Wednesday, July 1, 2020
I'm going to do some maintenance this weekend and clean out some old blogs I used to read that have gone dormant or belly up. Let me know if you have any favorite blogs that are still doing the good work, I'll check them out and give them an add (including you're own, if you're a new blogger). For the state side folks, safe holidays everyone! See you in a few days.
Saturday, June 27, 2020
America is having a moment. We're emerging from weeks of protests in the streets regarding matters of race and equality after the public murder of George Floyd. Many corporations are taking a stance on how their products or services will change to reflect new attitudes. Brands are dropping outdated imagery, making donations in show of support, or publicly affirming their positions on diversity and inclusion. The NFL made a statement recognizing they need to support their black players. Even the publisher of D&D came out with their own statement on diversity in Dungeons & Dragons, as the shifts happening in the larger culture will be reflected in the game, too.
|No limits: Elf dentists, Orc wizards.|
Historically, the game has had a strange relationship with the concept of race. In the versions I learned in the 1980's, elves and dwarves and halflings were "demi-humans", and all the "monster" races were humanoids. It was implied humanoids were "born bad" and had fixed alignments in their monster stat blocks. After 40+ years of gaming, player preferences have shifted away from the underlying source literatures. There are game worlds where the halflings have been re-imagined as horrible little cannibals, and others where goblins are a mischievous player character race. Orcs are popular in video games and also as a playable race in some D&D game worlds. With the new Wizards of the Coast position, all character race options are now defined as "humanoids"; they can be any alignment, and players will have some flexibility on ability score increases and cultural backgrounds. Time for an orc wizard? These changes seem fairly benign, but there are interesting implications for world building.
Here's a thought experiment - consider a human-centric game setting, something like Game of Thrones, with your faux Viking culture (Ironborn) and your faux Mongols (Doth Raki) and your horrible western knights. There was no dearth of conflict, drama, bloodshed, or violence, to support a rich fantasy campaign world in GRR's setting. You can create interesting villainous cultures and also have sympathetic characters and engaging stories involving members of those cultures*. Where there is irrational antipathy and prejudice - for instance, the way the Westerosi and Night's Watch view the Wildlings from beyond the wall - we (the readers and viewers) are given a broader view and see the Wildlings as a multi-dimensional and admirable group of people. (I'd be on Team Tormund Giantsbane, that guy is legendary.)
To the extent future game worlds will begin to put the various humanoids on the same footing as humanity, I can see myself drawing on sources like Westeros for inspiration on both presenting adversarial cultures, yet having sympathetic members of those cultures. I like making elves into the awful ones in my games, they're ripe to be cast as haughty villains, and let the player characters be the exception if they pick an elf. I'm looking forward to developing an orc culture on one of the continents and casting their values in orcish terms - they embrace pragmatism and common sense - a smart orc looks after themself! If a player wants to be an emigrant from one of the humanoid cultures in the broader world, it'll be great fun. Games are more interesting when there are grey areas around allegiances and alliances, and the players need to make choices about parleying with opponents instead of attacking everything on sight. Dust off those reaction rolls and morale checks for a change (or add useful ones to your 5E game... they're a bit lackluster in the 5th). For humanoid-style monsters that you want to keep as "kill on sight" I'd suggest changing their designation from humanoid to something more alien or monstrous. Gnolls, for instance, are supposedly descended from hyenas who ate demon-tainted corpses and mutated into bi-pedal ravagers; since they're practically demon spawn already, let's just tag them as "fiends". I think one of the designers already mentioned this might be in the offing. In one of my settings, goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears will be recast as evil fey, servants of the Winter Court, who sneak into the world to cause mischief, collecting infants for David Bowie.
