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Epic Levels: You're There When the Very Mountains Fight Back

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.

Reddit knows the score.

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
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Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter
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. [personal profile] 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!

-The Gneech
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Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane
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 Rohan Hestelland. It was a four-day hike from Tyvalich to Hierandal, the capital of the realm, which was summarized in a paragraph because it mostly consisted of staring at grass for hours on end.

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.

-The Gneech
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The Grand, Unified Map of Gneech's Campaign World

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!

-The Gneech
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This Round's On Lem, from the Pathfinder Wiki
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.

-The Gneech
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Drow Assassin by thatDMan
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, [personal profile] 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). [profile] 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...

-The Gneech

PS: Quit creeping on that drow, guildmaster! Don't you know that's Obsidian's mother?
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Ghost paladin possessing a troll SMASH!

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 ([profile] 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!

-The Gneech
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Ghost Martyr Paladin by SpiralMagus
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. [personal profile] 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!

-The Gneech
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The Silver Coast Map, Revisited

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.

-The Gneech
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Writing this as part of my World Map Project for the Storm King's Thunder campaign. Chunks of it will go into the gazetteer handout for the players, but I'm also posting it here for my elfy players (lookin' at you, Plotline and [personal profile] laurie_robey).

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.

Earliest Days


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


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


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.)

Elvish Homelands


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.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Default)


-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)
This weekend, if all goes to plan, will be five sessions into The Keep On the Borderlands. We're somewhere near the mid-point depending on how deep into the Caves of Chaos the heroes want to plunge, so it's worth putting some thought into if we want to continue beyond it, and if so what we want to do. Some possibilities…

Call It a Game


The object of the game was to show Seifer the ropes of Dungeon Mastering. To that end, I'd say "mission accomplished." There’s always more to learn of course, but once you've got a basic idea of how it goes, there's really only one way to learn, and that's to do it yourself. So in this option, once the Caves of Chaos are dealt with and the Keep on the Borderlands is secured, the group is simply declared heroes, rewarded for a job well done, and they ride off into the sunset. Pros: Simple, clean, provides a satisfactory "the end" which can be a rarity in roleplaying campaigns. Cons: No more game.

Storm King's Thunder


The most recent 5E adventure from Wizards of the Coast, theoretically at least the state of the art in D&D adventure design. I've looked through this and honestly it looks pretty darn cool. It does present me with a quandary, however, because it really should be set over on the Silver Coast and some 65-70 years later than the Keep as I've been doing it. However, a) I’m really the only one keeping track of my in-world canon, and b) the Appletop Wines are an anachronism already. So I don't imagine it would make that big a difference if we just slid over there and said the game was at the right point in history. Pros: Modern adventure, starts at around 5th level (which you might reach or be close to by the end of KotB), seems like a good adventure. Cons: Wibbly wobbly continuity wontinuity, and takes us to a different part of the world that only my previous players have any real connections to. Also, commits us to a much longer game. Adventure Size: Quite large, intended to take characters to level 11+.

The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth


Another classic module by Gary Gygax, a straight-up dungeon crawl of the old style. The archmage Iggwilv, mother of the demonborn Iuz the Old, was rumored to have left "her greatest treasure" buried somewhere under the Barrier Peaks. Seeking something that will help in the never-ending enmity against the Empire of Iuz, the party is hired by Thessalaine to find and recover Iggwilv’s treasure. Pros: Lots of old school dungeoney goodness; considered a classic adventure; smooth transition from Keep. Cons: Another Gygax module, with the usual backstabbing NPCs; set in the wilderness, providing limited RP opportunities. Adventure Size: Comparable to Keep on the Borderlands.

The Dragon’s Demand


This is a Pathfinder module involving the machinations of a devious dragon and its kobold minions; the basic idea would be that you’re following the kobolds south to make sure they don’t cause trouble wherever they land. Pros: A relatively modern adventure, focusing more on story and NPC interaction and less on dungeon assaults. Can tie nicely to Keep. Cons: Suffers from a lot of Pathfinder bloat; designed to go from 1st to 7th level on fast forward and is actually a bit thin for all that, so might require more conversion on my part (although probably just condensing will work). Adventure Size: Hard to tell. Probably about half again as long as Keep on the Borderlands.

The Temple of Elemental Evil


One of the definitive mega-adventures of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, also written by Gary Gygax. A generation ago, a massive horde of evil creatures swarmed out of the Temple of Elemental Evil, to be defeated at the devastating battle of Emridy Meadows. The temple lay quiet and all but forgotten, but in the little village of Hommlet, there are hints that evil may be stirring in the temple again. Pros: A cool adventure and one every D&D player should at least be familiar with, even if they never play it. Cons: Gygax yet again; in many ways, it’s a rerun of The Keep On the Borderlands just on a larger scale (the same way Lord of the Rings is The Hobbit again on a larger scale). Adventure Size: Roughly three times the size of Keep on the Borderlands.

The Age of Worms


One of the Dungeon magazine adventure paths that set the stage for Pathfinder, this is actually twelve sequential adventures. Prophecies foretell the coming of a new age of the world– the Age of Worms, in which the great god Kyuss will rise from the dead, to fill the world with his endless hunger. Pros: A complete campaign of creepy crawly undeady adventure that namechecks a lot of Greyhawk lore. Cons: All the usual problems with Adventure Paths, plus conversion from 3.x to 5E (which is actually a little trickier than converting older editions for various reasons). Adventure Size: Considerable. Designed to be a complete campaign.

