Sunday, December 1, 2019

Get Your Mythology on with Odyssey of the Dragonlords - A Review

Odyssey of the Dragonlords kickstarted earlier this year, and the digital rewards were delivered in October.  With the long holiday weekend, I was able to finish my read through and reflect on the work.  It's impressive.  You'll see below I call out several things I see as problems, but the vision and scope of Odyssey of the Dragonlords is inspiring.  It's broken new ground for 5E.

Like most reviews, there are could be some spoilers ahead.

What is It
The Behemoth, a giant monster
Odyssey of the Dragonlords is essentially a massive "adventure path" that takes a group of characters from 1st level up to at least 15th level, and probably closer to level 20 (or immortality, whatever comes first.)  Along the way, it details a setting heavily inspired by Greek mythology, called Thylea, with analogs to Sparta, Athens, Atlantis, the underworld, and many island stops reminiscent of the Odyssey.  For inspiration, it felt like reading a mashup of The Iliad, The Odyssey, the Metamorphoses, Percy Jackson, Clash of the Titans, Xena Warrior Princess, The 300, Dragonlance, and the Godzilla series.  (There are lots of giant monsters).

It comes with an extensive player's guide (freely available:  here) which includes Greek myth inspired races, new class archetypes, a setting guide, and a new type of background called an "epic path".  The epic paths are optional additions that give the character another connection to the setting, and establish a potential story-line and destiny for the character.  They reminded me of 4E's "epic destinies" but you establish them during character creation instead of waiting for "Tier 4".

Who Made It
The writers are credited as James Ohlen and Jesse Sky in partnership as Arcanum Worlds with several other creative contributors; the kickstarter listed them as fans of Dungeons & Dragons, long time campaigners, and possessing many video game creative credits (Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, those types of games).  The setting, characters, and plot-lines all point to professional writers, backed by a serious publishing house (in this case - Modiphius Entertainment, publisher of a wide range of RPGs and board games - Vampire the Masquerade, Star Trek, Conan, Acthung! Cthulhu, and more).  The cadre of artists they assembled did a fantastic job bringing Thylea to life.
The Mossy Temple

What Was Awesome
I loved the setting of Thylea. As the campaign develops, the authors incorporate the major themes and elements from mythology or the secondary material, while retaining the core of the D&D game experience.  Plus dragons.  There weren't any traditional dragons in Greek Myth (Ladon, or maybe the serpent of Pythia) so the dragons of Thylea arrived from the outer lands as invaders.  It wasn't lost on me that Odyssey of the Dragonlords has similarities to the Dragonlance series of the 80's; both lay out an epic storyline for the player characters with world-shaking implications, they involve reintroduction of lost or missing gods, and plenty of dragons to battle and ride.  There's even an Orb of Dragonkind as a potential treasure, like an Easter egg pointing towards Hickman and Weis.

Kentimane:  the campaign's hundred-handed one, an Elder Titan
Odyssey of the Dragonlords is epic in scope.  The central conflict regards a 500 year peace between the ancient Titans and the gods that is about to end, plunging the world back into a divine war.  The oracle identifies the player characters as the heroes that can forge a new peace by confronting and defeating the Titans, after a series of quests and journeys to arm themselves and build their power.  However, confronting the ancient Titans is only the first domino; there are older and more dangerous forces in the cosmos, and where this particular campaign shines is it's willingness to up the ante and push the high-powered characters into conflict with larger and stranger primordial threats.  The capstone involves 4 terrible "weapons of the gods", giant monsters from the dawn times, awakened and rampaging across the land all at the same time.  One of them is the Tarrasque.

I already called out a reference to Dragonlance; the campaign also reminded me quite a bit of Mystara, another gem from the 80's.  There used to be a boxed set called "Wrath of the Immortals" that featured a world-spanning divine war.  This campaign is just as gonzo as anything published for Mystara.  One of the potential end-games for the characters is to ascend to immortality themselves and become a new pantheon.  Great stuff, absolutely bonkers - like those 70's campaigns where the players killed Thor with Stormbringer and then used Mjolnir to smash Cthulhu (because Deities and Demigods was a monster book, right?)

Thylea is a self-contained "world" that supports a game master putting the continent and islands of Thylea into an existing game setting - there are plausible explanations regarding why outsiders can reach Thylea.  This explains why they setting has some elves, halflings, dwarves, and dragons, mixed in with the satyrs, centaurs, nymphs and sirens.

Any long time reader here knows I favor sandbox settings - hex crawls and megadungeons.  Give me the lego blocks, let me build my own thing - don't give me a 300 page story to follow.  Odyssey of the Dragonlords is a 300 page "adventure path".  The action is especially forced in the first few chapters, getting the players to board the train and leave the station.  However, once the characters are engaged with the main story-line, the world opens up significantly and the players get real choice on how to attack the remaining story-line.