I didn't see much commentary on the blogs about the WOTC announcement or its implications. The again, I don't know many 5E blogs, and there's not much reason for OSR gamers to pay attention to the mothership. For me. there are some intensely personal reasons to be sensitive to race depictions in game worlds. My youngest son is adopted, a proud African American 13 year old kiddo, and it's been a journey to learn to see the world through his eyes. (I'm certainly not there yet). He relates to Black Panther, Nick Fury, Luke Cage, and the Falcon a whole lot more than Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, or anyone else from Tolkien's bunch. Part of our "Living Covida Loca" has been family movie nights where we've watched Lord of the Rings, all the Marvel Universe movies, and now working our way through Star Wars saga, so we've talked about which characters he likes quite a bit. The phrase I've heard online is "representation matters" - people want to be able to see themselves in their entertainment media. That could mean human characters that look like them, or humanoids that are more relatable than bleached European elves. I support this new approach by Wizards of the Coast, and plan to work these ideas into upcoming settings.
*I'm aware Westeros is not entirely without problematic depictions, particularly where the Mother of Dragons is concerned.
Saturday, June 20, 2020
Somewhere along the way, Dungeons & Dragons dropped the "caller" role. I learned how to play and run the game from the Moldvay Basic Rules back in 1981, and the caller was prominently featured - for each dungeon exploration session, the players were expected to pick someone to map, and someone to "call". Moldvay defines the caller as "the player who normally tells the DM what his or her party will do, based on what the other players tell him or her". Here's a description right from the introduction:
To avoid confusion, the players should select one player to speak for the entire group or party. That player is named the caller. When unusual situations occur, each player may want to say what his or her characters is doing. The caller should make sure that he or she is accurately representing all the player characters' wishes. The caller is a mediator between the players and the DM, and should not judge what the player characters should do.
When I've seen the role mentioned on the modern discussion boards, it's usually disparaged with that charming anti-establishment attitude that makes us 'Muricans so likable. I don't need a leader. No one needs to speak for me, I can speak for myself. Don't tread on me. You can't make me wear a COVID mask. You're not the boss of me, and I certainly don't need a caller. (If alignment was real, sometimes I think a sizable portion of our society would be "chaotic neutral".)
I now recognize I've been keeping the caller as a vestige from an earlier instance of the game. I no longer have any 3rd or 4th edition books lying around, so I can't go see exactly when it dropped out of guidance on playing the game. My sense is that as D&D shifted from 6-10 (rowdy) players to much smaller groups, it naturally fell out of vogue. The 5th edition ideal is 4 players. Nonetheless, I still see value and practical benefits in the role.
As noted by Moldvay, the caller is not a tyrant. The role is a facilitator, to lead discussion among the players when group decisions need to be made. It's more of a scrum master rather than a project manager, if you happen to be in the tech world and can appreciate the analogy. Since I mainly run exploration games, the players need to spend time at the start of each game session aligning on a course of action. The caller is the one who frames the options and collects feedback from the other players, soliciting opinions and votes and bringing the group to a consensus. When discussion and planning have ended, they signal to me play is ready to proceed and the caller relates what they're doing. During combats, where the 5E initiative order is based on the individual, the players narrate their actions in order, but even then, the caller might kick off a discussion about major tactics and coordinated actions if the players are conflicted.
My home games have involved dads and kids for well over a decade (although now the "kids" are all graduating from high school) and being named party caller puts a player into a spotlight role and gives them the chance to develop group leadership skills. By shifting the role each week, it ensures even the quiet players get a chance to be the center of attention. This was particularly useful when the kids were younger, so the dads didn't dominate all the decision making. It made the dads act more as advisors. So although the caller role is a legacy feature, it still maintained its utility.
Finally, it gives the referee a break. I rarely need to ask the players "which way are you going at the dungeon intersection, or what are you doing next" because there's a caller there already doing that for me! "Guys, looks like we can go left or right at the dungeon intersection, let's figure out what we're doing?" It takes a lot of energy to run a game, and it helps you stay a step ahead of the action when one of the players is expediting the group decisions. It gives the referee a breather to get the next set of descriptions right or consider some upcoming dialogue, or reflect on how to adapt the situation due to player activities.
