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A story fragment that popped into my head last night, starring my tabaxi rogue. Enjoy!

Shade-of-the-Candle slid the final stretch of the ramp in a
low crouch, dropping forward onto one hand from her momentum when she hit the
bottom. The torch she’d been carrying clattered across the floor, extinguished,
but to her surprise, she didn’t need it.

She’d been deposited into a large, round chamber with
concentric pillars that were covered with writhing hieroglyphs. The middle of
the ceiling was dominated by a cluster of dimly-luminous indigo crystals; sitting
cross-legged on a dais under the crystals, was the robed figure of a man.

Or… not? There were too many arms, for starters, and the skin
visible on the man’s forearms and hands was a dusky blue-gray, but that may
have been a trick of the light. The fact that each of the four hands had two
thumbs, one on either side, also did not inspire confidence. The man’s face, if
indeed he had one, was completely obscured by his cowl, but Shady had no doubt
that he was aware of her.

Shady blinked at him. He didn’t move. The tomb was supposed
to have been lost. It was definitely trapped. She’d had a tough scrabble to get
this far, only to find this oddity sitting in what she had expected to be the
treasure chamber. Either way, she wasn’t about to go home empty-handed now. Her
tail flicked back and forth involuntarily, as she rose to a standing position
and slowly drew her cutlasses.

The hood dipped slightly. A deep bass rumble assaulted Shady’s
ears and crushed her skull, nearly knocking her back off her feet, but then it
passed as quickly as it had come. Across from her, the figure gave a quiet and dismissive

Shady blinked at it. “What kind of hellspawn are you?” she

“I am no kind of hellspawn, you superstitious creature,” the
figure replied. The voice was male, more of a deep buzzing than anything else, and
spoke in the clipped tones of a noble.

“Then what are–“

“There’s no point in telling you what I am,” he said. “It
wouldn’t mean anything to you. And even if I could explain it, it would just
blast your already dangerously-limited mind into even smaller fragments.”

The corner of Shady’s mouth rose in a smirk. “So you’re a
wizard,” she said, moving slowly into the ring of pillars.

“Fine. Yes. I’m a wizard. It’s less wrong than anything else
you might come up with.”

“You’re pretty rude,” said Shady.

“I am intensely rude,” said the wizard. “And I intend to
remain that way. What will you do,
now that you’ve come to that brilliant conclusion?”

Shady stepped forward again, pointing at his cowl with the
tip of one of her swords. “I’ve heard it said, that the best thing to do when
you come upon a wizard, is to kill it.”

The creature didn’t move. “So why don’t you, then?”

She gave him a long, appraising look. “Because…” she finally
said, “you don’t seem particularly afraid that I might.”

Two of the wizard’s four arms retreated under robes. He used
the other two to shift into a more attentive position. “The creature has some
sense after all!” he said. “This may turn out to be interesting.”

“What are you doing, squatting in an ancient tomb?”

“What are you
doing, crawling around in it?”

“I’m a thief,” said Shady.

“Of course you are.”

“But you didn’t answer my question. The tomb was sealed. What
are you doing here?”

“I am playing a game of strategy,” said the wizard. “A game that
spans eons, made up of the most infinitesimally small moves imaginable.”

“A game?” said Shady. “There’s no board. There are no

“I’m looking at one right now,” said the wizard.

Shady rolled her eyes. “Okay, this conversation is
pointless,” she said. “Where’s the Red King’s treasure chamber? Where’s the Red
King’s treasure?”

“Oh, it’s here,” said the wizard. “Right where he buried it.
Every few hundred years another would-be robber comes blundering in, and not
one has managed to take it way yet. One or two did manage to get away richer
than they came, of course. You may be one of the lucky ones.”

“Any objections if I try my luck?” said Shady, gesturing
with her sword again.

“None whatsoever,” said the wizard. “I have no interest in
baubles. There’s another passage, behind me. You may find what you’re looking
for that way.”

“Fine,” said Shady, sheathing her swords. “Go back to your
game then, wizard, and stay out of my way.” She collected the torch from where
she’d dropped it and reignited it.

“Another pawn moves into play,” said the wizard. Shady glared
at the back of his cowl, and plunged down the passage.

the_gneech: (Default)
The gray cloudy bleah is hitting me hard, so to cheer myself up I am obsessing on my little problem child. I don’t want to have to seek a side gaming group, but I might have to at this rate.
Screenshot of Shady's Sheet



“Between my flicking ears and thrashing tail, my thoughts and feelings are an open book. Weird how that can still lie.”

“If you want me to do something, then tell me I can’t do it.”

“Dancing on the edge of the blade lets you know you’re alive.”

“Thrillseeker. Give me the most dangerous, harrowing adventure. If there’s a dragon around, I’ll poke it just to be chased.”

“Reckless. I risk my life, and sometimes those around me, in pursuit of my thrill-seeking whims.”
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Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm

Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm

My Storm King’s Thunder game has been waiting in the queue for the past several weeks while one of the other DMs in the group runs his game; but we are due to get back to it soon, and I’m starting to look with serious intent at what comes after the big finish.

