the_gneech: (Default)
Fire giants. They're just bad.

It's been a year and a half since the campaign started at the Keep on the Borderlands; the characters have reached 7th level and finally, after much meandering, gotten to the Eye of the All-Father in Storm King's Thunder. If we assume that KotB was the prologue, and snuffing out (so to speak) the fire giants' hopes of reviving the Vonindod was Act One, we are now at the beginning of Act Two.

Storm King's Thunder is written in the weird meandery style for the first part, but then once you hit the Eye of the All-Father, it pretty much becomes a straightforward run to the end. There are some branching points, but they all lead to the same destination, somewhere around 10th or 11th level. So it's still a bit away, but we are now at the point where I can see the end of Storm King's Thunder looming on the horizon, and have been thinking about what the campaign would do next.

I had the idea of ending the campaign when we reached the end of SKT to start something new; I was particularly looking at doing a Spelljammer(-ish) campaign that brought in a lot of the flavor of the MCU cosmic stuff, inspired by Thor: Ragnarok. And I still like that idea, but as I was thinking about it, I had a very sudden and definite message from the subconscious:

No. I want this campaign to go to 20th level.

...Well okay then. O.o

There's lots of reasons for this, not the least of which being we've never reached that kind of a level in any of our campaigns, and so it would be something completely new for us. Also, I just like this group of characters, and I'm not ready for their story to be over– and I suspect the players probably feel the same way. Finally, by all accounts (and our own experience so far), 5E is the system that, if you're going to go to 20, you want to do it in.

(In Pathfinder we'd already be hearing creaks around the edges of the system by now. In 5E, at 7th level, the combats are taking a little longer than they did back in the KotB days just by virtue of having more complex characters and tougher opponents, but the action is still fast and furious. Out last session had a chase/combat against a behir in a cave maze (CR 11!) that was done 75% as "theater of the mind" and basically went like this:

For all the chasing around and getting in potshots at the monster (or FROM the monster) it all ran very smooth and quickly and led to a fingernail-biting climax where the barbarian NPC was one round away from being digested in the creature's belly and saved by the players pulling out all the stops to save her. I can't think of another system we've used that would have handled the situation half so well.

But having decided that I want the campaign to reach level 20, that leads to the question of what to do for the second half. There are some tweaks written into Storm King's Thunder itself that provide ways it can be expanded on, and I'll happily add those in, but even that isn't likely to take the party past 12th or 13th.

So what I've decided to do was to pull out some of my still-unplayed higher level 3.x edition adventures, particularly from Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics line, and tie them together into an "adventure path." Some of them involve giants and make for obvious "sequel" material, particularly if [SPOILER REDACTED] manage to escape rather than suffer Death By PC when their nefarious scheme to [SPOILER ALSO REDACTED] comes to light. I also found another one that could provide a kind of cool "Return to the Keep on the Borderlands" side-trek as a change of pace from fighting giants all the dang time and that could possibly act as setup for Spelljammer later.

The ones I've found so far could take the game as far as 16th or 17th. Beyond that... I have no idea. That's probably at least another year and a half away itself anyway, so I have time to work on it, and by then hopefully WotC will have gotten around to some of that "supporting higher-level play" they've been talking about. But it seems to me that once you get into that realm, where even the wizard has 80+ hit points, the barbarian becomes as strong as a giant and can rage indefinitely, and the cleric can literally resurrect people at will, the stories are going to have to look very different.

You don't "dungeon crawl" at that kind of level. I don't know what you do do... but you don't dungeon crawl. Really that, more than anything, is going to be the challenge at that point.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Default)
"We'll pass through Greenfork tomorrow," the caravan leader said. "It's a tiny little burg; we'll mostly likely only be there an hour or two before moving on."

"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."

"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.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Default)
Friggin' orcs, man.
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.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Default)
Maedhroc deals with the local spider problem.

So LotRO has a new paid expansion coming out, titled simply Mordor. And I have to decide what, if anything, I'm going to do about it.

Once upon a time, I love love loooooooved LotRO. I wrote stories about Maedhroc Thornhollow, my little hobbitey warden, tromping all over the world.

Then they scrambled wardens and I didn't know how to play him, so I had to re-learn from scratch...

And then they did it again and I gave up on wardens, but champions had become OP so I went back to one of those.

And then MadeOfLions, the Tolkien ubernerd head writer left somewhere in the development of Rohan IIRC.

