I was supposed to run D&D last night but for various reasons (mostly related to insomnia) I hadn't had time to finish prepping. My game is at a particularly lore-intensive moment right now, and while monster encounters and action scenes are fairly easy to run off the cuff, getting the world right requires a little thinking ahead.
Luckily inkblitz stepped in with a fun little side-trip adventure for his game. Following last week's goblin-and-dragon-hunting jaunt, the party was in Greenfork, flush with cash. Kihai, raised in the desert by his semi-nomadic Tabaxi kinfolk and now a wandering monk, had never had as much as a hundred and thirty REAL gold pieces and immediately bought himself a fancy hat, a statue of the Cat Lord (actually just a cat-motif doorstop), and a bunch of other useless junk... most of which his Aunt Graycape immediately forced him to return, although she did insist he keep a platinum earring. (Little did he know that she was using the earring as part of a warding bond spell.)
( The otherwise-placid morning was interrupted by... )
It was a fun session! Kihai is such a lovable little doofus that he's just as much fun when he fails at things as when he succeeds, although I still get frustrated at the way the dice tend to hobble things I should be good at. (Kihai has a high Dex and Wis, but rarely rolls higher than 6 or 8 on checks involving those. On the other hand, when asked for Investigation checks, at which he has -1, he rolls 18s. Go fig.) Blitzy has a good eye for a fun scenario, and the group did a little better at working together instead of at cross-purposes this time. The detail of the apprentice recognizing the bear's cloak, which I was just going on about for RP silliness, was a nice touch.
So, good game. :) And, as Blitzy has officially set his campaign in Orbis Leonis, it gave me some fodder for next week's session as well. I'll be back in the DM saddle then, by hook or by crook.
 Immediately mangled to "Sheepbright," because Kihai seems to have difficulty getting people's names right.
 "It goes with the hat!"
 Kihai, being an elemental monk, can create small flame/air/water/earthy effects, but he has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to arcana, so he just made up a bunch of nonsensical junk. He's also a very bad bluffer. "I am the Great and Powerful Kihai! Kamazotz! Yakka-maraca!" But they never really expected the deception to last. They made it past the guards and got the door open, and that was a success.
 Which she actually managed to roll almost the minimum damage on (4d6 for 1, 1, 1, 2), but it was still enough!
Last night was the second session of inkblitz's D&D "off-game." Set in an out-of-the-way village named Greenfork, the adventure was a fairly straightforward campaign-starter type. Goblins have raided the village and kidnapped the miller's daughter, so a band of off-kilter newbie heroes head off to rescue her. The party consists of:
- Qiphina, a halfling wizard specializing in divination (but who didn't get the chance to do much divining)
- Lindhardt McGimm, a dwarf fighter with an axe in one hand and a hammer in the other
- Kihai, a tabaxi monk made of cheerful
- Graycape, a tabaxi cleric who is made of the opposite of cheerful and is Kihai's aunt and reluctant guardian angel
- Sequoia, an unreasonably tall human druid (gonna guess he's played by Liam Neeson), and
- Ixy the Fantabulous, a gnome bard who loves to strum his lute (not a euphemism) talk about his family
The first session took us to the goblin lair. On the way we did battle with an ill-tempered water snake and encountered a high-level wizard named Thorn, who entreated us, if we were going to go poking around the goblin hole, to look for a "round stone artifact."
( The goblin hole itself... )
That ended the first session, with everyone gaining enough XP to hit second level. A very nice +1 Wisdom helmet recovered from the goblin leader was given to Sequoia, as it bumped his Wis bonus up.
The party followed the old forest trail west, heading for the ruins to which the dragon had relocated. Suddenly Thorn popped up out of the trees to check in. The party informed him that his "round artifact" was not recoverable because it had hatched, to which he replied that he'd suspected it would. When they demanded to know why he hadn't mentioned that it was a dragon egg, he replied that he wasn't sure at the time.
They gave him the egg fragments (and the side-eye) and carried on. ( Further into the woods... ) The party wished the
Loose Ends for Future Tying
There are many questions to be answered, of course. Where is Scintillax from? He's clearly not a normal dragon. Is he a mutation? An experiment? His egg was acquired by the goblins after they wiped out the kobolds who initially occupied the cave, right? Since many kobolds worship dragons, could it be part of some larger kobold plan? Or the Cult of the Dragon? Scintillax's multi-colored nature points towards Tiamat.
Who were the glowy magic guys, and how did they come into existence? They referred to Scintillax as "the master" and were perusing high-level magics. One assumes that they were also the ones leaving notes around and complaining about goblins making off with the mask fragments. What's their deal?
Who the heck is Thorn? We gambled on the hope that he's basically good and that he and Scintillax will happily geek out over each other for the next hundred years, but we don't actually know anything about him except that he isn't exactly the bravest of wizards. He could be a Dragon Cultist himself for all we know.
Blitzy the DM, and Inter-Player Dynamics
For a first-time DM dealing with six particularly headstrong players, Blitzy did a great job! As a long-time DM myself there were spots where I would have handled things differently, but I did my best to keep my mouth shut and not cramp his style. Right now he's leaning quite a bit on the written adventure, but that's to be expected from someone learning the ropes. Given that our plan of "throw Thorn at the dragon" was completely from left field and apparently not addressed in the adventure, he did a good job of taking the narrative ball and running with it instead of just shutting it down because it wasn't "the right answer."
In terms of not cramping someone's style, however, I do need to be better about that in re: laurie_robey's wizard. Out of a desire to do something other than spam ray of frost there were a few times when she wanted to pull out burning hands or something else and Jamie and I both were like, "Save that for the dragon or multiple targets!" I was trying to be helpful, but really I shoulda just shut up and let her play the character the way she wanted. So, I apologize for that. Wizards aren't really her bag, but she ended up the wizard in this game because nobody else had claimed the role.
This particular party hasn't really pulled into a cohesive shape yet. Ixy wants to just go off and do his thing, Graycape wants to go off and do her thing in the opposite direction, Kihai wants to talk to all the things, Lindhardt wants to fight all the things. Qiphina and Sequoia don't seem to have an agenda other than "try to find some way to be useful," but that leads to them being overshadowed by the more aggressive players.
