t you?
But the key thing is, with this system, combat is no longer the benchmark for character growth. Like the original “1 GP = 1 XP” model, characters who like to talk, sneak, or otherwise do things besides fight all the things have an alternate progression track, and that makes for a more varied and potentially-interesting game.
So What Does It All Mean?
Based on all this, I think I would prefer:
- Beef up monsters a bit. When 1st level lasts a while, a CR 3 monster (like a wight) is scary longer. When the game starts at 3rd level and goes up from there, a CR 3 monster becomes the new baseline. By that reckoning, a lowly goblin should be at least CR 1, while a wight should be something like CR 5. Almost everything in the Monster Manual needs at least +10 hit points and +2 to their attack rolls. 😛
- Tweak rests. This post is hella long already, so I will have to save the “rest” issues for another day. Something that will allow for tougher individual encounters, without screwing over the fighter types and/or creating 15 minute workdays is a big challenge.
- Non-Combat XP is Best XP. A tier-based system in which each encounter (whether it is a puzzle, a roleplaying moment, a fight, a treasure looted, whatever) gains about the same XP makes for a much more interesting game. Is talking to the shop-owner as much of a learning experience as fighting for your life? Well… maybe not. But if it’s a great moment in the game, it should be more rewarding than just tossing a fireball at 2d6 orcs.
What do you think, players?
Friggin' orcs, man.
Storm King's Thunder involves a lot of overland travel. I mean, a lot of overland travel. One reason I created a ginormous continental map for the campaign was to keep track of all the tromping all over everywhere that the adventure calls for (and to have an everywhere to tromp over).
The question then becomes, how best to handle these long hikes in-game. There are a few possibilities:
Travel By Montage
This is the mode I practiced for many years, and it's not a bad one per se. Essentially I just decide what happens between point A and point B and tell the players. If it's interesting enough, the journey pauses and a session or two is spent dealing with the narrative pitstop, then off they go again.
There are some downsides to this. First of all, because they're glossed over, long journeys feel cheap. Telling the players "You leave Argent, ride a boat for six weeks and now you're in Zan-Xadar, what do you want to do?" makes it seem like Argent and Zan-Xadar might as well be right next to each other. The world "feels" smaller because there is no real marker of time or distance.
(See also the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Gandalf leaves Bag End, travels by montage to Gondor, then travels by montage back to Bag End, all in the course of three minutes. Did that trip take a day? A year? No context.)
Second, it takes away from the organic nature of the world and puts me back in the place of being the one who decides what the characters do on their trip, both of which are against the spirit of My Gamemastering Credo.
Overland Travel: The Mini-Game
The One Ring RPG (or its 5E variant, Adventures in Middle-earth) has a whole subset of rules for overland travel, because let's face it, "walking" is the primary activity of any character in a book by Tolkien.
Brief summary: using the player map, the group picks a destination and a planned route and each character is assigned a task (Guide, Scout, Hunter, or Lookout). The GM then determines the overall "peril rating" of the journey based on their own map, which will then be used as a modifier for the rest of the trip. The Guide makes an "embarkation roll" which determines the general mood of the trip, which has results ranging from "The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues" to "Paths Both Swift and True." The higher the peril rating of the journey, the more likely it is to be a rough slog.
Once all this is worked out, you turn to actual encounters along the way. There is a generic table of journey events, but the GM is encouraged to customize it for specific regions or a particular campaign. This part is a fairly standard random encounter table, but built around themes instead of specific events: "Agents of the Enemy" or "The Wonders of Middle-earth" or "A Fine Spot to Camp", etc. Combat and skill checks within the encounters are often modified by the Embarkation Result or the Peril Rating, and so forth.
Finally, assuming the party survives the encounters, they get to their destination and roll on the "Arrival Table" to see what kind of shape they're in at the end, ranging from "Weary to the Bones" to "Inspired and Filled with Hope."
Essentially, the whole journey becomes "a dungeon," with characters only able to take short rests after each encounter, with something like "A Fine Spot to Camp" providing a rare long rest opportunity. It's a neat system, somewhere between the Hex Crawls of old-school yore and the Travel By Montage method. But it is... crunchy. A long journey with a lot of encounters will certainly take several sessions, and you'll have to keep track of the Peril Rating, Embarkation Result, and rest resources along the way. It's probably not that much more overhead than a dungeon map is, but for some reason, it feels like a lot of work. It might just be a matter of what you're used to.
What I Have Done So Far
When the campaign transitioned from Keep On the Borderlands to Storm King's Thunder, that was definite Travel By Montage moment, because the whole nature of the game shifted (and I didn't have a map ready for travel then anyway). But now that the game is up and running, I have largely been treating Orbis Leonis as a giant hexcrawl.
In order to not have to rigorously define every bloody hex on the map, I make liberal use of random encounter tables, with a core assumption of one random encounter check every four hours during actual game play, and one check per day between sessions, unless the players are somewhere that is already a keyed encounter.