Similarly, the player characters are the snowflake chosen ones, right from the start, assuming they chose an epic path.  It's in keeping with the source inspiration - if you're a demigod learning to grow into your power, this is a fact that oracles and the great powers can learn.  Kings have heard of you, the gods know about you.  You can't play as Achilles, Hercules, or one of the Argonauts without having some degree of destiny and fate surrounding your character.  But this is much different style of play than the zero-to-hero approach in our OSR games.  That being said, the authors implemented the "epic paths" well here - they don't constrain agency, they just give the players some narrative juice and built in goals they can pursue (or not).

There's a lot of redundant read aloud text.  An entry may go like this:  After fighting the big evil thing, the characters are compelled to visit the city by a summons - immediately followed by read aloud text that says "After you fought the big evil thing, you and your friends are compelled to visit the city by a summons..."  I'm being pedantic, as this is stuff you can fix at the table with your own presentation (ie, I personally don't tend to use read aloud text).

Overall Recommendation
I highly recommend this one.  It's massive, thorough, lovingly developed, interesting, and breaks cool new ground for 5E.  I only bought into the digital rewards, and I'm regretting I didn't order the hardcover - this one would be fun to have.  The care in the world and setting building, and love for elements of mythology comes through in droves.  There's a dearth of 5E adventures that push into levels 15-20; Odyssey sits in rarefied territory, with meaningful challenges for 18th level characters.  I like the thematic similarities to Dragonlance and the gonzo elements of Mystara's "Immortals" campaigns.  The material is so compelling I'll smooth out any early issues with the plotted sections.  Once this campaign gets moving, it's going to be a tour-de-force.  When my players finish Tomb of Annihilation, I'm going to ask them if they're up for trying this one.

Unfortunately, hardcover books aren't available yet - the kickstarter updates claim they'll ship in January.  Besides the free player's guide on DriveThruRPG, the only way to get a copy of this campaign is doing a late pledge via the kickstarter rewards page - here.

Any art used in this review is © James Ohlen 2019, © Jesse Sky 2019 

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Halloween Movie Retrospective

Natalie Portman facing mutants in Annihilation

I watched a bunch of horror movies this year in the lead up to Halloween.  It's far and away my favorite genre for cinema (besides super hero movies).  I love the anxiety, disorientation, and dread that a good horror movie generates, and then I get twice as much fun thinking about them as fodder for my game worlds and campaigns.  Win and win.

Here are good movies I took in this autumn with ideas to borrow and steal.  I'll try to avoid major spoilers for people that haven't seen them and just provide the gist.  5E has fundamental problems with horror, so these would primarily apply to Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Call of Cthulhu.

The Hole in the Ground
This one involved a single mom and her son, who move to the Irish countryside and live on the verge of an ancient and primeval forest; there's a giant crater deep in the woods - the erstwhile "hole in the ground".  When her son starts acting strangely, we're confronted with parental horror ("do we really know the loved ones in our life…") while exploring themes of changelings, faeries, and abductions.

The Endless
Two brothers escaped an "alien doomsday" cult in the California wilds, and return to the commune many years later from the outside world to resolve some unfinished emotions.  The people they left behind are remarkably healthy, hale, and youthful, but as they reconnect with childhood memories, they begin to learn there's a sinister secret.  This one had some Lovecraftian monster undertones.

Several years ago a meteor crashed into a remote area of the gulf shoreline.  The surrounding countryside has been engulfed by an ever-expanding  barrier of energy which scrambles signals and communications within the zone.  None of the military patrols that have explored the zone returned.  Natalie Portman stars as a scientist that joins the next research team to enter the area.  Annihilation was very cool; following the footsteps of other patrols, the scientists pick up clues left behind by other explorers through their video devices, and encounter bizarre and terrifying mutants.  This would make a great gaming scenario.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
This one would be hard to do in a d20 game (where unconstrained murder hobos could shortcut the premise) but it might work in a modern horror game.  The unblemished corpse of a beautiful young woman is unearthed in the basement of a murder house; without any obvious causes of death, the police bring her to the medical examiner's for an autopsy.  The coroners are a father and son whose lab is in a sub-basement below their mortuary.  As a terrible storm blows in above ground, knocking out communications and isolating the coroners out in the country, they begin to make terrible discoveries about Jane Doe during the autopsy.  It's atmospheric and creepy.