Every group goes through this, and every campaign even within the same group goes through this. It's a normal process, but it can be bumpy.
But the game was a lot of fun, and I am really eager to continue! I'll be back in the DM chair for the next session either way, tho. The characters are rich, and at one of the major dwarven cities of the world. Time for shopping! And backstory-revealing!
"Actually, we're stopping there," said Kihai, with a cheerful flick of an ear. "They need our help."
"Do they," said the caravan leader, not the slightest bit interested.
"See?" said Kihai, holding up a reward poster.
"Aye," said Graycape with a sardonic smirk. "We came all the way from the great desert, just to help a podunk little village with some pesty goblins. No quest too insignificant!"
The caravan leader raised an eyebrow at the older catfolk. Kihai gave a sheepish chuckle. "Not exactly. We were in the neighborhood anyway. We left the desert because our clan was conquered by one of the tabaxi lords."
"Not the same as the Cat Lord," said Kihai. "He's okay."
"Tabaxi lords are foul things," snarled Graycape. "Massive, demonic beasts, like a jaguar from hell. Easily the size of your horse. Cruel. Twisted. Infused with dark powers." She narrowed her eyes and leaned in to the caravan leader. "They feed on your soul," she hissed. The caravan leader gulped.
"Yeah, they're not nice," said Kihai. "The tabaxi lord killed or drove away any of the clan who resisted. Like my parents. There was just no way to stop him."
Graycape's ears dipped at Kihai's mention of his parents. The boy had said it simply, without hint of anger or grief, as casually as describing the weather. She added, "Eh, the desert was a dump anyway. We lived under ramadas and hunted antelopes with spears."
"I liked it," said Kihai.
"You like every place."
"Places are neat!"
Graycape waved a hand at Kihai and gave the caravan leader a look that said You see what I have to deal with?
"The young, eh?" said the caravan leader.
Graycape put a weary claw to her forehead. "You have no idea. I have followed this cub across half a continent, chasing every butterfly, every 'exciting tale,' and every shiny thing. I should be in a rocking chair by a hearth, not tromping down into goblin holes!"
"I just like to help!" said Kihai.
"I know, I know," said Graycape.
"Right, well like I say, we'll be at Greenfork tomorrow," said the caravan leader. "If you'll excuse me, I need to see to the horses."
"Oh! Oh! I'll help with that!" said Kihai, and hopped to his feet.
The caravan leader gave Kihai a warm smile. "Thanks, kid," he said, and the two walked off towards the horses. Graycape watched them go, with a flick of her tail. Her sister had "liked to help," too.
Assassin's Kitty, by Hax
So inkblitz is running a D&D game on Saturday and I am super-jazzed. We have six players, but strangely no rogue (closest thing is a gnome bard who takes after Baron Munchausen). But while I had a fairly decent idea for a halfling rogue "gentleman thief" type, I was suddenly grabbed by the idea of a pacifistic tabaxi elemental monk ("Aang with cat ears," as Blitzy referred to him), and Kihai sprung into existence.
None of us have played a 5E monk yet, so it should be interesting! (We did have a few pop up in the 3.x days, including one who was a monk/cleric with a phobia of undead based on Jackie from The Jackie Chan Adventures and ran around saying "Bad day! Bad day!" whenever undead showed up, and another who wore a tuxedo and a bowler hat and considered himself to be the paladin's butler whether the paladin liked it or not.)
However! The more I looked into the Way of the Four Elements archetype for the monk, the more concerned I got. The play reports had a recurring refrain of "It looks great on paper, but it's pretty meh in actual play. To use any elemental ability, they have to blow all their ki points, leaving them as a TWF rogue without the mobility." That, combined with only getting one elemental ability to choose from every 3-4 levels, leaves them nerfed compared even to other monks (Way of the Open Hand abilities enhance flurry of blows, for instance, so that's ki you were going to spend anyway, just made better). In short, the W4E monk's elemental abilities come at the cost of his monk abilities, rather than supplementing them.
Poking around the internet found a popular community remix of the archetype, and I floated this to Blitzy as a possibility. He expressed concern that it might be overboard, and the more I dug into it, the more I agreed with him. The addition of cantrips and the expanded roster of abilities was good, and the lowered ki costs certainly made the class more useful in a sustained encounter. But a lot of the revised elemental disciplines are just broken, giving monk unarmed attacks range for free, or knocking down foes without so much as a saving throw, and so on. By the time I had finished going through it all, I knew that this was something I wouldn't be inclined to allow as a DM, and as such is not something I would feel good about using as a player.
The real problem, more than anything, is that the Way of Four Elements monk wants to be a semi-spellcaster, like the Eldritch Knight or Arcane Trickster, but for whatever reason, the devs at WotC wanted them to burn up ki instead of just getting spell slots. They're kinda mum of this particular topic, but what hints they've given (through tweets responding to player question and the like) is that they feel like W4E monk abilities are too broad unless you take a serious nerfhammer to them– which is why Shadow Monk spells of the same level as the W4E monk cost less ki.
(This is a little bonkers, IMO. The whole point of spell levels is that they are already balanced relative to each other. If one 3rd level spell is "too broad" compared to another, then that should be a 4th level spell, duh. And if that was the case, why do the play reports of W4E monks have this recurring refrain of "limited"? But devs are gonna dev. )
Looking at the problem from that angle, I decided to see if I could find a version of the class that does the sensible thing and "eldritch knights the elemental monk." I found a homebrew Way of the Elements archetype that does just that, floated it by Blitzy, and he approved it. We hashed out a couple of tweaks to bring back some of the more flavorful bits of the W4E monk and/or make it work better in Hero Lab (my character-building tool of preference), and I think this is just about perfect. I hung a lampshade on the whole thing by calling it the Way of the Elemental Avatar, and Kihai is ready to go!