I choked down Rohan, a vast country made up of the same story over and over and over and over again, mostly on the momentum of happier days. I got stuck on the "battles" system, which threw away everything good about skirmishes and so never got through the battle of Helm's Deep.

You can skip Helm's Deep to a certain extent, so I moved on figuring I'd come back to it... but then I got to northern Gondor, in which there was no story, just infinite endless daily quest grinding...

...and stopped.

Other than logging in every few months to pay the rent on Maedhroc's house, in the forlorn hope that I may one day get back into it, and the occasional lowbie re-running of Ered Luin to remember happier days, I have not played LotRO in something like two, three years.

I miss it. But like so many other things, I miss the LotRO of 2010, not the LotRO of today. And with no income other than what I can scrape up with my writing and art, do I really have any excuse to buy an expansion to a game I don't play?

Now I have to admit, I am impressed LotRO has made it to Mordor. Lots of people didn't think it would happen, especially when subscribers started dwindling somewhere around late Moria/Mirkwood. But it also means that the game is nearing "The End." Even if they do the Scouring of the Shire, there simply comes a time when there is no more Lord of the Rings for them to do online. What then?

But I also find it interesting that where I lost interest in LotRO is also where I tend to lose interest in the books. "The world of men" is the LEAST. INTERESTING. THING. about Middle-earth! I'm all about elves first, hobbits second, dwarves a distant third, and fuck humans. The more the fantastic elements fade away and it just becomes a series of battles, the less I care. Fellowship of the Ring has barrow-wights and ringwraiths and balrogs and and and... Gondor does have an army of the dead, so that's neat. But mostly it has much fighting and killing of the orcs by the knights in general.

Anyway, I dunno. Like I say, I used to love LotRO and I wish I still did. But the idea of forcing myself to learn the game again and having to grind my way through Gondor just to get to Moria...? Oh, honey, I dunno...

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

Elves are always a joy, and always a problem. Every campaign, and every edition, has treated them differently, to the point where it’s become a giant blurry mess. So for Orbis Leonis, my “grand unified D&D setting,” here is the definitive word on elves.

Earliest Days

In prehistoric times, the elves were a single people. They have a variety of creation legends, but they are largely biased and contradictory. What is known is that there was once a wide-ranging high elven civilization throughout the region now known as the Marches, ruled from the great spiraled tower Elfspire. Before the foundation of Elfspire, even the elvish histories are lost, other than that the elves fled from some calamity across a seemingly-endless plain– a plain that would have to be where the Gulf of Irul Kinthé is now– only to stop in despair upon sighting the eastern reaches of the great desert of Xadar. The Elfspire was created, the story goes, when the Maimed King, Iearendir, prayed to Corellian Larethian, who appeared before them and commanded a unicorn to touch its horn to the ground. From that spot sprung a well of miraculous healing powers, and around it grew the Elfspire in “an echo” of the unicorn’s horn. This happened, according to the elves, “hundreds of centuries ago.”

For an indeterminate (but presumably very long) time, the elves ruled the region. How the elvish realm interacted with other ancient kingdoms is open for speculation. However, roughly 30,000 years ago, according to what elven records still exist, there was a bitter internal conflict among the elven gods, which was in turn echoed by enclaves of elves in the mortal realm. This conflict led to a massive event the elves call the Sundering, that splintered the elves into the eladrin, high elves, wood elves, and drow that the world knows today. (Some scholars point to this as also being the origin of the orcs. Orcs deny this. Often via manslaughter.) This event also ended the elvish dominance of the region and seems to have led the decline of the entire elvish race.

Note that this story seems to conflict with the giants’ tradition that there were no civilizations of note on the surface other than Ostoria during its heyday. Either the elvish record is incorrect, or the giants’ idea of what is a “civilization of note” is disputable. Which of those may be true is left as an exercise for the reader.

High and Wood Elves

Of the elven kindreds, high elves and wood elves are closest to each other, with their differences being purely cultural. A high elf raised by wood elves, is a wood elf, and vice versa. They are called "high" elves because they prefer to live on the surface, or even better, in trees or tall spires, but also because they did not follow Lolth into the Underdark. Although the stereotypical high/wood elf is of fair complexion, with very fine, straight hair, there is more variation than people generally think. In the Sea Kingdoms and realms further south particularly, elvish complexion ranges to a copper or deep brown color.