The director of Hereditary returned with this one, about a handful of college students who travel to Sweden with their friend to spend a few weeks enjoying his rural village's summer festival.  The traditions of the Swedish pagans take a sinister turn as the Americans spend more time in the remote commune, reminiscent of earlier films like The Wicker Man.  This one is artsy, disturbing and revolting, a visually stunning slow burner.  You could model a remote pagan game cult after the fictional villagers in this movie.

The Silence
Soon after A Quiet Place, there was Bird Box and then The SilenceThe Silence wasn't nearly as well done as A Quiet Place, which I'd recommend to anyone, but the premise seems easy to port into a game.  Subterranean explorers (spelunkers) break into an expansive sealed cave system (basically the Underdark) and unleash flying, swarming, primordial horrors onto the surface world, which quickly infests the countryside and spreads outward.

The Ruins
This one is a little older, but it was streaming and my high-school aged daughter wanted to catch a horror movie so we queued this one up.  A group of vacationing college students head out to an archaeological dig site (a Mayan style ziggurat in a jungle clearing) and not only do they get trapped on the ruin, the ruins hold a sinister secret.  Imminently portable to a game setting.

I saw more horror movies this autumn, but the ones above are the films I most want to incorporate into scenarios.  Other ones I'd recommend for simple viewing include Green Room, Train to Busan, Us, and It Comes at Night; I also saw Under the Shadow, Suspiria (the new one), Veronica, Bone Tomahawk, Emilie, Cam, Ginger Snaps, Frailty, and Typewriter - this last set were either mixed quality or limited game-ability.  Although playing a Paladin like the characters in Frailty would be challenging.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Grateful Miscellany

They say you should practice gratitude; taking a few minutes each day to reflect on what you're grateful for has beneficial effects on your mindset, emotional health, and even physical health.  You can find it all over the wise Google in mainstream publications - the science of gratitude.  Life is stressful, you've got to take care of yourself - get out and run or exercise, eat and sleep well, cherish the folks around you.  I'm a pretty grateful person overall.  (Coincidentally I'm a giant Grateful Dead fan, too).

Here are a couple of things I noticed this week in the gaming world that inspired some gratitude and appreciation.

Mike Mearls on Greyhawk
I rotate across a bevy of podcasts on the way to work, mostly non-gaming - history, philosophy, even some fantasy football.  Once in a while I'll fire up something about gaming.  I wouldn't categorically recommend WOTC's "Dragon Talk"; it's usually a bit of marketing, some exposition on obscure Forgotten Realms lore (yawn), and then a guest.  Some of the guests are doing fantastic things with D&D - psychologists using D&D to improve social skills with autism kids, for instance - real heartwarming stuff.  But many of the guests are streamers, celebrities, or improv groups talking about their shtick.  Every once in a while they do a "Sage Advice" where they deep dive on some rules with their rules guru, that's usually golden.  Dragon Talk is in my podcast queue; I'll typically look at the details and delete anything that seems yawnstipating.

This week's first serendipitous moment when I was doing clean up on some old Dragon Talks sitting on the iPod and saw one that had an interview with a cartographer, so I fired it up in the headphones while doing some house cleaning.  The cartographer interviewer was fine, the real gem was a 45 minute interview with Mike Mearls on why he loves Greyhawk as a setting.  (You can listen to it from here:  Dragon Talk with Deven Rue - Mike is at about 9 minutes in.)

The interview starts with an overview of campaign settings, from OD&D's start, the Greyhawk supplement, up until about the Forgotten Realms Greybox.  The theme of the interview, though, is why Greyhawk is different from the Forgotten Realms, and analysis on Gary's approach.  Greyhawk is human-centric, and focused on political states with very real human motivations.  Unlike later campaign sets, it's very much a tool box that presents the world right on the cusp of change (the return of Iuz, for instance) but doesn't tell the DM how the change needs to go.  It's a launch point for DIY D&D.

By comparison, the Forgotten Realms is all about the metaplot.  There are oodles of canonical references, novels, and published campaign arcs.  The Realms is ideal for the dungeon master that wants to run the game, but can't spend much time each week preparing their own stories; you can pick up any of the WOTC hardcovers for 5E and run something out of the book.  And to be fair, WOTC has been doing a good job of creating open-ended sandbox campaigns in the Realms.  I'm not a big fan of the Realms for many reasons, but I like how they've done most of their 5E adventure books.

But the main point of the podcast is Mike gets why Greyhawk is so highly regarded by our niche.  Down with canon.  I actually think if WOTC publishes a Greyhawk source book, their internal struggle is with whether they return to the 1983 Brown Box setting and omit Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes (which pushed Greyhawk down the meta-story canon path).

Incidentally, Wizards of the Coast currently has a 2019 marketing survey posted to collect feedback on how you play D&D in 2019, including your favorite settings.  Get out there and vote for Team Greyhawk.  (Wizards of the Coast 2019 survey).

