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: (Boromir battle)

Faramir and Boromir wonder WTF is that?

For all I bag on 4E, it did have some cool stuff in it, and one of the coolest things was the Warlord class… which is conspicuously absent from 5E. I mean, it’s kinda-sorta there, in the Battlemaster Fighter, or possibly in a Valor Bard, but neither of those are really as robust as the Warlord was. Some of that may be intentional as part of the “We’re not with that guy!” treatment of 4E generally, but I think a big chunk of it is just a matter of focus. The Warlord class was really tied into the “miniatures skirmishing with a roleplaying game grafted on” nature of 4E, and with 5E‘s push to return to “theater of the mind” style gaming, they have a tougher time finding a place.

In short, Warlords as presented in 4E made combat crunchier, which is anathema to the 5E style. The question of whether there is a 5E-friendly way to make a Warlord is one that’s been discussed at length in the community. I think it could be done, and I think that the Battlemaster Fighter probably fills a good 65-75% of the gap, but I’d really like to see it fleshed out.

So what is a Warlord, exactly? Well, they’re a support class, who buff, heal, and provide tactical options for the rest of their team, but without using spells to do it (and without the religious baggage of the Cleric or Paladin, or the fantasyland rockstar thing that Bards have going on). Frankly, I always thought “Captain” would be a better name; in various incarnations across other games they’ve also been called “Nobles,” “Leaders,” “Standard Bearers,” etc.

In D&D the first thing that looks kinda like a Warlord– assuming you don’t just take it as read that every fighter above 9th level is one thanks to old-school level titles– is AD&D‘s Cavalier class, which was kind of a poor man’s Paladin. (Ironically, Paladin was revised to be a subclass of Cavalier when it came out) The Cavalier was intended to be a mounted warrior first and foremost (hence the name) and had all kinds of mount-related stuff going on, but they also provided a few team buffs, such as immunity to fear.

The real antecedent to the Warlord, however, came out in the Miniatures Handbook under the name Marshal. That class had auras (an extraordinary ability in 3.x/PF terms, and therefore explicitly not magical) that added various bonuses to allies within a small radius and could grant actions to other members of the party. They couldn’t do any healing, but by buffing party AC and hit points, they effectively “pre-healed” their allies. This was followed by the Noble in Star Wars Saga Edition, who combined some of the Marshal’s buffs with the Bard’s debuffs, basically rolling all the “leader” abilities into a single (again, non-magical) class.

Why is the emphasis on not being magical important? Well, that’s pretty much the appeal of the Warlord class when you get down to it. The Warlord is an inspiring leader, a masterful tactician, or even just the grumpy drill sergeant who tells you to rub some dirt on it and get back into the fight. Basically, it’s the Captain America class for D&D. This is both its appeal and its drawback, unfortunately. D&D already has a class for that role, to wit, the Paladin.

But the Paladin has baggage. Oh so much baggage. From idiot players who gave Paladins the reputation of being Lawful Stupid, to asshole DMs who create their whole campaigns around putting Paladins into no-win situations and then gleefully stripping their powers because they couldn’t find a lawful good way to prevent the demon-possessed king from slaughtering children in the first round of combat (or whatever), Paladins have a long history of being a problem class. On top of which, they have a “knights templar” semi-religious overlay which just doesn’t suit every heroic leader. Just like Robin Hood never cast a spell, Boromir never went searching for the Holy Grail.

So yeah, as far as I’m concerned the Warlord absolutely has a place in D&D as an archetype and as a class (or sub-class), although as I say I still prefer the name “Captain.” 😉 And it needs to be a little more interesting than the “+1d6 to do a not-attack thing” model of the Battlemaster. What that might be, while still fitting in the 5E mold, I’m not sure. I’m still working on that idea.

-The Gneech

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: (Legolas silhouette)

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas wonder WTF is this.

Once upon a time, I wondered Whither the Rogue? [1] Today I’d like to talk about the rogue’s more fighterey-wildernessey brother, the ranger. [2]

Like the rogue, the ranger has been around since before D&D was D&D (first appearing in Strategic Review, which in gaming terms is like saying it appeared in the Upanishads). My own experience with the ranger didn’t come until AD&D, in which they were a slightly-more-interesting fighter with 2d8 hp at first level for no apparent reason, got bonuses to fight all “giant class” humanoids (which, for some peculiar reason, basically meant all humanoids including kobolds), and had vague talk of an animal companion who would wander around somewhere in the general vicinity of the party and maybe kill some monsters for you by accident.

But from the beginning, rangers have had a strange place in the game. Are they Aragorn? Are they Robin Hood? Grizzly Adams? What the heck is a bear doing wandering around the Tomb of Horrors, anyway???

For rangers to work thematically, you have to have a campaign in which tromping around the wilderness is a thing. For them to work mechanically, you have to have a campaign in which whatever the ranger’s enemy-of-choice is a thing. And that opens a whole other can of worms. D&D has always had a very uncomfortable “racial enemies” thing going on, where dwarves are better at killing orcs because reasons, that kind of thing. The ranger makes that into a whole feature of a person’s profession. Originally it was simply a matter of experience: if you’re defending the frontiers of human civilization, the reasoning goes, you will fight a lot of goblins/orcs/kobolds/giants, and thus know how it’s done. Later, in an effort to deal with the “your campaign might be at sea or underground instead of the forest” problem, your choices were expanded. These days, rangers are just randomly better at killing… something. You pick.

(This is one of those rare occasions where 4E actually did something better than other editions. 4E rangers mark a target, and everyone in the fight has a chance to “cash in” on that. In other words, your “favored enemy” is whichever one you’re focusing on right now– usually the biggest and baddest thing in the room. Not that 4E rangers didn’t have other problems. Everything in 4E had problems. :P)

But this weird space that rangers inhabit in the context of D&D has made them suffer a never-ending stream of tweaks, revisions, and re-imaginings, because while everyone has a vague idea of what rangers should be like (Crocodile Dundee is totally a ranger, for instance), nailing down the specifics gets really tricky.

Do rangers have spells? Aragorn was famously a healer, but that was because Middle-earth has a divine-right monarchy thing going on. None of the other Dunedain could do that, so it hardly seems a “class feature,” and Robin Hood never so much as said “bippity boppity boo.” Crocodile Dundee can hypnotize kangaroos and has preternatural senses, does that count?