Basic Red Book from 1981 is still arguably the best way to learn how to play D&D, run the game, and build dungeons. Like so many people involved with the basic D&D line, Tom Moldvay's influence is really underrated. In another 15 years when I'm considering retirement, I'd be happy to run classic D&D with my fellow geezers somewhere using nothing but those Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Rules. While I've got several personal copies stashed away for the future, I'd love to see WOTC make them print-on-demand or republished when D&D turns 50 - I guess that's 2025? Probably too early to start a write-in campaign for it.
Friday, June 12, 2020
There are bright spots to the pandemic lock down and switch to online remote work. I'm saving time by not having to don corporate America's "casual business attire" every day and migrate to the office - time that's being redirected to hobbies and hanging out with the kids. From the perspective of self-improvement, I'm trying to get better at chess, learning a little Spanish, and reading more books.
My wife's been working through a series called The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss, and she says they're quite engaging. The first one is called The Name of the Wind. I picked up a lengthy series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It's been languishing on my reading backlog. It's a 10 books series, clearly not for the faint of heart, and so far I've only read the first two books - Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates.
The world of the Malazan Empire started as a shared roleplaying campaign world in the 1980's. The referees each went on to write two entire fantasy series in their shared campaign world - the two authors being Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. It sounds like they dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons but ultimately landed on GURPS as their preferred system. Curiously, wasn't Westeros also based on an early GURPS campaign? Unlike George RR Martin, the Malazan guys don't seem reticent about discussing the gaming roots of their fantasy creations.
Here's a brief overview of what I've observed, 20% of the way through the series. The Malazan Empire, which calls to mind Imperial Rome or similar pre-modern empires, sprawls across multiple continents, with armies deployed far and wide to conquer new cities in the name of the Empress, or garrison distant places and stifle revolution. Most the main characters are military people, and the books very reminiscent of Glen Cook's The Black Company - fantasy through the lens of soldiers on the march.
Erikson has integrated magic into the everyday life of the army, very much taking what we'd call a "high magic" approach to world building. It's common for army units to have a "cadre mage" if not an entire unit of spell casters. Battlefield communications through magic is a thing - telepathy between mages or warlocks, or the Malazan equivalent of "sending stones". There are demi-planes called "warrens", from which a mage draws power, that can also be used for limited forms of fast travel. There's an element to each battle where enemy mages face off and attempt to neutralize the magic on the other side, before the grim work of the foot soldiers can take place.
There are gods and clerics in the world - both elder gods and "Ascendants", humans who have used magic to transcend to a demi-godlike state. I'm not familiar enough with GURPS to know if it had options for apotheosis, but BECMI certainly did - all of the "immortals" of the Mystara setting were transcended humans, great heroes of the past. A Malazan-like setting could be done well with BECMI. I'm greatly enjoying how Erikson works the machinations of the Ascendants into his series - although some of the Ascendants have recognizable goals, their appearances are mysterious and terrifying.
The world of the Malazan empire is ancient, with a history going back hundreds of thousands of years. Both Erikson and Esslemont have backgrounds as archaeologists, and it comes through in the way secrets related to ancient, inhuman races emerge to trouble the current age. There's not an elf, dwarf, or halfling in sight.
One of the most gameable concepts I plan to lift is the maxim "power attracts power". The idea is that in a world with ancient and powerful entities, a certain "low profile" should be maintained because powerful forces attract powerful opponents, like a natural law. In a game like Dungeons & Dragons, where player characters inexorably rise in levels, the maxim "power attracts power" provides a rationale why your epic characters attract high level trouble as they move around or create domains. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, the Queen of the Demonweb Pits walks into mine." Play it again Sam.