Make Seifer Run Something ;P


This whole thing was his idea in the first place, wasn’t it? Just sayin’.

I have my own thoughts on the matter, but I'd like to hear from you, players! What sounds good?

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Conan Civilization Sucks)
I've been reading a long thread from late in 4E's lifecycle that was Let's Read 4E (From an Oldschooler's Perspective). It's been very interesting to see 4E discussed pro-and-con from the point of view of people who like it, rather than just flames from either direction in the era of edition warring.

Now I've got my own list of 4E pro-and-con points, but the one that drives me the most bonkers is what is famously referred to as the "disassociated mechanics." A lot of 4E stuff seems like random bags of powers designed to fill some game design function, with the story convoluted around to make sense of it, which for me is bass-akwards. Even in HERO System, the King of Disassociated Mechanics Rulesets, the powers are supposed to simulate what story-wise the character is intended to be doing.

Anyway, buried deep in the discussion, there was a recommendation of 13th Age as being a game system that has a lot of the same strengths as 4E but was simpler and faster. I decided to check it out, downloading a sample PDF, and found a batch of orcs which had an attack that did weapon damage, and then on a crit, added +[x] psychic damage.

I just blinked, and tried to parse it. I didn't see anything suggesting these were somehow magical orcs (although I was skimming, so I might have missed it). As far as I could tell, it was just randomly stuck on.

Later on I found references to the Essentials line Monster Vault series as being better than the core Monster Manuals, so I scrounged up a copy of one of those to look at (Threats of Nentir Vale, I think it was), and happened upon a wight whose attack did "[x] damage, and the wight turns invisible."

Again, just sorta, "Why?" I mean, there's no reason for wights not to turn invisible, I suppose, but that's the sort of behavior I'd expect from spooks rather than the walking dead.

Now 5E has a little bit of the opposite problem: most of the 5E critters have movement, and an attack (or bunch of attacks), and little else. I discussed this in detail on an ENWorld thread using the hippogriff as an example. The 4E hippogriff has an interesting "land on somebody and knock them down" ability on top of their regular attack, while the 5E hippogriff just does damage. (Plus, more than half the 5E Monster Manual entries are CR 2 or lower, which even with bounded accuracy is still a bizarre distribution.)

I've been threading this particular needle by doing a fair amount of monster customizing. I have the 4E Monster Manual and Monster Manual 2 on the same shelf with my 5E books to fish for ideas when I want to punch up a dull 5E critter.

But I'm still not going to have randomly-psychic orcs. ¬.¬

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Yog-Sothothery)
Session four of The Keep On the Borderlands took a turn for the weird(er) last night. After kicking the collective butt of Red Hand Harry's gang last time (and reaching 3rd level), the party made a big ol' bandit bonfire with the bodies (carefully making sure it was downwind), then set up camp for the tiny little bit of night that was left.

The King in YellowPer their usual routine, they intended to camp in three shifts, with two people up and on watch the whole time. Whoever took the middle watch... I'm not going to name names or anything... closed their eyes for just a second... and...

The party were suddenly all awake, with full gear, sitting in a campsite in a complex of caves, with no idea where they were or how they got there. After a few moments of WTFing, [livejournal.com profile] sirfox's rogue Nikki figured he'd better check to make sure they were weren't any beasties sneaking up on them, only to discover... beasties sneaking up on them. Specifically it was four gricks– strange wolf-sized snake-worm things with tentacles and a beak where their heads should be.

The gricks were dispatched, but the evening wasn't about to get any less weird. Nikki scouted ahead to find that the caves all led to a large central chamber with a bottomless pit in the middle with altars on either side of it, and four differently-colored magic circles in each corner of the chamber. Standing in the yellow circle was a strange figure in tattered yellow robes, wearing a pale mask and a crown. Floating over each altar was a grell– bizarre monstrosities that consisted of a large, floating brain surrounded by tentacles and also with a beak. Larger cousins of the gricks? Something else entirely?

Aw hell, it's a grell!Whatever they were, the party decided (not unreasonably) that there was nothing in there that would do them any good, but there also seemed to be no way around it but through it. Miskan the purrsian bard determined that the one magic circle he could see (red) acted as some form of gate, while also acting as a damage buffer to anyone standing in it, which suggested the other magic rings also had some sort of function. So most the party bunched up at one entrance ready to rush in, while Togar (the dragonborn paladin) and Drang (the storm cleric) strode in through the entrance closest to the Yellow King to confront him.

As soon as they entered, the grell scooped up amulets bearing the Yellow Sign from the altars, carrying them towards the two groups as if in offering (despite Nikki's confidence that his scouting had gone completely undetected). In their minds, the characters heard a deep voice proclaim, "Kneel before me, for I am your king! There is no escape, even in death. Give yourselves freely, and be rewarded!"

This, as might be expected, didn't go over well. The most polite response was Togar's bellow of "Never!" although some of the less polite responses were also quite entertaining. The grell dropped the amulets on the floor and advanced menacingly, and battle was joined.