Assuming the characters solve the mystery of the Storm King’s court, rescue all the peeps who need rescuing, defeat all the baddies who need defeating, and restore the Ordning among giant-kind, they will probably be somewhere in the 12th level range. At that point, it becomes more difficult to realistically look at the Silver Coast in terms of a sandbox/hexcrawl environment– and I am trying to resolve that with the tenets of my DM’s Credo.

Random, everyday hazards of a fantasy setting are not going to be a problem for these guys… the way I put it in conversation recently was, “The Avengers don’t wander around New York taking down muggers.” Once you’ve defeated Thanos, what’s next? And more importantly, how do you integrate a threat on that kind of scale in a way that doesn’t just shove them down the players’ throats? Having Galactus show up and threaten to eat the world is pretty darn railroadey. >.>

Another challenge for me in this particular area is that I just don’t natively think in “high level” style. The majority of my campaign world is fairly mundane: think Middle-earth instead of Asgard. At one point, while they were hunting down Svartjaw, one of my players mocked the Thane of Acholt by asking “What kind of lord doesn’t even have a magic weapon?”

Given the assumptions of D&D, it was a legit question. The answer was twofold: first, he didn’t have a magic weapon because mechanically he was a Knight from the back of the Monster Manual with his greatsword swapped out for a longsword and shield; and second, because my conception of the world is that magic items of any kind are super-rare. Does Theoden of Rohan have a magic sword? I mean, yeah, he might, but the text never mentions it. The moment of Theoden taking up his sword and all his men losing their shit about it is supposed to be because Theoden King is Awesome, not because he has a longsword of leadership.

But even with magic items being scaled back the way they are in 5E, it is absolutely not the case that magic items are super-rare in D&D, nor in the way I’ve structured the campaign. Everyone in the party has at least one and probably two or three pretty wifty items at this point, either awarded as treasure, or because to accommodate one of the players’ desired campaign style I created a “vaguely 3.x” subsystem to allow them to spend treasure on items.

In short, I’m still bringing low-magic thinking into an intrinsically high-magic framework and that also applies to my adventure design. On some level, my idea of a “high level conflict” is the characters being at the head of armies taking on a million bazillion orcs; but D&D‘s idea of a “high level conflict” is more like “one of Demogorgon’s heads declares war on the other and as a result the cosmos is being torn in half.”

I… just don’t think that way. O.o To lean on the MCU metaphor, I love-love-love the “ground level” threats of Captain America: The First Avenger and Spiderman: Homecoming, and I can even enjoy Thor: Ragnarok for a romp or two, but Infinity War kinda makes me check out. Crazy-big cosmic adventure is a foreign language to me.

Going back to the matter of high-level adventures and the sandbox/railroad dichotomy, the hugeness of high-level threats is part of what makes it hard to relate to them in a sandbox context. CR 15+ things don’t just wander around the world waiting for your players to bump into them. They are things like Cagarax the Red, the ancient dragon who claims the Silver Coast as his terrority, or Iuz the Old, cambion emperor of the realm who bears his name, or the Cult of Elemental Evil spilling out of their temple and marching across Veluna. The world is only stable enough for low-level sandbox play because these major powers are content to lurk in their lairs for now. When it comes time for high level adventures, these are the sources that trouble is going to come from, but the moment I decide “Iuz is going to go on the march,” that is me deciding what the adventure will be.

Now, my players might be totally fine with that; years or decades of “the DM creates the adventure and we show up for it” style play have pretty much made that the norm. And as long as everyone’s having fun, that’s hardly “wrong.” But I have been striving to change my approach to gaming, and if I am serious about making “player empowerment” a priority, I have to examine that facet of things. I mean, I can just decide “Iuz is going to go on the march” and then ask the players, “What do you want to do?” It’s entirely possible they might reply, “We buy popcorn and watch.” In that sense they’re perfectly empowered. But I suspect if I tell them Iuz is marching, what they will hear is “The adventure is over there, go get it.”

And if I tell them “Iuz is on the march, and Cagarax has decided to take the city of Argent as his new lair, and Elemental Evil is spilling out of its temple, what do you want to do?” they may very well just go, “Uhhhh….?” and vapor-lock. In a low-level sandbox, choosing not to take on the lizardfolk lair because you’re going to the barrow downs is not the end of the world.

Choosing not to mess with Galactus because you want to focus on Thanos? Just might be. >.> Where’s the “choice” in that?

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There are no rooms to hole up in, here!

There are no rooms to hole up in, here!

In response to my last post, over on Dreamwidth Terrycloth asked, “Why would you stop your party from taking short rests? I thought short rests were assumed between each encounter.” And since I did mention it was a topic for another post, here it is! 😉

In 5E RAW, short rests take an hour, during which you can spend hit dice to regain HP, as well as any class features that recover on a short rest (such as arcane recovery, ki points, and the like). Terrycloth clarified in a later comment that he uses the “short rests are 5 minutes” variant from the Dungeon Masters Guide (which is closer to the 4E version), on the grounds that:

4e improved its play a lot when it shifted to monsters with fewer hit points and more damage — having to fall back on at-will powers instead of being able to use your encounters was tedious. To get interesting combat you need to have options.