|Not Elric or Drizz't... it's Anomander!|
There's much I've been appreciating as a gamer and world builder. I usually have distant or absent deities in my settings, but Erikson strikes a good tone with meddlesome gods and machinations of the "Ascendants", as well as his portrayal of priests and clerics as agents of their respective deities. Because many of the gods were recently mortals, they have scores to settle with human empires. I also like the portrayal of how ordinary soldiers and people get caught up in events with these terrifying immortals or ancient powers - they enter a scene, wreak some havoc, and take their struggles elsewhere. It's almost like getting the view of New York City from ordinary folks after the Avengers have had a giant battle in the city - but a fantasy world equivalent. There are techniques to be learned here on presenting your high fantasy, high powered gaming setting. Here's my list of game-able elements gleaned from Malazan, that have kindled my imagination:
- Meddlesome gods and Ascendants
- Clerics as divine instruments
- Magical healing as a military resource
- The importance of warfare and political scheming
- Mages in the military, and practical magic
- Horrifying pre-human cultures and ruins
- Orders of assassins - the Talons and Claws
Has anyone else read this series? Would love to hear whether you borrowed any of Erikson's ideas, or perhaps Glen Cook's Black Company, for your game world. (I can't speak to Esslemont's writing yet). It also makes me want to look at more contemporary fantasy fictions and see what else is out there. Erikson's approach is so transparent with tropes taken from the world of gaming, it raises a new question - have forty plus years of Dungeons & Dragons so thoroughly influenced fantasy literature the genres are betimes indistinguishable?
Saturday, June 6, 2020
America is having a tough week. Actually it's been a tough year. We've got the COVID, the protests against brutality, the escalating police violence against said protesters. We've got murder hornets. We're all personally affected by the stuff going on to one degree or another - here on the east coast, I know many people who have lost loved ones to the virus. I sat down to write something cranky, but figured we've got enough negativity going around. Let's talk positively about something I do like - the humble experience point. And heck, maybe there's a way to make friends with the milestone approaches, too.
I had a terrible experience with 4E back when it was fresh and new, and that's what pushed me and my gaming group back to 1st Edition AD&D. We learned what the OSR folks were up to, and embraced the modern analysis of what made those earlier styles of play so much fun. In fact I'd say the project of my blog has become how best to run 5E in a style that leverages lessons from the heyday of the OSR and early D&D. Our weekly Tomb of Annihilation game is really close, but I'm not satisfied with the approach I took to managing experience. That's a story to tell sometime. So the larger work continues.
Let's step back and distill the essence of this play style I'm praising. Those early legendary 1970's dungeon masters ran megadungeons, sprawling multi-level complexes. Game structures were primarily site-based (dungeons or hexcrawls) and featured exploration as the principle motif. Whatever story is bolted on top the underlying exploration chassis (such as stopping the rampaging giants, discovering the secrets of the evil temple, finding the lich's treasure, pursuing the evil Drow to their underground city) is almost secondary to the exploration. Players are principally engaged with testing their wits against a hostile dungeon full of challenges, collecting experience points, and increasing their power. This mode of play maximizes the amount of choice and agency to the players. The players plan what they want to do each session, including resource planning. (Ideally the referee collects their ideas at the end of the current session to better prepare for next time). The game needs to telegraph enough information about the relative risk and reward opportunities so the players can incorporate that into their planning. This is simple in dungeons, where each new dungeon level down has more dangerous monsters and more wealth. In the hex crawl, distance from civilization is usually the barometer of danger.
Experience points are a complimentary game mechanic to site-based adventures. They let the players keep score on how well they're doing in the game. They're earned, not awarded. The exponential nature of those early experience charts motivate the players to seek out greater challenges to maintain the same upward momentum. Note that XP for Gold yields slightly different results than 5E's approach, XP for Fighting. XP for Gold is an abstraction - all the effort that went into finding treasure - fighting monsters, casting spells, disarming traps, solving puzzles, and so forth, are all assumed to be part of the effort of recovering the treasure. It's not meant to be realistic, but it is simple, transparent, player facing, easy to track, and non-arbitrary. XP for monsters defeated isn't horrible, but it does emphasize different behavior. I've found XP for Gold encourages craftier play, and games better reflect the Sword & Sorcery roots of D&D's earliest literary influences - Conan, Lankhmar, The Dying Earth, those types of tales.