Togar attempted to tackle the King in Yellow, only to go flying right through him as it was just a projection, but also felt an unpleasant burning sensation when passing through the yellow circle. As the melee commenced, zombies began to appear in the middle of each circle, adding to the mayhem.

The fight was a tense, long battle. Fortunately for the PCs, the grell's attempts to grapple them were not succeeding, but unfortunately the zombies proved annoyingly durable, repeatedly being reduced to 0 hit points, only to stand right back up again. The players decided that the best way to deal with the zombies was to grapple them and shove them into the bottomless pit. This tactic proved quite effective, largely because the zombies kept rolling really badly to avoid the initial grapple.

Nikki and Rina the wood elf ranger, trying to find some way of breaking the Yellow King's sending, decided to destroy the altars by shoving them into the bottomless pits as well. This did have the effect of causing the vision of the Yellow King to vanish with a cruel chuckle, but the fight carried on. One grell was dispatched in messy fashion all over Sheala the elf magical girl wizard; the other was simply slain in a more straightforward manner. Finally the last zombie was tossed down the hole, and the characters all immediately woke up... in the bandit tower, no worse for wear other than being a bit freaked out.

It was late morning by that point, so the characters stuck with their agenda. Unfortunately, [livejournal.com profile] sirfox had to bail for the last half of the session, so we decided to stick to mostly non-critical things in his absence. Red Hand Harry and the other two captured bandits were hauled back to the keep, along with all the recovered trade goods and captured gear. The Corporal of the Watch and Bailiff Delahuge were quite impressed at the capture of Red Hand Harry. The Bailiff didn’t have the funds on hand to deliver the reward immediately (they don’t keep that kind of money in the Outer Bailey), so the party was instructed to wait for a summons.

Then, there was shopping. Oddwall the blacksmith and Garrick the trapper bought armor and arrows respectively, but the group still ended up with ten sets of armor that nobody would take. The bandits' horses were also sold. Lizbeth the innkeeper wouldn’t let Sheala store the remaining armor in her room (“It smells up the place and is against the rules of the Keep besides!”) so eventually the group broke down and paid 1 gp/week to store it in the Keep warehouse.

Curian the jeweler was quite distraught at the news his caravan was never coming. The group inquired why he didn’t just travel with the guardsmen and the provisioners on their regular weekly trip to [next town west], to which he replied he wanted to go all the way to Pellak (capital of the kingdom), but the roads weren’t safe to travel alone. Apparently being stuck without a caravan in the Keep was still preferable to being stuck without a caravan in a podunk farming town.

Miskan and Nikki (by proxy) killed some time performing in the tavern, during which they heard a rumor that an elf had disappeared traveling across the marshes and that his companions were still looking for him.

The session ended when Percival (the nebbishy scribe who took the party's names and descriptions on their first arrival at the Keep) came and delivered a notarized summons for the party to enter the Inner Bailey and speak with Lord Blakewell the next morning.

This session's strange dream sequence battle with the minions of Hastur was something I cooked up completely, partially to take a break from dungeon corridors and tromping around the woods, but also to give Seifer a taste of 3E/4E style encounter design in contrast to the more old-school flavor of running Keep On the Borderlands straight. I was actually surprised, after the fact, at my own reaction to it– Ugh! XD It was a nice reminder of what a breath of fresh air 5E was.

I also felt a little bad about the negation of Nikki's sneaking, after last session when he so carefully blocked off the doors of the bandit hideout, only to have the bandits jump out the windows. In both cases there were reasons why it went that way (the Yellow King created the whole scenario so he knew what the players were doing the whole time in this session, and the bandits were simply panicked and would have jumped out the window either way in the previous), but it's always kind of unsatisfying to have to tell a player "It was a good idea, but it didn't help." On the other hand, Nikki got good use out of his new swashbuckler archetype abilities (from Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide), so that was good at least.

No game session next week due to family visits. But when we get back to it, it'll be time to finally meet Lord Blakewell.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Legolas Aaah)
Three sessions (and three levels) into Keep On the Borderlands and it's time to do a bit of dungeon re-stocking. A pernicious part of my brain wants me to chuck all the "square rooms and corridors" maps and redo the Caves of Chaos properly, with interesting terrain and multiple passages instead of the "dungeon-as-flowchart" model.

The part of my brain that realizes I had no business starting this game in the first place given my time commitments kicked that other part and said, "Remember that the whole point was to be able to finally say you actually ran Keep On the Borderlands, and also, that you had no business starting this game in the first place."

So yeah, I won't be doing that. But part of me wants to.

This has taught me a lesson, tho, to wit: no more "straight porting." The things that have changed from older editions did so for a reason. Older adventures were the right thing for their time, but it's 2016 now, not 1986, and we have both more sophisticated tools, and more sophisticated sensibilities.

So, among other things? That means I won't be running Dungeon of the Bear after all. It's too dang ridiculous.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)
Pathfinder Ultimate Combat cover

I remember the moment I was done with Pathfinder. I was trying to get my sputtering Eberron game to fly and I'd picked up a PF module, and one of the foes– not even the "boss fight" at the end mind you, but just a normal encounter in the middle of the adventure– had a stat block that was more than a page and a half long. Three-plus columns of 10-point type. I don't remember what the creature was, other than a general feeling of it being something along the lines of "fiendish half-golem mutant dreamlands giant oracle 4/barbarian 3/inquistor 2".