( Mechanical stuff hidden to spare your feed. )
Thoughts and Observations
What I like most about this version is that it adds a lot more flexibility to the class, without necessarily making it more "powerful." A W4E monk from the PHB who takes "Shape the Flowing River" as their one elemental discipline at 3rd level is instantly screwed if the campaign heads off to the desert, for instance. This version doesn't have to spend their lives hoping that their particular corner case finally comes up.
Separating the monk's ki abilities and spell slots also enables the monk to do their flashy bender-ey stuff without giving up their monk-ish mobility. But they don't get a ton of spell slots, and burning ki to get more is so expensive that even at higher levels it's not something they'll just do all the time. I mean, theoretically a 20th level monk could burn through all their ki and all their slots to cast burning hands twenty-one times in a row, which is a little nuts, but that would only make sense in a scenario where the monk is facing down an army of kobolds or something. In that same scenario, a wizard is gonna be spamming fireball or cloudkill to much greater effect.
As an "off-rogue, off-spellcaster, mook-slaying machine of a controller," I think this version will work well. :)
In terms of round-by-round, 5E is great. It doesn’t have the grind-grind-grind problem of 3.x/PF, nor the “everybody is a sorcerer” problem of 4E (which, I’m told, also gets ridiculously grindy in short order).
But structurally, in terms of encounter building and monster design (and how that ties in with rest and advancement), I feel like it still has problems.
The Resource Management Game Nobody Plays
The “15-minute workday” is still a thing in 5E. The game is balanced around the notion that every two encounters (or so) the characters will take a short rest, and that after their sixth encounter of the day they’ll take a long rest.
In order for that to work, most of the individual encounters need to not be that tough. The party uses a big spell in one, the fighter loses some hit points in the next, and so on, but they can soldier on through. Because no one encounter is likely to wreck the party, they can keep on going until they’re out of Adventure Fuel (i.e., hit points and spells), and then recharge with a long rest.
The problem there is that, narrative wise, this can get real boring. If the stakes are that low for almost every encounter, and you have limited game time, there is a strong desire to “skip to the encounter that actually matters.”
So there is a strong inclination to beef up individual encounters, so that each one feels more significant. Instead of six rooms with six orcs each, the party finds three rooms with twelve orcs each. (Of course, in a well-built dungeon, there’ll be more variety than that. But you get the idea.)
But! When confronted with tougher encounters, players inevitably go nuclear on them– the wizard opens every fight with a fireball, the fighter uses their action surges, etc.– and it makes perfect sense for them to do so. The players don’t know how tough the encounter is or isn’t, or what the GM might have up their sleeve. Better to blast the hell out of everything and be reasonably sure you got it all, than to get one-punched by something without ever getting a spell off.
And what do players do after they’ve gone nuclear? They want a long rest to recharge! If that means backing out of the entire dungeon and coming back the next day to take it one room at a time? That’s what they’ll do.
Fighters get the shaft in a situation like this– their strength relative to magic-users is they can keep fighting all day without expending resources. But if the wizard gets recharged every time, the endurance of martial classes is irrelevant. (This is why everyone was a sorcerer in 4E.) Action surges and stuff like that make fighters a little more bursty to compensate, and of course 5E rogues are OP no matter how you slice it, so it’s not as bad as it was in 3.x/PF, but it’s still a thing.
The NERF™ Monster Manual
My campaign currently has a very large party. Six PCs, plus 1-3 NPCs of varying power levels depending on the scenario. This utterly breaks the action economy as it is, but even moreso once Bounded Accuracy comes into play.
Far from making it so that “even goblins can stay viable threats,” with a party this size B.A. makes it so that “even dragons are never a viable threat.” ;P In my last session, the 5th level party went into a fight with three wights and six zombies, and didn’t break a sweat. They were a little annoyed at the way the zombies kept standing back up again… but it wasn’t scary, so much as a nuisance.
Dammit, I want wights to be scary. -.-
When you have an edition in which levels 1-2 are pretty much intended to be skipped, but 60% of the monsters are CR 3 or lower, you end up with things like this. When you then combine NERF™ monsters with beefed up encounters, you suddenly have 5th level parties facing beholders. Combat then becomes very, very swingy, a game of rocket tag in which the only roll that matters is “initiative.”
Not great for “heroic fantasy” style gameplay. Also not great when the players have six chances to roll higher initiative than the monsters. ;P (Savage Worlds, a game that deliberately has rocket tag combat, also makes you check initiative fresh at the beginning of each round to at least add a little more uncertainty to this.)
Encounter Inflation and XP
The other danger of beefed up encounters, using the default assumptions of XP and level advancement, is that characters get beefed up XP, which in turn makes them advance faster, and the whole thing just explodes geometrically.
This can be avoided by decoupling XP from monster CR (or at least minimizing it), which a lot of my favorite RPGs of the past did by default. The HERO System for instance gave a pretty flat “3 XP per session, +/- 1-2 points for dull/easy or awesome/tough sessions.” You could (and our group often did) go through whole sessions without anyone so much as throwing a punch– and as long as everyone had a good time, you didn’t feel like you’d been shafted in the XP department for it.
The most recent Unearthed Arcana column has an interesting take on this, proposing a “100 XP per level” model in which exploration, interaction, and combat all have 1-4 tiers of difficulty, and any given encounter would give (10 x tier) XP.
I think this is a neat idea, although the first thing I notice is that it flattens XP progression back out. 5E is famously designed so that you fast-forward through levels 1-2, slow down for 3-10, and then pick up a little from 11+. The XP for monsters might still need work tho– it basically boils down to “5 XP per normal monster, 2 XP per minion, 15 XP for something way out of your league.” In the case of my party vs. the not-terribly-scary wights, that would have been 22 base XP, halved for having more than 6 characters, or 11 XP. Was that encounter really worth 1/10 of a level?
The tiers for treasure and interactions are also sorta arbitrary. Tier 4 exploration (worth 40 XP) is the discovery/wresting from monsters a “location of cosmic importance,” for instance. If a campaign starts doing the whole plane-hopping thing later, you’ll be discovering cosmic locations all the time, won’t you?
But the key thing is, with this system, combat is no longer the benchmark for character growth. Like the original “1 GP = 1 XP” model, characters who like to talk, sneak, or otherwise do things besides fight all the things have an alternate progression track, and that makes for a more varied and potentially-interesting game.