Oh, and what about fighting methods? Aragorn used a greatsword and eventually rode into battle in heavy armor. Robin was the greatest archer in England. Where did the two weapons thing come from? Legolas wielded a pair of long knives in melee, but was he a ranger, a fighter, or a rogue? Is two-weapon fighting just there to make Drizzt work?

Oh yeah, Drizzt. There’s another another can of worms. For those who don’t know (and I’m only barely aware of him myself), Drizzt is a rare (for sufficient values of rare) good drow ranger, who appeared in Forgotten Realms novels in the late ’80s and became a breakout character in the ’90s when Gothy Angst was at its height. Mechanically he was a 2E ranger who wielded two scimitars thanks to a fighter splatbook ability. Which was fine, except that with his crazy popularity, suddenly the Drizzt tail began to wag the ranger dog. In every edition since, the first thing that devs seemed to look at when making the ranger was “Does it look like Drizzt?”

Finally, we come to 5E, in which ranger wins the award for “Most Dysfunctional Right Out the Gate” from the start hands down. And really the 5E ranger is not that bad, it’s just… lackluster. And stuck in the past, in that it doesn’t model “what rangers should do,” so much as “what rangers looked like in earlier editions of D&D.” You get a smattering of fighter stuff, a smaller smattering of rogue stuff, and you’re back to trying to guess what is the right “favored terrain” and “favored enemy” for the campaign (or alternatively, forcing the DM to put whatever you’ve favored in). If you take on an animal companion, you have to use your own bonus action to make it do anything as part of the “action economy” (i.e., so that you don’t effectively get two turns per round for everyone else’s one turn). If you forego the animal companion and choose the “hunter” archetype, you essentially get to choose from a random set of combat feats.

Honestly, for almost everything that rangers are supposed to do? In 5E there’s probably a better way of doing it. Do you want to be a mobile archer, running around the field peppering your foes with arrows? Take two levels of rogue (for Cunning Action) with Survival as one of your expertise choices, and then Champion fighter with the archery style forever. Do you want to be a mystical protector of the wild? A Totem Warrior barbarian, Oath of the Ancient paladin, or any flavor of druid is probably closer to the mark. The only thing the 5E ranger can do that the other classes can’t, really, is have a pet, and they’re not real good at that.

This situation has led to WotC floating multiple fixes via its Unearthed Arcana articles, and they are better…ish, but they’re mostly patches to buff math holes rather than the serious rethink that the class really needs, and worse they still are focused on “How do we keep the companion from breaking the action economy?” and “Does it look like Drizzt?” more than “Does this look, feel, and act like a ranger should, while sticking to the ease of play and flexibility that 5E excels at?” (To which I would say the answer is “Not really.”)

So, yeah. Sorry rangers, back to the wilds for you.

-The Gneech

[1] In the time since then, Tribality has posted an in-depth series tracking the rogue’s development from proto-D&D days (Supplement I: Greyhawk, baby!) through 5E, which you can read here:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

[2] You guessed it, Tribality did a series of articles about them too, and its a doozy. Vis.:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

Part Eight

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: (Rastan Kill Monsters)

Grumpy Cat is a terrible GM.The recent Keep On the Borderlands game I’ve been talking about so much has been taken up largely for the purpose of showing the ropes to a new player who wants to eventually be a GM and asked me to give them a working example. Get me, being all mentorey!

In any case, as I’ve been examining gamemastery from the ground up as part of this whole rope-showing exercise, I decided that now would be a propitious time to re-examine my Gamemastering Credo.

This was a concept I first heard from The Angry GM. [1] As the name implies, a Gamemastering Credo is simply an explicit list of underlying principles that guide you as you create, plan, and run games. I had a whack at it near the beginning of my last campaign, but we’re two years on now and both the group and the venue have morphed, as have my priorities. Time for another round!

    Basic Principles

  1. Specific trumps general.

  2. For instance, if we are playing a game where your party are members of an organization and given assignments, that supersedes the usual principles of providing multiple hooks.

  3. The rules provide a framework for interacting with the game world. The “book” (whatever book that may be) is the baseline, and any variations from that baseline (i.e., “house rules”) will be made clear before a player is required to make a decision.

  4. I will use game systems that use the minimum possible complexity for the desired effect.

  5. A game system that cannot easily be played without computer assistance (or at most a pocket calculator), is an undesirable game system. I didn’t realize just how sick I was of 3.x/PF until I started messing with 5E.

  6. As referee, my job is to understand the rules, and to interpret them when there is ambiguity. Rulings at the table will be treated as house rules going forward.

  7. House rules are always subject to evaluation and debate between sessions. During a session, if we can’t come to an agreement within a few minutes, I’ll pick a ruling and go on, subject to debate later.

  8. When I present a game to the group, it is a proposal, not a dictum. I will do my best to run the game the players want to play. Also: I am one of the players.

  9. This used to be multiple items on the list, but really it should all be in one bucket. Until we’ve all agreed to a campaign premise and its attendant house rules, it’s up for modification or veto. There’s no point in trying to run a game we don’t all want to play. If as time goes on, the campaign evolves, or the players would like to take it in another direction, that’s fine, as long as we’re all on the same page about it. Of course, you have to let me know what that is! I am occasionally shocked to find out there’s something that’s been bugging someone for ages and I had no idea. The whole point of the item above is that we should all be expecting more or less the same thing out of a game. Also, keep in mind that as the GM, I’m one of the players too. I can’t run a game I hate!

  10. The world is “my character.”

  11. (Lifted from the Angry GM, but a good corollary to the above.) I create the world and I control it. I often invite input from others, but ultimately, I have to run the world and therefore, it has to be a world I want to run. Nothing becomes a part of the world without my say so. Just as one player couldn’t tell another that his elf has to speak in rhymes because obviously all elves do that, a player couldn’t tell me that there are Pokémon down in my dungeons if I don’t want there to be.

    Player Choices and Scenario Structure

  12. I will not take away players’ freedom of choice without their consent.

  13. This one was kind of “baked in” to my last draft, but really deserves its own heading. In a good game, player choices are what drives the narrative. Although I can make educated guesses about the players’ likely course of action, if I have a set outcome in mind already, I might as well be writing a book.