I literally looked at the page and said, "Oh, shut up."

People who've known me for a long time know that I jumped on the Pathfinder bandwagon early on and stayed with them for years. Given the options at the time, there were a lot of good reasons for doing so. But near the end of my run as a Pathfinder GM, my games were floundering. I kept trying to co-opt Star Wars Saga Edition for everything, or if that failed, switching to things like Savage Worlds so that there wasn't so much overhead in game prep and to keep fights from lasting hours... with varying amounts of success.

Now here's the thing. 3E was amazing in its day. Providing a framework to not only allow but to encourage all kinds of mixing and matching of creatures, classes, and templates threw open the gates for all kinds of new and interesting encounters D&D had rarely seen before. In 2E a vampire lizardfolk being the twist villain at the end of a module was enough to make it a "fresh and exciting classic." (I won't spoil it by saying which one, but grognards probably know already.) With 3E, you could do that all the time and feel relatively confident that the ruleset would support it.

So when Bruce Cordell tossed a vampiric gibbering mouther into Heart of Nightfang Spire (if I'm remembering correctly– it might have been Monte Cook's Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil?) it was kind of neat as gimmick, but also got snorts for being kind of silly. I myself used a similar trick when the players in my group destroyed a cursed magic item by feeding it to a gray ooze– only to have them attacked by a fiendish gray ooze for their trouble.

But that kind of thing is like cayenne pepper: a little bit gives the encounter a kick, but any more than that and you can't taste anything else.

Pathfinder, especially latter-day Pathfinder, is cayenne pepper soup with a side of cayenne pepper chips and a coffee with cayenne pepper cream. Most game systems tend towards inflation and bloat as they age, and 3.x was creaking under its own weight by the time Pathfinder rolled out. [1] PF cleaned up some of the clunkiest bits, which helped, but as the years rolled on and the pressure to keep adding new things carried on, it became this giant lumbering mess of a game, perfectly captured in visual form by the baroque and overwrought Wayne Reynolds art that is its hallmark.

What brings me to all this right now is that I've been invited to join an online Pathfinder game. Now I'm grateful to be a player in anything (and I promise not to kibitz about PF at the table!), so yesterday I pulled out Lachwen and statted up a 3rd level version. Thankfully, it's a "core" game, and I had Hero Labs to work with because I had forgotten (or blocked) so much of how 3.x/PF worked that it would have taken me hours to do it by hand. Using the "PC wealth by level" guidelines, she started with 3,000 gp and with that she bought... three numeric bonus items. Because that's how PF magic items work. I might go back and toss one of those out for a dozen spell scrolls or something that add a little more interest than a random +1.

It was the first time I'd looked at Pathfinder in any significant way in two years, and I was surprised at just how strong my reaction was to it, and what a difference 5E has made in how I look at the game. It also kinda makes me wonder what the gaming world would be like now if WotC had released 5E in 2008, instead of what we actually got. I have no doubt there would have still been edition wars, with nerds being the way we tend to be; but I don't think it would have torn the community so wildly apart.

-The Gneech

[1] This is one reason WotC is being very slow and deliberate with its 5E releases. They don't want to have to make a new edition and risk another 4E schism again any time soon. 5E's deliberate modularity is also a hedge against this– just because a given subsystem exists, doesn't mean that you're expected or required to use it. A third of the DMG is systems like Sanity that only a few outlier games will ever bother with.
the_gneech: (Yog-Sothothery)
We picked up where we ended the last session, with the heroes having made their first foray into the chaos temple in the uppermost levels of the Caves of Chaos, only to discover a den of yellow-robed cultists– and to be attacked by their erstwhile ally Brother Sampson and his acolytes.

With the cultists and acolytes all slain, and Brother Sampson captured, they proceeded to interrogate him, which was by turns useful, infuriating, and creepy as hell. They learned that the cult within the caves was known as the Order of the Mask and Tattered Shroud, who were dedicated to a god(?) known by turns as the Yellow King, the Veiled King, the King in Yellow, or Hastur. (There was some ambivalence about this last part. Hastur was what was behind the Yellow King's mask... maybe? Brother Sampson's ramblings were hard to follow.) The gist of it seemed to be that there was a high priestess, The Yellow Lady, who had (or claimed to have) some kind of claim to the throne, and was raising an army to go get it, at which point the Yellow King would come from his city of Carcosa (some place where the sky was yellow and the stars were black) and marry her and they would rule together.

(And by "raising an army" he meant reanimating the corpses of all the orcs, goblins, and other humanoids wiping each other out in the Caves of Chaos.)

Brother Sampson also gave them some intel about the general layout and power structure of the caves, informing them that the gnolls were the group currently most favored by the cult.

Once they got all they could out of him for the time being, they tied him to a tree outside before heading back into the temple to scout around a bit more. While they were outside, they spotted something that rather took them by surprise: a band of kobolds, maybe 30 in number, streaming out of the cave they had raided the day before. They were carrying bundles and marching– the surviving kobolds were fleeing the Caves of Chaos. "An apartment just became available!" quipped Brother Drang.