Eladrin ("noble elves" in their own language) are the most powerful of the high elves, with the strongest attunement to the realm of Faerie, to the point where they are infused with its magic. They are closer to elemental spirits to mortal beings, being tied to the passage of the seasons and the movement of the sun, stars, and planets. Although physically similar to their more terrestrial kin, Eladrin are readily discernible because their eyes are solid orbs of color with no visible pupils, and their bodies often radiate a visible aura. Tales say they can speak any language, and step between the mortal world and Faerie/Feywild at will, and while this may certainly be true of individual eladrin, it may not be true of all of them.


Drow, the "dark elves," followed their goddess into the Underdark. Before the Sundering, the elf goddess Araushnee was a patron of the stars, destiny, and craftsmanship, whose emblem of the spider represented her weaving of the fates. Her favored followers, although still high elves, would undergo a ritual transformation that altered their skin to an intensely dark blue and their hair to a shining white or silver as a mark of their devotion. During the great conflict that caused the Sundering, Araushnee forsook the light of the stars and fled the realms of light (or was banished, or simply left, depending on who you ask), taking her followers with her into the Underdark. From that small pool of common ancestors came the modern drow.

(Note: Araushnee's daughter Eilistraee, a high-spirited goddess of moonlight and dancing, shares her mother's appearance, and what few drow who have forsaken the worship of Lolth for its wickedness and cruelty, have generally turned to her as their new patron. A small cabal of drow worshippers of Eilistraee can be found in Myth Talminden, and it is something of a "promised land" for discontent drow of the Underdark who would flee their dark mistress.)

Orcs and Elves

How do the orcs fit in? The truth is that mortals don't know and the gods aren't telling, but there are clear signs of some sort of connection. First, is their shared mythology: the story of the battle between the orc god Gruumsh and the elf god Corellan Larethian, allowing some variance for which side you are rooting for, is remarkably similar in both cultures, and always highlights the famous cutting out of Gruumsh's eye. It is also worth noting that elves and orcs are both interfertile with humans and each other, unlike any of the other demi-human races. (It is rare in the extreme that an orc and an elf would have a child, but such a child would essentially be either a half-elf or a half-orc depending upon which parent they favored.)

Elvish Homelands

There are two major elf holdings in Orbis Leonis. First, and oldest, is the Elfspire, in the southeastern portion of Thessalaine near the Gulf of Irul Kinthé. This consists of a massive, spiral conical tower formed out of a unique mineral reminiscent of mother of pearl, a dizzying fifty stories in height and crowned with an ever-burning beacon. The mountainside below the spire is also populated by houses and fortifications in the high elven style.

The second largest is the western seaside realm of Myth Talminden ("Silver Lighthouse" in Elvish), a fair and green country on the westernmost point of the mainland. The city of Myth Talminden proper consists of several large stone towers inlaid with silver from Argent, in a curving spiral style that echoes the Elfspire, but on a much smaller scale (the tallest reaching only seven stories). The towers are connected by a dizzying network of narrow, gracefully-arcing catwalks that not only provide walking access from one spire to the next, but also reinforce the overall structure like a lattice.

There are many smaller settlements across the land, usually referred to as "havens." These include the wood elf settlement of Starsong Hill in Elsir Vale, Mother Oak of the Westdeep, or Dimhaven and Mistvale in Thessalaine. Of course, the drow have their own cities in the Underdark, but the names and locations of these are not generally known to surface dwellers.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (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: (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: (Conan Civilization Sucks)
As has been famously reported, we recently moved to Maryland. It's not that far from where we used to live, on the grand scheme of things, but it's far enough that a 40 minute semi-weekly commute to our old stomping grounds for D&D would add just-that-much more friction to games actually happening.

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

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

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

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

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Party Guy)
Also Happy Gygax Day/Gamemaster Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High-fives all around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The Gneech

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

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

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

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

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

-The Gneech

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

  1. To make my comics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'll have to discuss this with the players.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The Gneech

[1] NOTE TO MYSELF: Two clues is too few, and four clues is too many.
the_gneech: (Rastan Kill Monsters)
Our gaming group meets from 0-3 times per month, probably averaging around 1.5 times. There are two regular GMs, of which I am the GM about 65-70% of the time. The net result is that I get to be a player about five to seven sessions total in any given year.