This doesn't mean there's going to be a fight every four hours! "Encounters" in this context aren't necessarily wandering monsters: my tables are also full of things like random terrain bits ("a wooded bog," "an ancient burial mound," "an orphaned castle wall of old"), changes in the weather, or other travelers on the road (which get re-rolled when the characters are in the wild, obviously). There are also "no encounter" slots, which is typically what goes into a slot after that encounter has happened once and becomes the norm when I keep rolling an 8 over and over again. XD
Although I was once very sneery about them, I've come to love random encounter tables because they make the world feel alive– there's stuff going on in it and if the players ask for Survival checks to see what sort of things they might run into, I can look at the random encounter table and tell them. I sometimes go as far as to put a whole five-room dungeon on the table, but that's usually more work than it's worth because that will naturally be the roll that never comes up.
They're also great for making places feel different from each other. Argent is mostly wooded hills and has things like cleric-eating owlbears running around in it. Hestelland is a grassy plain and so it has herds of wild horses and packs of worgs. The Silver Spires Mountains are lousy with harpies, gargoyles, giant spiders, and the kobold minions of Cagarax the Red. Add to this the overlay of giants, with their frequency based on where the various giant holdings are, and you get a nicely-varied, very organic-feeling world.
I'm thinking of adding some of the elements of The One Ring's Journeys system to my game, without going quite so crunchy– maybe adding "Journey Mood" items to the encounter table for instance, something like "This leg of the journey has been plagued with bad luck. You got mired in a bog, losing an hour, and [random character] slipped on a rock and turned their ankle. Make a Dexterity saving throw to avoid having your movement halved for the next 24 hours."
Giant Eagles, Pls
Eventually, Storm King's Thunder has some story items built in to enable characters to travel faster. I'm not going to enumerate them here (because spoilers), but the latter parts of the campaign do require a lot of going from one end of the map to the other, possibly multiple times, and having to play all of those trips out, whether Hex Crawl or Journey Mini-Game style, would get real old after a while. Sorta like the teleporting chain from the original Against the Giants series back in the day, these are plot devices mostly and relatively limited in applicability, so they don't break the rest of the campaign by making long journeys trivial forever.
The main challenge with these is deciding when to introduce them, and figuring out just how limited they actually are– because once they're in place, we're back to Traveling By Montage as a plot element. And after putting so much work into building a large, well-populated world, I don't want to apply the fast-forward button just yet.
I’ve added a new tier to my Patreon page, specifically for people interested in checking out my writing projects, including the Sky Pirates of Calypsitania and By Elves Abandoned series, plus whatever else I get rolling in the future.
Besides serializing the novel draft (posting a scene every week or so), I’ll also be posting items for feedback, looking for suggestions or ideas, and so on. If/when the novel is finally published I’ll make some kind of arrangements to reward Patreon subscribers who helped with it as well, but that’s something I’ll have to figure out when the time comes. XD
This tier is for supporters at the $3/month level. I believe that $3/month subscribers should start seeing the posts immediately (the first one will come later today or tomorrow), but you might want to edit your subscription to select the Writing WIP tier just in case.
Thanks as always, awesome subscribers! <3
REMINDER! All Patreon subscribers are eligible for commission discounts and early access to Suburban Jungle comics!
- Graveyard Greg broke my brain (still not paid? check)
- Ace 8th Doctor
Fluttershy v. Monkey
- Rufo/Parker silliness
Can that really be all there is? O.o I must have actually gotten some work done without realizing it. >.>
As a followup to my post about power inflation, something I'm pondering with Storm King's Thunder is the expected "tiers of play" built into D&D.
D&D has always had this, but in most editions it was kinda hidden. Low-level play is generally the stuff of Heroic Fantasy, taking on local bandits or smallish monsters, dungeon crawling and tomb raiding, generally very personal stakes. Mid-level play is more like High Fantasy, taking on legions of orcs, the occasional giant or dragon, saving the kingdom, that sort of thing. Then high-level play gets into the Power Cosmic, dealing with entire hordes, powerful (and generally super-weird) monsters like beholders, mind flayers, Galactus, and who-knows-what-else, and slaying gods.
(4E had this specifically called out, with everything but graduation ceremonies between tiers. It was designed to make the implicit, explicit, and therefore clearer, but in practice it just felt really clunky and artificial. Fortunately 5E went back to being subtle about it.)
There was a certain sense to that when campaigns lasted for years or decades. But these days? I dunno. 5E fast-forwards you through levels 1-3 (or just skips over them all together), and a typical "Adventure Path" style campaign in the modern mold is generally designed to cover 10+ levels over the course of about a year of play.
There are good meta reasons for this, of course. Very few RPG campaigns last longer than a year, and even staying around that long can be considered an achievement, so 1/2 to 2/3 of the game's actual content rarely sees actual use. What's the point of even having pit fiends and demiliches, if no player ever actually sees one?
But at the same time, to have a character go from scraping copper pieces together at 1st level, to drinking tea with ancient dragons just a year later, makes every campaign feel like That Escalated Quickly. It also wreaks havoc on gameworlds. Faerûn keeps getting blown up over and over again, as Tiamat becomes an epic threat, then the cults of elemental evil, then Demogorgon, then the giants... At least Middle-earth stayed saved.