Having people hoarding every resource in 5e was the same way. TEDIOUS.

One of the actual gameplay things that bugged me about 4E, especially in its early stages, was that every encounter was exquisitely balanced to perfectly challenge an on-level party at full strength– which was facilitated by the 5-minute rest after each one. The concept of the “encounter power” was what encounters were built around. I agree with Terrycloth that 4E was tedious, but I would actually say that easy resting was one of the things that made it so! It was a well-oiled game-mechanical machine but… it quickly became… monotonous.

  1. DM sets up room, everyone rolls initiative.

  2. Players use encounter powers.

  3. Monsters use encounter powers.

  4. If either side survives, whittle away with “at-wills” until encounter over.

  5. 5-minute rest, rinse, and repeat.

In my group– and mind you, we were veterans who’d been playing D&D for decades– all creative efforts just dried up. Everyone spent the encounter staring at their character sheet wondering which power to use next, or, if their powers were expended, going “Sigh, I guess I attack.”

It was, frankly, boring. Say what you will about the lack of interesting character options in 1E, having a character sheet the size of an index card definitely encouraged you to think outside the box in a tough situation (if only because the box had nothing in it).

I’m not advocating the elimination of encounter powers (or, in 5E parlance, “class features that recover on a short rest”) or the elimination of short rests by any stretch. My tabaxi monk would beat me up if I did. But I do believe that powers should be expended, and that the choice to stop and recover those powers should have a tactical cost to make it interesting. A 5-minute rest is trivial, and if you assume that there’s a rest after every encounter, then those powers are not “expended” beyond the couple of rounds that any given combat lasts.

5E combats are short, man.

Now, if the short rest is an hour, that makes a difference. From a narrative stance, an hour is a significant chunk of time and if you’re up against a ticking clock you’ll want to weigh the value of the rest versus the time lost. Add wandering monsters into the mix, and you’ve got an even bigger choice: do you gamble on having monsters appear, thus losing both the time and the benefits of the rest?

As my gamemastering credo and my GMing style generally have evolved, I have come more and more to love “emergent” play– that is, instead of me “creating a story” and “running the players through it,” I much prefer to put the pieces of the world in place, say, “Go!” and see what happens. I can (and do) make educated guesses as to the general way stuff might shake out, but I am not attached to that result. One of my players sometimes asks after a session “Were we supposed to [do some thing]?” or “Did you expect us to [do some other thing]?” and I understand why– I once ran my game that way. But I have found over the years, running that way is a lot of work, and doesn’t generally reward the effort put into it. My honest answer, these days, is “I was fine with whatever you did. You’re the stars of the show!”

Reliable short rests mean that the party is always at or close to full strength– which would put the relative ease or difficulty of any given encounter mostly in my control. That, in turn, means that building encounters is basically me deciding how it will go. “This fight will be a pushover. That one will be a terror.” While it’s true that players always zig when you expect them to zag, it still results in me largely ending up in a position of controlling the flow of the adventure during prep, instead of letting the game unfold at the table.

I want the players to be in charge of that. I want them to decide “Hmm, reserves are low, maybe we should back off…” or “Six goblins? We can take ’em!” But for that to even be on the table, reserves have to be able to run low! Thus, resting has to be limited.

The flip side of that is that encounters have to be diverse. Since I can’t depend on the party being full strength at the start of every encounter, my overall trend is for the difficulty of any given encounter to be lower than they would be in a 4E (or 3.x/PF) game. In old-school D&D, and in the game as I try to run it, it’s not the dragon that kills you– it’s the fact that you took on the dragon after fighting waves and waves of kobolds that does it. 😉

In Terrycloth’s case, it sounds like his players are super-cautious, and based on how he describes his encounter designs elsewhere in the thread, that’s understandable. My players, on the other hand? Have no chill whatsoever. XD The bigger and more dangerous the monster, the more eager they seem to be to go poke it. It has been a combination of luck and teamwork that has kept their characters from getting killed time and time again, which is exactly how it should be for heroes.

Keep in mind, this is all very theoretical. Unless you’re actually designing the archetypal “20′ x 30′ rooms connected by 10′ halls” old-school dungeon, you may not be able to even tell where one “encounter” ends and another one begins. In my most recent scenario, the party was confronted with a fortress on a floating island, with a big villain and his minions, some potential allies, a dungeon underneath, and portions that were hostile to all– and being the perverse lot they are, they split up and went off to poke different parts of it. Was the rogue and wizard up in the villain’s tower “an encounter”? What about the rest of the party fighting minions down in the fortress courtyard? I mean… yes? But neither of them fit into the “encounter-rest-encounter-rest” model. It’s just the story that emerged.