    There are specific temporary exceptions to this. A character who’s been dominated by a vampire has very little freedom of choice, for example. But even then, when possible, I will present the player with: “You have been compelled to achieve goal X. How do you wish to go about it?”

  14. I will not create “guessing game” situations.

  15. This is a corollary to the above item. It doesn’t mean that I’ll telegraph the result of relatively minor choices (“turn right or left at the end of the hall”); what this does mean is that you will always either have the information you need to make an important choice, or knowing that you lack information, you’ll be able to get it, even if that’s by asking me directly. (Of course, if asked directly, I may answer with, “Perhaps you should look for clues.” That’s part of gaming, after all!) If you ever feel like a life-or-death decision might as well be the flip of a coin, I’ve done something wrong.

  16. I don’t know how any given scenario will end, and I have at best an educated guess about how the middle will go.

  17. This is another corollary. I will create scenarios, not scenes. Scripted events (“if player kills cult leader while he’s chanting, summoned monster will go berserk”) may occur, but I will not force their appearance (“no matter how long it takes the players to get to the summoning chamber, the priest will be just about to finish his chant”). A scripted in medias res moment might be used to kickstart a campaign or a session, as appropriate for the campaign, but those will not be done in a way that takes away the players’ freedom of choice, as described earlier.

  18. I will not allow players to wander into deadly peril without warning.

  19. If players choose to put themselves in deadly peril, I will not shield them from it, either. Note that going to an adventure site (however that may be defined for the game at hand) is by default “being in deadly peril” unless you have reason to believe otherwise. In a combat situation, the opposition will be playing to win.

  20. I will present multiple hooks that are reasonably easy to find. Player characters can always say “no.”

  21. Hooks are there to provide some kind of structure beyond “You are here, and here’s a map, what do you do?” They are designed to help avoid “decision paralysis” and give you something to work with. They are not there to proclaim, “There’s the plot, go get it!” and then punish you if you don’t.

    The issue of multiple hooks is also a matter of player choice: if you are completely free to do anything you want (as long it’s follow the only hook presented), you aren’t really free, are you? The consequences of following/not following one hook over another might be more or less desirable to your character– that’s just the way the world works. Deciding not to take the Ring to Mordor might suck for the world, but it’s still the players’ choice to make. But I have failed in my role as an impartial referee if there is a “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of “What do you do?”

    It’s important to note, not all campaigns work this way. Joining a campaign in which you are given a mission at the start of each adventure means that you have already agreed to accept and attempt to perform said missions from the start– or at the very least, refusing a given mission would represent a major event within the campaign framework. Thus freedom of choice is maintained.

  22. Some players “build” a character; some “discover” the character through play. Therefore, I will not require back-stories, disadvantages, or similar character flags to begin the game.

  23. (Names are still necessary for all characters, however. You are not playing chess pawns.) Be aware that this may leave your character seriously “underpowered” if the game system selected for a campaign builds such things into character creation (e.g., Savage Worlds). If all else fails, you could always use the 5E method and roll dice to pick something!

    For those players who enjoy it, I will do my best to provide opportunities for your characters to pursue their own goals, tie their back-stories into the broader campaign, and so forth.

    Again, this assumes that you let me know what those are. This is my favorite part of roleplaying games, so obviously for me the more the better; but it’s not everybody’s thing, and I don’t want it to be a requirement for participation the game.

    Considerations At the Table

  24. It’s okay to take the game seriously.

  25. It’s also okay to not take the game seriously. The important thing is knowing when to do which. I will always try to create a coherent world that operates by a recognizable set of rules, but those rules will vary from world to world. The spooks in Ghostbusters are going to have a different level of “seriousness” from a cursed wraith in Dungeons & Dragons.

  26. “Spotlight Time” is the real currency of any game.

  27. The real currency of the game is not gold pieces or experience points, it’s each player’s “moment to shine” at the table, and that must be distributed equitably. What that moment is, will vary from player to player. Some players love to chat up NPCs. Some players want to kick butt in combat. Some players want to make the other players laugh at their corny jokes. As long as any given player’s desires don’t invalidate anyone else’s, there’s no reason not to try to make it happen. However…

  28. I am running for the group, not for any individual player.

  29. If this means saying, “Okay, that character goes off on their own adventure, please create a new character who will work with the group,” so be it. I will not start a session until the group has established a reason why the team exists and will work together. This can be as simple as “We are friends and want to go exploring” or “I own a ship and hired these guys to be my crew.”

  30. The players and the characters are reflections through a clouded mirror.

  31. (Also lifted from The Angry GM.) The characters are not direct reflections of the players. They do not have to say exactly the same things as each other. A character’s words and actions should be the players choices filtered through the lens of the world. But the characters and the players are reflections of each other at heart. If the players have stopped taking actions and are standing around talking, so are the characters. The characters may be saying different words and different characters may be contributing differently than the players are, but the characters and the players are having the same type of conversation about the same topic at the same time.

    This will vary depending on circumstances, of course. I don’t mind inter-player “coaching” as long as it’s reasonable, so even if your character is unconscious or dead, it’s perfectly okay to suggest another player use ability X on creature Y or whatever. “Shut up, you’re unconscious!” is not my thing.

  32. However: NPCs are speaking for themselves; they are not the GM wearing a mask.

  33. Like most humans, most NPCs are relatively honest, but there’s always the chance they may be wrong, they may be lying, or they may simply be making noise. But I’m not going to use NPCs to send you messages. As the GM, it’s my job to play “the rest of the world” based on what those people would do. If the barbarian hireling says “I’m bored, let’s go kill something,” it’s because the barbarian hireling is bored, not because I want to goad you into a fight scene.

  34. I will roll dice in the open.

  35. I used to be a big ol’ fudger; I have since come to the conclusion that far from “making the game more fun,” this actually hurts the game in the long run, because the players can never know if they overcame a challenge on their own merits, or because the referee was “home cooking.” This in turn leads to the assumption that the PCs will win or lose due to GM predestination, which puts me right back in the role of having “written” the story before the players ever get to the table.

  36. If there is a choice between the players rolling dice, or NPCs/monsters rolling dice, the players will roll the dice.

  37. This may give the players metagame knowledge their characters could not reasonably have; I will trust the players not to abuse this.