MMOs, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They are generally designed to emulate one tier of play and stay there forever.
I've been playing LotRO for ten years. (That kind of amazes me.) My little hobbitey warden has defeated thousands of orcs, hundreds of trolls and giants, the last king of Arnor turned into a wraith, spiders the size of a house, a dracolich, the Watcher in the Water, one of the nine Nazgûl, and a freakin' balrog.
What is he doing ten years later? Still fighting orcs, mostly. XD The occasional 100th level sickle-fly. I think, if this was a tabletop campaign, I might find that a little odd.
What I'm looking for, I guess, is a sweet spot somewhere between these two extremes. 5E purposefully levels out the XP curve to stretch the mid-level range longer than the low and high ends to keep characters in that zone as long as possible, but I'm not sure even that's enough. (On top of which, if they're shrugging at hill giants now, what will they be like at 8th level? 10th?)
I'm kinda curious and would actually like to hear from people. If your only choice were one of the two, which would you prefer: a focused campaign with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end ("Throw the ring into Mount Doom!"), or the "continuing saga" of a group of characters that goes on indefinitely, with new stories popping up as old stories resolve, taking you all over the world and possibly beyond?
As an addon to that, how do you feel about the progression of tiers? Is there one you prefer to the others? Do you want to find one and stick with it, even if it meant an XP cap (or at least being cut back to a trickle)? Is the standard progression fine? Too slow? Too fast?
Enquiring Gneeches want to know!
-An Enquiring Gneech
Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter
One issue I've encountered with the Storm King's Thunder game is power inflation. It was already an issue during the Keep On the Borderlands phase, but it has reached new heights. We've got a party of six fifth-level characters, who are off-and-on supported by a (CR 7) stone giant NPC, plus any other NPCs who happen to be along for the ride (Lord Alden and Harold, in the current scenario, are both effectively CR 1).
This is a party that punches well above its weight. My best guess, based on running the "encounter difficulty by XP budget" math, is that they are roughly on-par with a 10th level "typical" party. The problem with that, however, is that CR 10+ creatures have abilities and defenses that lower-level characters, even these powerhouses, might not have the resources to overcome.
But then again, they might. D&D has never done "boss fights" well, and that's still true of 5E. Put this party in a big empty room with a behir (CR 11), and my money would still be on the party unless the behir had access to lair or legendary actions. laurie_robey would probably get swallowed whole at least once, tho.
(In some ways, this is a feature, not a bug. If you put a giant boss at the bottom of a dungeon, where the PCs have had to fight their way to get to it and are down on resources, the fact that the boss is gimped by the party's number advantage is a hidden way to make the fight winnable while still feeling epic.)
The current thought on encounter design for D&D is that in any given encounter you should have at least three monsters against a regular party, plus one monster for each party member beyond four. So against a party of six, at least five monsters. Against a party of nine(!), at least eight monsters.
This is rapidly becoming a very crowded 30' x 50' dungeon room. ¬.¬
The good news is, 5E is so much faster than the past three editions that there's not that much overhead from having all these mass combats. "These two attack Rina. These four attack Togar. The ones attacking Rina need 10 or better, the ones attacking Togar need 16 or better." (Dice clatter.) The DMG has a chart for mob attacks that boils even that down to "If they need a 15, every fourth monster hits," but we have not (yet) had a fight so large that I felt it was worth looking it up.
Just taking the average damage from each mook attack, something I was dubious of at first, really makes this go even smoother. "You're hit twice, take ten points of damage." Easy peasy. The +/- 3 points of damage either way from rolling dice every time is not missed, although I still roll the damage individually for monster criticals, adding just that touch of spice roughly once or twice per game session.
The other issue, though, is 5E's strange fixation on not having monsters over CR 3 if at all possible. In the last session, Sheala took out a dozen enemies with a single fireball because they couldn't survive half damage even if they made their saves. You can start stacking your monster ranks with reskinned knights, veterans, gladiators, and bandit captains to buff them up a bit, or create 3.5-style "mob" versions of lower level foes, and there are some third party supplements for the purpose. But the players might rightfully wonder why the orcs last week couldn't withstand a fireball and the ones this week can, unless you introduce a story element of Bigger, Badder Orcs (say, a new strain bred by an evil wizard wearing shimmering rainbow robes).
There is an upside to having a party that can take a licking and keep on ticking– I can just put whatever I want and makes sense into the scenario and not be worried that they can't handle it. But the real problem is things that should be dangerous becoming trivial. The "svartjaw" in the last session was a reskinned wyvern, a CR 6 brute, and they just melted it like butter before a blowtorch. Players love and want to win, but if they don't feel like they had to at least work for it a little, it feels cheap, and will become boring fast.
5E's much-touted Bounded Accuracy is meant to address this very issue, but when you pile on a huge party like this, you flip the script. Suddenly the carefully-balanced math and action economy that is supposed to allow monsters to remain a threat across wider levels, is exactly what enables the party to just stomp all over everything.