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This weekend, my drow bard Obsidian and her associates went through a scenario that was clearly a riff/parody on the classic old-school dungeon crawl– to the point where it was lampshaded by a plaque over the door that said, “Welcome to the funhouse!” 90% of the action took place on a sheet of graph paper and it involved going from room to room, attempting to bypass traps and searching for secret doors, with the occasional monster fight tossed in as a hazard.

Now for some context here, our party is very beefy, but not much in the way of finesse. Between six characters, there is one level of rogue– on the orc fighter. So, he has expertise with thieves’ tools, while Obsidian has proficiency with Investigation. Between the two of us, we make a functional rogue. >.>

However, against one locked door, we just plain got stuck; we both rolled absolute crap trying to get it open. At this point, Jamie (the DM) said something that was both brilliant, and pointed out a quirk in the game as it was being played: “The two of you eventually manage to get it open, but you waste ten minutes bickering about it.”

That’s a totally in-character thing for Obsidian and her orc bodyguard to do and it was a funny moment, but it also leads to the question, “If we were eventually going to get past the door either way, why even roll for it?”

Now this is a solved problem in the classic dungeon crawl: every ten minutes in the dungeon is another roll for wandering monsters– who have no treasure or valuables, they’re just there to eat your hit points and waste your spells. But this particular dungeon had no wandering monsters, as part of the story background. From a gameplay POV, there was no consequence to passing for failing the skill check other than how the description played out.

Ever since the session I’ve been thinking about how I would have handled that situation. The current prevailing wisdom is that if there is no consequence for failure and the PCs have a reasonable chance of succeeding (especially if they can just keep trying over and over), that the DM shouldn’t bother calling for a roll at all and just say “You pick the lock. In the room beyond you find…”

Which is expedient, yes, but boring. How could that be spiced up a bit?

I found some inspiration in a recent article about the Mouse Guard RPG, in which instead of a dead stop, a failed skill check may create a “twist.” The twist could be a wandering monster check as in the days of old, or it could be a condition imposed on one or more members of the group. This calls for a bit more thought on the DM’s part, but can be worked into the adventure with a little brainstorming during prep. Some example twists that jump to my mind around the task of picking a lock on a door include:

  • Wandering monster check

  • The Mouse Guard example: you have to hide from passing guards to avoid giving yourself away; Wisdom save (DC equal to the door check) or you become frightened by their cruel jokes about executing prisoners

  • You spend so long on the task that you must make a Constitution save to avoid a level of exhaustion

  • You damaged your lockpicks. Make a Dexterity save or suffer disadvantage with all of your future checks with them until you can get a new set.

Note that the assumption here is that, success or failure, the party does open the door. That part is assumed, similar to the way Gumshoe assumes that players always find the clues. The skill check isn’t “Do you succeed?” so much as “How tough is it to succeed?” You’d also have to figure out for each twist, what would be required to overcome the condition imposed, such as replacing damaged lockpicks, or possibly “until your next short rest.”

Of course, that leads to the question, “How do you keep the players from constantly taking short rests in a dungeon with no wandering monsters?” And I do have thoughts on that too, but that’s for another post. 😉

-The Gneech

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Angband, by Angus Mcbride, or, A Million Gazillion Orcs

Sunny days and crisp weather have arrived here, and that always puts Dungeons and Dragons on my brain– because way back in 1983 a bunch of us would hang out behind our high school on days like this and play through a very freeform megadungeon game of my own creation. I particularly remember a moment I’ve written about before, where one of my players (who always wanted to run ahead on his own) opened a door, only to be informed that behind it was a massive chamber with 200 orcs… to which his response is “I slam the door and run away!” Fun times. XD

At the time, I didn’t use the D&D rules, partially because I had all of a Holmes Basic Set and an AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide to work from (making for an incomplete and often contradictory ruleset to begin with), but mostly because I didn’t have the patience to sit down and puzzle it all out.

What I did have the patience for, for whatever reason, was to create my own ridiculously kloodgey homebrew system that took bits of D&D and blended it with bits of Heritage’s Dungeon Dwellers series and then, at the table, was mostly ignored. This game system was called “Mid-Evil,” which I was very proud of at the time. >.>

Did I mention I was 13?

A year later, I tried to leverage this same mostly-nonsensical system into an espionage/modern action game called “I Spy,” which was just as nonsensical and took the inspiration for its one usable scenario from a segment of “The Bloodhound Gang” from 3-2-1 Contact.

So, yeah, “ambitious, but not sophisticated,” about sums me up in those days.

But as dorky and sophomoric as all these things were, they had fire and a pure love of the game that still makes me grin to remember. As I began to develop more sophistication I moved on to MERP and from there to the HERO System, becoming ever more enamored of “realism” and “maturity”– mostly because I was still young and insecure about such things.

A lot of my games from this second period were very sophisticated by comparison– I had a “street-level superheroes” campaign that delved into dark topics and psychology and presaged things like The Killing Joke by a matter of years. But at the same time, a lot of my gaming sessions felt like work– we were trying so hard to Make Art out of the game, that we would lose sight of the fact that we were a bunch of nerds sitting around a table rolling dice to control the fate of fictional characters.

