the_gneech: (Default)
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 ("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.)

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, [ 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, [ 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.

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?
the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)

(To the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire…” by Billy Joel)

Celedras, Arcangalad

Arshan’s always kinda mad

I haven’t played you for a while

Obsidian kills her foes with style

Maedhroc gives his foes the boot

Elsa’s tough but awfully cute

1E rules are dumb and hard

but they made my super-bard


Referees don’t get to play much

We get all excited, tho we try to hide it

Referees don’t get to play much

But there’ll be no game, if I’m not DM

Playing Lachwen was a blast

but MMO fun doesn’t last

I don’t wanna spend the cash right now

to play my panda monk in WoW

But oh on tabletop to play again

Or just once for my paladin

The 3E rules were quite a cage

for Theran, my poor fighter-mage

My halfling ranger doesn’t have a name

I’d love to play him all the same

My human ranger had a plot device

but tough luck I suck at rolling dice

Natural 1’s all day!

No foes I’ll slay!

What else do I have to say?


Referees don’t get to play much

We get all excited, tho we try to hide it

Referees don’t get to play much

But there’ll be no game

If I am not



-The Gneech

the_gneech: (Legolas Aaah)
The Mad Hermit

Last night was our first session of The Keep on the Borderlands, played almost entirely via Google Hangouts with my iPhone mounted on a camera tripod over the gaming mat. The setup worked pretty well once we got the kinks worked out, but one of the big annoyances with Google Hangouts is that there are different kinks every time. So when planning the sessions, I'm going to have to allow for the fact that the first half-hour is always going to be fixing whatever broke this time.

The adventure starts with the party arriving at the gate of the Keep, where they are ordered to state their names and purpose before being allowed entry. The characters were:

  • Brother Drang, a human tempest cleric of Kord, come to the wilderness to kick butt for great justice

  • Togar, a dragonborn paladin of Bahamut, drawn to the Borderlands by forces unknown to battle against Chaos [1]

  • Nikki, an anthropomorhic flying squirrel rogue with magic juggling clubs

  • Rina Gremaer, a young wood elf ranger looking for adventure

  • Sheala Amastacia, an even younger (seeming) high elf wizard with the aspect of an 11-year-old girl

  • Miskan, a purrsian (large, intelligent winged cat race) bard, looking for adventure and new tales to tell

An odd collection, to be sure, but as the corporal of the watch recognized the holy symbols of Kord and Bahamut, and the group seemed friendly enough, they were let into the Keep, although they did notice a scribe taking note of their names and particulars upon arrival.

Inside the Keep, tensions were clearly high. A jewel merchant tried desperately to interest them in his wares, which were obviously not selling, and they eventually learned that the lord of the Keep's daughter (Lady Cynthia) had been captured by gnolls, for nefarious purposes unknown, and that there was an enormous reward for her rescue. There was also talk of bandits, and of course rumblings about bands of widely different groups of evil humanoids, who would not normally be associating, but were all together in an area referred to as the Caves of Chaos.

In the tavern, they were also chatted up by Brother Sampson, a travelling monk and most jovial fellow, who insisted on buying drinks for Brother Drang and eventually dinner for Sheala, and happily chattered away about anything and everything. His two acolytes, a sour pair who had taken vows of silence and so could not join in the conversation, sat nearby impassively.

The group finally decided on a general plan of trying to investigate both the bandits and the missing Lady Cynthia. They spoke to Helgist, the captain of the guard at the Keep, who told them that Lady Cynthia had loved to go out hunting as she grew up, and that as the relatively low threat of nearby kobolds turned into the more pressing threat of aggressive goblin-kind and gnolls, Lord Blakewell had started insisting that she be escorted by guards. On one of these outings, they'd been ambushed by gnolls and all of the guards wiped out, with Helgist only managing to escape by pretending to be dead himself. The gnolls had carried off Lady Cynthia and there'd been no sign of her since, despite the Keep regularly sending out squads of troops to look for her– many of which didn't return.

Further investigation revealed that the bandit activity, and the humanoid attacks, were coming from opposite directions. Unable to pursue both simultaneously, the party decided to begin by investigating the woods where Lady Cynthia used to hunt to look for clues.

Tromping through the woods, they eventually encountered a hermit called Old Bob, who I described as being "Not quite Tom Bombadil, and not quite George Carlin, but somewhere between the two." They greeted Old Bob cordially and he returned the same, and they began to chat. He gave them general directions to the Caves of Chaos, but as they talked to him they gradually began to realize he wasn't exactly playing with a full deck– particularly when he began to talk about how "the king" spoke to him in his dreams at night and gave him strange commands.

Once they came to the conclusion that they'd learned all they were going to from Old Bob, they continued their trek, following the directions he'd given them. As the sun began to go down and they searched for somewhere to camp, they came upon a hollow with a grisly scene: several dead kobolds and a few dead goblins, with goblin arrows scattered everywhere (including in the kobolds). So it would appear that the various bands of humanoids did not necessarily get along as well as all that.