There is also the Monty Haul problem, where the party's ability to take on outsized challenges leads to them racking up high level treasure and XP, which in turn enables them to level up even faster in a geometric spiral. Dividing the encounter XP by six, seven, or nine as appropriate helps here, and I have complete control over how much wealth the party has access to simply by decided what's out there, but it is still something I need to watch.
(As a side note, I do love that 5E is built on the assumption of class/race abilities only, decoupling magic items from character progression. I have always looked askance at "numerical progression" items from the first time I saw a +1 sword in my Moldvay Boxed Set with chits instead of dice. My completely perfect world would mostly leave out treasure too– when did you ever see Frodo and Sam count gold pieces? But I fear that would force a little too much of my own preferred playstyle onto the rest of the group, and certainly "local duke offers 500 gp for bandit slaying" is a handy wrench in the narrative toolbox.)
None of these challenges are insurmountable, and compared to the "I hate my life!" slog of prepping higher-level 3.x/PF these are perfectly-acceptable problems to have. They're just things I'm noticing about how the current game is going. Every campaign is different!
Three Good Things for Today
- Got the basic poses finished for Blacktigr's commission
- Finished the "Windswept Sandbox Full of Giants" recap posts
- Had some Ben & Jerry's
- Bonus Good Thing: Had some nice kitty cuddles.
Three Goals for Tomorrow
- Finish Blacktigr commish
- Pencils for SJ page 12
- Work on "By Elves Abandoned"/"Fortress of Tears" setting
Gnite world, and have an awesome tomorrow.
Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane
When you prep for the players to zig, they always zag. Continuing from part six...
We're finally caught up to the most recent game session! With game world firmly built out and chock-a-block with adventure hooks and sidequests, a firm campaign direction ("Escort Xerlo to the Eye of the All-Father"), and brain-eating enthusiasm infinitely better than the floundering avoidance I started with, I was excited for the characters to head into
The first order of business on arriving in Hierandal was looking up Piotr Zymorven to ask him about his father's sword. ( They found him in a tavern... )
Well my dear readers, reskinned wyverns are still CR 6. A party of six 5th-level PCs and their CR 7 stone giant ally piledrived Svartjaw so fast that Lord Alden and his son didn't even get a chance to draw their swords. Lord Alden was quite upset by this apparent anticlimax to what he had expected to be an epic last hunt that would be sung of by the bards and so on... until Rina pointed out that the tracks they'd been following had a very distinctive tread missing three toes on one foot– and that the monster they had killed did not.
Svartjaw, it seemed, was not the only one of his kind.
Furthermore, examination of the bear revealed that like the displacer beasts in the previous session, Svartjaw was also wearing a collar with a token on it, in this case an emblem of Nerull the Reaper, a dark god of death and murder from eastern lands. There was still hunting to be done before dawn. The session ended with Lord Alden giving the order to mount up to continue the hunt, darkness and the forest be damned.
And with that, the campaign summary is up to date! The next session will begin with the PCs attempting to find Svartjaw's lair and confront the source of its evil. Will Lord Alden survive his last hunt? Time alone can tell.
Then, the world changed. Continuing from part five...
I was going to finish the recaps with the discussion of last weekend's session here, but I got to talking about the map (as one does) and realized the last recap would have to wait for one more post.
Once I realized that Storm King's Thunder was a "build your own campaign" framework and not a straightforward adventure module and embraced it, that meant that I had to build out the world in order to make room for it all. I went through the module from front to back and placed every location important to the campaign somewhere, and then set myself to the task of filling in as much of the blank space around that as possible.
( I discovered that the Silver Coast was waaaaay too small... )
It took several days and the project pretty much ate my brain the whole time, but now that it's done I'm really happy with the result. This is a game world that I can see going pretty well forever, with enough detail and history to feel "lived in" while still having plenty of room for expansion as needed (I tried to leave myself lots of open spots). It's not suitable for publication or any such thing– it's got chunks of Greyhawk, chunks of Faerûn, bits of Lovecraft's Dreamlands, and of course the Middle-earth nations of Rohan, Arnor, and Angmar with the serial numbers shaved off. But it is a cool place for me and six friends to visit every Saturday night.
It also taught me a lot about world-building in general, which is valuable for creating original works. I will probably use a very similar process to build out Calypsitania and the Fortress of Tears world for writing novels in next.
Next time, part seven, in which we finally catch up to the campaign!
This Round's on Lem, from the Pathfinder Wiki
He spews lightning. He crashes into everything he gets near and knocks trees over onto himself. And yet he's still kinda adorable. Continuing from part four...
The first town on the road north was Tyvalich, a major trading town at the mouth of a pass up into the richest silver mountains in the world. Before they got there, however, the party was confronted by Felgolos, the Flying Misfortune, a young-ish adult bronze dragon who came swooping in, blasted a line of lightning between the party and the road, and proclaimed that he was the protector of the north and they would go no further. And then had to duck from the lightning-blasted tree that almost fell on his head.