These days, I’d like to think I can have the best of both worlds. I have primarily returned to D&D (using the actual rules, even), but I work with the players to integrate their characters’ personalities and background into the campaign. There are random encounter tables, but they are built with an eye toward reinforcing the theme or environment of the adventure instead of being a giant kitchen sink of weirdness. There are serious NPC allies, enemies, or wildcards, but there are also moments of pure goofiness.

But most importantly, I remember these days why I fell in love with the game in the first place– those crazy moments of shared story that we were all creating together, where the stuff on the paper was there if we wanted it, but also didn’t matter if it didn’t actually make things more fun. And I’m always grateful for D&D weather, because that’s what it reminds me of.

-The Gneech

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Uncanny Midnight Tales, by John 'The Gneech' Robey

Madison Beacon-Examiner handout for UMT Back in 2008, I was a huge fan of Star Wars Saga Edition, and in some ways it’s still my favorite iteration of the d20 engine. For this game, I created a Call of Cthulhu tribute game, Uncanny Midnight Tales. With Halloween a mere two weeks away, I thought now might be a good time to once again share it with the world!

Watch out, Not Howard Carter!What’s presented is not a complete game– it requires the Star Wars Saga Edition rulebook to play (and of course, SWSE was not OGL, so there isn’t any SRD for it), but for the most part it could be played in 5E with little alteration. But it does include character creation, equipment, and a Gamemaster Guide with a ready-to-go adventure and a collection of creature and monster stats.

Really, the entire project was more an excuse for me to create “my vision” of what a d20-based CoC might look like, but I had a lot of fun with it and creating all the handouts, and I don’t want it to be lost to the world. So go forth! Click on any of the images and have some spoopy fun this Halloween, on me!

-The Gneech

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…Yeah, okay, that title doesn’t make much sense. >.> But we’ll roll with it!

My Storm King’s Thunder campaign is rolling along nicely, going on something like two years now. SKT was hailed in reviews as being a terrific sandboxey adventure, which it kinda-sorta is, and kinda-sorta isn’t [1], but we are now in the “post Eye-Of-the-All-Father” stage of the campaign, which very much isn’t a sandbox, as written. I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say that if you’re familiar with SKT, you will probably know what I mean when I say that from Chapter Five forward, it’s pretty much a railroady race to the end, with scripted cutscenes for NPCs to have big moments baked in and everything.

Which, y’know, makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t really write “a campaign in a book” like this and have the ending make any kind of sense, if you don’t collapse all the probability waveforms down into a single cohesive storyline. But running a railroad game is fundamentally opposed to my Gamemastering credo, specifically items #7 and #9. So how to resolve this?

Actually, the answer is also in the Credo, specifically item #11. I’m tossing in a bunch of potential side-quests of my own design, most if not all of which are optional. The most recent sessions involved the characters happening upon a derelict cloud giant skycastle that by the machinations of fate was tied in to one of the PCs’ backstories– none of which is in the adventure-as-written. This particular side-quest kinda floated in the liminal space between sandbox and railroad, in that I was pretty confident that when confronted with an unexpected floating island, the PCs would want to check it out… but they also had the option, and the story would not have been broken, if they just shrugged and said, “Meh, the Oracle told us to go to Ironslag, let’s keep going to Ironslag.”

The scenario ended with them in something of a quandary about what to do next: they’ve still got the task at Ironslag waiting for them, but I can see at least three other directions they might want to go from here, and none of them would be “wrong answers.” One of those is even still on the Storm King’s Thunder script! Another one involves stopping at a town where they’ve never been and– guess what– that town is also a mini-quest-hub that has at least three side-quests going on as well.

I don’t expect the players to do all these side-quests, and honestly I wouldn’t want them to– it would probably feel tediously grindy to go on every monster-hunt they happened across, and you could play an MMO for that. But having the quests there gives the players “breathing space” around the main plot, in order to pursue their own agendas, which is what sandbox play is really all about at the heart of it.

It’s entirely possible that the players will look at the side-quests, say “Screw that noise!” and carry on racing towards the end of Storm King’s Thunder instead. That’s fine, too! It’s entirely consistent with my GM credo to let the players buy their tickets and get on the plot railroad, if that’s what they have chosen to do.

[1] Actually, very few D&D games are actually “sandboxes.” What they may be is “open world,” but that’s another discussion all together. My experience is that most of the time, when people describe a D&D adventure as a sandbox, what they mean is “not a railroad.” ;P

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Spectral Slug

A post from AI Weirdness has been going around in which the author had a neural network create several monsters based on the bazillion or so created for 2E over the decades. Some of them are just funny ("Great Space Pat" is my particular fave), but a lot of them are pretty evocative or at least funky names that I want to remember for the future. So, note to myself...