With site-based adventures, the referee can mostly dispense with level-appropriate game balance. The ref might populate the local area with the goblin mines, the ogre caves, the vampire's tower, and the dragon's lair in the distant mountains. Or if the principal locale is a sprawling dungeon, you have level 1, level 2, level 3 of the dungeon, and so on. It's important to telegraph to the players, through rumors, talking to people in the setting, and similar information gathering, which adventure opportunities are going to be more dangerous. The players choose what to go after - it's on them if their first adventure is to go knock on that vampire's tower door. The creation of these sandbox locales or dungeon levels is really about seeding the setting with experience point opportunities. It's both art and science calculating how much of a dungeon level or wilderness area you expect a party to encounter before heading on, and populating it with appropriate experience opportunities.
There are challenges with sandbox creation. First, they can seem like a daunting amount of work - I think of prep time in terms of the sandbox triangle (you can have a lot of detail, but it takes a lot of work; or you can build out a bigger area with not a lot of detail for the same time investment). Older editions put a lot of emphasis on random tables, both wilderness encounters and dungeon wandering monsters, to create a sense of a living world and give the referee some help creating content on the fly. Finally, while there will be story reasons for various lairs and dungeons in the setting, and "plot hooks" that may motivate the players to go explore them, sandbox games are less about scripting an intricate story-line in advance, instead turning the keys over to the players and seeing what emerges from their activities.
I love site-based settings and exploration based play, and I strive to turn as much of the decision making and planning over to the players. Incidentally, these are still the most popular adventure styles with the 5E crowd, too; go to any ranking list on the official 5E adventures and products like Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, or Lost Mine of Phandelver, are consistently top of the lists, along with Tales from the Yawning Portal or Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Hint: they all feature exploration-based dungeons and open world sandboxes. I've been wondering how it would look to shift from having the players bean-count their experience points to using something even more abstract like milestones. Below are a few recent attempts.
Dungeon of the Mad Mage
When I was running Dungeon of the Mad Mage, the gigantic 23 level megadungeon for Waterdeep, I dispensed with experience points. Mad Mage's levels are calibrated to where a 4 person party needs to literally clear (as in fight, kill, or drive off) every single monster on a given level in order to collect enough experience to level up. It's tiresome to even think about, and way too much of a slog to be enjoyable. Nope. Instead I made the discovery of each new dungeon level into a milestone - the idea being the effort to explore a sprawling dungeon level, overcome traps, challenges, monsters, and so forth, represented achievements worthy of advancement (either a full or half level gained). Mad Mage's staircases are geographically remote on each dungeon level, requiring a party to negotiate large swaths of the dungeon level before descending. Normally I'd consider that a poorly designed map, but in this case those remote stairs became a feature, supporting exploration-based milestones. That campaign went on the shelf due to COVID, so we only got through the first few levels, but it was going exceedingly well. The players focused a lot more on scouting, negotiating with monsters, and using wits and guile to find those staircases in lieu of slaughtering every last monster. In this case, milestones worked well as stand-ins for experience points - they were player-facing, transparent, allowed the players to keep score, and influenced player planning.
Mad Mage is not popular with the vocal part of the 5E crowd. People look at 23 dungeon levels without an overarching scripted story, and they don't know what to do with it. I'll add a discussion of Undermountain to my backlog on posts I'll get to at some point - what we did to make it more engaging. Its not hard, but the dungeon master does have to do some work to overlay interesting story goals onto the megadungeon.
Dragon of Icespire Peak
Icespire Peak is the starter adventure in the second 5E boxed set (the Essentials Kit). On it's face, it describes a sandbox type area of the Sword Coast, with 12-14 adventure sites. There's a loose story in the sandbox - a white dragon has moved into the nearby area, and this has created some ripple effects that have put the sandbox in motion. The dragon has displaced a mountain orc tribe, and the mountain orcs have descended into the valley, attacking places or displacing other monsters that are now encroaching on the villagers. It uses a quasi-milestone approach... gain a level for each starter lair completed, then gain a level when completing two mid-tier sites, and so on. I'm running a new Tuesday night game with some of the adventurer's league guys via Zoom, bi-weekly, so we're getting some experience with this one. The adventures are presented as quests from the town master; the next 1-2 quests become available as the players finish the prior ones and level up. The fetch-quest approach isn't awful; the players have been able to collect a couple of quest ideas at a time from within town, map them out, and plan efficient ways to go tackle exploring 1-2 locales on an excursion out into the wilds. It's still enabling player-facing planning and decision making.