( Seeing Xerlo in their company had apparently... )
They headed back to town to collect their reward, stopping briefly to aid and comfort the same band of Calladganger hunters they had met before, who had been tracking a herd of aurochs through the mountains and gotten the snot pounded out of them by a bunch of hill giants. Still convinced that Nikki is some kind of nature spirit, they turned down his offer of "eagle" (actually bloodhawk) meat, because eagles were sacred to them and this was obviously some kind of spiritual test Nikki was putting them through to make sure they followed the old ways or some such. Nikki informed them that there was a nicely large, vacant Calladganger-style homestead in a box canyon just a ways up the mountain that they could safely camp and recuperate in, as long as they didn't mind the smell of burning dead monster. Their leader promised they would ritually sanctify the house and that anyone who settled there would be named the People of the Squirrel in gratitude for this beneficence.
"Right. You do that."
(For the record, the Calladganger leader is not whimsically eccentric, even if I do refer to him as "Kronk." He's a perfectly normal big dumb amiable lug.)
After a night of rest, it was time for the four day hike to Hierandal, which will come in part five.
Drow Assassin by thatDMan
You knew a prophecy had to show up eventually. Continuing from part three...
Upon arriving back in town, the party headed for Lord-Protector Shendrel's offices only to find an unruly mob of farmers complaining about Xerlo, the stone giant, who apparently defended an outlying farm from attack by throwing the farmer's silo at a bunch of hill giants who were stealing all the livestock they could get ahold of while chanting "Food for Guh! Food for Guh!" They said they'd have a talk to him.
While they were in town, inkblitz headed off to the Golden Compass Society for Exploration, Acquisition, and Monster Dispatch (a.k.a. the Adventurers Guild), while Sirfox headed for the Brotherhood of the Spider (a.k.a. the Thieves Guild). jamesbarrett went off to the temple and the garrison to boost morale, aid the refugees of the volcano still clogging up the town, and presumably chop wood or something paladiney like that.
( Investigation at the Adventurers Guild revealed... )
They were not expecting the dragon attack that comes in part five...
PS: Quit creeping on that drow, guildmaster! Don't you know that's Obsidian's mother?
Kolstaag Albrek never knew what hit him. Continuing from part two...
It has always been true, but it is especially true of 5E that rolling low on initiative kills bosses dead. Between being blasted by the party's wizard and cleric, sneak-attacked by the rogue, and having a ghost-possessed troll flip a desk on him then pick him up and go all TROLL SMASH, Kolstaag Albrek didn't even get a spell off before the party had wrought their revenge. The pair of drow he was meeting with decided that was their cue to call it a day, and the wizard's vicious gargoyle pets were quickly dispatched. The only other occupant of the house was a cranky old coot named Xzyyzx, the wizard's housekeeper, whose opinion was that the wizard's death meant it was his house now.
The party were not inclined to debate the legalities of property ownership in Three Roads, but instead reclaimed their gear (jamesbarrett was quite jazzed to discover that Togar was the owner of a suit of adamantine plate), read Kolstaag's mail, and headed back to town. Kolstaag, it turned out, was working for a drow by the name of Nezannar, which triggered deja vu in players from my previous Silver Coast game.
(Since that game is actually set 50 years in the future relative to the current one, the events of that game are history repeating itself, even though it got played first. Wibbly-wobbly campaigney-wampaigney.)
They also fetched Xerlo the stone giant out of the basement. He was quite surprised they were no longer in their cells, but on being informed that his former employer was dead, he adopted a very c'est la vie attitude on the subject. The party invited him to come along back to Three Roads with them, with the plan of setting him up as an 18' tall Lurch-like guardian angel.
Lord-Protector Shendrel of Three Roads was a bit taken aback by having the party come back two days later from the opposite direction the fire giants had gone, with a troll and stone giant in tow. However, when shown the evidence of Kolstaag's shenanigans, took them at their word. (Having a paladin in the party really does wonders for the group's trustability.) She installed Xerlo in a barn outside of town, but took pains to point out that the job she'd hired them for– make sure the fire giants don't come back– was still not done.
So they set off north, tracking the fire giants. Even two days cold, the trail was fairly easy to follow for most of the way. They ran into some Calladganger hunters from the Clan of the Eagle, who seemed to think that Nikki was a nature spirit, but eventually found a cave complex populated by orcs herding axe beaks.
Their attempt at scouting the caves was thwarted when Rina botched a Stealth check. The orcs thought she was just a random wood elf in the forest and were going to bully her for fun, but the rest of the party came swooping in and disabused them of that notion quickly. A general alarm was raised and it turned into a huge furball with orcs, maddened axe beaks, fire giants, and their fire elemental pets/familiars/adds/whatever they were.
In 30+ years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, I would have never guessed I would see opposed Animal Handling checks be a factor in combat. Achievement unlocked.
Hathas, his time "bonding" with the troll seeming to rub off on him, waded into the fray with more bloodlust than one generally expects from a paladin, even a fallen one. The fire elementals damaged the troll so badly that Hathas abandoned it and joined the fray in ghost form instead. While the troll retreated to a cave in the back where it could munch on dead orc and regenerate, Hathas attempted to terrorize a fire giant (not unlike the librarian in the prologue of Ghostbusters). The fire giant was not terrorized... but members of the party were. Nice jorb, Hathas.