So they set up camp for the night, giving Miskan the first watch. All was well until suddenly, much to his surprise, the purrsian bard felt a vice-like grip around his throat– Old Bob had crept into the camp while the rest slept and was strangling Miskan from behind! Fortunately in his near-death throes Miskan had managed to yowl and kick enough to wake up the rest of the party– unarmored but ready to fight as they realized the true nature of Old Bob's madness. Old Bob's pets– a pair of mountain lions– joined in the battle, and things looked grim as Miskan had been dropped to 0 hit points by the opening attack (Old Bob was a 5th level assassin, doing 3d6+1 with an unarmed sneak attack). Togar used his laying on hands ability to bring Miskan back from the brink, as the rest of the party slew one of the mountain lions and attacked Old Bob, causing him to flee. Miskan cast sleep spell on the lunatic as he ran and he faceplanted, allowing them to tie him up as his other mountain lion fled.

When Old Bob awoke, they interrogated him, discovering that he was convinced that "The Yellow King" had ordered him to kill and eat people, and had been doing so for years. Old Bob also said that the stars were watching everything they did. When pressed for more details about who this Yellow King was, Bob was vague, other than that he was yellow, and had a crown, thus making him the Yellow King.

They marched Old Bob back to his home, a giant hollowed out tree, looking for evidence of his crimes, but there was nothing to be found. So they instead took him back to the Keep, delivering him to the Bailiff and explaining what had happened. The Bailiff locked him up, and the heroes (having been up all night) headed to the Inn to get some rest.

That afternoon, after getting much-needed sleep, they set out into the woods again. They followed the trail towards where they believed the Caves of Chaos to be until it got dark, at which point they camped again. Fortunately, Miskan's watch completed without incident this time. On the second watch, Nikki and Togar were somewhat surprised to discover that the party was surrounded by a company of wood elf scouts, who were apparently simply observing the characters to see what they were about. The elves were not terribly chatty, but seemed like good enough sorts, who wandered off into the darkness.

In the morning, the group continued their march east [2]. As they traveled, they heard a vicious cackling and yapping– gnolls, converging on them fast. Most of the party hid, except for Togar who, being an enormous dragonborn in heavy armor, made a better Giant Distraction than anything else.

Unfortunately, being a Giant Distraction meant that the gnolls opened the fight by all three of them chucking spears at him. Togar dropped, and this time Brother Drang ran to his aid with a healing spell. The remainder of the battle was short but intense– the gnolls were quickly defeated, and the characters decided to take a short rest to recover.

We ended the session there; the characters had earned enough experience points to become 2nd level [3], so we dealt with that before signing off, and plan to continue next week. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and I certainly enjoyed it. I never got to run Keep On the Borderlands "back in the day," so I'm happy to have the chance now.

-The Gneech

[1] That's Chaos with a capital C! The Keep on the Borderlands is a very Moorcockian place.

[2] Even though I kept calling it west. Stupid map dyslexia.

[3] 5E deliberately tries to shoot you up to at least 3rd level very quickly, but levels out a bit from there to keep you in that 3rd-8th level "sweet spot" for a long time.
the_gneech: (Conan Civilization Sucks)
As has been famously reported, we recently moved to Maryland. It's not that far from where we used to live, on the grand scheme of things, but it's far enough that a 40 minute semi-weekly commute to our old stomping grounds for D&D would add just-that-much more friction to games actually happening.

On top of that, one of our core players ([ profile] jamesbarrett) has recently changed jobs such that Saturday night was no longer viable. All of this, combined with putting our lives on hold to get the move done, conspired to basically throw gaming down the hole for us. This is a major bummer, as my D&D campaign had just reached a major plot point, and as I've been famously posting, my Ghostbusters 5E conversion should be up and running soon.

So I'm looking at my options. Keeping the old band together would require pretty much going totally virtual... which is doable but I've never been fond of virtual gaming. For me, half of the point of tabletop RPGs is to be in the same room sharing the experience with the rest of the group.

The other option is to seek a new group. Beyond Comics up the street has organized play and could be a source of new players; our old friend Dan lives in Frederick and probably has a group we could try to get into. I would really like the opportunity to be a player instead of the DM for a while... but I'd hate to just wave goodbye to a group I've been gaming with since 1983. ¬.¬

So, still trying to work it out. Meanwhile, Overwatch is kinda-sorta standing in for my gaming itch. If I could find a regular crew to run with, I could see "Overwatch Night" being a cool and fun thing that lasted a while, in a sort of "digital bowling" way. (Overwatch is really more like a sports tournament than a roleplaying session.) It has that "team working together to accomplish an objective" part of a good RPG session, at least, even if it doesn't have things like plot or character development.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Gneechtoon)
I figure there's only one way to make a post more obscure than putting it on LiveJournal, and that's putting it on LiveJournal on a Friday night. But obviously you're here and reading this, so maybe I'm wrong about that! ;)

Anyway! Yes, you're right, I have been a bit less chatty as of late, but that's because my world, which has tended to flop itself upside down like a giant metaphorical pancake every few months for the past several years, is at it again. This particular floppage is a confluence of several things happening at once, so lemme break it down a bit.