The village and Town Master is lackluster, and I'm finding it's critical there are interesting and engaging NPC's so the players learn more about the sandbox region. There are cool places on the map to explore, not tied to any quests, and the players need to hear about them from NPCs. As written, the quests and locales don't telegraph to the players the level of danger at each site. That's an element the referee needs to work into the player-facing aspect of Icespire Peak.
Neither of these approaches to merging milestones and site-based adventures left me completely satisfied. I suppose the Mad Mage approach was closest. Listing out the attributes I like about experience points - they're simple, transparent, player-facing, easy to track, and objective (ie, non-arbitrary) - the Mad Mage approach comes nearest to meeting the requirements. Unfortunately it puts a heavy constraint on how you construct your dungeon maps, and doesn't translate equally well to lairs or the hexcrawl space. Might just be easier to maintain using experience points, as they apply equally well in most situations. Would love to hear if any readers have successfully ported milestones into their exploration-based dungeons.
Friday, May 29, 2020
Yesterday I was catching up with my blog roll, and Feedly, and some synergistic posts revealed themselves. I came across Justin Alexander's discussion, The Decline and Fall of D&D Adventures, shortly followed by the Wandering Gamist's (final) review post of "Five Torches Deep", a rules set that tries to port "OSR styles" into 5E. Justin's post about the Decline of Dungeons is signaling that 5E never really provided a strong tutorial on how to build or run a good dungeon adventure, and now he's seeing published attempts that wildly miss the mark on what's required in terms of information and presentation. John at Wandering Gamist points out that as Five Torches Deep over-indexes on elements around resource management, they ignore the most important elements of an OSR style of dungeoneering - actually building a good dungeon and having strong procedures to manage dungeon exploration.
Both my blogging colleagues are touching on instances where they've encountered modern gamers attempting to follow older styles of play, but missing the mark by pursuing form over function. Doing things without understanding them - how to actually draw and key a dungeon, and why, or how the point of planning and resource management isn't for the resource part of the game to be the primary challenge, it's to support the actual goal - dungeon exploration balancing time and resources. In both cases you don't have a good game without high quality dungeon - plus a well made map, a good dungeon key with compelling story, and sound procedures for managing the exploration by the players.
I had no idea procedural dungeon exploration was even a gap in the 5E PHB! There's a loose discussion about time intervals and movement, but the book never puts it all together into a coherent example for the new players. Nor is there any sample dungeon in the DMG or an example of actual play. Those were prominent components in those older rule books! The Tower of Zenopus, Koriszegy Keep in Moldvay BX, Bartle's dungeon in the Mentzer Red Box, even the monastery dungeon in the 1E DMG were all prominently featured to transmit how play works. Who can forget Black Dougal's death scene? Those actual play examples demonstrate how the Q&A interaction between the referee and players advance the game state, how a mapper or caller fits into exploration, when do you roll for wander monsters, that kind of stuff. I had no idea any of that was missing in the Fifth. I just carried along working procedures from the old games into 5E and kept trucking. Upon my fresh reading, I did see that the PHB allows characters to explore in a single minute more than older editions would let the players cover in an entire turn (10 minutes). Apparently none of my players read the PHB and caught that, either.
Why would WOTC omit sample dungeons and examples of play? Maybe they figured 5E players are already players from older editions, or new folks would join existing groups and receive institutional knowledge from their surroundings. Maybe they expected new players to head out to YouTube or Twitch and learn how to run a game there. YouTube is my go-to for learning simple home repairs - repairing drywall, or fixing a leaking faucet. Why not how to build or run a dungeon? Possibly WOTC didn't think it's that important in the modern age - lots of people seem to have eschewed dungeons for scene-based adventures.