So What Does It All Mean?
Based on all this, I think I would prefer:
- Beef up monsters a bit. When 1st level lasts a while, a CR 3 monster (like a wight) is scary longer. When the game starts at 3rd level and goes up from there, a CR 3 monster becomes the new baseline. By that reckoning, a lowly goblin should be at least CR 1, while a wight should be something like CR 5. Almost everything in the Monster Manual needs at least +10 hit points and +2 to their attack rolls. 😛
- Tweak rests. This post is hella long already, so I will have to save the “rest” issues for another day. Something that will allow for tougher individual encounters, without screwing over the fighter types and/or creating 15 minute workdays is a big challenge.
- Non-Combat XP is Best XP. A tier-based system in which each encounter (whether it is a puzzle, a roleplaying moment, a fight, a treasure looted, whatever) gains about the same XP makes for a much more interesting game. Is talking to the shop-owner as much of a learning experience as fighting for your life? Well… maybe not. But if it’s a great moment in the game, it should be more rewarding than just tossing a fireball at 2d6 orcs.
What do you think, players?
Friggin' orcs, man.
Storm King's Thunder involves a lot of overland travel. I mean, a lot of overland travel. One reason I created a ginormous continental map for the campaign was to keep track of all the tromping all over everywhere that the adventure calls for (and to have an everywhere to tromp over).
The question then becomes, how best to handle these long hikes in-game. There are a few possibilities:
Travel By Montage
This is the mode I practiced for many years, and it's not a bad one per se. Essentially I just decide what happens between point A and point B and tell the players. If it's interesting enough, the journey pauses and a session or two is spent dealing with the narrative pitstop, then off they go again.
There are some downsides to this. First of all, because they're glossed over, long journeys feel cheap. Telling the players "You leave Argent, ride a boat for six weeks and now you're in Zan-Xadar, what do you want to do?" makes it seem like Argent and Zan-Xadar might as well be right next to each other. The world "feels" smaller because there is no real marker of time or distance.
(See also the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Gandalf leaves Bag End, travels by montage to Gondor, then travels by montage back to Bag End, all in the course of three minutes. Did that trip take a day? A year? No context.)
Second, it takes away from the organic nature of the world and puts me back in the place of being the one who decides what the characters do on their trip, both of which are against the spirit of My Gamemastering Credo.
Overland Travel: The Mini-Game
The One Ring RPG (or its 5E variant, Adventures in Middle-earth) has a whole subset of rules for overland travel, because let's face it, "walking" is the primary activity of any character in a book by Tolkien.
Brief summary: using the player map, the group picks a destination and a planned route and each character is assigned a task (Guide, Scout, Hunter, or Lookout). The GM then determines the overall "peril rating" of the journey based on their own map, which will then be used as a modifier for the rest of the trip. The Guide makes an "embarkation roll" which determines the general mood of the trip, which has results ranging from "The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues" to "Paths Both Swift and True." The higher the peril rating of the journey, the more likely it is to be a rough slog.
Once all this is worked out, you turn to actual encounters along the way. There is a generic table of journey events, but the GM is encouraged to customize it for specific regions or a particular campaign. This part is a fairly standard random encounter table, but built around themes instead of specific events: "Agents of the Enemy" or "The Wonders of Middle-earth" or "A Fine Spot to Camp", etc. Combat and skill checks within the encounters are often modified by the Embarkation Result or the Peril Rating, and so forth.
Finally, assuming the party survives the encounters, they get to their destination and roll on the "Arrival Table" to see what kind of shape they're in at the end, ranging from "Weary to the Bones" to "Inspired and Filled with Hope."
Essentially, the whole journey becomes "a dungeon," with characters only able to take short rests after each encounter, with something like "A Fine Spot to Camp" providing a rare long rest opportunity. It's a neat system, somewhere between the Hex Crawls of old-school yore and the Travel By Montage method. But it is... crunchy. A long journey with a lot of encounters will certainly take several sessions, and you'll have to keep track of the Peril Rating, Embarkation Result, and rest resources along the way. It's probably not that much more overhead than a dungeon map is, but for some reason, it feels like a lot of work. It might just be a matter of what you're used to.
What I Have Done So Far
When the campaign transitioned from Keep On the Borderlands to Storm King's Thunder, that was definite Travel By Montage moment, because the whole nature of the game shifted (and I didn't have a map ready for travel then anyway). But now that the game is up and running, I have largely been treating Orbis Leonis as a giant hexcrawl.
In order to not have to rigorously define every bloody hex on the map, I make liberal use of random encounter tables, with a core assumption of one random encounter check every four hours during actual game play, and one check per day between sessions, unless the players are somewhere that is already a keyed encounter.
This doesn't mean there's going to be a fight every four hours! "Encounters" in this context aren't necessarily wandering monsters: my tables are also full of things like random terrain bits ("a wooded bog," "an ancient burial mound," "an orphaned castle wall of old"), changes in the weather, or other travelers on the road (which get re-rolled when the characters are in the wild, obviously). There are also "no encounter" slots, which is typically what goes into a slot after that encounter has happened once and becomes the norm when I keep rolling an 8 over and over again. XD
Although I was once very sneery about them, I've come to love random encounter tables because they make the world feel alive– there's stuff going on in it and if the players ask for Survival checks to see what sort of things they might run into, I can look at the random encounter table and tell them. I sometimes go as far as to put a whole five-room dungeon on the table, but that's usually more work than it's worth because that will naturally be the roll that never comes up.
They're also great for making places feel different from each other. Argent is mostly wooded hills and has things like cleric-eating owlbears running around in it. Hestelland is a grassy plain and so it has herds of wild horses and packs of worgs. The Silver Spires Mountains are lousy with harpies, gargoyles, giant spiders, and the kobold minions of Cagarax the Red. Add to this the overlay of giants, with their frequency based on where the various giant holdings are, and you get a nicely-varied, very organic-feeling world.