Brain of Fire
Spider Horse
Undead Lake Man
Giant Fraithwarp
Dome Animal
Giant Dwarf
Desert Beeple
Wendless Woll
Death Seep Dragon
Fumble Unicorn
Stone Feast
Durp Snake

-The Gneech, shall rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon see if I don't
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A very simple Pathfinder encounter.
Pictured: A particularly simple and streamlined 1st level Pathfinder encounter.

So Paizo announced yesterday they're doing a new edition of Pathfinder, pretty close to the ten-year mark. For me, this is a shrug moment, as I am for the first time that I can recall perfectly happy with a ruleset, namely D&D 5E. (I like it even better than Star Wars Saga Edition, which is saying something.)

My big hope for it would be a turn to simplicity and general "shedding of baggage" in the Pathfinder line, because I find most of their adventure modules unusably bloated and byzantine– and adventure modules are what I want from Paizo more than anything. (Man, I miss the days of 32 page "drop this in your campaign" modules. Even more I miss Dungeon magazine.)

But looking at all this with the detached view of someone who isn't going to change game systems in any case, I wandered over to ENWorld and the Paizo forums and... ugh. I always forget how pessimistic and pointlessly cynical the online gaming community is, until I go wade in again. I mean, I know the term "grognard" is used for a reason, but the gamers I actually hang out with are overall pretty awesome and upbeat people just there to have fun.

At this stage, I mostly feel bad for the Erik Monas and Mike Mearlses of the world, who have to try to engage with their user base and are constantly beset by this crap. "It's just a cash grab!" "YOU'RE DESTROYING MY GAME!" "I'm sooooo disappointed..."

And yes, I engaged in it myself, back in the day, I won't bother trying to deny it. I regret that, but the damage is done and I'm not the person I was ten years ago. But also, the online gaming community is not what it was then, either.

Long story short? I miss the days before "Don't read the comments." Internet forums are all comment! And they used to be fun and useful, once. :P

-The Gneech
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Brother Drang summons lightning against the cave leaper. It's SUPER EFFECTIVE.

An epic moment from last night's D&D session. Wandering around the underdark because reasons, the party was attacked on a long and narrow span by "cave leapers" (a kind of bat-winged flying dire toad thing) and purple worm larvae, in an encounter literally named "The Gorge of Horrible Things."

Hantamouse's storm cleric ("Brother Drang") was swallowed whole by a leaper, which then tried to fly off. The barbarian lassoed it, and SirFox's rogue (an anthropomorphic flying squirrel) jumped on it, stabbing the thing with his rapier to make a handle. At this point Hanta, who had already cast summon lightning at the beginning of the fight, decided he had no fucks to give and blasted the thing from the inside out, failing the saving roll against his own spell and taking the full brunt of it as well.

Me: "The good news is, you killed the cave leaper! The bad news is, you're now 20 feet in the air trapped inside a dead leaper. You take five more points of damage from the fall."

Hanta: "No I don't! I'm at zero already."

They won, in the end. ;)

-The Gneech
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D&D Overland Travel Encounter Table Template

Enjoy. :)

-The Gneech
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Kihai the Grandiose

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 [personal profile] 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.

-The Gneech

[1] Immediately mangled to "Sheepbright," because Kihai seems to have difficulty getting people's names right.

[2] "It goes with the hat!"

[3] 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.

[4] Which she actually managed to roll almost the minimum damage on (4d6 for 1, 1, 1, 2), but it was still enough!
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Kihai, ready for some do-goodery!

Last night was the second session of [personal profile] 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

First Session
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.

Second Session
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 newlyweds dragon and wizard farewell, and escorted the miller's daughter home, with Ixy finally renaming the dragon Scintillax the Multicolored. We were rewarded with gold and enough XP to hit 3rd level.

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: [personal profile] 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!

-The Gneech
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Assassin's Kitty, by Hax
Assassin's Kitty, by Hax

So [personal profile] 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. :)

-The Gneech
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Pictured: Probably not challenging enough.

Pictured: Probably not challenging enough.

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?

-The Gneech

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

As a followup to my post about power inflation, something I'm pondering with Storm King's Thunder is the expected "tiers of play" built into D&D.

D&D has always had this, but in most editions it was kinda hidden. Low-level play is generally the stuff of Heroic Fantasy, taking on local bandits or smallish monsters, dungeon crawling and tomb raiding, generally very personal stakes. Mid-level play is more like High Fantasy, taking on legions of orcs, the occasional giant or dragon, saving the kingdom, that sort of thing. Then high-level play gets into the Power Cosmic, dealing with entire hordes, powerful (and generally super-weird) monsters like beholders, mind flayers, Galactus, and who-knows-what-else, and slaying gods.

(4E had this specifically called out, with everything but graduation ceremonies between tiers. It was designed to make the implicit, explicit, and therefore clearer, but in practice it just felt really clunky and artificial. Fortunately 5E went back to being subtle about it.)

There was a certain sense to that when campaigns lasted for years or decades. But these days? I dunno. 5E fast-forwards you through levels 1-3 (or just skips over them all together), and a typical "Adventure Path" style campaign in the modern mold is generally designed to cover 10+ levels over the course of about a year of play.