The party cautiously made their way back into the temple; Togar used his divine sense and quickly came to the conclusion that there undead in the various other chambers all around them. They also found what appeared to be some kind of dark altar that radiated strong evil, although not exactly diabolist or infernal in nature, so much as "the universe is sick here." Somewhat baffled, and not eager to take on "an army of undead," the characters retreated from the temple and decided to head for the gnoll cave instead in the hopes of finding and freeing Lady Cynthia.

They did not get far. A bad Stealth check alerted the gnoll guards at the entrance of the party's presence; Nikki, dressed in robes purloined from the dead cultists, said he'd come to check up on the lady they'd taken prisoner. This seemed to baffle the gnolls, and when they turned away to confer with each other, the group swarmed in and attacked. Two of the gnolls fled for reinforcements, and this led to a chase further into the cave. [1] There was a pitched battle in the corridors, during which both Sheala the wizard and Rina the wood elf ranger got knocked unconscious, but a natural 20 on a death save and a healing spell brought them back up respectively.

When the guards and their reinforcements were defeated, the characters retreated, blocking the corridor with burning oil to forestall pursuit. They came out to the ravine to find Brother Sampson, still gagged and tied to a tree, snickering at them not unlike Tim the Magician when Arthur and his knights were forced to run from the killer rabbit. They decided they'd had enough of him and marched him back to the Keep. On the way, they spotted the marching kobolds setting up a camp down in the river valley, and mused briefly on the difficulties that lay ahead for the tiny saurians. "Not our problem!" said Nikki.

Back at the Keep, Bailiff Delahue took a keen interest in the emblem of the Yellow Sign they'd taken from one of the dead cultists, and told them to show it to Captain Helgist while she clapped Brother Sampson in irons (and left him gagged, as he was a spellcaster). Captain Helgist, in turn, informed them that the gnolls who'd captured Lady Cynthia were wearing emblems like this as well, and went to report the party's actions to Lord Blakewell, the Castellan, and told the party that they should come back later for further instructions.

Content to the let the caves stew in their own gravy for a bit, the party then headed off to a theoretically-abandoned watchtower to the south of the Keep, where they'd spotted plumes of smoke rising from fires the day before. Some reconnaissance revealed the watchtower to be the lair of Red Hand Harry and his gang, the highwaymen who'd been raiding caravans between the Keep and civilization. The party waited until the wee hours of the night, when most of the bandits were asleep except for a couple of bored guards, and struck!

The guards were taken out quickly and quietly; Nikki then used his thiefly skills to block the doors and spread oil at the top of the stairs in the tower, and they began their assault. Brother Drang cleared out the entire bottom level of the tower with a thunderwave– announcing their presence in a dramatic fashion. The bandits, all rudely roused from their slumber, grabbed up their weapons but had no time to don their armor. What followed was a wild and chaotic fight, with some of the bandits fleeing, some of the bandits fighting back, and some of them slipping and falling on the stairs.

Red Hand Harry himself joined in the fight until Miskan warped his mind with dissonant whispers, causing him to flee. That almost backfired, as the reward the party was chasing was only for Red Hand Harry himself, and if he'd gotten away it would have been 500 gp lost to the night. Miskan gave chase and was able to follow up with a sleep spell, and Harry was out like a light.

Sheala, meanwhile, had gotten herself into a 1-v-1 with one of the bandit archers, who were much more capable than most of the bandit rabble. He was trading arrows for each of her rays of frost, and she ran out of hit points before he did. For the second time in as many days, she fell unconscious, this time bleeding from multiple wounds. Fortunately, the rest of the battle had been more or less wrapped up by then, enabling Togar and Brother Drang to restore the fallen mage.

Sorting through the items in the tower revealed that this gang was quite definitely responsible for the disappearance of the caravan that Curian the Jeweler was so desperately waiting on– and that the caravan was likely to never come now, given that everyone in it had been sold to the Lady in Yellow as slaves. They were able to retrieve a variety of trade goods, however, including several bottles of Appletop Wine, made with the rare honey from a colony of giant bees [2]. Nikki claimed a bottle or two as "carrying charges," and the party decided to camp in the outbuilding for the rest of the night, tying up their prisoners and leaving the piles of bandit bodies in the tower.

-The Gneech

[1] I actually misread my adventure key in this part, putting the gnoll commons in what was supposed to be a storeroom. Oops. The fight would have come out much the same, I suspect, except the room beyond was not intended to be full of gnolls. Oh well, retroactive revision is a thing! ;) This is something that occasionally trips me up in the old-style "every room is a 30' by 30' square" style dungeons... with no clear way to distinguish one room from another on the map, I sometimes get lost in the room numbers. But it's kinda like the Quantum Ogre... the dungeon doesn't "actually exist" until it's encountered by the players!