I'm thinking of adding some of the elements of The One Ring's Journeys system to my game, without going quite so crunchy– maybe adding "Journey Mood" items to the encounter table for instance, something like "This leg of the journey has been plagued with bad luck. You got mired in a bog, losing an hour, and [random character] slipped on a rock and turned their ankle. Make a Dexterity saving throw to avoid having your movement halved for the next 24 hours."
Giant Eagles, Pls
Eventually, Storm King's Thunder has some story items built in to enable characters to travel faster. I'm not going to enumerate them here (because spoilers), but the latter parts of the campaign do require a lot of going from one end of the map to the other, possibly multiple times, and having to play all of those trips out, whether Hex Crawl or Journey Mini-Game style, would get real old after a while. Sorta like the teleporting chain from the original Against the Giants series back in the day, these are plot devices mostly and relatively limited in applicability, so they don't break the rest of the campaign by making long journeys trivial forever.
The main challenge with these is deciding when to introduce them, and figuring out just how limited they actually are– because once they're in place, we're back to Traveling By Montage as a plot element. And after putting so much work into building a large, well-populated world, I don't want to apply the fast-forward button just yet.
As a followup to my post about power inflation, something I'm pondering with Storm King's Thunder is the expected "tiers of play" built into D&D.
D&D has always had this, but in most editions it was kinda hidden. Low-level play is generally the stuff of Heroic Fantasy, taking on local bandits or smallish monsters, dungeon crawling and tomb raiding, generally very personal stakes. Mid-level play is more like High Fantasy, taking on legions of orcs, the occasional giant or dragon, saving the kingdom, that sort of thing. Then high-level play gets into the Power Cosmic, dealing with entire hordes, powerful (and generally super-weird) monsters like beholders, mind flayers, Galactus, and who-knows-what-else, and slaying gods.
(4E had this specifically called out, with everything but graduation ceremonies between tiers. It was designed to make the implicit, explicit, and therefore clearer, but in practice it just felt really clunky and artificial. Fortunately 5E went back to being subtle about it.)
There was a certain sense to that when campaigns lasted for years or decades. But these days? I dunno. 5E fast-forwards you through levels 1-3 (or just skips over them all together), and a typical "Adventure Path" style campaign in the modern mold is generally designed to cover 10+ levels over the course of about a year of play.
There are good meta reasons for this, of course. Very few RPG campaigns last longer than a year, and even staying around that long can be considered an achievement, so 1/2 to 2/3 of the game's actual content rarely sees actual use. What's the point of even having pit fiends and demiliches, if no player ever actually sees one?
But at the same time, to have a character go from scraping copper pieces together at 1st level, to drinking tea with ancient dragons just a year later, makes every campaign feel like That Escalated Quickly. It also wreaks havoc on gameworlds. Faerûn keeps getting blown up over and over again, as Tiamat becomes an epic threat, then the cults of elemental evil, then Demogorgon, then the giants... At least Middle-earth stayed saved.
MMOs, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They are generally designed to emulate one tier of play and stay there forever.
I've been playing LotRO for ten years. (That kind of amazes me.) My little hobbitey warden has defeated thousands of orcs, hundreds of trolls and giants, the last king of Arnor turned into a wraith, spiders the size of a house, a dracolich, the Watcher in the Water, one of the nine Nazgûl, and a freakin' balrog.
What is he doing ten years later? Still fighting orcs, mostly. XD The occasional 100th level sickle-fly. I think, if this was a tabletop campaign, I might find that a little odd.
What I'm looking for, I guess, is a sweet spot somewhere between these two extremes. 5E purposefully levels out the XP curve to stretch the mid-level range longer than the low and high ends to keep characters in that zone as long as possible, but I'm not sure even that's enough. (On top of which, if they're shrugging at hill giants now, what will they be like at 8th level? 10th?)
I'm kinda curious and would actually like to hear from people. If your only choice were one of the two, which would you prefer: a focused campaign with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end ("Throw the ring into Mount Doom!"), or the "continuing saga" of a group of characters that goes on indefinitely, with new stories popping up as old stories resolve, taking you all over the world and possibly beyond?
As an addon to that, how do you feel about the progression of tiers? Is there one you prefer to the others? Do you want to find one and stick with it, even if it meant an XP cap (or at least being cut back to a trickle)? Is the standard progression fine? Too slow? Too fast?
Enquiring Gneeches want to know!
-An Enquiring Gneech
Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter
One issue I've encountered with the Storm King's Thunder game is power inflation. It was already an issue during the Keep On the Borderlands phase, but it has reached new heights. We've got a party of six fifth-level characters, who are off-and-on supported by a (CR 7) stone giant NPC, plus any other NPCs who happen to be along for the ride (Lord Alden and Harold, in the current scenario, are both effectively CR 1).
This is a party that punches well above its weight. My best guess, based on running the "encounter difficulty by XP budget" math, is that they are roughly on-par with a 10th level "typical" party. The problem with that, however, is that CR 10+ creatures have abilities and defenses that lower-level characters, even these powerhouses, might not have the resources to overcome.
But then again, they might. D&D has never done "boss fights" well, and that's still true of 5E. Put this party in a big empty room with a behir (CR 11), and my money would still be on the party unless the behir had access to lair or legendary actions. laurie_robey would probably get swallowed whole at least once, tho.
(In some ways, this is a feature, not a bug. If you put a giant boss at the bottom of a dungeon, where the PCs have had to fight their way to get to it and are down on resources, the fact that the boss is gimped by the party's number advantage is a hidden way to make the fight winnable while still feeling epic.)
The current thought on encounter design for D&D is that in any given encounter you should have at least three monsters against a regular party, plus one monster for each party member beyond four. So against a party of six, at least five monsters. Against a party of nine(!), at least eight monsters.
This is rapidly becoming a very crowded 30' x 50' dungeon room. ¬.¬
The good news is, 5E is so much faster than the past three editions that there's not that much overhead from having all these mass combats. "These two attack Rina. These four attack Togar. The ones attacking Rina need 10 or better, the ones attacking Togar need 16 or better." (Dice clatter.) The DMG has a chart for mob attacks that boils even that down to "If they need a 15, every fourth monster hits," but we have not (yet) had a fight so large that I felt it was worth looking it up.