    For example, in a situation where the party is being tracked by a foe who intends to ambush them, rather than rolling the monster’s Stealth against the players’ passive Perception, I would instead say something like: “An owlbear has been stalking your party through the forest for an hour, and is closing in for the kill. Everyone make a Perception check against its Stealth to avoid surprise.” If the owlbear rolls really well and the players all roll badly the net result might be the same, but it will at least make the players active participants instead of simply receiving a bucket of damage out of the blue.

    Note that this doesn’t mean I never roll dice. I’m not going to have players “roll their AC against the monster’s attack” for instance.

  38. I will not show you things you can’t have, although it may require effort to acquire it.

  39. An artifact of the 3.x/PF system and its “magic economy” was that there were shops full of super-wifty magic items, that you could never be able to afford. The idea was supposed to be that you’d be inspired to go out and find treasure to get these things (and to restrict access to them until such time as they wouldn’t completely unbalance the game), but due to the “wealth-by-level guidelines,” the likelihood of finding the piles of money you’d need in any given adventure was vanishingly low.

    That sucks, and I don’t want it happening in my games. However, as some of my players want the option of being able to take their bulging sacks of treasure back to town and buy cool new toys, the 5E assumption of “no magic shops” also doesn’t solve the problem. To that end, I will include opportunities for these “candy store” moments, but not include things you just can’t have on the shopping list.

    This same principle holds true for other genres: if a player in a Star Wars game wants to get ahold of Boba Fett-style armor, I will find a way to make it available to them, and so forth. With the recognition that some players always just want MOAR BETTER STUFF, and that they may not always be the best judges of how it will impact a game, this may require metagame discussions to make sure the player’s wishes don’t interfere with the rest of the group’s or throw the campaign into disarray, etc. See also “I will try to run the game the players want to play” and “I’m running for the group, not any one player.”

  40. If it takes more than three sentences to describe your surroundings, I need to simplify.

  41. Honestly, this is a note to myself. I tend to go purple in my room descriptions when I’m at the computer, and then regret it at the table when I find myself reading walls o’ text out loud.

  42. I will override the game system if I feel there’s a compelling reason to do so.

  43. If you’re in a fight with something that has a giant bag of hit points but that cannot possibly escape its doom, I’ll just say, “Fine, four rounds later it’s dead,” rather than make you sit there rolling dice. If we’ve had a long, grueling session and we all just want to call it a night, I’m not going to mess with random encounters as you trudge back to town.

  44. I will allow group override.

  45. Similar to the point above, if everybody agrees that something sucks, I will allow it to be altered. If everybody agrees that something would be awesome, I will let it happen. Note that “everybody” includes me.

I think that’s everything? As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s questions, comments, or suggestions.

-The Gneech

[1] One of the most useful gaming blogs out there, along with Gnome Stew and a few others. His style is abrasive, which may or may not float your boat, but the content is rock solid.

the_gneech: (Legolas Aaah)

Dungeon of the BearSince I’m running a 5E adaptation of The Keep On the Borderlands, I was tempted to go EVEN MOAR OLDSCHOOL by following it up with a 5E adaptation of Dungeon of the Bear, the one really complete module (as opposed to solo adventure) released for Tunnels and Trolls. I’ve had this on my shelf for over 30 years, complete with my hand-scribbled notes in the margins from running Lee and Jamie through it in T&T a babillion years ago.

Like everything for Tunnels & Trolls, DotB not only embraces the abstract strangeness of dungeon delving, but revels in it. The dungeon is like an evil funhouse, where each room is its own strange thing that has little to do with the next room over– goblins here, vampires there, and a random trap that locks you in, floods the room, and fills it with piranha in the next.

But then, and this where it gets weird, DotB layers a backstory on top of that (written by Michael Stackpole back before he was the Michael Stackpole) and tries to pretend it makes sense. In days of yore, the backstory goes, in order to keep monsters from coming up out of the infamous Dungeon of the Bear and rampaging the countryside, a lord and his lady (who was a prodigious wizard) sealed it shut and built a castle over the entrance. But then, when they noticed that no more adventurers came down into the dungeon to get eaten, the monsters swarmed up and wiped out almost all the castle’s inhabitants. The only survivor was the wizard, who blasted them to bits and forced a retreat, then summoned demons to guard the various entrances, buried the dead (including her late lord), and left, never to return. So the first “level” of the dungeon is actually exploring the ruins of the castle and trying to figure out how to get into the Dungeon of the Bear proper.

Which, admittedly, sounds cool, and I wish I’d thought of that when running my original “Castle Strongstone” megadungeon back in the day. But when you then look at how the actual dungeon works… the story doesn’t make sense.

First of all, like I say, there’s no coherence to the monsters in the dungeon, especially on the upper levels. It’s a bunch of random traps and rooms that basically stand in stasis waiting for adventurers to arrive and be sprung. While there are larger and more organized groups of monsters in the lower levels who might go on the type of raid described in the backstory, there’s no way they could get to the dungeon entrance without setting off half the traps themselves!

Seriously, there is only one way to get up to the 1st level from the 2nd level, and it requires going through a room on a pivot that turns 90° when someone enters and releases a pack of hungry lions. (This might lead one to wonder, “How does a pack of lions survive in a 20′ x 30′ room for the hours/days/weeks/years between room pivotings?” The answer seems to be, “It’s just a dungeon, you should really just relax.”) So for the army of orcs down in the lower levels to swarm up into the keep, they have to pass through this damn swivel-room trap in small groups and deal with the lions, then work their way through the various catacombs without setting off any of the traps or getting attacked by vampires and so forth.

The only way it works as a narrative, short of assuming the entire dungeon is some mad god’s fever dream (which, admittedly, could be a good way to approach it), is to assume that the orcs are actually maintaining these traps… feeding the lions just enough to keep them alive, cleaning and oiling all the pivoting wall mechanisms and loaded crossbows hidden behind secret panels, and so on. But even that only just barely makes sense. If orcs only care about murder and plunder, what strange obsession is leading them to create these Rube Goldberg environments in the hopes that some adventurers will finally show up one day rather than, say, digging out another hole and raiding the countryside?