[2] Wibbly-Wobbly Continuity-Wontinuity. This is actually a reference to "Buzz In the Bridge," an adventure I ran with my 3.5 group something like ten years ago, back when Ryan was in the group instead of Sirfox. Teeeechnically, this game takes place earlier in the world's history than that game, so Appletop Wines shouldn't be a thing yet. But really it's just a game, I should really just relax.
the_gneech: (Yog-Sothothery)
Pondering the game session tonight, and what if any refactoring I should do. The party is one malnourished kobold away from hitting 3rd level after two sessions ("Dammit, 5E!") and they've simultaneously barely scratched the surface of the Caves of Chaos while jumping to the "bottom level of the dungeon" (i.e., the topmost caves). I feel like I should be worried about their safety, but I'm totally not. They are just tearing through everything, and at this stage I have a hard time seeing them be seriously challenged by anything they're likely to find.

The original adventure was written assuming levels 1-3, with only the stuff at the very end being a challenge for a 3rd level party. (And that's a third level "OD&D" party, not the durable heroes of 5E, although using modern stats for the monsters mitigates that some.) For a modern game, The Keep On the Borderlands should probably have been done assuming levels 1-5, with a lot more of the midrange stuff being factored for 3rd level groups, and the tough stuff assuming 4th or 5th. And really, looking at the math, I probably should have realized that just based on the encounter XP compared to the XP required to level up, I just didn't take the time to figure it out.

So, oops. ¬.¬

At the same time, this was always intended to be a "disposable" adventure, to show Seifer how it's done, so I'm not sure it warrants doing a lot of refactoring work. I put my own spin on things, turning the "Cult of Evil Chaos" into a cult of Hastur specifically and using that to spin the personalities, goals, and methodology of the various factions involved, but I have no plans for it beyond what's in the module and no real notion of a followup. If there's enough interest from the players, we might carry on a campaign, but we'd have to figure out what it would entail. If nothing else, I could just string modules together– I've got most of the "classics" from 1E through 3.x and ten years of Dungeon magazine to pull from.

I do know that after this, it'll be a while before I want to run low-level adventures again. The Silver Coast game started at 1st level because it was a new edition and I used the Starter Set as a kickoff, but the group had just hit 5th? 6th? when it imploded. If I was starting a new campaign with an experienced group, I'd probably launch the game at 3rd or 5th right out of the gate. I'd like to see what 5E looks like on a higher tier, given that SlyFlourish says it still feels like D&D at high level in a way 3.x and 4E didn't.

Anyway, we'll see where it goes. One of my DMing strategies is "never prepare more than a few sessions in advance," and certainly that holds true here. Tonight's session will probably be the deciding factor on what happens with this particular game. If they go the direction I expect them to, they'll pretty much "break" the Caves of Chaos (or get broken themselves in the attempt), at which point I'll have to refactor it anyway because they will have thrown a major spanner into the works of the monster factions' balance of power.

And if I have to basically overhaul the whole thing, it becomes time to decide whether it's worth moving forward, and how we might want to do so, anyway.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Lachwen Lightning Girl)
Lachwen blasts a troll, while Legolas ducks for cover
I hear a lot that people sometimes miss the character variety/options of 3.x/Pathfinder compared to 5E, but I've never really understood that. With very few exceptions, I haven't had any character ideas that I thought worked really well in 3.x/PF that couldn't be translated to 5E pretty easily, especially given a DM who was flexible about allowing homebrew or third party content. It's not always a 1-to-1 correlation, but it's usually "close enough" that the character feels pretty much the same.

So far, the biggest exception I've found to that, is Lachwen, my Badass Lightning Girl. Now keep in mind, she was originally a runekeeper in LotRO, so already a translation to tabletop is going to be a little wonky. (With the exception of bards, there pretty much aren't any D&D classes that can swap back forth between damage and healing the way RKs do. But in practice, I rarely played her as a healer, almost always going DPS. So when the time came to convert her, I simply dropped the healing all together.)

Now, I never got to play her on the tabletop, but I did stat her up for Pathfinder, and with the various splats (honestly I don't even remember which ones, but they are from Paizo books, I didn't use outside material), she worked really well. Affinity for the elemental plane of air gave her all the zappy-blasty she needed, especially with the ability to convert other elemental spells to lighting as desired. Fireball for instance, became lightning burst... waahahaaaa!

Alas, 5E doesn't really have a good "elemental sorcerer" setup– which I thought from day one was a strange omission. It has the draconic bloodline, which kinda-sorta does it, while also adding scales, wings, and a lot of other baggage. But my vision for Lachwen was always that she just bristled with elemental energy, kaboom!

The closest thing I've found, even from third party materials, is the storm sorcerer from The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, which in terms of fluff is exactly the same as her PF incarnation, right down to the tie to the plane of air. But the powers it gives are weird ones... randomly flying at 3rd level, for instance, and mostly-fluff minor weather control powers at 6th [1].

So that's how she's been built. I made her 6th level to be able to do an apples-to-apples comparison with her PF incarnation. I tweaked her a bit, making her half-elf instead the high elf she was in PF, partially for the CHA bump but also because Lachwen is not stately or refined in any way. If Obsidian is Rarity as a bard? Lachwen is Rainbow Dash as a sorcerer.

Lachwen Shimmerlight (CR 2; 450 XP)


Female humanoid (half-elf) sorcerer 6, chaotic good
AC 13*; hp 38 (6d6+12)
Speed 30 ft.