Just taking the average damage from each mook attack, something I was dubious of at first, really makes this go even smoother. "You're hit twice, take ten points of damage." Easy peasy. The +/- 3 points of damage either way from rolling dice every time is not missed, although I still roll the damage individually for monster criticals, adding just that touch of spice roughly once or twice per game session.
The other issue, though, is 5E's strange fixation on not having monsters over CR 3 if at all possible. In the last session, Sheala took out a dozen enemies with a single fireball because they couldn't survive half damage even if they made their saves. You can start stacking your monster ranks with reskinned knights, veterans, gladiators, and bandit captains to buff them up a bit, or create 3.5-style "mob" versions of lower level foes, and there are some third party supplements for the purpose. But the players might rightfully wonder why the orcs last week couldn't withstand a fireball and the ones this week can, unless you introduce a story element of Bigger, Badder Orcs (say, a new strain bred by an evil wizard wearing shimmering rainbow robes).
There is an upside to having a party that can take a licking and keep on ticking– I can just put whatever I want and makes sense into the scenario and not be worried that they can't handle it. But the real problem is things that should be dangerous becoming trivial. The "svartjaw" in the last session was a reskinned wyvern, a CR 6 brute, and they just melted it like butter before a blowtorch. Players love and want to win, but if they don't feel like they had to at least work for it a little, it feels cheap, and will become boring fast.
5E's much-touted Bounded Accuracy is meant to address this very issue, but when you pile on a huge party like this, you flip the script. Suddenly the carefully-balanced math and action economy that is supposed to allow monsters to remain a threat across wider levels, is exactly what enables the party to just stomp all over everything.
There is also the Monty Haul problem, where the party's ability to take on outsized challenges leads to them racking up high level treasure and XP, which in turn enables them to level up even faster in a geometric spiral. Dividing the encounter XP by six, seven, or nine as appropriate helps here, and I have complete control over how much wealth the party has access to simply by decided what's out there, but it is still something I need to watch.
(As a side note, I do love that 5E is built on the assumption of class/race abilities only, decoupling magic items from character progression. I have always looked askance at "numerical progression" items from the first time I saw a +1 sword in my Moldvay Boxed Set with chits instead of dice. My completely perfect world would mostly leave out treasure too– when did you ever see Frodo and Sam count gold pieces? But I fear that would force a little too much of my own preferred playstyle onto the rest of the group, and certainly "local duke offers 500 gp for bandit slaying" is a handy wrench in the narrative toolbox.)
None of these challenges are insurmountable, and compared to the "I hate my life!" slog of prepping higher-level 3.x/PF these are perfectly-acceptable problems to have. They're just things I'm noticing about how the current game is going. Every campaign is different!
Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane
When you prep for the players to zig, they always zag. Continuing from part six...
We're finally caught up to the most recent game session! With game world firmly built out and chock-a-block with adventure hooks and sidequests, a firm campaign direction ("Escort Xerlo to the Eye of the All-Father"), and brain-eating enthusiasm infinitely better than the floundering avoidance I started with, I was excited for the characters to head into
The first order of business on arriving in Hierandal was looking up Piotr Zymorven to ask him about his father's sword. ( They found him in a tavern... )
Well my dear readers, reskinned wyverns are still CR 6. A party of six 5th-level PCs and their CR 7 stone giant ally piledrived Svartjaw so fast that Lord Alden and his son didn't even get a chance to draw their swords. Lord Alden was quite upset by this apparent anticlimax to what he had expected to be an epic last hunt that would be sung of by the bards and so on... until Rina pointed out that the tracks they'd been following had a very distinctive tread missing three toes on one foot– and that the monster they had killed did not.
Svartjaw, it seemed, was not the only one of his kind.
Furthermore, examination of the bear revealed that like the displacer beasts in the previous session, Svartjaw was also wearing a collar with a token on it, in this case an emblem of Nerull the Reaper, a dark god of death and murder from eastern lands. There was still hunting to be done before dawn. The session ended with Lord Alden giving the order to mount up to continue the hunt, darkness and the forest be damned.
And with that, the campaign summary is up to date! The next session will begin with the PCs attempting to find Svartjaw's lair and confront the source of its evil. Will Lord Alden survive his last hunt? Time alone can tell.
Then, the world changed. Continuing from part five...
I was going to finish the recaps with the discussion of last weekend's session here, but I got to talking about the map (as one does) and realized the last recap would have to wait for one more post.
Once I realized that Storm King's Thunder was a "build your own campaign" framework and not a straightforward adventure module and embraced it, that meant that I had to build out the world in order to make room for it all. I went through the module from front to back and placed every location important to the campaign somewhere, and then set myself to the task of filling in as much of the blank space around that as possible.
( I discovered that the Silver Coast was waaaaay too small... )
It took several days and the project pretty much ate my brain the whole time, but now that it's done I'm really happy with the result. This is a game world that I can see going pretty well forever, with enough detail and history to feel "lived in" while still having plenty of room for expansion as needed (I tried to leave myself lots of open spots). It's not suitable for publication or any such thing– it's got chunks of Greyhawk, chunks of Faerûn, bits of Lovecraft's Dreamlands, and of course the Middle-earth nations of Rohan, Arnor, and Angmar with the serial numbers shaved off. But it is a cool place for me and six friends to visit every Saturday night.
It also taught me a lot about world-building in general, which is valuable for creating original works. I will probably use a very similar process to build out Calypsitania and the Fortress of Tears world for writing novels in next.
Next time, part seven, in which we finally catch up to the campaign!
This Round's on Lem, from the Pathfinder Wiki
He spews lightning. He crashes into everything he gets near and knocks trees over onto himself. And yet he's still kinda adorable. Continuing from part four...
The first town on the road north was Tyvalich, a major trading town at the mouth of a pass up into the richest silver mountains in the world. Before they got there, however, the party was confronted by Felgolos, the Flying Misfortune, a young-ish adult bronze dragon who came swooping in, blasted a line of lightning between the party and the road, and proclaimed that he was the protector of the north and they would go no further. And then had to duck from the lightning-blasted tree that almost fell on his head.