How Moving!

This is the big one. The lease on our current townhouse ended in March, and for various reasons that will wait for another day, we wanted flexibility to be able to move sometime around July-ish. So we opted for a month-to-month renewal, because our other choice was another 12 months. The owner of our house was like, "Cool, I've been thinking of selling around then anyway, so I'll list the house and aim to settle around the time you guys are planning to move." We said, "cool," and she said, "cool," and all was good.

The first person who even glanced at the house bought it and wanted us out immediately. :-`

The current owner was like, "Uh, I'll sell you the house, sure, but I have a legal obligation to the tenants." So the buyer rolled their eyes and said, "Okay, fine, give them 30 days notice and be done with it." Thus it is, that we need to move by May 17th.

As you can imagine, this has rather flung us for a loop. We have spent the time since getting this news looking for a new place to go, selling/donating/disposing of even more stuff than we did when we were selling the Hobbit Hole, and generally freaking out.

The good news is, we have a backup plan, in the form of [ profile] sirfox's condo in Maryland which is currently vacant. If we don't find anything else, that will be our safety net. But we are not settled on that yet.

Things That Aren't Moving

Meanwhile, when not dealing with that, I've been cranking away on my novel writing. As of this afternoon, Sky Pirates of Calypsitania has officially received two rejections, one from a literary agent who likes my writing generally but wasn't interested in that particular book, and one from Tor-Forge, who simply responded with a form letter. All of the other markets well-suited to the book do not take unagented manuscripts, so for the time being the strategy on that book is "keep looking for an agent, and keep working on other books."

In the other books department, I've returned to Tend on Mortal Thoughts and I'm trying to Second Draft it up to 80,000+ words if I can. Some of my beta readers have given me very good suggestions in that regard and when I'm not in the midst of moving I intend to make use of them. I have also put in some serious thinking on Brigid and Greg, and might just have a direction with that to go I like after all. But that's going to have to wait a few months.

But here's the thing about writing: when I start doing that, I tend to stop doing anything that's not writing. Video games, TwitterPonies, basic hygiene, whatever it is, doesn't happen because it doesn't involve putting words on the page. A typical writing day for me tends to be 8-12 hours of phrenetic typing, punctuated by the occasional five minute stare into space while I try to solve a problem, then back to typing. When it comes time to finally hang up my keyboard at the end of the day, I'm generally completely exhausted, and as a general rule I have to physically force myself to take time off on the weekend or at night in order to prevent turning [ profile] lythandra into a Writer's Widow.

So as you can probably guess, progress on writing means little to say on LiveJournal, because LiveJournal is not putting words on the page.

Has Anybody Seen D&D? It Was Right Here a Few Weeks Ago. Also, Dammit Game Parlor.

On the topic of the world being turned upside down, [ profile] jamesbarrett, who is a major participant in my current D&D game and is in fact the only other DM in the group, has recently lost his weekend evenings to his own life's topsy-turviness. It's just possible that the group might be able to find a way to making "super late Friday/Saturday night and all online" work, but it's very iffy. Right now it's kind of a moot point because moving has knocked all chances of gaming off the map until mid-May anyhow, but even once Laurie and I land gaming as we have known it is currently not looking like it will survive.

In this context, my discovery today that Game Parlor closed back in November. I can't honestly say I'm surprised, but I am bummed, because in its heyday it was the nicest gaming store I've ever seen. The late 3.x/4E-era collapse of the RPG market, combined with the rise of online shopping and PDFs taking over the gaming industry dealt them a series of blows it would have been hard enough to recover from if they'd been savvy about it all, much less putting their hands over their metaphorical ears, going "LA LA LA I'M NOT LISTENING" and trying to carry on through pure inertia. On the other hand, the owners did say they were retiring, so it may have been that they only needed for the store to stay open long enough to get them to that spot, and therefore mission accomplished. Dunno. In any case, this is a blow on par with the closing of the Reston Barnes & Noble. Not the end of the world perhaps– I've got plenty of online and other options for my gaming fix– but a major bummer nonetheless.

Buddha, Jobs/Career Changes, Familial Health, All That Other Stuff

Well yeah, there's a lot of other junk in the turning-upside-down of everything. Some of them are more heavy hitters than other, and it's not necessarily all bad, but it is all change, and in the mix. Even change you like is stressful, and when introverts get stressed they tend to get quiet.

So, for those among you who've wondered why I've been a bit remote lately, that's what it boils down to. Sorry to keep you in suspense! But when there's news hashed out, I'll certainly share it. :)

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Boromir battle)
Woke up at oh-dark-thirty from the most explicitly Lovecraftian dream I can remember having– not just in the sense that it contained otherworldly monstrous horrors (which it did), but also in that the true horror was not at what the dream showed as what it implied. For all the corn of reading a Lovecraft story, that sh!t's pretty darn scary when it feels real and primal and in your face like that. And like Lovecraft, now that the dream's over, "I cannot and must not recall" is a pretty apt description of my feelings about it.