That is really depressing. :P Unfortunately, I don't have a good solution for it. Finding another group to supplement the current one would be good, except it takes an act of congress to get together with the one I've already got.

Thus, as much as I love Obsidian and wish she could get more attention, I always have more characters I want to play than I will ever actually get to play. I'd love to do a modern version of Arshan, not to mention seriously jonesing for a chance to play Elsa, the support NPC in my Silver Coast game, as a player character. Also, inspired by my recent watching of Gurren Lagann, I have a new character for the stable...

Kamadan, the Forger of Destiny

Medium humanoid (human), 1st level paladin
Armor Class 16 (chainmail)
Hit Points 12 (1d10 + 2)
Speed 30ft
Str 16(+3), Dex 10(+0), Con 14(+2), Int 8(-1), Wis 13(+1), Cha 16(+3)
Saving Throws Wisdom +3, Charisma +5
Senses Divine Sense, passive Perception 11
Skill Proficiencies Animal Handling +3, Athletics +5, Insight +3, Survival +3
Tool Proficiencies blacksmith's tools, vehicles (land)
Languages common, (one other based on campaign)
Challenge 1/2 (100 XP)
Armor Penalties Disadvantage on Stealth checks.
Divine Sense Take an action to know the location of any celestial, fiend, or undead within 60 feet not behind total cover. Use up to 4 times between long rests.
Lay On Hands Restore up to 5 hit points by touch or remove one disease or poison between long rests.
Longsword (two-handed). Melee Weapon Attack: +5, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 9 (1d10 + 3) slashing damage.
Handaxe. Melee Weapon Attack: +5, reach 5 ft. or range 20/60 ft (thrown), one target. Hit: 7 (1d6 + 3) slashing damage.
Two Handaxes: When wielding two handaxes, Kamadan may make a second attack or throw the second axe as a bonus action.
Equipment longsword, three handaxes, chainmail, shield (which he almost never uses), emblem of courage (holy symbol), explorer's pack
Alignment Lawful Good
Background Folk Hero
Feature Rustic Hospitality
Personality Trait I constantly make pronouncements of my credo, which are occasionally vague or contradictory but always sound impressive.
Ideal Courage. A coward dies a thousand times– a brave man, only once!
Bond My spirit is a raging fire, pushed on to a great destiny that I have yet to discover!
Flaw I will face any danger on my feet and call out my foes by name, no matter how hopeless the odds! What's the use in running?
Kamadan was merely the blacksmith's apprentice in a tiny nameless village far from civilization when the raiders came. Many villagers tried to flee, only to be cut down where they ran; others were grabbed up and thrown into cages to be sold as slaves. Kamadan cowered in the corner of his master's shop as the raiders' chief ransacked it, taking all of their best weapons and armor, and murdering the blacksmith when he tried to resist. Then, Kamadan saw it: the bandit chief wore an amulet depicting the head of a leopard, entwined by snakes– an emblem of the very creature Kamadan had been named after– and something in him changed. Scooping up his smith's hammer, he launched himself at the bandit chief in a fury of retribution and smote him on the spot. Braced by this victory, Kamadan claimed the amulet for himself, then took up a sword and shield from the smithy and went on the offensive, slaying bandits and releasing prisoners, who then rallied behind him. Before the bandits knew what had happened, their raid had backfired, and they fled in terror before the fearsome youth and his followers.

Kamadan stayed in the village long enough to tend to the wounded and help them bolster defenses, then set out with several volunteers to wipe out the raiders who had escaped to keep them from returning. Not being trained soldiers, their losses were heavy, but at the end of the day victory was theirs– and Kamadan knew he had been chosen by the spirits of heaven for greater things.

Kamadan is, as he describes himself, "a raging fire," full of excitement and enthusiasm. He sees life as a great "cosmic forge" in which people's destinies are shaped, hammered, and tested again and again, and he relishes the struggle. The bigger the challenge, the more eager he is to take it on. The tougher the foe, the more sure he is that he will conquer it. It's sometimes hard to tell if he's simply wildly exuberant, or if he's slightly unhinged, but whatever life around him is, it's never boring. He knows roughly that kamadans (the creatures) are great jungle cats with serpents that come from their shoulders, and equates them with strength and courage.

A Quote
"What do you think you're doing, sleeping in crypts and draining the blood of the living? The celestial spirits might tolerate such a thing, but not me!"