( Seeing Xerlo in their company had apparently... )
They headed back to town to collect their reward, stopping briefly to aid and comfort the same band of Calladganger hunters they had met before, who had been tracking a herd of aurochs through the mountains and gotten the snot pounded out of them by a bunch of hill giants. Still convinced that Nikki is some kind of nature spirit, they turned down his offer of "eagle" (actually bloodhawk) meat, because eagles were sacred to them and this was obviously some kind of spiritual test Nikki was putting them through to make sure they followed the old ways or some such. Nikki informed them that there was a nicely large, vacant Calladganger-style homestead in a box canyon just a ways up the mountain that they could safely camp and recuperate in, as long as they didn't mind the smell of burning dead monster. Their leader promised they would ritually sanctify the house and that anyone who settled there would be named the People of the Squirrel in gratitude for this beneficence.
"Right. You do that."
(For the record, the Calladganger leader is not whimsically eccentric, even if I do refer to him as "Kronk." He's a perfectly normal big dumb amiable lug.)
After a night of rest, it was time for the four day hike to Hierandal, which will come in part five.
Drow Assassin by thatDMan
You knew a prophecy had to show up eventually. Continuing from part three...
Upon arriving back in town, the party headed for Lord-Protector Shendrel's offices only to find an unruly mob of farmers complaining about Xerlo, the stone giant, who apparently defended an outlying farm from attack by throwing the farmer's silo at a bunch of hill giants who were stealing all the livestock they could get ahold of while chanting "Food for Guh! Food for Guh!" They said they'd have a talk to him.
While they were in town, inkblitz headed off to the Golden Compass Society for Exploration, Acquisition, and Monster Dispatch (a.k.a. the Adventurers Guild), while Sirfox headed for the Brotherhood of the Spider (a.k.a. the Thieves Guild). jamesbarrett went off to the temple and the garrison to boost morale, aid the refugees of the volcano still clogging up the town, and presumably chop wood or something paladiney like that.
( Investigation at the Adventurers Guild revealed... )
They were not expecting the dragon attack that comes in part five...
PS: Quit creeping on that drow, guildmaster! Don't you know that's Obsidian's mother?
Kolstaag Albrek never knew what hit him. Continuing from part two...
It has always been true, but it is especially true of 5E that rolling low on initiative kills bosses dead. Between being blasted by the party's wizard and cleric, sneak-attacked by the rogue, and having a ghost-possessed troll flip a desk on him then pick him up and go all TROLL SMASH, Kolstaag Albrek didn't even get a spell off before the party had wrought their revenge. The pair of drow he was meeting with decided that was their cue to call it a day, and the wizard's vicious gargoyle pets were quickly dispatched. The only other occupant of the house was a cranky old coot named Xzyyzx, the wizard's housekeeper, whose opinion was that the wizard's death meant it was his house now.
The party were not inclined to debate the legalities of property ownership in Three Roads, but instead reclaimed their gear (jamesbarrett was quite jazzed to discover that Togar was the owner of a suit of adamantine plate), read Kolstaag's mail, and headed back to town. Kolstaag, it turned out, was working for a drow by the name of Nezannar, which triggered deja vu in players from my previous Silver Coast game.
(Since that game is actually set 50 years in the future relative to the current one, the events of that game are history repeating itself, even though it got played first. Wibbly-wobbly campaigney-wampaigney.)
They also fetched Xerlo the stone giant out of the basement. He was quite surprised they were no longer in their cells, but on being informed that his former employer was dead, he adopted a very c'est la vie attitude on the subject. The party invited him to come along back to Three Roads with them, with the plan of setting him up as an 18' tall Lurch-like guardian angel.
Lord-Protector Shendrel of Three Roads was a bit taken aback by having the party come back two days later from the opposite direction the fire giants had gone, with a troll and stone giant in tow. However, when shown the evidence of Kolstaag's shenanigans, took them at their word. (Having a paladin in the party really does wonders for the group's trustability.) She installed Xerlo in a barn outside of town, but took pains to point out that the job she'd hired them for– make sure the fire giants don't come back– was still not done.
So they set off north, tracking the fire giants. Even two days cold, the trail was fairly easy to follow for most of the way. They ran into some Calladganger hunters from the Clan of the Eagle, who seemed to think that Nikki was a nature spirit, but eventually found a cave complex populated by orcs herding axe beaks.
Their attempt at scouting the caves was thwarted when Rina botched a Stealth check. The orcs thought she was just a random wood elf in the forest and were going to bully her for fun, but the rest of the party came swooping in and disabused them of that notion quickly. A general alarm was raised and it turned into a huge furball with orcs, maddened axe beaks, fire giants, and their fire elemental pets/familiars/adds/whatever they were.
In 30+ years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, I would have never guessed I would see opposed Animal Handling checks be a factor in combat. Achievement unlocked.
Hathas, his time "bonding" with the troll seeming to rub off on him, waded into the fray with more bloodlust than one generally expects from a paladin, even a fallen one. The fire elementals damaged the troll so badly that Hathas abandoned it and joined the fray in ghost form instead. While the troll retreated to a cave in the back where it could munch on dead orc and regenerate, Hathas attempted to terrorize a fire giant (not unlike the librarian in the prologue of Ghostbusters). The fire giant was not terrorized... but members of the party were. Nice jorb, Hathas.
The odd thing about ghosts in D&D is... they have hit points. They resist nonmagical damage, but in order to interact with the world they must manifest on the physical plane. Fire giants do an average of 28 points of damage with a single hit and their attack bonus alone equals a ghost's AC. The fire giant made short work of Hathas, much to everyone's surprise (including Hathas).
The fight was a tough one, but the party rose to the challenge. Brother Drang finally got to use the call lightning he'd been itching for, and Togar entered a new phase of his career by being the tankiest ever but not getting one-punched in the first round. When the dust settled, the party was battered and bruised but victorious. They retrieved the giants' rod of the vonindid, a kind of dowsing rod for adamantine golem parts, and also discovered that these giants had found the vonindid's entire left hand. They rather hastily buried this where it was, as it was way too big to haul anywhere, and headed back to town.