STR 10 (+0), DEX 15 (+2), CON 14 (+2), INT 12 (+1), WIS 8 (-1), CHA 17 (+3)


Feats Elemental Adept (Lightning)
Saving Throws Con +6, Cha +7*
Damage Resistances Lightning, Thunder
Skills Arcana +4, Athletics +3, Insight +2, Intimidation +6, Perception +2, Performance +6
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 12
Languages Common, Draconic, Elvish, Primordial


Elemental Adept. Spells Lachwen casts ignore resistance to lightning damage. In addition, when she rolls lightning damage for one of her spells, she can treat a roll of 1 on a damage die as a 2.
Font of Magic. Lachwen can draw upon a wellspring of power, giving her 6 sorcery points which may be used to create spell slots or fuel her metamagic abilities.
Heart of the Storm. Lachwen is resistant to lightning and thunder damage.
Metamagic. Lachwen knows the Careful Spell and Distant Spell metamagic abilities.

Spellcasting. Lachwen is a 6th-level spellcaster. Her spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 14, +6 to hit with spell attacks). Lachwen knows the following spells:
Cantrips (at-will): dancing lights, fire bolt, lightning lure, prestidigitation, shocking grasp
1st level (4 slots): thunderwave, witch bolt
2nd level (3 slots): gust of wind, hold person, shatter
3rd level (3 slots): fireball, lightning bolt

Storm Guide. Lachwen may subtly control the weather around her.


Actions
Dagger +1. Melee or Ranged Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft. or range 20 ft./60 ft., one target. Hit: 1d4+3 piercing damage.


Bonus Actions
Tempestuous Magic. Immediately before or after Lachwen casts a spell on her turn, she may use a bonus action to fly 10' without provoking attacks of opportunity.
*Ring of Protection


Soooo, yeah. Not exactly the same, but she's a workable facsimile– although I really miss that ability to change other energy damage to lightning. This version is more physical (running, jumping, climbing) than the Pathfinder one and less social, although she still has Intimidate and Performance, to create scary (or awesome) Tesla-style lightning displays and firebreathing routines. I also gave her fewer magic items, just 'cause that "feels" more 5E. She could use some bracers of defense or the like, tho.

If I were going to make her closer to the LotRO version (and had a willing DM) I'd probably change her tempestuous magic's flying to some sort of shocking bolt that stunned [number up to Cha bonus] creatures within 5' until the beginning of their next turn if they failed a Con save, to give it that same "I can escape being swarmed!" thing without randomly turning her into Supergirl for short hops. (But really, do you even need that, with thunderwave on the spell list?) Of course, that would have the side-effect of setting up the party rogue for free sneak attacks on dazed opponents, but it would have the saving throw as a counter to that (and keep Lachwen's feet on the ground). (I picture her hold person being very similar to that, a magic taser, basically.) But she's already got one splatbook thing going on as it is, and her skill proficiencies came from a third-party background (Mercenary) because none of the official ones really fit, so I wouldn't be surprised if a DM said no.

(In a "core only" game, she'd be draconic with a blue dragon ancestor and the Entertainer background. But she'd also have scales and eventually sprout wings, which is even less like Lachwen should be than this version is.)

-The Gneech, bzzaaap, bzzaaap

[1] Not totally useless, but how often is "make it quite raining in a 20' radius" going to be useful in most D&D games? I can at least see the ability to cause and/or cancel wind having use for dousing/spreading fires and the like.
the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)
We played the second session of The Keep On the Borderlands last night, or as I like to call it, "The Kobold Armageddon of 2016."

The session picked up from where we left last time, with the heroes marching forth to find the Caves of Chaos. With the super-helpful directions they'd received from Old Bob ("go that way until you find a road"), and possibly because they had a wood elf ranger on the team, they did eventually manage to find an ancient and overgrown roadbed that eventually led them right there.


The Caves of Chaos, as painted by Michael Komarck


It turns out they actually were several different caves, all nestled in a ravine, that was lined with bones, twisted trees, and the occasional hungry-looking vulture. After a bit of discussing possible approaches, the group finally picked a promising-looking tunnel and decided to scout it out, with Nikki the anthro flying squirrel rogue scurrying up a tree to gain a good vantage point.

It was then that Nikki discovered that there was already a kobold in the tree, waiting in ambush for parties approaching the cave. Battle quickly commenced.

Because of where the players had specifically described positioning themselves, they were actually in a pretty good position to take on the kobolds, who instead of dropping on them from above had to leap down from the trees and run to the characters to engage. One of them attempted a heroic leap from one tree to another, only to botch its Athletics check and faceplant into the dirt.

This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the night. To put it mildly, the opposition was not having a good dice night.

The party made short work of the would-be ambushers, who all died saying things like "I'm sooo hungryyyy..." or "Lunch huuurts..." or (in the case of one who got a burning hands to the face) "I smell delicioussss..." Post-battle wrap up made it evident that these were lean and hungry, malnourished kobolds, who really needed a sandwich. Combined with the party's discovery in the last session of a band of kobolds who'd been wiped out by goblins, it became clear that these kobolds were at the bottom of the Caves of Chaos pecking order.

Togar the paladin and Sheala the wizard felt some sympathy for the poor kobolds; Nikki and Miskan the purrsian bard did not.