The Monsters Know What They're Doing
My other serendipitous discovery this week was the blog, The Monsters Know What They're Doing.  The author, Keith Ammann, has been writing weekly breakdowns of monster tactics for the past 3 years.  He deep-dives the Monster Manual or sourcebook entry, combining an analysis of the monster's attributes, skills, combat statistics, and flavor text, to provide a ready-to-use set of tactics at the table (for 5E).  Your kobolds will behave differently from orcs, which are different from goblins.  He's doing that for everything.  It's yeoman's work, and his blog is easy to search so you can target a specific monster and review tactical suggestions in advance of your game session.  Need an idea what the monster shaman will summon with the Conjure Animals spell?  Chances are he's got a breakdown for you in the tactics.  He's collected a few years of his material into a book - I don't have it yet, I just discovered the blog this week from an online mention.  I'll post a review if I get it; in the meantime the blog is free, searchable, and a fantastic labor of love.  If you're a DM for 5E, it will give you ideas when planning tactics for upcoming monster encounters and put you in the monster's shoes.

In the spirit of sharing, are there any world-building, DMing, or similar gaming podcasts you've been enjoying?  How about other hidden jewel blogs like The Monsters Know that you want to pass along?  Drop a note, thanks!

And one non-gaming thing to be grateful for - the Dead are touring again!  They played Halloween night in my area (Madison Square Garden) and I'll catch some shows this weekend down in Virginia, too.  (Photo courtesy of my friend Mindunn who maneuvered through the floor and got some great pics).  Happy Sunday.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Greyhawk Take the Wheel

Typical Adventurer's League Party, with a Human

The room description had several "death cultists" laying on the floor playing dead as if they were ritually murdered, a single smoldering torch on the ground in the center of a chalk diagram.  The characters entered warily, and weren't surprised as the cultists clumsily got to their feet to attack (roll initiative).  The first player to go used a cantrip to douse the single flame, plunging the room into darkness.  The human cultists were now hopelessly outmatched because the entire player group were dark vision lurkers, and I remembered I was imprisoned in 5E's equivalent of purgatory - the Adventurer's League.

One of my Adventurer's League tables is completely overrun with mutants.  3 Aasimars (angel-blooded humans), a deep gnome, a half-orc, and a shadar-kai.  If you mostly play original D&D, those race names are a bunch of word salad, but I assure you they've been added to the game the past few editions.  My other bi-weekly adventurer's league party includes a Tabaxi (cat-person), a dragonborn, and a turtle-man (plus a few "normal races").  Even my home game has a pair of Aasimar and a deep gnome (recently deceased).  The monsters have become the player characters.

I know any grief I'm feeling due to my time with Adventurer's League (AL) is self-inflicted.  It's meant as no disparagement to the players, they come from a different culture.  I've found the AL players to be funny, sociable, well-versed in rules knowledge, tactical, and gracious to welcome public dungeon masters.  My complaint here, and it's one of subjective taste, is the AL rules encourage players to create adventuring parties full of these mutants and monsters.

I complain about the Forgotten Realms, but I'm not even sure the problem is the Realms as much as it's the Adventurer's League itself.  As a player, your goal is to devise an interesting and effective character, within the rules.  By my count, there are more than 55 legal races in Adventurer's League, including such well known stalwarts as Triton, Kenku, Ghostwise Halfling, Earth Genasi, Deep Gnome, Firbolg, and Scourge Aasimar.  As a dungeon master, when you sit down to run a game for a public table, expect the party to be motley denizens from the Mos Eisley Cantina.

I'm sure this is a knee-jerk get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids moment on my part, I'm willing to own that.  My context for a good D&D game setting is the Village of Hommlet, or the Keep on the Borderlands.  A proper D&D setting is faux-European fantasy, where the forces of civilization, humanity, strive against Chaos.  The home base is a haven of civilization on the edge of more dangerous borderlands or wilds.  Proper D&D settings are human-centric and have a historical texture to them.  Dark Ages or Medieval Europe with a patina of magic and some monsters; non-human races are present but rare.  Many places will view them with suspicion as dangerous outsiders.  Greyhawk is still my platonic ideal for the perfect D&D setting.

When an AL player sits down with a "Shadar-Kai Shadow Sorcerer" there's no point in even asking them what they're doing in a large human city; the players haven't considered it.  (Shadar-Kai are obscure death elves that live in remote corners of a different plane of existence, the Shadowfell.  Apparently also to be found lurking in your local tavern with a sign, "will adventure for gold").  The culture is about players assembling races and classes because the mechanical bits sound cool.