The troll survived.
It turned out there were developments with their new stone giant friend, which will be revealed in part four!
Ghost Martyr Paladin by SpiralMagus
"So there we were, locked in a dungeon with a stone giant." Carrying on from Part One...
The new phase of the campaign really began with the first session down in Kolstaag Albrek's dungeon. inkblitz's new character was introduced to the rest of the party ("A talking griffon? Neat. I'm a five foot tall flying squirrel!"), as was their erstwhile guard, Xerlo the stone giant, whose first line was a straightforward, "If you try to escape, I will kill you," but who seemed more interested in scribbling on the floor than anything.
But he was willing to chat, assuming you could parse his mode of speech. Riffing on the idea that stone giants are sort of the hippie-dippie mystics of giantkind, I decided that Xerlo didn't care about things like "good" or "evil," but was only interested in what was "true" or "untrue," and that he was on a vision quest to find out what was really going on with the breaking of the Ordning– because he didn't believe that the stone giant thane's interpretation ("We must destroy every town, city, or building of the little folk!") was correct. I chose a stone giant particularly because, being inherently neutral, he could be a wild card. The players could recruit him or fight him, but it would be their choice and an impactful one.
They decided at first, once they'd gotten the gist of what he was about, to basically leave him alone, and that was probably a good call. They also worked out that while he was completely serious that he would kill them if they tried to go out the front door, there was also a back door that he apparently couldn't see and wasn't aware of.
So, being the mighty heroes they were, they slipped out the back, and again, that was a good call. They managed to scrounge up some sharp bits of broken metal or rusted bars from the cell doors to make crude weapons, and plunged into the depths. They found an old series of vaults that either Kolstaag didn't know about or wasn't interested in, origin and purpose unknown, populated by orcs, whom they avoided, but who were also between them and the exit.
( They also caught glimpses of a ghostly figure in the darkness... )
They will confront the wizard in part three!
So there have been some pretty big changes in my D&D game since the last time I posted about it. I want to bring my chronicle of the game up to date, but there's a lot of ground to cover so it's going to require several posts. So here's part one!
The party did in fact defeat The Yellow Lady, mad priestess of Hastur behind the evil brewing in the Caves of Chaos, only to discover that she had in fact been the missing daughter of Duke Blakewell all along. Oops. >.> A tragic and somewhat downer ending to the scenario, but also completely in line with the kind of crap that happens when Hastur gets involved.
The players all wanted to continue, and after presenting them with the various options I was weighing the group voted for Storm King's Thunder. So I said that with everything at the Keep being so awkward ("Sorry, m'lord, we kinda killed your daughter... but in our defense she tried to kill us first!") the party decided to move on to greener pastures. They heard that Mt. Thunderdelve, over on the Silver Coast, had erupted, and decided to head over there to see what they could do to help, and maybe find some gainful employment on the way.
Unfortunately, here I hit a bit of burnout, and floundered for a time. Far from being something I could easily pick up and run more-or-less off the shelf as Red Hand of Doom was, I discovered that Storm King's Thunder is an immense, sprawling, hot mess of an "adventure." It's not like a traditional module, so much as an enormous sandboxey "Build Your Own Campaign!" kit. Which is cool if that's what you're looking for, but at the time, that was so totally not what I was looking for.
Storm King's Thunder as written covers pretty much all of northern Faerûn, and the Silver Coast wasn't anywhere near that developed. I didn't realize it then, but the monumental task of actually sifting through SKT from front to back and building a world that could accommodate all 256 pages of it while still being a world I liked and wanted to run adventures in, was really biting off more than I was prepared to chew. And because of the way the book is structured, it isn't really something where it's easy to just toss the tracks down in front of the train as it goes.
So, I kinda bobbled a bit at first. I spent several weeks grinding my gears on the problem and not really getting anywhere. But I knew if I let it sit too long, the campaign would pass its expiration date. So I transposed Triboar in the Forgotten Realms to Three Roads, its Silver Coast analog, and ran the giants' assault on the town pretty much as written in the book just to get the game moving again. After a big hairy fight against orcs riding axe-beaks and a lot of what-the-helling at fire giants pulling an enormous adamantine staple out of the ground under the town fountain, the players decided to go visit a local wizard named Kolstaag Albrek to see if he could give them any insights before they chased the giants down– only to have Albrek knock them all out and toss them into a dungeon, the jerk.
( Somewhere in here, two things happened... )
These two seeds turned out to be the defining factors of the game. Once I embraced the idea that SKT was a campaign kit and not an off-the-shelf adventure, thirty years of DMing instincts took hold and I was suddenly on fire! But how the party escaped the dungeon and what they did next, will have to wait for the next installment.
Berelandine the Halfling Serving Wench by Dunlaoch on DeviantArt
A popular barracks/meadhall song in Orbis Leonis, sung to the tune of “The Mademoiselle From Armentiers.”
The halfling lass from Appletop is a tavern maid.
The halfling lass from Appletop is a tavern maid!
The halfling lass is a tavern maid.
In gold or kisses she gets paid!
Will you have another round, me lord?
The halfling lass from Appletop is three foot high.
The halfling lass from Appletop is three foot high!
The halfling lass is three foot high.
She looks your codpiece in the eye!
Will you have another round, me lord?
The halfling lass from Appletop is a lovely girl.
The halfling lass from Appletop is a lovely girl!
The halfling lass is a lovely girl.
She’ll take your stallion for a whirl!
Will you have another round, me lord?
I asked the lass from Appletop to be my bride.
He asked the lass from Appletop to be his bride!
I asked the lass to be my bride,
and spend a lifetime at my side!
Will you have another round, me lord?
The halfling lass from Appletop said “Nay, sir, nay.”
The halfling lass from Appletop said “Nay, sir, nay!”
The halfling lass said “Nay, sir, nay!
Not until your tab you pay!”
Will you have another round, me lord?
Put that in your weed-pipe and smoke it. 😉
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?
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. ¬.¬
Per 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, 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?
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
It was late morning by that point, so the characters stuck with their agenda. Unfortunately, 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.