Kamadan is tall and leanly-muscled, with a mop of dark hair, angular features, and almost always a lopsided, cocky grin. He wears the kamadan amulet he took from the bandit chief long ago proudly around his neck, showing it off to friends and enemies alike. "When you see this symbol, think of me! Kamadan! The great man of destiny that sent you scurrying back to your holes!"

You'd be fun, dude. :) Into the vault you go.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Ghostbusters)
I'm kludging up a 5E system bash to migrate my Ghostbusters game over to, since we keep forgetting the rules in Savage Worlds and 5E is rules-light enough that it will work well. But that led me to mentally map the Ghostbusters to their D&D archetypal equivalents. Whattya think of...

  • Peter Venkman: Half-elf Bard. Cutting remarks one minute, rousing speeches that inspire the team the next, jack of all trades but master of none. Not exactly the brains of the outfit, but the one they all look to when action is needed. Doubles as a rogue when required.

  • Ray Stantz: Halfling Cleric. The affable team player who's always got your back and is ready with a comforting word. Has lots of ranks in Religion and can figure out what's going on, if not what to do about it. Ironically, Wisdom is his dump stat but luck and lovability pull him through.

  • Egon Spengler: Elf Wizard. Pretty obvious.

  • Winston Zeddemore: Human Fighter. The dependable working joe who'll get the job done, but isn't the one being brilliant or showy.

I think it's a pretty good correlation, actually. :)

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Mysterious Beard)
I've posted before about the weird pitfalls of being at home theoretically working on the things I want to work on. Recently one gelled for me a few nights ago when I asked [ profile] lythandra, "I left my day job with the plan of doing all these things I didn't have the time to do before... so why am I still spending so much time not doing them?"

It's kind of a tricky thing to quantify, because it's not like I'm doing none of the stuff I intended to do. Rough Housing is coming out on a regular (if painfully slow) schedule, and I've made progress on other projects as well, but I expected to start writing/drawing daily around 8:30-9:00 and knock off around 4:30-5:00. I was all excited about having the occasional night or weekend to watch TV, play computer games, or whatever else I wanted to do to relax, guilt-free, instead of them being things I only did when I was too exhausted to do anything else.

It hasn't quite worked out that way, which probably shouldn't surprise me at all, but still does. Days when I do workouts, that obliterates the whole morning, meaning I don't get to work until after lunch. Days when I don't do workouts are more likely to get in a full day as long as I don't let myself get sucked into the abyss of Tumblr/Pinterest/Twitter, which was a real problem at first. For a while I used a browser plugin called "StayFocusd" to completely block those sites during my "you should be working" hours, although it was a bit of a sledgehammer solution.

I knew, when I left the day job, that it would have an impact on my online time. The sad truth of the matter was that I could spend so much time doing Twitter RP and reading all sorts of online articles because most of my day job at the time was spent doing things that pretty much required little or no brain power. I was keenly aware that actually wanting to work was going to put a big dent in the time I spent pfutzing around... but I wasn't prepared for the reality of it.

Taking a hard look at how I was actually spending my time, part of the whole 2015 Is the Year of Going Big thing, forced me to really decide what I wanted from my online interactions. I culled a lot of my feeds, unfollowed a lot of people and things that weren't really making my life better, and I have started finding new homes for some of my online RP characters. I'm keeping a few (Soarin will always be my guy!), but most of them are either going to new players or simply going quiet. (Although to be honest, many of them have been quiet for some time already, I'm just now making it official instead of de facto, and pulling their info out of my Twitter clients so I'll stop seeing them there and feeling guilty about it.)

As for why I have spent so much of my time still doing things I didn't really want to do, I don't have a clear answer. I'm sure a lot was habit– it takes a while for your mind to catch up when your life changes around you. Self-awareness has never been one of my strong points (which is peculiar, given how much introspection I always think of myself as doing), and it's one of those things I'll probably take up with my counselor in due time. But in the meantime, I'm gonna keep tweaking things to fix it.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Obsidian)
[ profile] jamesbarrett continued his campaign tonight, our second session post-5E transition. This one was fairly short, consisting mostly of poking around places we didn't belong and discovering several traps and the corpses of the adventuring party that came in ahead of us as we searched for the missing smuggler "Shanks" and his crew in the recently-unearthed catacombs under the mercenary guildhouse.