I'm running a lot of 5E to make the game intuitive.  I can sit down with an OSR rules set and natively know if a particular fight or combat is difficult or easy when designing my own stuff.  I've got my 10,000 hours behind the screen with first edition games.  5E manages to be both swingy and grindy at the same time.  Running many games and many combats is helping me internalize encounter design.  I guess at the end of the day I'm interested in working on my own adventures and home-brew, and this is a good way to see a lot of the game system in action.  I've volunteered to run every high level adventure I can (Tier 3 in AL terms).  Despite this tirade it's still great fun.

But I part ways with the 5E aesthetic around race and class.  For Adventurer's League, you have to embrace the silliness and recognize the players are going to be the D&D equivalent of The Munsters or The Addam's Family, two 60's sitcom TV shows.  Actually, The Munsters is a good analogy - if some fool shows up with an actual human character, the "Marilyn Munster" of the table, it's not uncommon for the rest of the group to shake their heads sadly about their poor under-talented compatriot.  "Low end of the gene pool, that one, and no dark vision, either".

My next home campaign needs to be Greyhawk.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Look at Matt Colville's Strongholds and Followers

My roots in the roleplaying game hobby go back to the 1970's - the late 1970's, mind you, but I was still old enough to crack the Holmes Basic and fully embrace the game by the time the Moldvay boxed sets were on shelf at Toys R Us.  It would still be a few years before I started collecting those storied hardcovers for AD&D and we embraced "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons".  One of the things we noticed as we matriculated to the 1E Player's Handbook was this concept of "name level" - a 9th level character could clear some wilderness, build a stronghold, and attract followers.  AD&D characters had an end-game that transcended dungeon crawling.  Hitting 9th level was the big time.

Both AD&D and Basic embraced this end-game in subtly different approaches.  AD&D was supplemented by war-gaming based miniatures rules called "Battlesystem".  The Basic and Expert boxed sets went on to have Companion, Masters, and Immortal sets (we abbreviate the lot of them as BECMI), and BECMI introduced domain-level game play, threadbare economics and taxation, and several abstract war simulations known as War Machine, Siege Machine, and Sea Machine (naval battles, yo).

I loved BECMI.  The BECMI rules were compiled into a single volume as the Rules Cyclopedia and I've worn out several copies.  Plus the bindings were terrible on Rules Cyclopedia.  Unfortunately, domain level play and mass warfare is not something 5E has embraced, it's been overlooked by the benevolent WOTC overlords.  Enter a character named Matthew Colville.  He is a frequent Youtuber, game designer, and fellow child of the 80's.  His show "Running the Game" is a great resource for new dungeon masters embracing the hobby.  I'm a fan.  Sometime in the past couple of years he took a stab at rectifying Fifth Edition's lack of domain play and published his take on the subject, Strongholds and Followers.

Physically, the book is really nice.  The artwork is good, the layout is clear and simple.  It hearkens back to D&D's roots in pseudo-European fantasy, which is fitting for a book that's about castles and strongholds.  40% of the book is dedicated to strongholds and what characters can do with them; the rest of the book is a sample adventure (based in Matt's homebrew world), a bestiary of monsters from his home setting, and then an appendix that presents a simplistic mass-combat system "Warfare".  I like the book, but there's stuff missing to fully embrace domain play, and the sample adventure and bestiary are basically filler.

The principle sections of the book are the rules and systems for establishing strongholds.  The basic stronghold types are Keep, Tower, Temple, and Establishment, with variants for all of the character classes.  Barbarians may establish a Barbarian Camp in lieu of a Keep; a Paladin would have a Chapel, a Warlock a Sanctum instead of a Wizard Tower, that kind of stuff.  There are simple rules on building strongholds, recovering them from ruins, and even joining forces with your fellow player characters to build an amalgam.  It's all good stuff, simple and easy to execute, and fun.  Attracting followers and amassing units and troops is tied into the stronghold rules.

5E is "player-character-centric" with combat abilities being the principle reward as characters gain levels.  Matt's chosen to attach mechanical benefits to owning a stronghold that enhance a character's abilities.  There are demesne effects, stronghold actions, and class feature improvements that come along with owning a stronghold and surrounding territories.  Conceptually, demesne effects and stronghold actions are reminiscent of lair actions that monsters get; the class feature improvements are straight power boosts.  For instance, the fighter gets to turn one or more of his attacks into an automatic critical as a reward for owning a stronghold.  Once used, these abilities don't return until the character spends some extended time at the stronghold (a new type of rest called "extended rest").  I don't love the class features, they're what we called a dissociated mechanic in the 4E days, "I can hit you really hard because in a remote land somewhere, I own a castle!", but I can see how they would create a pull for reticent players to dip into domain ownership.  I always viewed the domain game as an end in itself, a chance for high level characters to shape the world and campaign setting, but Matt's approach probably casts a wider net by appealing to both power gamers and the story people that care about campaign effects.