So instead, let's talk about gaming! Last night was the first session since January of [ profile] jamesbarrett's game in which I play drow bard Obsidian. I was a bit confused as to how long it had been: I'm not sure why but my notes on the things we encountered and the loot we acquired was clearly dated July of 2014, but as my LJ indicates, it was actually January. Not sure what's up with that. Anyway, last night's session was mostly a link, between what had happened before and what is intended to come, but it was better than nothing and apparently gave Jamie's creative juices a bit of a jolt, so hopefully we can build on that momentum.

Meanwhile, [ profile] sirfox laments that I haven't posted a summary of my last session yet. I hadn't actually intended to, but who am I to say no when apparently the audience is eager for something? ;) Unfortunately it was a few weeks ago now, so a lot of the details are hazy in my mind. But I can hit the high points.

When we last left our heroes they had been through several harrowing fights to make their way into the flooded sewer-catacombs under the late (now vampire) Captain Ballak's house. (Think the knight's tomb under Venice in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade except with statues of Orcus instead of Christian crusader iconography and you'll be on the right track.)

There was basically only one obstacle remaining between them and the final assault on the vampire's lair, which was a more deeply-flooded chamber (as in, chest height for humans, rather than the knee height water they'd been wading through) that had rapid currents leading to a vortex drain. At that depth, and with such a strong current, there was a real danger of being sucked into the whirlpool and lost. The result might not be fatal, but it certainly bad: I ruled that a character who got pulled down the drain would take 4d10 damage and be washed into the river five minutes later. The rules for suffocation in 5E are generous, but not completely trivial, and even for the barbarian that could be a one-way trip.

The party, realizing just how hazardous this could be, all tied themselves together, using the dwarven cleric as the anchor in front, and the 19 Str barbarian as the anchor in the back, and started to carefully make their way across– except for Morgo the Magnificent, who didn't want to get his robes any more ruined than they already were (nor did he want to be making Str checks the whole way) and spider climbed his way across the room. We can only assume he used mage hand to keep his robes from turning inside out and dangling over his head as he walked across the ceiling.

It turned out the party's paranoia was even more justified when a water weird, looking like a skull-headed version of the thing from The Abyss, reared up and started attempting to pour itself down [ profile] lythandra's throat whether she wanted it to or not. A tense fight ensued, with the water weird attempting to pull people under, various team members losing hold of the rope and being pulled towards the vortex, having to catch themselves on outcroppings, and unsavory water tentacle face-squeezing action. Luckily, they were able to best the thing and escape without anyone going down the hole.

On the other side of the city's sink trap, a short passageway ended in a chamber empty except for a rather incongruous free-standing full-length mirror. Given the way the vampire had been scrying on the party through mirrors the whole time, their immediate instinct was to smash the thing, much to my consternation. That this would be their reaction had not occurred to me, but made perfect sense in context. Unfortunately, in the scenario as I had conceived it, this mirror was the only conduit between the vampire's "pocket dimension" lair and the prime material plane. While smashing the mirror would have sealed away the vampire, it would have also permanently trapped all its kidnapped victims with it on the other side, which would have been a pretty downer ending.

So I gave Elsa a chance to make a Wisdom check, on which she rolled a 16. Normally one of her flaws is that she acts without thinking and runs headlong into a situation, but this time she was actually the cautious one, saying "Why is there a mirror by itself down in this hole? Are we sure we want to just smash this thing before we know what it's about?" Reluctantly, the rest of the party agreed that she had a point and went over to investigate, finding that instead of reflecting the caves around them, the mirror showed a vista of swirling mists. Morgo groaned, saying, "We're going through that mirror, aren't we?" Short answer: yes.

Stepping through the mirror deposited the party on a narrow bridge made of bones, suspended in never-ending, swirling mists. Shadow realm? Some backwater spot on Orcus's level of hell? They had no idea and no real way of finding out, but Morgo decided they were somewhere in hell and announced it as such with perfect confidence either way. The party followed the bridge to a tower, also made of bones, upon which lurked winged demonic creatures, and in front of which stood more of Captain Ballak's mirror men. The vampire taunted them to "Come into my parlor..." and they decided that it was time to tear him up.

They charged forward, obliterating the mirror men in short order. Several of the creatures atop the tower, which for all their horns and creepy iris-less yellow eyes, looked suspiciously like winged kobolds, swooped down to join the fray, shooting at the party with demonic bows that shot arrows of fire. The kobolds from hell actually hurt the party more than the mirror men did, prompting the party to flee into the tower to get under cover. Of course, in the tower, they found Captain Ballak, a CR 4 dwarf vampire spawn wearing plate armor and able to draw on the Legendary Actions of a full-fledged vampire, as well as two more mirror men and some zombies, just to keep things interesting.