The odd thing about ghosts in D&D is... they have hit points. They resist nonmagical damage, but in order to interact with the world they must manifest on the physical plane. Fire giants do an average of 28 points of damage with a single hit and their attack bonus alone equals a ghost's AC. The fire giant made short work of Hathas, much to everyone's surprise (including Hathas).
The fight was a tough one, but the party rose to the challenge. Brother Drang finally got to use the call lightning he'd been itching for, and Togar entered a new phase of his career by being the tankiest ever but not getting one-punched in the first round. When the dust settled, the party was battered and bruised but victorious. They retrieved the giants' rod of the vonindid, a kind of dowsing rod for adamantine golem parts, and also discovered that these giants had found the vonindid's entire left hand. They rather hastily buried this where it was, as it was way too big to haul anywhere, and headed back to town.
The troll survived.
It turned out there were developments with their new stone giant friend, which will be revealed in part four!
Ghost Martyr Paladin by SpiralMagus
"So there we were, locked in a dungeon with a stone giant." Carrying on from Part One...
The new phase of the campaign really began with the first session down in Kolstaag Albrek's dungeon. inkblitz's new character was introduced to the rest of the party ("A talking griffon? Neat. I'm a five foot tall flying squirrel!"), as was their erstwhile guard, Xerlo the stone giant, whose first line was a straightforward, "If you try to escape, I will kill you," but who seemed more interested in scribbling on the floor than anything.
But he was willing to chat, assuming you could parse his mode of speech. Riffing on the idea that stone giants are sort of the hippie-dippie mystics of giantkind, I decided that Xerlo didn't care about things like "good" or "evil," but was only interested in what was "true" or "untrue," and that he was on a vision quest to find out what was really going on with the breaking of the Ordning– because he didn't believe that the stone giant thane's interpretation ("We must destroy every town, city, or building of the little folk!") was correct. I chose a stone giant particularly because, being inherently neutral, he could be a wild card. The players could recruit him or fight him, but it would be their choice and an impactful one.
They decided at first, once they'd gotten the gist of what he was about, to basically leave him alone, and that was probably a good call. They also worked out that while he was completely serious that he would kill them if they tried to go out the front door, there was also a back door that he apparently couldn't see and wasn't aware of.
So, being the mighty heroes they were, they slipped out the back, and again, that was a good call. They managed to scrounge up some sharp bits of broken metal or rusted bars from the cell doors to make crude weapons, and plunged into the depths. They found an old series of vaults that either Kolstaag didn't know about or wasn't interested in, origin and purpose unknown, populated by orcs, whom they avoided, but who were also between them and the exit.
( They also caught glimpses of a ghostly figure in the darkness... )
They will confront the wizard in part three!
So there have been some pretty big changes in my D&D game since the last time I posted about it. I want to bring my chronicle of the game up to date, but there's a lot of ground to cover so it's going to require several posts. So here's part one!
The party did in fact defeat The Yellow Lady, mad priestess of Hastur behind the evil brewing in the Caves of Chaos, only to discover that she had in fact been the missing daughter of Duke Blakewell all along. Oops. >.> A tragic and somewhat downer ending to the scenario, but also completely in line with the kind of crap that happens when Hastur gets involved.
The players all wanted to continue, and after presenting them with the various options I was weighing the group voted for Storm King's Thunder. So I said that with everything at the Keep being so awkward ("Sorry, m'lord, we kinda killed your daughter... but in our defense she tried to kill us first!") the party decided to move on to greener pastures. They heard that Mt. Thunderdelve, over on the Silver Coast, had erupted, and decided to head over there to see what they could do to help, and maybe find some gainful employment on the way.
Unfortunately, here I hit a bit of burnout, and floundered for a time. Far from being something I could easily pick up and run more-or-less off the shelf as Red Hand of Doom was, I discovered that Storm King's Thunder is an immense, sprawling, hot mess of an "adventure." It's not like a traditional module, so much as an enormous sandboxey "Build Your Own Campaign!" kit. Which is cool if that's what you're looking for, but at the time, that was so totally not what I was looking for.
Storm King's Thunder as written covers pretty much all of northern Faerûn, and the Silver Coast wasn't anywhere near that developed. I didn't realize it then, but the monumental task of actually sifting through SKT from front to back and building a world that could accommodate all 256 pages of it while still being a world I liked and wanted to run adventures in, was really biting off more than I was prepared to chew. And because of the way the book is structured, it isn't really something where it's easy to just toss the tracks down in front of the train as it goes.
So, I kinda bobbled a bit at first. I spent several weeks grinding my gears on the problem and not really getting anywhere. But I knew if I let it sit too long, the campaign would pass its expiration date. So I transposed Triboar in the Forgotten Realms to Three Roads, its Silver Coast analog, and ran the giants' assault on the town pretty much as written in the book just to get the game moving again. After a big hairy fight against orcs riding axe-beaks and a lot of what-the-helling at fire giants pulling an enormous adamantine staple out of the ground under the town fountain, the players decided to go visit a local wizard named Kolstaag Albrek to see if he could give them any insights before they chased the giants down– only to have Albrek knock them all out and toss them into a dungeon, the jerk.