Into the kobold cave the party forged, quickly coming upon a guardpost just inside. Neither side had the advantage of surprise, and so each side simply waded into battle. Like the ambush outside, these kobolds were malnourished and clearly wearing thin. As Sheala advanced to get a better position, she stumbled onto a disguised pit trap, but succeeded her saving throw to keep from falling in. Rina the elf ranger attempted to leap past the pit, but botched the roll and fell down in, with the lid closing behind her, briefly taking her out of the fight.

The party quickly mowed down half of the kobold guards, causing the other half to run for reinforcements, shouting out alarms. They were knocked out by a well-placed sleep spell, but there was a new problem to face– swarms of rats, bursting through the walls of the pit, threatening to devour Rina alive. Brother Drang went down the corridor the guards had fled down to make sure they didn't wake up and make another break for it, while the rest of the party hurried to get Rina out of the pit, slamming the lid shut again on the rat swarms. They figured out that there were planks by the side of the pit, apparently what the kobolds used to come and go without falling into it, and so the party set out the planks so they could also safely avoid the pit themselves.

Then, the kobold horde came.

Crown of the Kobold KingA seemingly-endless stream of kobolds surged up the corridor towards Brother Drang. Miskan briefly distracted the front ranks with an illusion of a sumptuous banquet, causing some of the kobolds to roll around in the illusory food like Scrooge McDuck rolling around in gold, and others to try to "eat" as much of the food as possible before their fellows could beat them to it. This gave Brother Drang the opening he needed to wade in and let loose with a thunderwave spell, blasting half a dozen kobolds and sending their bodies flying, but also making a tremendous boom that drew the attention of the kobold king and his personal guard.

Despite the devastation, the kobold horde kept coming, more of their warriors clambering over the bodies of their slain fellows. Now with the king there to provide discipline, the kobolds ignored the banquet illusion and began to attack in earnest, using their pack tactics to try to overwhelm Brother Drang. He blasted several more with another thunderwave, but it was clear that the tide was about to turn. Back at the cave entrance, the rat swarms had made their way out of the pit from somewhere down another corridor and returned, climbing all over Sheala and attempting to devour her alive.



Deciding that enough was enough, the party beat feet. Once everyone was past the pit, they pulled up the planks but Miskan (covered in rats but managing to succeed at a concentration check) cast another illusion that the planks were still there– this gave the party time to get away as the front row of kobold warriors went crashing down into the pit, and the rat swarms moved in for the feast.

It was a bad day to be a kobold. By the time the party made it back to a safe camp and managed a short rest, their tally came up with 30 kobolds slain.

Curse Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal!


They decided to return to the Keep to rest and heal up. There they once again found Brother Sampson, who bought them all drinks to toast their heroic slaughter of a bunch of starving kobolds. They spent the evening in conversation with him, finally coming to the conclusion that he had some form of past history with the mysterious cult in the Caves, despite his reluctance to go into details. While Sheala got blind drunk to forget the horrors of being swarmed by rats, Togar invited Brother Sampson to join the party on their next foray, despite Brother Drang's reluctance to trust the traveling monk.

The next morning, the party set out again. Based on Brother Sampson's information that the gnolls (who had kidnapped the Castellan's daughter) were in the upper caves, the party decided to go overland and come at the Caves of Chaos from the top, instead of climbing their way up from the bottom of the ravine. They stopped briefly at a ruined watchtower at the top of the ridge, deciding it would be a good place to make camp if they needed to later, then continued on to the Caves.

They picked what had once been clearly a finished opening with pillars and a terrace, now crumbled to ruin by the passage of time, and went into it, despite the ominous feel and stale, rank smell of it. Inside they found a grand, vaulted hallway with tile floors. Picking a direction, they found some closed doors, and listening at one, they heard hushed voices of conversation. Nikki, with a prodigious Stealth roll, snuck into the room and found several priests? Scholars? dressed in yellow robes, engaged in what could best be described as "evil prayer group."

The party swarmed in to attack, taking the cultists completely by surprise– only to have Brother Sampson and his acolytes attack the party from behind! [1] Unfortunately for Brother Sampson, the dice weren't being any better to him than they had been to the kobolds. Three attempts to cast hold person were thwarted by PCs making their saving throws, and his acolytes couldn't land significant damage on anyone. Meanwhile the cultists inside the room were cut down like so much wheat– even one who was healed up and had sanctuary cast on him couldn't escape without taking too many attacks of opportunity and dropping. Another sleep spell took down Brother Sampson, and the fight was over.

The party quickly cleaned up the mess, dragging the bodies into the cultists' room and closing the door, and tying up Brother Sampson with intention to interrogate, and we ended the session there. The party ended up one malnourished kobold away from hitting 3rd, so I was glad they only killed 30 instead of 31. ;P But as I said on Twitter, this group survived one of the three classic TPK spots of The Keep On the Borderlands and then went straight up to the Chaos Temple and began their incursion. This team is hard core, and I'm not going to worry about things being too tough for them any more. If anything, I'm going to have to make sure things aren't too easy for them.

Time to kick things up a notch. };)

-The Gneech

[1] Ah, a good old Gary Gygax adventure. Three out of four people you meet will try to kill you. Is it a wonder players used to just kill anyone/anything they found in a dungeon?

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