Like their previous fight in the ghoul shrine, the vampire's regeneration was a big problem for them this time. Being in plate armor, he was very difficult to hit, and they had to hit him hard enough and often enough to out-damage his regeneration (or shut it down). This task wasn't made any easier by the fact that demon kobolds were still hitting them with fire arrows; but the real problem was that the vampire had captives scattered around the room and could use Legendary Actions to basically move or act almost every time one of the PCs did, meaning he could simply keep running around the room sucking blood out of his victims to "top off" whatever hit points the regeneration didn't return.

This is where preparedness made all the difference: upon learning that they were going to be going down into a vampire's lair, [ profile] sirfox had decided to head to the temple and pick up several vials of holy water and distribute them among the group. The party began lobbing said vials at Ballak like hand grenades. Several of them missed, smashing uselessly to the floor, but enough of them hit that Ballak started taking radiant damage almost every round, which shut down his regeneration. This caused the vampire to become a lot more aggressive– and being a skilled tactician (former captain of the Red Gauntlet, after all) he went after the glass cannon first, i.e., Morgo. He latched onto the wizard and began sucking blood for all he was worth, rapidly draining Morgo's life away. Morgo, in return, let loose with all the arcane fire he could muster, pouring damage into the vampire like it was water. By this time, Mei and Elsa had dealt with all the minions, and the party ganged up on Ballak.

By the time half of Ballak's face was burned off, he came to the conclusion that he'd taken a lot more damage than he intended to that day, released Morgo, and fled in his creepy spider climb-y way up the walls and across the room, heading for his "escape kit" stashed at the far end. Before he got there, however, [ profile] sirfox hit him with a sacred flame that rolled max damage, blasting away the last of the vampire's hit points, immolating him. He fell from the wall and hit the floor, curling up into a blackened ball like a bug set on fire. Elsa then used one of her javelins as a makeshift stake through the burnt up cinder that was Ballak's heart, just to be sure.

High-fives all around.

The party grabbed what loot there was to find, including Ballak's scorched and gruesome plate armor, which [ profile] sirfox claimed as a trophy, and escorted Ballak's prisoners (various other people involved with the trial that led to Ballak's execution, including Gimlet's one real friend in the Mintarn) back to safety, very carefully taking their time at the flooded vortex room. As a reward for their heroics, including the rescue of the judge (an important personage in the Argentine court), the party was summoned to meet Princess Adallin, the Duchess of Welltide.

Tylow seemed dubious, claiming that princesses don't really exist. When she turned out to be a shortish, frumpyish no-nonsense woman in her late thirties who said of their fight with the vampire "That must have been quite exciting, eh?" Tylow decided maybe princesses did exist after all. Princess Adallin was very interested in all the details of both Ballak's trial and his return from the grave; she had also been given reports of the party's activities in Welltide by Lord Sildar and was quite impressed by the group. She said that she wanted to give them a suitable reward but really didn't have any ideas, asking for suggestions. Only Gimlet had one immediately, which was that Ballak's plate armor be cleaned up, re-fashioned, and given some kind of enchantment, to which the Princess agreed, saying it would be done by the time the group was on their return trip from Starhold.

While in town, the party commissioned a few other magic items, including Elsa who reluctantly handed over her heirloom greatsword Zweihänder to get enough basic enchantment on it that she could hit things like vampires and not have the damage negated. The party then headed for the mountains, to continue their intended mission of delivering Brannar Diamondheart's request for mercenaries to Starhold.

My post-mortem? Refactoring the adventure was definitely the right call. The adventure as I had initially designed it would have been needlessly deadly, but worse it would have been grindy and dull. My original plan when I first crafted the scenario was to have another regenerating statue in Ballak's lair and several more mirror men, mostly to keep the minions up and fighting longer, as well as having Ballak being a full strength vampire spawn instead of a CR 4 variant buffed up with Legendary Actions.

I also had various different ideas originally about what to have in the vortex chamber, focusing on various floaty monsters like grell that would be immune to the vortex effect, but most of the things I thought of would have been too much for what the room was supposed to be. It was supposed to be an exciting "hazardous challenge" sequence, where the danger of the room was the real scare rather than the monsters in it, and as such the water weird hit just the sweet spot.

As far as how the final battle played out, it was purely the luck of the dice, but I was pleased that Gimlet got to land the killing blow on Ballak, since the vampire was intended to be an almost literal "twisted reflection" of the dwarven-mercenary-turned-cleric (hence the mirror motifs, which also tied in nicely with his vampire nature). Each character in the party has at least one NPC campaign villain set up to be a nemesis/dark reflection sort of character, of varying levels of redeemability and/or correspondence. Ballak was the most obvious "negaverse" version of one of the PCs, but also, due to his nature, doomed to be the one with the shortest in-game lifespan. Now what will Gimlet do for an arch-enemy? Guess he'll just have to piss someone else off. ;)

-The Gneech

PS: That mirror is still down there. Just sayin'.
the_gneech: (Legolas silhouette)
First of all, [ profile] sirfox might find this particularly interesting: Weirder Fantasy.