( Somewhere in here, two things happened... )
These two seeds turned out to be the defining factors of the game. Once I embraced the idea that SKT was a campaign kit and not an off-the-shelf adventure, thirty years of DMing instincts took hold and I was suddenly on fire! But how the party escaped the dungeon and what they did next, will have to wait for the next installment.
Berelandine the Halfling Serving Wench by Dunlaoch on DeviantArt
A popular barracks/meadhall song in Orbis Leonis, sung to the tune of “The Mademoiselle From Armentiers.”
The halfling lass from Appletop is a tavern maid.
The halfling lass from Appletop is a tavern maid!
The halfling lass is a tavern maid.
In gold or kisses she gets paid!
Will you have another round, me lord?
The halfling lass from Appletop is three foot high.
The halfling lass from Appletop is three foot high!
The halfling lass is three foot high.
She looks your codpiece in the eye!
Will you have another round, me lord?
The halfling lass from Appletop is a lovely girl.
The halfling lass from Appletop is a lovely girl!
The halfling lass is a lovely girl.
She’ll take your stallion for a whirl!
Will you have another round, me lord?
I asked the lass from Appletop to be my bride.
He asked the lass from Appletop to be his bride!
I asked the lass to be my bride,
and spend a lifetime at my side!
Will you have another round, me lord?
The halfling lass from Appletop said “Nay, sir, nay.”
The halfling lass from Appletop said “Nay, sir, nay!”
The halfling lass said “Nay, sir, nay!
Not until your tab you pay!”
Will you have another round, me lord?
Put that in your weed-pipe and smoke it. 😉
So LotRO has a new paid expansion coming out, titled simply Mordor. And I have to decide what, if anything, I'm going to do about it.
Once upon a time, I love love loooooooved LotRO. I wrote stories about Maedhroc Thornhollow, my little hobbitey warden, tromping all over the world.
Then they scrambled wardens and I didn't know how to play him, so I had to re-learn from scratch...
And then they did it again and I gave up on wardens, but champions had become OP so I went back to one of those.
And then MadeOfLions, the Tolkien ubernerd head writer left somewhere in the development of Rohan IIRC.
I choked down Rohan, a vast country made up of the same story over and over and over and over again, mostly on the momentum of happier days. I got stuck on the "battles" system, which threw away everything good about skirmishes and so never got through the battle of Helm's Deep.
You can skip Helm's Deep to a certain extent, so I moved on figuring I'd come back to it... but then I got to northern Gondor, in which there was no story, just infinite endless daily quest grinding...
Other than logging in every few months to pay the rent on Maedhroc's house, in the forlorn hope that I may one day get back into it, and the occasional lowbie re-running of Ered Luin to remember happier days, I have not played LotRO in something like two, three years.
I miss it. But like so many other things, I miss the LotRO of 2010, not the LotRO of today. And with no income other than what I can scrape up with my writing and art, do I really have any excuse to buy an expansion to a game I don't play?
Now I have to admit, I am impressed LotRO has made it to Mordor. Lots of people didn't think it would happen, especially when subscribers started dwindling somewhere around late Moria/Mirkwood. But it also means that the game is nearing "The End." Even if they do the Scouring of the Shire, there simply comes a time when there is no more Lord of the Rings for them to do online. What then?
But I also find it interesting that where I lost interest in LotRO is also where I tend to lose interest in the books. "The world of men" is the LEAST. INTERESTING. THING. about Middle-earth! I'm all about elves first, hobbits second, dwarves a distant third, and fuck humans. The more the fantastic elements fade away and it just becomes a series of battles, the less I care. Fellowship of the Ring has barrow-wights and ringwraiths and balrogs and and and... Gondor does have an army of the dead, so that's neat. But mostly it has much fighting and killing of the orcs by the knights in general.
Anyway, I dunno. Like I say, I used to love LotRO and I wish I still did. But the idea of forcing myself to learn the game again and having to grind my way through Gondor just to get to Moria...? Oh, honey, I dunno...
Elves are always a joy, and always a problem. Every campaign, and every edition, has treated them differently, to the point where it’s become a giant blurry mess. So for Orbis Leonis, my “grand unified D&D setting,” here is the definitive word on elves.
In prehistoric times, the elves were a single people. They have a variety of creation legends, but they are largely biased and contradictory. What is known is that there was once a wide-ranging high elven civilization throughout the region now known as the Marches, ruled from the great spiraled tower Elfspire. Before the foundation of Elfspire, even the elvish histories are lost, other than that the elves fled from some calamity across a seemingly-endless plain– a plain that would have to be where the Gulf of Irul Kinthé is now– only to stop in despair upon sighting the eastern reaches of the great desert of Xadar. The Elfspire was created, the story goes, when the Maimed King, Iearendir, prayed to Corellian Larethian, who appeared before them and commanded a unicorn to touch its horn to the ground. From that spot sprung a well of miraculous healing powers, and around it grew the Elfspire in “an echo” of the unicorn’s horn. This happened, according to the elves, “hundreds of centuries ago.”