I don't have much to say about the adventure; "Siege of Castle Rend" is fine, and it does put a ruined castle in the hands of mid-level characters and give you the opportunity to start using the domain rules ahead of the end game.  The monsters in the appendix are also fine; most of them are based on planar factions in Matt's world and tiered to interact with low and mid-level characters.  There are lower level angels (the Celestial Court), chaos lords from the Court of All Flesh, fey lords from the Court of Arcadia, that kind of stuff.  Not bad, just nothing I needed in a castle book.

The Warfare rules are only about 7 pages in an appendix, but hearken back to War Machine from the old Companion Rules box set.  Essentially, the prep work is creating a "Unit Card" for each group of soldiers in your army, and then calculating some unit attributes off of the unit's equipment, training, size, and characteristics.  The warfare resolution rules use simple percentile dice, orders, and some battlefield factors.  I loved War Machine, this is very reminiscent of War Machine, and definitely something we'll use - or at least try them out and see how they work at the table.

Overall, I will absolutely be using Strongholds and Followers in my campaigns.  I don't love the class features that give the characters combat abilities because they own a keep somewhere, but I can see how they fit the 5E Ethos and will motivate players to establish bases.  We live in a world where a Bard can heckle someone to death with a Vicious Mockery magic cantrip, after all, so amping your combat juice because you have a distant lair isn't that egregious.  However, to do the domain game well, there's a lot missing that has traditionally been included in these types of rule - economics, taxes, wealth from the land, population growth, and guidelines on generating rival domains, army units, and their high-level rulers.  In other words, this is no ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King) for 5E.  I have seen rumors that Matt was working on a follow up book actually called Kingdoms and Warfare, which would seem to fit the bill.  I haven't been keeping up with Matt's Youtube channel to know if it's a project he's actively talking about or working on.  I hope so - Strongholds and Followers is promising, and I'm certainly part of the target audience.  I like that designers are reviving game elements from earlier editions that have been ignored by the crowd in Renton.  (Edit:  I found out today, 10-21-19, the kickstarter for Kingdoms and Warfare is live.  Very nice, I'll definitely be backing it!)

You can get a copy of the book here.  (It seems lazy to do a review and not link to the store!)  It's only $30 for both the hardcover and PDF, I found this to be a fine value when so many 3rd party hard covers seem to be $40-50.

All art copyright 2018 MCDM

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Importance of Hex Crawl Agency

I discovered the "OSR blogosphere" some 8-9 years ago and the insights I gained elevated my approach to running dungeons and hex crawls.  We stand on the shoulders of giants; those early bloggers articulated important tenets on running games that maximized player choice, the essential foundation for a fun game.  The most important tactic I've internalized is the need to radiate information as a dungeon master to enable player agency.  It becomes a virtuous cycle:  players have some information, players make meaningful choices, choices lead to action, action lead to more information, and so on.  The game begins to propel itself.

An example that stuck with me was the meaningless of a typical dungeon intersection*.  Which way should the players go?  Absent useful information, going left or right is basically a coin flip - a random choice.  This is how dungeons become boring.  Instead imagine the characters are at the intersection, but to the left wafts an off-putting odor like stale vinegar; a slimy trail leads off into the darkness.  To the right they can hear the faint echo of maniacal laughter drifting from some distant hall.  It's not much information, but now it's better than a coin flip - they have a basis.  If the players previously heard a rumor about the deranged murderer Smiling Jack, who haunts this level, even better.

The same techniques apply to the hex crawl but more so.  During our first Chult session, the players gained a partial map with some locales marked right on it, which they discussed with guides in the city to learn rumors or hearsay; from a chance meeting with a priest, they learned of a powerful oracle in a ruined locale not yet on their map (but supposedly visible from a ruin that was already marked on the map, a place called M'bala).  One guide they interviewed offered to lead them to M'bala for free, if they first accompanied her to a place called "Firefinger" where she wanted to retrieve a lost heirloom from some enemies.

It's important to occasionally frame the options to make it straightforward for players to understand their alternatives, but let them work through the implications and how to proceed.  Example from the paragraph above, I'd say something like "Based on what you've learned in the city through your sources, you could":

1.  Hire a guide to take you down the western river by canoe to M'bala, as a first step to finding the oracle at Orolunga.
2.  Go with the free guide to Firefinger along the eastern river, help her recover her heirloom, and go to M'bala on the next journey.
3.  (Ideally the players have 3-5 reasonable choices at any given time...)

