Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Setting up Undermountain: Rules and Philosophy

 It started simply enough with a poll.  "What should we play next?"  I made a pitch to the players about several campaigns I wouldn't mind running after our Tomb of Annihilation game, hastily put together a survey, and clicked refresh refresh refresh to see how the results came in.  Fingers crossed for Curse of Strahd.  Nope, it was Undermountain - Waterdeep:  Dungeon of the Mad Mage!  I was ultimately fine with the decision because I really do want to see if 20th level player characters can be challenged by 5E.  Plus, we'll be at this one for a while - it's really big!

Last post about this new campaign (Prelude to Undermountain) I briefly covered the major events in Dragon Heist, the prequel of the campaign that took the players from levels 1 through 5.  Undermountain assumes you are starting with four 5th level characters.

I'll continue to explore what "old school" means to me under separate cover, but I made it clear to the players we'd be giving Undermountain some "old school treatment" to recapture the fun and challenges of dungeoneering.  The first thing we did was activate encumbrance as a rule.  It's in the Player's Handbook as an option.  Nothing makes an "optimized" 5E character give a sad face more than realizing they made strength their "dump stat" and now can't carry enough gear.  Or succeed at Open Doors checks.  Requiring encumbrance has been one of the biggest factors in pushing an element of resource management and planning onto the players.  Food is heavy.  Water is heavy.  Unbalanced "optimized" characters with poor stat distribution struggle with weight.  There are simple ways 5E characters can generate food and water by burning spell slots, but even that has altered their planning by forcing them to adjust their spell preparation., and how they deploy their spells in combat.  Usually the 3rd level slots are too precious to waste on food creation, but it's not uncommon for the Cleric to use a 1st level spell to give everyone water.

Encumbrance has affected their combat planning, too.  Earlier in Undermountain, several characters opted for the heaviest armor they could buy, and were overloaded with their backpacks.  "That's fine, we'll drop our packs every time combat starts so we can have a normal movement rate during combat, then load up again after the fight…"  Makes sense, it's how the infantry does it.  Except when a fight goes badly, and you're forced to retreat, and that means sacrificing potions, gear, and food because you can't recover your backpack - the monsters are now between you and your gear.  More sad faces.  By the time we got deep into level 3 and 4, several of those characters have reverted to lighter armors so they can keep their backpacks and still move well.  They’re adjusting.

Encumbrance is right in the Player's Handbook, so actually using a rule as written isn't any great leap of genius on my part.  The one mechanic I have altered for my run of Undermountain is experience points.  Default 5E awards players for fighting.  Most of the published adventure modules are trending towards "milestone experience", arbitrary grants of a level of experience in order to propel a preset narrative.  My disdain for milestoning is as deep as the ocean.  It's a major flaw of the 5E system.  I do understand and empathize why some DM's feel compelled to do it.  I blame WOTC.  But we'll save that particular diatribe for another day.  I'm using experience points.

As written, Undermountain assumes a party of 4 player characters is basically clearing every level through combat.  They are expected to grind it down to bare stone and leave behind a barren wasteland strewn with monster corpses.  That's how you level up.  But that's not how I wanted to run the game.  I wanted reasons for the players to push and delve deeper; each time they find a new dungeon level they'll get a significant XP bonus as an exploration award (10% of what they need for their next level).  No matter their motivation or party goals on any given level, the exploration bonus has given them a significant side goal to find the way down.  They've used Locate Object, they’ve parleyed with monsters, they've  made deals with dungeon denizens to learn about the egress points.  Nobody wants to miss the night when the party might find that stairway down and lose out on the XP bump.

The other thing I did was restore XP for Gold.  There's not a lot of gold in Undermountain as the treasure awards are calibrated down for 5E standards, but it amounts to 1-2 major encounter's worth of experience per level.  Between earning extra XP by recovering treasure, and getting exploration bumps when finding a new level, the players haven't felt the need to be "completionist" and slaughter all they survey.  I'm pretty happy with how the XP tweaks are encouraging a style of play that features treasure recovery and exploration.

I've also enforced the need to deal with light.  For the most part, that's been handled by Light cantrips, and one of the characters earned a "Drift Globe", a 5E magic item, but there have been times when torches and lanterns are still required.  Characters have been separated by traps, cutting the non-magical characters off from the cantrip wielders.  They've camped overnight while the cantrip casters have needed to sleep.  They've needed torches as fire sources.  Light is one of the easier resources for 5E characters to obviate, but light management has still played a role in the game, and so they've needed to keep a modicum of light sources among their gear and part of their encumbrance.

Earlier in the game the group had more humans; however, there was a near-TPK on level 3, and the replacement characters all came with Darkvision.  The players thought they were being cute, metagaming the megadungeon.  Now I have the joy of DMing a torchless party.  The darkvision prevalence in 5E is kind of dumb, but you'll see as we get to those game reports it's not hard to challenge a torchless party and deploy effective monster tactics.  I've taken it on as a personal challenge.

Geez, this note was going to get into the actual recaps of dungeon levels 1 and 2, but just setting up the campaign parameters has taken a lot of writing.  I'll start the recaps next time.  I will wrap here with one final piece of advice I gave to the players early, which they took it to heart - they should keep good notes!.  They are utilizing a shared Google Doc.  Undermountain is full of magic arches leading deep into the dungeon, and the players have notes written on their maps about how to activate the different arches and where they lead.  They have learned about side quests, bits of legends and lore, and dungeon secrets that will only bear fruit much later in the game.  So while I keep firm and accurate records of time passing (a voice echoes from the pages of the 1979 dungeon master's guide, YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT), the players are keeping good notes about their discoveries.


  1. On Tuesday I crushed a group of 8 level 17 PCs in a Deep One temple battle. High level 5e PCs are certainly mortal; the key seems to be using lots of fairly powerful enemies, rather than a single mega-boss. In this fight the key to their defeat I think was the Deep One priests using area-effect spells like ice storm and shatter. The PCs started out with Surprise as they crept up on the temple, but completely failed to kill or lock down the enemy casters in the first couple rounds. Then the PCs took a ton of spell damage as the enemy piled chain lightning, ice storm, shatter spells on them. The PCs also failed to spread out enough, so they got blasted at the temple entrance choke point. By the end 2 PCs were dead (along with the 2 captives they failed to rescue) and the rest fleeing.

  2. I've heard that DDOTMM is very short on loot, especially magic items, even by 5e DMG standards. Is that your experience?

  3. I did add up all the treasure by level at one point, but I couldn't find the file when I did a search this morning! I would hate to have to recreate it so I'll look further. I don't disagree that it felt light. The players are flush with cash after Dragon Heist regardless.

    As for the other comment, warms my heart to see a fellow DM applying some beatings within the rules of 5E. The game may have shifted a lot of power to the player characters but we're not weaponless to challenge them.

  4. You're too kind. :D I'm sure they could have won if they'd worked together effectively. They did not.

  5. One of the best things you can do to a torchless party is throw monsters/hazards at them that are harmed/countered by fire like mummies or spiderwebs, or think of things like invisible cold/ice creatures. I'm looking forward to see what kinds of solutions you come up with!

  6. A lot of players forget that with darkvision, darkness is effectively dim light, which means that Perception checks are made at disadvantage (or a -5 to Passive Perception), which means the party is likely to get surprised a lot more often. Also, any situations that involve reading or distinguishing colors will be a problem.