I would imagine everyone who checks out my blog would have started gaming before 5E, and already have a good grasp on building and running dungeons (or at least exploring them as a player) from an older edition. (If you are that one new person who never played D&D before 5E and happens to see this place, please drop a hello in the comments - and welcome!) But I also see evidence there are segments of newer gamers that don't understand how to finesse the site-based or dungeon exploration format. For instance, referees either love or hate Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, a 23 level megadungeon for 5E. The haters see a giant dungeon, no scenes, no overarching plots, and they're not sure what to do with it. Hard pass - I'm moving on to the next Adventure Path. And now wonder - neither 5E (or the adventure itself) has fully prepared them. Dungeons, especially megadungeons, require more and different from the referee.
Anyway, while I'm waxing on old knowledge, here's one that cracked me up - I came across a group of "grognards" who started playing in the old days - you know, during 4th edition! Or maybe 3rd. Out here in the real world, grognard means 1970's D&D, accept no substitutes. (Except the real grognards, the ones that painted the Napoleonic miniatures in the 60's and 70's and used sandtables for their war games, would poke some fun at we roleplayers, I'm sure). Don't take yourself too seriously, I guess is the message.
Sunday, May 17, 2020
It's been a few weeks since we checked in on my Tomb of Annihilation game, and what the players have been doing. The short answer - they've been dying! The game is 5E, so character death is much rarer than OSR games, especially when the group is 9th and 10th level. Despite us playing 5E, they managed to get two founding members killed last week.
The Tomb of the Nine Gods (the erstwhile Tomb of Annihilation) is a creation of the lich Acererak, with green devil faces and all the Acererak stuff you'd expect. Hidden somewhere in the tomb is a corrupt relic that's causing a "death curse" in the Forgotten Realms. The campaign has seen the players explore a massive jungle hex crawl, a ruined city deep in the jungle, and now a trap-filled dungeon, seeking the source of the death curse. The 3rd level of the tomb, where our action occurred, also happens to be the lair of a Beholder, "Belchorzh the Unseen".
Many of the walls across level 3 are covered in purple mold, which can sprout small eyeballs to watch the adventurers... or zap them with an eye ray if they try and destroy the mold. It's similar to a "lair effect" for the beholder. As the players carefully made their way across level 3, defeating puzzles and traps, fighting the tomb's guardians, the beholder was there, watching from the purple mold eyeballs. When they collected the 10 "eye gems" needed to unlock the vault door to the beholder's lair, it knew their personalities and capabilities well.
Belchorzh lairs in a 50' diameter vaulted room, with a 50' domed ceiling overhead. The polished, reflective marble of the floor was treated to be like ice, causing unlucky characters to slip and fall. The beholder had another unfair environmental factor, a floating metal sphere (6' across) with a powerful magnetic effect that sucked all metal-wearing characters to stick to the sphere. The magnetic field also caused missiles to veer off-kilter, making ranged attacks against the beholder suffer disadvantage.
Besides it's eye rays and anti-magic cone, the beholder also had the gift of invisibility. He is called Belchorzh the Unseen, after all. Acererak had granted the beholder a permanent invisibility effect with a wish spell; dispelling the invisibility was not a guarantee unless the players got lucky.
Tracking an invisible flying monster, that can move 3 dimensional, is challenging, but managing the beholder's tactics is compounded by needing to consider the cone of anti-magic out of it's main eye, which nullifies it's own eye rays. I developed a notation for the beholder's turns of tracking which clock setting the beholder was closest, where it was looking (for purposes of the anti-magic) and it's current elevation, in case of area attacks. In this way I could leave the beholder off the field of battle while it was undetected and invisible, but still track it's location in case someone got lucky with an area attack, like a fireball. As a rule, the beholder would suppress part of the group with it's anti-magic cone, leave some character's unaffected, and then assault the characters outside of the anti-magic zone with eye rays.