Continuing my example, the players did choose to go to Firefinger with the free guide.  They met a bird man prisoner there and learned about the monastery of the bird-men and received an offer of friendship (it became a new location on their map called Kir-Sabal); they also learned of another ruin near the bird-men monastery, an evil forsaken place called Nangalore (they put Nangalore on the map in a wide circle - they had a sense but not the specific hex).  Meanwhile, an earlier interaction now made sense; a potential patron from the city had offered the gift of a sailing ship to explorers who could provide a map showing the location of both Nangalore and Orolunga.  They now had a rough area where both places sat on the map.  Information, choice, and action leads to new information which keeps the cycle going.

In my prior discussions of running the hex crawl components of Chult well, I focused on the procedural aspects of keeping the hex crawl moving briskly and delivering evocative encounters.  However, the concepts discussed here, radiating information and helping the players to frame their choices so they can plan and decide, are most important to ultimately making the game fun and satisfying.

*Pretty sure I'm remembering an example used by Matt Finch, but lots of smart folks have expressed the importance of information and choice for sandbox games.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Assault on Chult

Note:  the map below has spoilers

My home campaign is 15 sessions into the player's assault on Chult (the Tomb of Annihilation campaign).  I'm estimating we're a third of the way through the campaign, about to finish the first of three campaign arcs.  The first arc is exploring the jungles of Chult, and trying to identify the locale of the Forbidden City.  The second arc is exploration of the Forbidden City itself and learning how to open the lost tomb.  The final arc is exploration of the tomb itself.

I'm not going to do detailed campaign recaps, as we're already 15 sessions in.  I'll do a survey of the player's progress with exposition on tips and referee choices that have worked out well for us.

The most important suggestion I have for starting a new Chult game is to adjust the urgency of the "Death Curse".  By the book, the campaign starts in the Chultan city of Port Nyanzaru under pressure to find a corrupt relic lost in the jungles.  The relic is affecting the whole world; Raise Dead and similar clerical magic has stopped working.  People brought back via Raise Dead or Resurrection are dying.  Both effects together are being labeled "The Death Curse".  The character's patron, a retired adventurer and recipient of a Raise Dead, is dying, and hires the characters to find the source of the Death Curse (quickly).  They are one of several similarly hired adventuring parties.

The problem is that Chult is a sprawling hex crawl with many interesting side quests and adventure opportunities.  Perkins and the WOTC team created a great hex crawl.  But if the players are under too much immediate pressure due to the Death Curse countdown, they'll focus solely on the Forbidden City, missing out on a lot of the fun discovering lost ruins in the jungle.  I bifurcated the effects of the Death Curse; the corrupt relic starts the game blocking souls from Raise Dead and Resurrection.  It's important to find the source of the curse, but the player's patron isn't dying by the minute.  I marked a time on the calendar (60 days) where the corrupt relic has absorbed enough souls from the recently dead that it's ability evolves, and begins to leech once-dead souls brought back via Raise Read or Resurrection.  It gives the players a more relaxed entry point into exploration of Chult, while setting a countdown later when the relic begins unraveling recipients of Raise Dead and providing a time clock when it's appropriate.

Expedition 1 (Right of Map)
The first arc starts in Port Nyanzaru, a frontier city squatting on the edge of the foreboding jungle, nestled between sluggish jungle rivers.  The players hire a guide, buy equipment, and set off on their first forays into the jungles of Chult.

My advice:  first, use the encumbrance rules (a "variant rule" in the player's handbook) and let the players know you'll be enforcing rules around heat exhaustion, daily water intake, and the difficulties of logistics in the jungles.  There is a fair amount of bookkeeping during this phase, creating inventories of food, bug repellent, tents and camping gear, canoes, and developing hex crawl "standard operating procedures" such as how to set up camp, daily jobs, canoe assignments, night watch schedules, etc.  Once they have all of this in place, the hex crawl procedures run smoothly.

I get the sense many modern referees ignore encumbrance and requiring the players to plan.  My players learned to hate and respect the jungle - the storms, the oppressive heat, the difficulty of bushwhacking overland and having to leave behind things like armor because carrying food and water was more important.  Plus the presence of dinosaurs and bands of undead, the remnants of an ancient army.  "I hate the jungle" became a running theme with the party's paladin, forced to leave behind heavy armor in order to hack through vine-choked jungle on 10 mile marches.  5E's encounters typically challenges the characters, but table top planning challenges the players.  Now that the characters are reaching mid-levels, they appreciate the way they can avoid the worst of the jungle because their wealth or class abilities afford them better options.

Their first expeditions (sessions 1-4) took them to a place on the map called Firefinger and then back to the city, moving from levels 1-3.