Second of all, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Sandbox vs. Railroad and Unlearning 3E Habits issues highlighted by my recent sessions. This led me to further rumination on the idea of What Is the Game About? 3.x (and especially 4E) put an unwarranted focus on "Fight, fight, fight!" Which isn't to say that the killing of monsters and taking of their stuff wasn't always a big part of the game, but as I rather incompletely observed when lamenting the loss of true rogues, in more recent editions combat has been "what the game was about," with exploration of the fantastic, scheming, and skullduggery being stuff that just interrupted the flow. Even if that wasn't the intention of the game designers, it was certainly the vibe created by the game mechanics and support material.

I'm still working out what I want to do about this for my game. In terms of game prep, the obvious thing is to put more emphasis on NPC plans and motivation and coming up with neat and weird things for the players to do/see/discover, and stop wasting my time on tricking out combat encounters. Mechanically, I'm also leaning towards halving the XP awards for combat, and adding a boatload of other XP awards to compensate, ranging from XP awards for treasure looted (or possibly awarding XP for "training," which would give the players something to spend loot on), to extra bonuses for completing "side treks," finding Ye Olde Secret Treasure Stashe [1], and so forth. I'll work something out and present it to the group before we put it in action.

Third of all, and related to the point above, as part of the "level up" of the Sword Coast game I have decided to rework the Silver Coast map in order to line it up with the mapping guidelines in the Dungeon Masters Guide (which had not been released when I initially put it together). To tie it further in with my Grand Unified Theory of Gneech's Gaming Worlds (as well as make it a bit less of Faerûn's Sword Coast with the serial numbers scratched off) I will also be doing a bit of retconning of the history and geography of the region. It won't impact anything the player characters have done or directly experienced, except for a few name changes (the nation to the south of Argent will get a new name, and probably Coneyburr too). Mostly Argent as a nation will be built out a little more to be more consistent with the levels of wealth and sophistication established by the campaign, and probably the eruption of Thunderdelve will be more recent history. Fifty years is a long time for a nation to be just starting to recover from the effects of a volcanic catastrophe, even one as large as that. I will also be making a formalized timeline that will incorporate some of the key events from Red Hand of Doom, since elements of that campaign are leaking over into this one.

I'm also going to clean up a few continuity oopses (such as just how Nezannar got to be in Wave Echo Cave) while I'm at it. Again, nothing that will have a major impact, just a bit of narrative housecleaning, more for my own reference than anything else.

-The Gneech

[1] It's a handlebar made of diamonds!
the_gneech: (Conan Civilization Sucks)
In the midst of self-examination, trying to answer the great question of what it is I actually give a flip about (and trying to turn that into a meaningful career/pursuit/vocation), I have worked out that I pretty much want three things:

  1. To make my comics.

  2. To play D&D (and variants).

  3. To live comfortably, securely, and for a long time, in order to achieve items 1 and 2.

So all week, when not working on art projects or mucking around with job search stuff, I've been jonesing for gaming, but there was none to be had. So in desperation, I pulled out the recent re-release of Icewind Dale and started grinding through it.

Now, unlike apparently every other RPG nerd in the world, I really disliked Baldur's Gate. But back in the day, I did enjoy Icewind Dale, so I thought, "A-ha, a high-res remix, that'll scratch my gaming itch!" Result? Eh, not so much.

IWD has not aged well. My patience for having the random number generator randomly one-punch half the party before they even get to act and having to reload is a lot thinner than it was when I was 30. Being released on the cusp between 2E and 3E rulesets, IWD still has a lot of the stupid "because f*ck players, that's why" junk rules of older editions, such as scrolls randomly failing to write to the spellbook and getting burned up anyway (which was bad enough in a tabletop game, but is frankly pointless in a CRPG where players will quickly learn to just save before writing to their spellbook and try again).

I did figure out how to min-max a party such that they only died one time in three instead of three times out of four, reducing the amount of time I spent loading saved games, but... ugh. If there's only one right way to build a party and go through the game, what's the point of even having custom built parties?

Upon realization that I just plain wasn't having fun any more, I punted on IWD and decided to spend my not-gaming time on doing game prep for my Silver Coast game instead. I need a break from being the DM, but as the game is heading for a new hub for at least a few sessions, I decided to go ahead and build it out a bit. It's kind of a detour from the main story, so I don't want to put a whole lot of time and effort into it, but I do want there to be enough there that if the players decide to poke around there will be things for them to find beyond the random encounter table.