For an indeterminate (but presumably very long) time, the elves ruled the region. How the elvish realm interacted with other ancient kingdoms is open for speculation. However, roughly 30,000 years ago, according to what elven records still exist, there was a bitter internal conflict among the elven gods, which was in turn echoed by enclaves of elves in the mortal realm. This conflict led to a massive event the elves call the Sundering, that splintered the elves into the eladrin, high elves, wood elves, and drow that the world knows today. (Some scholars point to this as also being the origin of the orcs. Orcs deny this. Often via manslaughter.) This event also ended the elvish dominance of the region and seems to have led the decline of the entire elvish race.
Note that this story seems to conflict with the giants’ tradition that there were no civilizations of note on the surface other than Ostoria during its heyday. Either the elvish record is incorrect, or the giants’ idea of what is a “civilization of note” is disputable. Which of those may be true is left as an exercise for the reader.
High and Wood Elves
Of the elven kindreds, high elves and wood elves are closest to each other, with their differences being purely cultural. A high elf raised by wood elves, is a wood elf, and vice versa. They are called "high" elves because they prefer to live on the surface, or even better, in trees or tall spires, but also because they did not follow Lolth into the Underdark. Although the stereotypical high/wood elf is of fair complexion, with very fine, straight hair, there is more variation than people generally think. In the Sea Kingdoms and realms further south particularly, elvish complexion ranges to a copper or deep brown color.
Eladrin ("noble elves" in their own language) are the most powerful of the high elves, with the strongest attunement to the realm of Faerie, to the point where they are infused with its magic. They are closer to elemental spirits to mortal beings, being tied to the passage of the seasons and the movement of the sun, stars, and planets. Although physically similar to their more terrestrial kin, Eladrin are readily discernible because their eyes are solid orbs of color with no visible pupils, and their bodies often radiate a visible aura. Tales say they can speak any language, and step between the mortal world and Faerie/Feywild at will, and while this may certainly be true of individual eladrin, it may not be true of all of them.
Drow, the "dark elves," followed their goddess into the Underdark. Before the Sundering, the elf goddess Araushnee was a patron of the stars, destiny, and craftsmanship, whose emblem of the spider represented her weaving of the fates. Her favored followers, although still high elves, would undergo a ritual transformation that altered their skin to an intensely dark blue and their hair to a shining white or silver as a mark of their devotion. During the great conflict that caused the Sundering, Araushnee forsook the light of the stars and fled the realms of light (or was banished, or simply left, depending on who you ask), taking her followers with her into the Underdark. From that small pool of common ancestors came the modern drow.
(Note: Araushnee's daughter Eilistraee, a high-spirited goddess of moonlight and dancing, shares her mother's appearance, and what few drow who have forsaken the worship of Lolth for its wickedness and cruelty, have generally turned to her as their new patron. A small cabal of drow worshippers of Eilistraee can be found in Myth Talminden, and it is something of a "promised land" for discontent drow of the Underdark who would flee their dark mistress.)
Orcs and Elves
How do the orcs fit in? The truth is that mortals don't know and the gods aren't telling, but there are clear signs of some sort of connection. First, is their shared mythology: the story of the battle between the orc god Gruumsh and the elf god Corellan Larethian, allowing some variance for which side you are rooting for, is remarkably similar in both cultures, and always highlights the famous cutting out of Gruumsh's eye. It is also worth noting that elves and orcs are both interfertile with humans and each other, unlike any of the other demi-human races. (It is rare in the extreme that an orc and an elf would have a child, but such a child would essentially be either a half-elf or a half-orc depending upon which parent they favored.)
There are two major elf holdings in Orbis Leonis. First, and oldest, is the Elfspire, in the southeastern portion of Thessalaine near the Gulf of Irul Kinthé. This consists of a massive, spiral conical tower formed out of a unique mineral reminiscent of mother of pearl, a dizzying fifty stories in height and crowned with an ever-burning beacon. The mountainside below the spire is also populated by houses and fortifications in the high elven style.
The second largest is the western seaside realm of Myth Talminden ("Silver Lighthouse" in Elvish), a fair and green country on the westernmost point of the mainland. The city of Myth Talminden proper consists of several large stone towers inlaid with silver from Argent, in a curving spiral style that echoes the Elfspire, but on a much smaller scale (the tallest reaching only seven stories). The towers are connected by a dizzying network of narrow, gracefully-arcing catwalks that not only provide walking access from one spire to the next, but also reinforce the overall structure like a lattice.
There are many smaller settlements across the land, usually referred to as "havens." These include the wood elf settlement of Starsong Hill in Elsir Vale, Mother Oak of the Westdeep, or Dimhaven and Mistvale in Thessalaine. Of course, the drow have their own cities in the Underdark, but the names and locations of these are not generally known to surface dwellers.