Friday, May 29, 2020

Is 5E Becoming a Cargo Cult?


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.

So let's get this cargo cult question out of the way.  The idea of a cargo cult goes back to World War 2; pre-industrialized people encountered modern technology when airfields were built on remote islands during the Pacific campaign.  They saw that airfields and airplanes and radio towers meant awesome stuff coming onto the island via cargo boxes.  When the armies moved on, the people built wooden mock-ups of the planes and towers hoping the good stuff in the boxes would come back some time.  I've seen the term used in the corporate world - people that go through the motion of following old processes or procedures, no one even knows why they exist any more, but we keep doing it hoping for our cargo - a box of K-rations or something.  Our office spaces are full of this mindset.

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

Death in Chult


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.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

A Government by the Evil, for the Evil

What are some of your favorite portrayals of "evil" fantasy societies in gaming?  As I've been thinking about how I want to portray humanoids in the game world it's gotten me thinking about the role of societal alignment, government, and power.  Maybe this topic has been covered in a Dragon or one of the Dungeon Master Guides, and an astute reader can point out a reference?

For instance, I've always thought of "Lawful Evil" societies as tyrannical police states, heavily militarized, with a side of casual cruelty.  Would Imperial Rome be Lawful Evil?  How about Sparta?  How about the old Soviet Union or totalitarian states from the mid-20th century (like the Axis powers?).

What would a realm be like where the prevailing alignment of the populace is Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil?  In real world terms, I think of Chaotic Evil "states" as zones with warlords and armed bands, with complete disregard for traditional morality or norms.  Examples include regions controlled by drug cartels or notorious warlords who ravage entire regions, a populace living in fear.  A Chaotic Evil society is one where life is cheap and guns make the rules.  How about cultures where rampage was a way of life?  If you transport real world cultures to a game universe where alignments represent eternal and absolute truths, would the Huns and Mongol societies be Evil in D&D terms?  How about the raiders during the Viking era?  "Good", as the 1st Edition DMG defines it, represents "a belief that any creature is entitled to life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness".  By definition then, any society modeled after a historical counterpart that countenanced slavery would seem to be evil.  There goes antiquity.

I usually like to return to OG Gary's materials to clarify this kind of stuff, but while the Greyhawk Folios identify many kingdoms where the societal alignments point towards evil, there's not a lot of color on how the societies function or what a day in the life is like for the citizenry.  Examples would include The Horned Society, Bandit Kingdoms, Iuz, or the Great Kingdom.  We get encyclopedia facts - ruler, population, and a bit of recent history, but not the texture of how the societies run.

My favorite example of an evil place is Erelhei-Cinlu, the great Drow city in the Vault of the Drow.  Module D3 depicts armed houses of competing Drow nobles jockeying for position among the families with murder, assassination, and politics all part of the repertoire.  The city of Erelhei-Cinlu itself is a dangerous place where powerful non-Drow visitors - demons, undead, archmages, and the like - mingle in the streets and markets.  There's not so much "law and order" but rather a recognition that everyone there is a predator that can handle themselves, and if you can't defend yourself, victimization is to be expected - very much the strong survive.  It's my favorite depiction of a playable Chaotic Evil city (the Forgotten Realms knock off, Menzober-I-can't-spell-it, is targeted at compelling Drizz't fiction rather than something easy to use at the table).  The Drow may be the largest example of a Chaotic Evil society... for humans it tends to be smaller groups, and transitory - the equivalent of biker gangs, pirate ships, the aforementioned warlords or cartels, but not anything at scale or which persisted.

Here's another odd factoid I learned while considering evil societies.  Orc alignment shifted through the years!  TSR D&D had Orcs as Lawful Evil, but when WOTC took over with 3rd Edition, Orcs were recast as Chaotic Evil and this has persisted into 5th Edition.  We recently re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies, and I can see how the depiction of Orcs there could be considered Chaotic Evil... it's fear of their powerful supernatural leaders that keep the armies together, and left to their own devices, Orcs fall to in-fighting and scrabbling with each other (such as the in-fighting at Cirith Ungol or out on the plains of Rohan by the eaves of Fangorn Forest).

Anyway, this post is not meant to be a deep-dive on Orcs, per se, I'm still mulling.  I'm sure other media has done Orcs well - maybe Warhammer or World of Warcraft - perhaps as masters of warfare and the military arts, basically "evil Klingons" - time for more research.  On the main topic though, I would love to hear how readers would characterize notorious historical regimes in terms of societal alignments.  Similarly let me know if you've got examples of game settings or fictional states that presented compelling examples of interesting evil societies.  Thanks!