So, it's still not really gaming, but it has at least been more productively not gaming.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Mysterious Beard)
In my post about difficulty the other day, I tossed in a random joke-not-really-a-joke sobbing about the fact that the characters are primed to hit 5th level at the end of the next session, and that it was too soon. It occurred to me after the fact that once upon a time (i.e., back in my 1e/2e days) hitting fifth level would not be cause for alarm. Certainly it's something of a watershed level, with fireballs and such showing up, but it's often seen as about the time heroes really come into their own, the training wheels come off, and the nitty-gritty of a game truly begins.

So... why too soon? I mean, I explicitly started my Eberron game at 3rd level (albeit in Pathfinder) to sorta "skip ahead" a bit. And it's not like the group hasn't earned it: they've conned a bugbear king, toppled a thieves' guild (a small one, but it still counts), clashed with the sinister machinations of a drow mage, and more.

Well, some of it is, I think, that we're in a new edition and I at least am feeling my way around to learn the ins and outs of it, but just about the time I start to feel like I'm getting the hang of things, the group levels up again and I get flummoxed. But I think that's just the surface issue, and there's something deeper underneath, to wit, I've been trained by 3.x to pay super-strict attention to the party levels... and that's something I need to unlearn.

In the faster-looser environment of earlier editions, where each class leveled up at its own rate and a party full of lackeys and hench... uh... persons? was expected, encounters weren't these carefully-structured pieces of art. Encounters were often super-random ("1d10 orcs... so a 100 XP to 2500 XP encounter, and you don't know which? Madness!") and just included whatever the DM thought sounded cool. Of course, that made for parties occasionally getting eaten by something the DM didn't realize would be quite so threatening, but that was part of the game. Hop over to a super-freeform system like Tunnels & Trolls and all bets were off... bathe your sword in a magic fountain you happen upon in a solo module and you might end up with the T&T equivalent of a +4 sword that does a base 2d10 damage or something crazy like that.

But 3.x has tight math in place, designed to help the DM predict how an encounter will go, and prevent the dreaded "accidental TPK". Part of this includes a heavy-handed progression along the level track: in 3.x a party of 5th level characters isn't just a bit more powerful than a party of 4th level characters, it's way more so. An encounter carefully tweaked to be "just right" for the 4th level party, feels like an easy win for the 5th level party; an encounter that was easy for the 4th level party, is a major snoozefest for the 5th. So yeah, you pretty much have to handcraft things to keep them interesting. And every time that level gauge goes "Ding!" you have to refactor everything.

Thus, it makes sense that someone used to thinking this way would cringe when the levels come flying at us like a freight train. But then I need to take a deep breath and remember, "Oh yeah, bounded accuracy." Going from 4th to 5th in 5E is still a significant bump because that's where your proficiency bonus goes up a notch, 3rd level spells and extra attacks appear... but it's not so significant that I have to throw away all of my prep leading up to it. Orcs are still dangerous, they just come in groups of 2 per PC instead of 1 for every 2 PCs like they did at, say, 3rd level. But at 5th I don't have to shy away as much from putting some more interesting things on the encounter list. Tromping around in the woods between Welltide and Pelann, there's been a "1d3 trolls" random encounter that I've been cringing at the possibility might come up, for instance. Now, I'm not so worried about it.

What I can do, however, is to go back and weed out some of the "junk" encounters that would just waste everyone's time, or possibly just narrate through them. "You encounter three ash zombies roaming around the woods. Gimlet, do you want to just channel divinity and blast 'em?"

I do worry, at the current growth rate, that the characters will suddenly be 8th, 10th, 12th level faster than a speeding bullet, and then things might start coming off the rails. Poking around the woods outside Welltide or wandering down into Wave Echo Cave is going to seem very dull by that point, unless those areas have been "civilized" and the characters have moved on to deeper delves and darker dangers. But realistically from a worldbuilding standpoint, that's going to take time. Welltide's defenses are under construction, but that doesn't happen overnight even in a magical setting, and the Diamondheart camp in Wave Echo Cave will need some shoring up before the PCs can leave it alone with confidence.

Basically I need to figure out some way to pad time in between adventures so the world can "catch up" to the PCs' advancement, or slow that advancement down. Maybe story-wise it would make sense to require some "training time" before the characters can actually make the jump to 5th level? Training between tiers does seem like a fairly natural hybrid of the original "train every level" rules vs. the modern "ding mid-adventure" mode.

I'll have to discuss this with the players.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)
The current scenario in my Silver Coast game, as initially written and run for the first two sessions, was a study in the limits of 5E encounter design. And it taught me some very interesting things– not the least of which is that 5E can be just as painfully grindy as 3.x and 4E, when the difficulty is skewed way up and the tactical setup is the focus of the adventure design.

Pursuant to the issues I discussed in an earlier post, I wanted to see how tough a "hard" or a "deadly" encounter was, and so I tossed the group into a very linear adventure with a clear "This is the hook!" focus and their choice of which type of dangerous path they wanted to take to get there.