Two of the heavy hitters (the warlock Osric and the dwarf cleric, Stompy) both got stuck to the magnet ball, which the beholder levitated up the ceiling on a future turn with its telekinesis power, putting them out of the way. Because it never looked up with the anti-magic cone, they were good targets for random eye rays, and the dwarf would have been killed by a death ray if not for wearing a "death ward" spell. As the beholder used eye rays, the players could triangulate it's position for area fire and place it in a vicinity, even if they couldn't see it.
|A beholder laying the smackdown|
After a session and a half of battling the beholder, the group suffered crippling losses and eventually made a run for it. Reed, their halfling rogue, was disintegrated to a pile of dust; Emporo the Mighty, their fighter, was petrified and abandoned to his fate. The other characters had been experiencing a wide range of deleterious effects, such as paralysis, sleep, and the worst - being charmed. Beholders are no joke.
Here's a question for fellow referees - how much do you consider it the dungeon master's role to coach and train your table of players to play well? I don't mean "in the moment", they need to make their own choices during tactical play, otherwise you're just playing the game for them. But I'll give you an example of coaching - before we started this final chapter of the campaign, now going back a few months ago, I suggested they make it a habit to talk (as a group) about spell preparation whenever they finish a long rest - it encourages group problem solving and awareness of each other's capabilities. Plus our two spell casters, the cleric and wizard, are both casual players and could use the help with spell selection from the power gamers. I insinuated that a trap-filled puzzle dungeon requires different planning considerations than a combat-heavy dungeon crawl; they should reconsider detection spells, locate object, dispel magic, and similar utility spells. "What got you here won't get you there", as they say; the game is changing. It's one of the truly great or terrible things about Tomb of Annihilation; the different campaign arcs require different stylistic approaches to succeed, providing distinct arcs and experiences. Hex crawling wilderness travel doesn't prepare you for Tomb of Horrors style misdirection and stakes.
Their first blunder in the beholder's lair was not having (enough) dispel magic on hand. The warlock had it prepared, but he used his first spell slot to summon an elemental, and he failed his dispel magic roll on his one shot to dispel the invisibility. The cleric, wizard, and sorceror could offer nothing, and were punished for it - they couldn't deactivate the magnet ball, save their friends from charm spells, or deal with the beholder's invisibility, which even limited the use of their spell repertoires. You can't magic missile something you can't see.
There were other issues with their all around play, too. Several characters had access to at-will magic abilities that could let them identify if they were in or out of the anti-magic field just by checking if their items were working - simple stuff, like making their magic weapon glow. Some of the casters sacrificed spells trying to cast while standing in the anti-magic zone and watching their effect fizzle. The fighter forgot he was an expert bowman for part of the night. The metal-armored guys could have cut the straps on their armor to escape the metal magnet globe, or tried to destroy it (especially the dwarf cleric, who wields a non-metal staff of striking).
Despite bad tactics and a poor plan, they still escaped with only two deaths out of six players, and the beholder was down to less than 30 hit points when they finally fled; it had been offering them terms of surrender in the lead up to their departure. You'd expect a beholder to "own" a party of unprepared characters, so if there's one silver lining, it reiterated that even mid=level 5E can be deadly if the player aren't on top of their game.
We arranged new level 9 characters for the fallen, and inserted them into the dungeon as survivors of an earlier excursion, lost in the mirror dimension (a copy of the tomb accessible on level 2). Having had enough of invisible beholders, the party rested far away from the beholder's lair, and completely bypassed level 3 on their next trip down. When we pick up with the next game report, it will be with their explorations on level 4.
Back to the topic of coaching, though, last week's session triggered me to reflect on the role of referee as "good gameplay teacher". I believe we have an obligation, particularly early in a campaign and with new players, to make sure they understand the rules and their character options. Friendly reminders of overlooked abilities are appropriate, at the start of a session, for instance. The reminder that they collaborate on spell selection and planning is of that nature. Beyond that, however, we have to be willing to let player choice and the dice dictate the outcomes, untroubled by DM interventions. Our stories of Belchorzh the Unseen, the beholder that bested them and from whom they barely escaped, will be better for it. Sadly I don't think Tomb of Annihilation is that popular with the typical 5E crowd, they seem to want the heavily plotted adventure path type scenarios. They're perplexed by how to run a wide-open sandbox game. It's a pity, because it'd be interesting to read more game reports on how players fared with Belchorzh.