The answer, of course, is that Tunnels & Trolls is Heroic Fantasy by way of Saturday Morning Cartoon and trying to make sense of it is Doing It Wrong. But at the end of the day, this is another aspect of why the old school got old. If you’re going to expect players to use their wits to engage in the world in a way that makes sense, then the world itself has to make sense in return! The dungeon-as-a-boardgame model where each room is the next bit and the map of the location might as well be a flowchart of which puzzle comes next instead of depicting an actual place is fun for a while, but in my case at least leaves me wanting more.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Tunnels & Trolls when I was 14 and I do think compared to the wild flights of fancy it led to that there is a certain blandness (and lack of story innovation) to much of what’s floating around the RPG scene currently. But somewhere we’ve got to find a happy medium between “throw everything at the wall to see what schticks” and “repackaging TSR’s greatest hits– again.”

-The Gneech

the_gneech: (Conan Civilization Sucks)

Powers & Perils by Avalon HillDuring my preparations to run The Keep On the Borderlands I happened to remember that in my early days of gaming there was a game I’d see advertised in Dragon magazine that always intrigued me, but that I never heard of anyone actually playing, but I couldn’t remember what it was called.

It turns out the game was Avalon Hill’s Powers & Perils, and the reason I never heard of anyone actually playing it was that it wasn’t a very good game. “Feels as if it was written at gunpoint” is the most entertaining comment I found about it.

But the quest to remember the title led me to an online cache of PDFs of the first 15+ years of Dragon magazine, starting before I had really connected to the gaming community, and lasting well into the years in which I was a HERO System snob and would sniff disdainfully at the notion of playing so “mindless” a game as D&D.

Ugh. There are so many things I would like to slap Young Gneech for. 😛 But that’s not what this post is about.

The neat thing of it was, for me, watching the history of gaming unfold like time-lapse photography. Reading the early issues for the first time provided a lot of context I wish I’d had in the early days– but I never even saw an issue of Dragon until 1983 or so. Seeing defensive rants by Gary Gygax about what is “really” D&D or whether or not Tolkien should actually be considered an influence for the game was entertaining, but also helped me understand why gaming in general had the reputation it did. The letters in the magazine had the exact same psychology as your average internet comments section today, if at least with a profanity filter on, just in slow motion as arguments played out over months instead of hours.

And the game mechanics. Oh lord, the game mechanics. For all the OSR grognards praise “simplicity” and “light” rulesets? The actual old school had no such thing. There are articles with tables for rolling to see how many inches of rain your setting got that day. There are articles spanning two issues with very-slightly-different game stats for 25 different breeds of dogs.

Of course, gaming in those days was a boys’ club, and pretty much a white boys’ club at that. It wasn’t deliberately exclusionary, so much as just existing in a bubble formed by pop culture and socioeconomic circumstances. To be in the circles where RPGs were a thing you pretty much had to have a lot of free time, a certain amount of disposable wealth, and a particular type of eduction. Like the writer in Hollywood Shuffle who “learned about blacks from TV,” your average ’70s and ’80s gamer nerd wasn’t hostile to women, people of color, etc., so much as living in a world where anyone who wasn’t also a nerdy white male was viewed as a creature from another planet, strange and curious beings to be cataloged and categorized.

This led to things like the recurring proposals that “females” in any game should have reduced physical characteristics but enhanced social or appearance stats; or Oriental Adventures, an entire sub-line of D&D products that mashed together all of Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan history and culture into one tiny space and reduced them into “Shogun Meets Kung Fu Action Theater.” Again, usually not done with malice, just… myopia. [1]

There were things to love about the era, don’t get me wrong. I found myself repeatedly grinning in nostalgic glee when I ran into something I remembered fondly, such as the first advertisement for the Ghostbusters RPG, or a review of Sam and Max Hit the Road complaining about the fact that it couldn’t use the native speakers in a PC to at least make beeps and buzzes.

But I could clearly see, as time went on, the “Gygaxian” aesthetic (for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-mental-puzzle fading and the “Greenwoodian/Hickmanian” aesthetic (again for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-storytelling-vehicle rising in its place, and it was also clear to see why this was happening. If you didn’t share that very specific slide-rule-and-sneer mindset, the “old school” got old. How many times can you fight the same orcs before you’re sick of it? How many thieves can be disintegrated by pulling the wrong lever before the novelty wears off? The late ’80s and the ’90s brought the proliferation of the Universal RPG (GURPs, HERO), the storytelling game (Vampire: The Masquerade) and new campaign worlds to the slow-moving juggernaut of the industry, D&D, precisely because gamers were looking to take the hobby in new directions.

  • Ravenloft– “D&D meets Universal Horror!”

  • DragonlanceD&D as literary simulator!”

  • Darksun– “D&D goes post-apocalypse!”

  • Spelljammer– “D&D… in spaaaaaace!”

Honestly, I don’t think any but the cultiest of the OSR cult actually want the return of the “old school” days, so much as going through life with nostalgia-colored glasses and/or reacting to specific issues that have hit the hobby over the past decade or so. Because there’s a reason the old school got old! But that doesn’t mean we can’t pull out what was best about it and bring that forward. There wouldn’t be the awesomely fun hobby we have now, if there hadn’t been those table-cross-referencing ubernerds back then.

-The Gneech

[1] When you consider that women had roughly equal chances of showing up as “witch,” “coquettish damsel,” “vampy sex demon,” “nude tied to a pole,” or “competent adventurer,” it can be hard to tell where myopia ends and malice begins. Certainly only having a one-in-six chance of not sucking is not a great place for female characters to be, but consider that most villains and just about every monster or dumb thug was male. The real problem wasn’t so much that women were badly portrayed, as just plain rare, and especially rare in a way that didn’t treat women as basically vehicles for their own breasts.

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: (Default)

ME: “You open the door and see– 200 orcs!”

JAMIE: “I shut the door!”

D&D session, c. 1983-1984


Working on my 5E Keep On the Borderlands conversion last night, I put in a room that’s CR 13. That is to say, it’s “a good fight” for a party of 13th level characters. Just, y’know, sitting there, where a first level party could easily just waltz into it. And this is an introductory module! Y’know, for people who’ve never played the game before.

Now I see why this module has so many tales of TPKs associated with it! If you blunder into the Caves of Chaos “room by room” style, you’re gonna get killed. But of course, that’s how ol’ Gary liked it. Master Gygax had very exacting standards of what constituted “good play” or “bad play,” and his view was that player characters, especially at low levels, were disposable, like lives in a video game. Bob the First (level one fighter) gets killed? You roll up the next one and try again. The fact that Bob the Second instinctively knows that the bugbears have placed a deadfall trap behind the door to their cave doesn’t matter. Besides, Bob was smart enough to hire NPCs (doubtless wearing red shirts) to bring along and go first, right?