Long story short, [ profile] sirfox's warrior cleric Gimlet was formerly a member of a mercenary company tasked with keeping the peace in the largest nearby campaign city, and his pre-game background was that he left that group in disgust at corruption within it. I built on this background by saying that his former captain had been hanged for treason on the strength of Gimlet's testimony. But what Gimlet had not known at the time is that while dangling from the gallows, his former captain had been offered the opportunity to sell his soul to Orcus in exchange for revenge etc., etc., and had taken it. Thus, Gimlet's former boss returned as a vampire who is granted "seven years of continued existence" for each soul he sends to Orcus. Naturally wanting to front-load this a bit, said boss decides to start by murdering just about everyone he knew and turning them into undead minions. The party, happening to pass through the city on their way to another mission, happens into this situation when the boss spots Gimlet on the streets and sends his minions to attack.

The first act of the scenario, which I'd envisioned being something like a Call of Cthulhu-esque investigation tracking down the various people involved in the boss's trial, didn't really go as I'd hoped. I gave Sirfie a list of the various people involved in the trial, as Gimlet would have known who they were, but it was probably too big of an infodump [1] and the party just sorta vagued around the city a while until they finally latched on to one and waited for him to get attacked. Once the attack actually happened, tho, they did a good piece of detective work to track the boss's minions back to his lair.

The second and third acts are the assault on the vampire's lair, i.e., the former captain's house in the city and the catacombs underneath it. This is where the tactical focus/difficult combat aspect came into play. The ground level of the house had three different "encounter" areas of varying difficulty, but given their proximity, the nature of the encounters, and the villain's underlying ability to pretty much see everything going on at once and command his minions accordingly, it became one big furball, with the monsters coming in waves one or two turns apart. The six ghouls, probably would not have been a problem. Six ghouls plus two hellhounds, a bit more of a problem but a self-correcting one as the hellhounds' fire breath hits the ghouls as much as the party. Six ghouls, two hellhounds, and two helm horrors? Yeah, that's a bit much for five 4th-level characters.

Not quite a fifteen minute workday, but enough that the party wanted a long rest, and I couldn't blame them. Then down into the catacombs... where they fought six more ghouls and a ghast scrunched up in a tight corridor... then another six more ghouls and a ghast who were all praying around a statue of Orcus that enabled them to regenerate at the beginning of their turn.

Oh, ye gods. So. Grindy. -.- That was a seriously bad encounter design, Gneech. And of course, they wanted another long rest at the end of it, and it would have been foolish of them not to take it. Definitely a 15-minute workday that time.

So, yeah, lesson learned. I didn't care for it. I much prefer the freewheeling sandbox to the grindy, grindy railroad, and so I have refactored the rest of the scenario to be closer to 5E standard guidelines (although the vampire at the end will probably still be pretty tough 'cos, y'know, vampire boss fight). Once we are through with it, I'll be going back to the "smaller, lighter adventure hooks but more of them" mode we were in leading up to it.

On a related note, at AnthroCon [ profile] sirfox let me know in rambliness inversely proportional to the amount of rum and cola involved ;) that he is all about the phat l00tz. If I understood him correctly, anyhow, he'd like to get some cool "signature gear" that does things beyond the numerical +x bonus, which I must admit is how I prefer magic items myself. Ironically, there have been some items like that floating around (such as the ones guarded by the spectator in the Lesser Spellforge), but the party has tended to turn around just as they got close to 'em.

Last session Gimlet yoinked a pair of magic hammers and shields from the defeated helm horrors, but unfortunately they were (by design) of the generic +x variety, merely being components of the helm horror manufacturing process. On the other hand, the party is in the big city, maybe they can find a purveyor of fine weaponry who would be willing to trade for something more interesting, once they've climbed back up out of the catacombs.

Sirfie also told me a while back that I had been described to him as a GM who was stingy with magic items, which I have to admit came as a surprise. My general goal has been to operate more-or-less within the parameters set by whatever game system I'm using, tending to randomly generate and then tweak-to-personalize loot when the players come upon it. However, having cut my teeth on 1E, I do also believe that treasure, particularly magic items, must be earned (or at the very least searched for). That means that choice items are often down side-passages, hidden in secret chambers, or being used by the baddies against the players first. For players used to CRPG- or MMO-style treasure "drops," this might seem stingy I suppose, but in those settings any given piece of treasure rarely matters anyhow compared to the item it's replacing. A +0.15 sword doesn't actually change anything regardless of how prettily it shines!

But the biggest factor has probably been that we tend to play low-level games, and low-level games tend to have low-level gear. I think the longest contiguous game I've run was Red Hand of Doom, which went from 3rd level to 9th level if I remember correctly, with a short-lived 10th - 12th sequel game. Certainly the players had some pretty nifty gear by the end of that (red dragonscale armor is a particular standout I recall). The characters in the Silver Coast game will almost certainly hit 5th level by the end of the next session (*sobs* TOO SOON!), so magic items will probably start showing up more often as their adventures scale up to match.

-The Gneech

[1] NOTE TO MYSELF: Two clues is too few, and four clues is too many.

June 2017

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