There are good meta reasons for this, of course. Very few RPG campaigns last longer than a year, and even staying around that long can be considered an achievement, so 1/2 to 2/3 of the game's actual content rarely sees actual use. What's the point of even having pit fiends and demiliches, if no player ever actually sees one?

But at the same time, to have a character go from scraping copper pieces together at 1st level, to drinking tea with ancient dragons just a year later, makes every campaign feel like That Escalated Quickly. It also wreaks havoc on gameworlds. Faerûn keeps getting blown up over and over again, as Tiamat becomes an epic threat, then the cults of elemental evil, then Demogorgon, then the giants... At least Middle-earth stayed saved.

MMOs, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They are generally designed to emulate one tier of play and stay there forever.

Reddit knows the score.

I've been playing LotRO for ten years. (That kind of amazes me.) My little hobbitey warden has defeated thousands of orcs, hundreds of trolls and giants, the last king of Arnor turned into a wraith, spiders the size of a house, a dracolich, the Watcher in the Water, one of the nine Nazgûl, and a freakin' balrog.

What is he doing ten years later? Still fighting orcs, mostly. XD The occasional 100th level sickle-fly. I think, if this was a tabletop campaign, I might find that a little odd.

What I'm looking for, I guess, is a sweet spot somewhere between these two extremes. 5E purposefully levels out the XP curve to stretch the mid-level range longer than the low and high ends to keep characters in that zone as long as possible, but I'm not sure even that's enough. (On top of which, if they're shrugging at hill giants now, what will they be like at 8th level? 10th?)

I'm kinda curious and would actually like to hear from people. If your only choice were one of the two, which would you prefer: a focused campaign with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end ("Throw the ring into Mount Doom!"), or the "continuing saga" of a group of characters that goes on indefinitely, with new stories popping up as old stories resolve, taking you all over the world and possibly beyond?

As an addon to that, how do you feel about the progression of tiers? Is there one you prefer to the others? Do you want to find one and stick with it, even if it meant an XP cap (or at least being cut back to a trickle)? Is the standard progression fine? Too slow? Too fast?

Enquiring Gneeches want to know!

-An Enquiring Gneech
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Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter
Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter

One issue I've encountered with the Storm King's Thunder game is power inflation. It was already an issue during the Keep On the Borderlands phase, but it has reached new heights. We've got a party of six fifth-level characters, who are off-and-on supported by a (CR 7) stone giant NPC, plus any other NPCs who happen to be along for the ride (Lord Alden and Harold, in the current scenario, are both effectively CR 1).

This is a party that punches well above its weight. My best guess, based on running the "encounter difficulty by XP budget" math, is that they are roughly on-par with a 10th level "typical" party. The problem with that, however, is that CR 10+ creatures have abilities and defenses that lower-level characters, even these powerhouses, might not have the resources to overcome.

But then again, they might. D&D has never done "boss fights" well, and that's still true of 5E. Put this party in a big empty room with a behir (CR 11), and my money would still be on the party unless the behir had access to lair or legendary actions. [personal profile] laurie_robey would probably get swallowed whole at least once, tho.

(In some ways, this is a feature, not a bug. If you put a giant boss at the bottom of a dungeon, where the PCs have had to fight their way to get to it and are down on resources, the fact that the boss is gimped by the party's number advantage is a hidden way to make the fight winnable while still feeling epic.)

The current thought on encounter design for D&D is that in any given encounter you should have at least three monsters against a regular party, plus one monster for each party member beyond four. So against a party of six, at least five monsters. Against a party of nine(!), at least eight monsters.

This is rapidly becoming a very crowded 30' x 50' dungeon room. ¬.¬

The good news is, 5E is so much faster than the past three editions that there's not that much overhead from having all these mass combats. "These two attack Rina. These four attack Togar. The ones attacking Rina need 10 or better, the ones attacking Togar need 16 or better." (Dice clatter.) The DMG has a chart for mob attacks that boils even that down to "If they need a 15, every fourth monster hits," but we have not (yet) had a fight so large that I felt it was worth looking it up.

Just taking the average damage from each mook attack, something I was dubious of at first, really makes this go even smoother. "You're hit twice, take ten points of damage." Easy peasy. The +/- 3 points of damage either way from rolling dice every time is not missed, although I still roll the damage individually for monster criticals, adding just that touch of spice roughly once or twice per game session.

The other issue, though, is 5E's strange fixation on not having monsters over CR 3 if at all possible. In the last session, Sheala took out a dozen enemies with a single fireball because they couldn't survive half damage even if they made their saves. You can start stacking your monster ranks with reskinned knights, veterans, gladiators, and bandit captains to buff them up a bit, or create 3.5-style "mob" versions of lower level foes, and there are some third party supplements for the purpose. But the players might rightfully wonder why the orcs last week couldn't withstand a fireball and the ones this week can, unless you introduce a story element of Bigger, Badder Orcs (say, a new strain bred by an evil wizard wearing shimmering rainbow robes).

