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.


  1. I completely agree, it takes me out a bit when I'm running essentially a crew of super weirdos in the world. It strains credulity that all these Drizzits not only exist, but are all together in the same party when everyone else they meet is a human. Hard to make an elf seem really exotic and fae when there are 3 super elfs in the party. That is one reason I really like that in 5E base variant humans are pretty overpowered. Keeps the powergamers happy while helping my soul.

  2. But it seems that when the floodgates are open boring old variant human isn't enough :O

  3. I was at a recent convention that was running a slew of AL games, and I played in a brief introductory level game. When it was discovered that half the table (3 players) were playing normal humans the DM was flabbergasted. He couldn't stop talking about it. He went out of his way to let the other DMs in the room know that he had actual normal humans playing in his game. That said, we were forced to chose from Pre-Gen characters provided by the AL, but players could pick from dozens of characters.

  4. As I learn more about 5E character generation, I've noticed the "variant human" is really strong. The free extra feat is powerful. Maybe they just don't have the cool factor of an edgy non-human race.

  5. This is why I only steal bits from "official" campaigns for use in my own creations. Plus I'm ok with restricting races, and classes in a game I'm running. (I realize that AL is a different beast/situation though)

  6. pretty sure "shadar-kai shadow sorcerer" isn't AL-legal, is it? because of the PHB+1 rule in AL? isn't that still a thing?

    1. Yep, the AL +1 is still a thing. I'll need to talk to the player next time and confirm he took it into account.

  7. There exists such a thing as serendipity after all! I’ve found myself drawing the same conclusion. I am DMing a homebrow world with a party full of Dragonborn mystics and wood-elf gunslingers. In a fit of Gamer ADD I have been designing another setting for the past year but, in trying to be “edgy” and “original” have recoiled from the whole Mos Eisley aesthetic. Longing for a change of pace, I’m going home to Hommlet as well.

  8. Think less "Forgotten Realms", and more "Adventure Time".

  9. Or play a game system that is "humans only", like Chaosium's Elric or Hawkmoon. My recent discovery of the Low Fantasy RPG seems like a fitting system to run a more gritty, swords-and sorcery type game. They do have non-humans in the rules, but they are only 3 of them.

  10. I limit what races the players can choose in my campaign (I know they can’t do that in AL) because I don’t like the creature cantina feel myself. For the most part I use 1e race class combos with some exceptions and more if the player can give me a really great story reason. I also modify certain races to fit the campaign- no Dragonborn but dragon blooded families - humans with Dragonborn stats. No genasi but genie blooded humansetc