So yeah, there’s a CR 13 room just sitting in the Caves of Chaos, minding its own business. The thing of it is, you’re not intended to wade into the room, any more than Bilbo pulled out his sword and assaulted Goblin Town. The Caves are not a series of set piece encounters to be “beaten,” they’re a dangerous environment in which the PCs become wild cards in the ongoing situation.

Basically, Keep On the Borderlands is Yojimbo, with orcs. A lot of Gary Gygax’s adventures particularly are like this, the most famous example being The Temple of Elemental Evil, where the monsters are powerful and numerous but broken into factions, and crafty players can use that to their advantage.

But the adventure doesn’t tell you this other than a throwaway paragraph buried in some establishing text, and certainly doesn’t tell the newbie players who have just strapped on their swords and learned their first magic missile and are eager to smite the badguys. There are no guardrails, and nothing like the modern concepts of “encounter balance” to provide a safety net. The Caves of Chaos are dangerous, and it is assumed that not everyone will be coming home.

I wonder how many modern gamers, reared on strings of perfectly-balanced-encounters, walk into this module and just get creamed. “The DM wouldn’t put something down here we weren’t intended to fight” definitely does not apply to 1E modules. Which honestly? I kinda like– but it’s a dangerous way to run the game. Lots of players don’t want to take “no” for an answer, and lots of players don’t seem to be able to sense when they’re in over their heads… and lots of players get really bummed when their character dies. And honestly, as the DM I get bummed too. I’ve killed my share of player characters over the years and I’m usually very reluctant to do so, but you just can’t always pull their fat out of the fire. (I’m looking at you, Jamie.)

The thing of it is, within the context of Keep On the Borderlands, this CR 13 room is there for a perfectly good reason, balance be damned. I’m not an OSR grognard who wants those damn ’90s kids to get off my lawn, but I will say that the 1E mindset was a lot more flexible in this regard. “Why are there 40 orcs in this cave?” “Because communal living makes sense for cave-based nomads.” “But an encounter like that will slaughter six PCs!” “So be it. Maybe the PCs shouldn’t go in there.”

A more modern adventure might still have those 40 orcs, but they’d be in eight rooms with five orcs each instead of all in one giant pit. (Well, no, now I think of it, modern design would consider that monotonous. There’d be 16 orcs in four rooms with four orcs each plus a boss with a fire drake. But I digress.) That one relatively minor shift in scenario design philosophy makes a big difference, tho! Small clusters of enemies, you can take on in bunches at your own pace, are easy pickings for players with a modicum of tactical sense. 40 orcs, all on alert that surface invaders are in their caves? You might want to run. Or at least wait until you can come back with a fireball or two at your disposal.

I can’t honestly say how I would have run this adventure “back in the day,” I never tried. I was nine when I first read Keep On the Borderlands and its subtexts and design ramifications were lost on me, but it did inform my own “Castle Strongstone” dungeon design, including Jamie’s infamous 200 orcs encounter. Running this as an adult with more sophisticated sensibilities, the dungeon looks like a very different place to me. But in a strangely Campbellian way, it’s kind of neat to have come back around to it.

-The Gneech

the_gneech: (Boromir battle)
Okay, it's not that dark. And it's also not that secret. But here it is anyway:

I don't want to be the DM.

I mean, I do sometimes, sure. I've been a DM fairly regularly since 1981 or so, so I must get something out of it. I even have a Gamemastering Credo. But the thing is, the reason I'm usually the DM is not because that's what I want out of the game.

The reason is that if I don't DM, there is no game.

Like, almost ever. I have played in a few games, including a few run by [ profile] jamesbarrett that actually spanned more than three levels. But not often, and rarely with sustain.

The reason I bring this up is because I spent the past week working on my Keep On the Borderlands conversion, and I put some thought yesterday toward how it could be built on if the group gels and people really get into it, etc.

Then I remembered my binder full of stuff for Secrets of Thunderdelve and how much of that never saw the light of day, and all the plot threads I put in to hint at adventures the characters would someday get to as they levelled up and so forth... and then Jamie's work schedule went south and we moved to Maryland and everything just fell apart. Again.

Blugh. I don't want to go through all that again. Especially not for what was supposed to be a throwaway game to teach Seifer how to play. Maybe I can pull stuff out of it to use again? I probably should have just figured out some interesting stuff for 1st level characters to do on the Silver Coast instead of Keep On the Borderlands anyway.

Meanwhile, I've got folders full of PCs I've never played, or only played in very small chunks; and for that matter I've got a certain drow bard I'm very very fond of and want to play more, but despair that I ever will.

I wonder if I should just suck it up, go find the nearest Adventurer's League location, and take what I can get. It's not the same experience as gaming with your friends, but it is at least gaming... and (theoretically at least) it would be with someone else behind the screen.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Legolas Nah)

The quickie teach-newbies-D&D game I was planning to start this weekend got bumped to next weekend, which actually helps because there’s a bit more work in converting The Keep on the Borderlands to (what I consider) a playable 5E adventure than you might think. Just going through and giving the NPCs names rather than THE CASTELLAN and THE CURATE is a fair amount of work. On the other hand, last night I had a sudden inspiration as to what the “Caves of Chaos” were actually all about (and why there is effectively an apartment complex with six different types of humanoids all living together), and suddenly the adventure goes from THE MOST GENERIC D&D CRAWL EVER[1] to actually having a theme and potential for cool stories.

Milk Run Or Meat Grinder?

I’m a little concerned about the difficulty scale. KotB was designed to take characters from roughly 1-3 in the original “basic” D&D, in which thieves levelled up fairly fast and wizards levelled up glacially slow etc. You could expect the overall level of the party to remain stable at a given level through several sessions. Modern games pretty much have everyone progress at the same pace, and that pace is mighty fast at low level. If I put in encounters that are balanced for 1st level characters, they’ll be like tissue paper just a few sessions in when the characters have all jumped to 3rd.