There is an upside to having a party that can take a licking and keep on ticking– I can just put whatever I want and makes sense into the scenario and not be worried that they can't handle it. But the real problem is things that should be dangerous becoming trivial. The "svartjaw" in the last session was a reskinned wyvern, a CR 6 brute, and they just melted it like butter before a blowtorch. Players love and want to win, but if they don't feel like they had to at least work for it a little, it feels cheap, and will become boring fast.

5E's much-touted Bounded Accuracy is meant to address this very issue, but when you pile on a huge party like this, you flip the script. Suddenly the carefully-balanced math and action economy that is supposed to allow monsters to remain a threat across wider levels, is exactly what enables the party to just stomp all over everything.

There is also the Monty Haul problem, where the party's ability to take on outsized challenges leads to them racking up high level treasure and XP, which in turn enables them to level up even faster in a geometric spiral. Dividing the encounter XP by six, seven, or nine as appropriate helps here, and I have complete control over how much wealth the party has access to simply by decided what's out there, but it is still something I need to watch.

(As a side note, I do love that 5E is built on the assumption of class/race abilities only, decoupling magic items from character progression. I have always looked askance at "numerical progression" items from the first time I saw a +1 sword in my Moldvay Boxed Set with chits instead of dice. My completely perfect world would mostly leave out treasure too– when did you ever see Frodo and Sam count gold pieces? But I fear that would force a little too much of my own preferred playstyle onto the rest of the group, and certainly "local duke offers 500 gp for bandit slaying" is a handy wrench in the narrative toolbox.)

None of these challenges are insurmountable, and compared to the "I hate my life!" slog of prepping higher-level 3.x/PF these are perfectly-acceptable problems to have. They're just things I'm noticing about how the current game is going. Every campaign is different!

-The Gneech
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Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane
Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane

When you prep for the players to zig, they always zag. Continuing from part six...

We're finally caught up to the most recent game session! With game world firmly built out and chock-a-block with adventure hooks and sidequests, a firm campaign direction ("Escort Xerlo to the Eye of the All-Father"), and brain-eating enthusiasm infinitely better than the floundering avoidance I started with, I was excited for the characters to head into Rohan Hestelland. It was a four-day hike from Tyvalich to Hierandal, the capital of the realm, which was summarized in a paragraph because it mostly consisted of staring at grass for hours on end.

The first order of business on arriving in Hierandal was looking up Piotr Zymorven to ask him about his father's sword. They found him in a tavern... )

Well my dear readers, reskinned wyverns are still CR 6. A party of six 5th-level PCs and their CR 7 stone giant ally piledrived Svartjaw so fast that Lord Alden and his son didn't even get a chance to draw their swords. Lord Alden was quite upset by this apparent anticlimax to what he had expected to be an epic last hunt that would be sung of by the bards and so on... until Rina pointed out that the tracks they'd been following had a very distinctive tread missing three toes on one foot– and that the monster they had killed did not.

Svartjaw, it seemed, was not the only one of his kind.

Furthermore, examination of the bear revealed that like the displacer beasts in the previous session, Svartjaw was also wearing a collar with a token on it, in this case an emblem of Nerull the Reaper, a dark god of death and murder from eastern lands. There was still hunting to be done before dawn. The session ended with Lord Alden giving the order to mount up to continue the hunt, darkness and the forest be damned.

And with that, the campaign summary is up to date! The next session will begin with the PCs attempting to find Svartjaw's lair and confront the source of its evil. Will Lord Alden survive his last hunt? Time alone can tell.

-The Gneech
the_gneech: (Default)
The Grand, Unified Map of Gneech's Campaign World

Then, the world changed. Continuing from part five...

I was going to finish the recaps with the discussion of last weekend's session here, but I got to talking about the map (as one does) and realized the last recap would have to wait for one more post.

Once I realized that Storm King's Thunder was a "build your own campaign" framework and not a straightforward adventure module and embraced it, that meant that I had to build out the world in order to make room for it all. I went through the module from front to back and placed every location important to the campaign somewhere, and then set myself to the task of filling in as much of the blank space around that as possible.

I discovered that the Silver Coast was waaaaay too small... )

It took several days and the project pretty much ate my brain the whole time, but now that it's done I'm really happy with the result. This is a game world that I can see going pretty well forever, with enough detail and history to feel "lived in" while still having plenty of room for expansion as needed (I tried to leave myself lots of open spots). It's not suitable for publication or any such thing– it's got chunks of Greyhawk, chunks of Faerûn, bits of Lovecraft's Dreamlands, and of course the Middle-earth nations of Rohan, Arnor, and Angmar with the serial numbers shaved off. But it is a cool place for me and six friends to visit every Saturday night.

It also taught me a lot about world-building in general, which is valuable for creating original works. I will probably use a very similar process to build out Calypsitania and the Fortress of Tears world for writing novels in next.

Next time, part seven, in which we finally catch up to the campaign!

-The Gneech

February 2019

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