Expedition 2 (Center)
After their first major expedition, they spent more time in the city looking for rumors and learned about a storied oracle at Orolunga that might provide a clue to the resting place of the corrupt relic.  On this expedition, they went with more canoes and hired local porters, so they'd have hirelings to carry extra food and water (and potentially lug armor and other heavy gear).

I worked in themes from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now on this river trip, with distance equating to regression into horror for those that didn't respect the jungle, culminating in their visit to Camp Vengeance, where the paladins and crusaders of the Order of the Gauntlet were on the verge of madness (and the commander, Niles Breakbone, was my own Colonel Kurtz).  There's also a fine DM's Guild adventure called Hunter, an homage to the Schwarzenegger movie Predator, that I worked in as a side-trek on this expedition.  I'll probably write a review, we enjoyed Hunter quite a bit.

This expedition also took the players on to M'Bala, and then out to Orolunga, where they did get insights on the corrupt relic and a locale for the Forbidden City (Omu).

I'm not a fan of the over-powered NPC characters that traipse around the Forgotten Realms, and Chult has it's own - the immortal Artus Cimber and his holy sword wielding sidekick, Dragonbait.  Artus, who went by the name "Sam", was encountered in Orolunga as a surly adventurer seeking his own answers from the oracle.  He and the players learned they may have a common goal, the defeat of a legendary jungle warlord Ras Nsi, but the two sides parted amidst mutual insults.  Later, the players ran into a hunting party of Zhentarim assassins on the trail of a wanted fugitive, Artus Cimber, and the players connected the dots between "Sam" and Artus.  Artus is now "in the game" in case I need a high level helper NPC at some point during the end game, but there's a bit of a rivalry so I don't feel obligated for them to team up because they're both "good guys".  He can act as a provocateur or rival.

The other recommendation from this arc was to threaten the hired help.  5E characters are notoriously tough to put down; my game still doesn't have a fatality, although we've come close several times.  NPC's don't have plot immunity and the guides and porters are critically important if you're running the hex crawl with encumbrance and logistics.  It's been great fun having monsters choose the easier targets and stressing the players about such important resources.

This expedition covered sessions 5 - 12, and saw most of the party hit levels 4 and 5 before returning to the city.

Expedition 3 (Ocean-based)
By this point, the players knew a lot about Chult and had many targets for their next journey.  However, the jungle ruins don't provide a lot of cash and their pouches were getting light.  They learned about a lucrative pirate hunting opportunity in the city dock ward, and hired a ship to go pirate hunting.  Drink up me hearties yo ho.  This allowed me to introduce the dragon turtle in the Bay of Chult, and we had a great time running an intricate ship-to-ship combat when they intercepted a pirate ship by trailing a loaded merchant vessel - the pirate ship was called "The Stirge" and they ultimately captured it and sailed it back to port to collect a heavy reward.  I also ran a pirate-themed lighthouse encounter from one of the DM's guild supplements, Encounters in Port Nyanzaru.  When all was done, the characters were flush with cash, owned their own sloop, hired a captain and quartermaster, and planned a long voyage to Shilku Bay to begin their trek to Omu, the Forbidden City.

My advice if you try something similar is to leverage the ocean voyage rules from Ghosts of Saltmarsh for 5E.  Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a nautical campaign, and the appendices cover detailed vehicle rules for ships, downtime on long voyages, sea hazards, ocean borne encounters, the works.  It's a great resource to put some nautical flair into your Chult game.  One of the Unearthed Arcana articles had additional ships (I think I got "sloop" from the UA article).  I have irrational love for pirate adventures.  The Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign is in my future, along with grog, sea shanties, and a bunch of pirate movies.  (In fact, I'm currently streaming Black Sails with my wife).

Expedition 4 (South)
When the characters set out for the south of Chult, they were loaded up for a long journey.  They used the wealth from pirate hunting to buy some magic items, many potions, and sufficient food and gear to stay in Omu several weeks.  Their patron had been tracking them via Dreams and Sendings magic; now they learned from her the Death Curse has entered a new phase, and recipients of Raise Dead that predated the Death Curse are beginning to unravel.  She's dying.  Suddenly there's a time clock!

Their new guide for the expedition is an albino jungle dwarf named "Musharib"; he waived his fee if the characters would help him explore Hrakhamar first, so they've been clearing that mini-dungeon - a dwarven forge overrun by Fire Newts.  They learned of the dragon in Wyrmheart Mine and plan to assault it next, then head for Omu and the next leg of the campaign.

I'll post another set of observations sometime after they've explored Omu and are entering the final arc, the Tomb of the Nine Gods.  Feel free to generate a discussion in the comments about your own Chult game and how things went by you, I'd love to hear it.