That’s not a problem per se– with a good mix of encounters it’s not a problem if the party blows through some of them– but it is something I have to be aware of. In a sandbox environment (which KotB mostly is, albeit a small one), there’s a real danger of the players getting in way over their heads. Play reports from KotB across all editions are rife with stories of TPKs or near-TPKs, because the party killed a couple of goblins, got cocky, and suddenly found themselves facing 20 more when the alarm went up.

(Yeah, pretty sure everyone in the party was at least 3rd level by that point.)

I recently read a blog post in which the author opined that D&D can basically be played two ways: first is a group of stalwart adventurers slaughtering monsters and reaping great rewards, while the second is a black comedy in which a bunch of ne’er do wells throw themselves into deathtraps, get slaughtered in horrifying ways, and occasionally escape with a few bits of gold to show for it. Modern D&D, the theory goes, aims more for the former, while old-school D&D was more of the latter.

I don’t entirely buy this– I played old-school D&D when it was still pretty young school and while we did have some entertainingly horrific character deaths (“eaten alive by mutant cannibal smurfs” is one that made a lasting impression), it wasn’t quite the meat grinder it’s sometimes made out to be. Maybe it was just our group, but I remember the general consensus was that if you were in a game where the DM was eager to kill the characters, it meant the DM was an ass and you just didn’t play in that game again. [2]

Finding Traps: Pick a Skill Already! And Other Concerns

I love 5E. Like, really love it. It plays fast, furious, and fun in a way I haven’t really seen since Tunnels and Trolls, but is rigorous enough that it has meat to latch onto for building unique and interesting characters, scenarios, and challenges.

However, as with all new editions, it has its rough spots. It still doesn’t quite know what to do with rogues, for instance. I’ve talked before about the rogue problem, and while 5E does bring back Thieves’ Cant, it has decoupled burglary from the rogue class entirely, putting that stuff mostly in the realm of “thieves’ tools proficiency,” and keeping the rogue class as a situational damage dealer. (What that means is that anyone who wants to learn the tool proficiency can be the party trap-disarmer and chest-unlocker, which is part of 5E’s “party role not required class” philosophy, and that part is actually fine, thumbs up!)

In their apparent rush to put something in for thieves to do, without really having much in the way of a solution to the rogue problem, they have left a lot of the whole traps and locked doors bit with very sketchy implementation at best. Random dungeon hazards have a Perception DC that compares not to the characters’ check, but to their passive Perception check. So… the characters either always pass or always fail? What’s the point of that? As a DM, creating adventures for your own party, you know what the characters’ passive Perception is. If you assign a DC, you already know if the characters will pass or fail. It’s silly.

Then there’s the Perception vs. Investigation thing. On p. 178 of the Players Handbook, under Investigation, it says “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check. You might deduce the location of a hidden object, discern from the appearance of a wound what kind of weapon dealt it, or determine the weakest point in a tunnel that could cause it to collapse.” That, combined with the fact that the Starter Set pregen rogue had proficiency with Investigation and not Perception, suggests that Investigation is the intended skill for searching for traps, right?

Except right next to that is a sidebar called “Finding a Hidden Object,” in which it clearly says, “When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or a trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check. Such a check can be used to find hidden details or other information and clues that you might otherwise overlook.”

So… you make a Perception check to spot details, and then an Investigation check to interpret them? I can see that being worth the effort for some “the entire room is a giant deathtrap” puzzle, but for every locked door and chest?

In my games I tend to split the difference– if there is a spottable trap (e.g., a trapdoor or a pressure plate), I set the DC and tell the players “You’ve walked into a trap. Make a Perception check to see if you spotted it in time!” If the trap is hidden in a mechanism (such as a locked chest) or if the characters are actively on the lookout for it rather than “passively perceiving,” so to speak, I call for an Investigation check. It annoys me that a system that was famously publicly playtested for two years still requires house-ruling like that, but nothing’s perfect.

Magic Item Construction Rules– As In, There Aren’t Any

This is an interesting divide. One of my players has been very disappointed in the way 5E not only “doesn’t really have” magic item construction guidelines, but at how it was deliberately removed from the game as a going concern.

What interests me most about this is that when 5E came out, this was something that a lot of people in the discussions I followed stood up and cheered about. “Goodbye to the Magic Shop Economy, and good riddance!” about summed it up. Reasons for this varied from “It sucks all the mystery out of magic items!” to “Conan never went to a magic shop!” to “Hooray, I don’t have to math-check another twinked out game-breaking magic item again!”

For myself, I didn’t have such strong feelings on the matter. I did think the whole magic item economy contributed to the ever-increasing rules overhead of the 3.x/PF era, but I also understood the reasoning that went into it. If your campaign didn’t assume “build a keep and retire” as the characters’ endgame, and didn’t have built-in money sinks like paying for training to raise levels (both of which were pretty much gone by the end of 2E), well you had to have something to spend all that gold on, and effectively having magic items as their own progression/character customization track would seem to kill two birds with one stone.

On the other hand, once upon a time DMs stocked dungeons with magic fountains that made weapons do double damage, or randomly turned characters into bugbears, and “game balance” wasn’t even an issue. When did we all get so obsessed with finely-tuned math within a game that’s theoretically all about letting your imagination run wild?

In any case, Josh (the player in question) not only did not stand up and cheer, he considers the lack of a robust magic item creation system to be a major failing on the part of 5E, and his reasoning is sound. Having a system spelled out in black-and-white removes a lot of the vagaries of system mastery. “Is ‘vorpal’ a game-breaking property at 3rd level? Well it adds +10,000 gp to the price, and that’s more money than the entire party has put together at the moment, so yeah, it must be. On the other hand, ‘shock’ only adds +3,000, so it must be legit.”

It also means the player has more control over how their character develops. If your whole character concept is based around having a Captain America-style shield that you can throw around and bang off mooks’ heads, you don’t have to hope you get lucky and the DM stocks one in the dungeon somewhere, you just save up your gold until you can afford to buy the thing.

And finally, as already alluded to, it gives the characters something to do with all that treasure they cart home from the dungeon! Josh particularly spoke in glowing terms of that moment of striding into town with bags full of gold itching to be spent and seeing what could be done with it, something I refer to as the Candy Store moment. And honestly, I can totally see that, although it also has the darker side of the “high level item tease,” where vorpal swords are there on the theoretical shelf, but you’ll never be able to afford one.