The only real threat we encountered was a flameskull, a kind of animated floaty magic burning skull that typically acts as a guardian in ancient crypts, magical laboratories, and the like. It hit us with a fireball, which hurt, but we quickly defeated it... only to discover that the thing was reforming as we examined the room. Not knowing the methods of permanently dispatching it (Obsidian could have done the job with dispel magic had she known), the party fled past it instead, finding the missing smuggler trapped in the room beyond, unable to get out through the constantly-reforming undead thingie.

We could have probably gone out there and fought the thing again, but we were getting low on spells ([ profile] lythandra's cleric having to use much of her healing ability on our intended rescue targets), so Obsidian decided it was time for a little finesse. She cast major image to create an illusion of [ profile] hantamouse's fighter/rogue and had it run out into the room and act as a giant target, backed up by a spiritual weapon actually engaging the flameskull. While the undead guardian turned and flung all its spells at the illusion, the party snuck out of the room behind it.

Obsidian would like to note, for the record, that drow do NOT go "Tee hee." But as her player, I suspect she may be lying about that.

We did find some other things relevant to the larger campaign metaplot as well, and we are now organizing a return trip down into the place to follow up on that when we don't have to shepherd any injured NPCs. This, however, will have to be done by stealth, as the mercenary guild is stubbornly refraining from actually "hiring us" do go back down there, as Obsidian would have preferred.

My own campaign will probably continue next week, and by coincidence, the party in that game are going to be poking around a recently-unearthed ruin that may or may not have traps and flameskulls in it. Just sayin'. I think that I'm going to stick with the house rule of having players roll Perception to spot traps, rather than going with Passive Perception, because since I set the DC to spot the trap, using P.P. basically means that I just decide up front whether they spot the trap or not. (See Item 17 of My Gamemastering Credo.) This was particularly noticeable in tonight's complex full of traps, as we pretty much spotted all but one of them well in advance.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Legolas Aaah)
Last night's Silver Coast game entailed the final smashing of the Redcloaks. The session began... )

Alas, that was probably the last session we'll be able to do for a while: December is awash in holidays and conventions. I feel bad for Gimlet, who keeps getting voted down and who, upon hearing that there was a random encounter in the forest, enquired "What kills me from behind this time?" I was somewhat surprised he didn't turn the skeletons, although in 5E that has returned to the less-useful "make them scatter" than the holy-blasteyness of Pathfinder, at least until 5th level. Given how effectively I've seen [ profile] sirfox play clerics in the past, I'm a bit baffled by Gimlet's relative lack of oomph. With characters spending hit dice to heal themselves during short rests, Gimlet's role of healer has been all but removed. Instead he's spent most of his time casting bless (which has been handy but not a game changer), guiding bolt (which is nice but not spectacular), and bonking things with his hammer. His main feature seems to be his unhittability, as the monsters swarm him and just bounce off his armor, putting him in the role of tank more than anything else. (Well, except for owlbears, anyway.) Pretty much anything that hits Gimlet, crits Gimlet, because it almost had to roll a 20 to connect anyway.

Tylow the rogue, on the other hand, is a sexy shoeless god of war, using Cunning Action to practically teleport across the room and sneak attacking ALL the things. Elsa the barbarian has been a virtual damage sponge, thanks to her raging damage resistance: the quaggoths for instance hit Elsa for 18 damage and she only took 9, making her also a very effective tank. Mei, although optimized for archery, has also become quite fond of wading in with her new shiny magic greatsword, making her a versatile, reliable damage dealer, leaving Morgo as the wildcard. He's an evoker, specializing in area effect blastery, but he's also the reluctant face of the party, having high scores in Int, Wis, and Cha and a tendency to be grandiose.

Overall it's a fun group, with possibly a few more wrinkles to iron out, but shaping up nicely. I was just relieved that they didn't level-up again at the end of the session: I was prepared to rule that they got "whatever XP they earned, or 1 point fewer than necessary to hit 4th level, whichever is lower," simply to slow things down. Fortunately, the XP they earned still puts them at least one and possibly two more sessions away from that. Also, the Dungeon Masters Guide finally hits the stores on Friday, and I will be snatching it up to check out alternative XP systems. I want to get away from "combat as the XP engine," and I hope there will be some good advice there. If not, I'll just have to bake my own, I guess!

Players, any thoughts on the XP progression issue?

-The Gneech

April 2019

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