I don’t think this is an issue with a “right” or “wrong” answer, just preferences. MMOs and similar games particularly have made the gear-as-progression model a style that people are used to and expect, whereas someone coming from an era in which finding a +1 sword was notable, but you could also randomly become immune to all poisons because you kissed the statue of a goddess, is going to be a lot more comfortable with (or at least resigned to) DM fiat.

I’m working on ways to split the difference– I want to give Josh his Candy Store moments, but I also don’t want to have to retro-fit the magic item economy back into the game. I’ve set up a potential “magic shop” situation in my Keep On the Borderlands adaptation, but it’s hidden and will take some digging to find it, even assuming the characters manage to amass enough loot to make buying magic items a feasible concern.

In any case, hoping for some fun. If the game takes off, maybe I’ll pull out The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and let the players argue over how that’s supposed to be pronounced. 😉

-The Gneech

[1] This is not a criticism, it was written in 1978? 79? to be an introductory module teaching would-be DMs the basics of adventure structure, and giving would-be players a taste of how the game was supposed to go. Its very existence pushed the envelope of D&D, the design within didn’t have to. Today’s equivalent is the Lost Mine of Phandelver, from the 5E Starter Set. But half the group just went through that in my game, I can’t just run that one again!

[2] Unless the adventure in question was The Tomb of Horrors, but even back in the day that was pretty clearly its own distinct experience compared to regular campaign gaming. I met a few DMs who seemed to think ToH was what every adventure should be all the time. I didn’t stay in their games.

the_gneech: (Boromir battle)

I’ve working on a little filler game of D&D, and I’ve run into an interesting little wrinkle this time around, in which a couple of the players want outside-the-box options, like moreso than usual. And while I’m happy to oblige, even if it makes more work for me, it has led me to some interesting thoughts on the role a character’s “kit” (or the abilities provided by their race/class combination) plays in the broader metagame considerations.

One of the players wants a 3rd-party race whose signature bit is wings. The ability to fly, especially at low levels, is one that tends to generate a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in D&D, because so much of what happens on a tactical level is dependent on your interactions with the map. A character who can fly bypasses pits, ignores difficult terrain, can go right over climbing/jumping obstacles, etc. This is expected behavior for 5th+ level heroes, but completely negates a lot of the initial “just learning to survive” challenges that 1st level heroes are expected to face. This is a powerful signature bit– but at the same time, 5E has an underlying philosophy of “let the players do the cool thing,” and so do I, so we bashed around the ability a bit until we got to a state where it was useful and cool but not game-breaking.

Another player, basically wants MMO-style crafting (which is an issue the same player was having in my regular campaign). Magic item creation rules are something that existed in 3.x/PF, but are conspicuously absent in 5E, and I think the real reason for that is that it creates a lot of “rules overhead” for the DM compared to the actual amount of use it’s likely to see at the table. Crafting of any kind (including the spaceship building rules from Traveller, the Summoner class from Pathfinder, or all the everything of Champions) is a fun game-within-the-game for a non-trivial segment of the gaming population, made of up mathy engineery geeks who love having systems to stress and break– but it’s something of a headache for everyone who isn’t among their number.

For this player, I suggested the Artificer class. This adds the crafting subsystem that they want, and makes it their “cool thing.” In my e-mail discussions with the player, I explained my thinking thus:

[5E is] written primarily to make life easier for the GM after decades of rules-heavy systems. (And really, the entirety of the OSR is kind of a reaction to the same issues.) GMs spend so much time coming up with NPCs, scenarios, neat images, etc., that they often don’t have the mental bandwidth to spend lots of time on system mastery beyond what’s absolutely necessary for the immediate task in front of them. Detailed magic item creation rules in that context only exist to keep the players from running amok and spamming the world with vorpal swords. The GM doesn’t need any such stuff.

I think we’ve talked before about how the real currency in any tabletop game is “face time”– i.e., who gets to do the cool thing when, and how often? To that end, I’d say, if you want crafting and fiddling around with the ins and outs of your items be what time in the game is spent on, that’s fine, but that should be where your character’s mechanics are (hence pointing at the artificer class). Somebody who doesn’t care about crafting and just wants to punch badguys, makes a fighter. Someone who wants to engage in all the social stuff, makes a bard. Their class choice defines how and where their face time will be spent. Adding on a whole subsystem to a game that only one player really gets into, while they also get the face time benefits of another class, is where the real “imbalance” would start to come in.

This led me to thinking in broader terms of a character’s kit, and how the choices a player makes when creating their character really inform the game that you will actually be playing once the group comes together. The character’s kit is where the concept (“a heroic warrior” or “a wily rogue” or whatever) interface with the game construct (the numbers you have to roll on the dice to achieve your desired story goals), and point to the sort of things the player wants to be spending their time in the game doing. The problem comes when your player’s mechanical choices don’t synch with what they actually seem to want to do.

In a game I had some time ago, I had a player who had a tendency to want their character to be able to fill every role all the time. Said player made a rogue who would immediately run up to the biggest monster in the fight and try to tank it; the same player made an archery-based ranger who was forever wading into melee, and a mad scientist in Deadlands who kept getting into one-on-one gunfights. In short, he wanted to be the one Doing The Cool Thing all the time, regardless of what his character’s abilities actually were.

This just doesn’t work in a group game, and in fact will pretty much always backfire. I kept trying to throw “Here’s your chance to do the Cool Thing!” moments at the player, but their character was either engaged elsewhere in a losing battle that didn’t match their kit… or dead, because they’d brought a rapier to a greataxe fight. When you build a character, you have to commit to putting that character into situations where they’ll be playing to their strengths! You also have to be able to sit back and applaud when some other player is doing Their Cool Thing. If you’re a rogue, and the group is being swarmed by zombies? That means it’s the cleric’s turn to do the Cool Thing. You’ll get your chance in the Chamber of Deathtraps.

Similarly, when building a character, think about what you want to be doing in the game and build a character to suit. If you know you want to be up front cleaving your foes and sucking up damage, then you should probably play a barbarian, not a bard. If you want to dynamically mess around with your character’s kit and have a something in your pocket for every challenge, you should probably play a wizard so you can tweak your spell selection. If you want to be Indiana Jones/Lara Croft, play a rogue, not a cleric. Think about what your character’s Cool Thing is, and build your character’s kit around that. (And let the other members of the group have their own Cool Thing. It’s not always your moment to shine!)

-The Gneech


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