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!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

People are the Real Monsters

NPC Stat Blocks in the Fifth Edition

"Monsters are real... and they look like people".  Humans are the most compelling opponents in a roleplaying game.  Players may attack a band of orcs as a knee-jerk reaction (grrr, monsters, kill them) but when they run into a rival band of adventurers, most groups stop and think.  Fight, parlay, intimidate, team-up, betray.  If Game of Thrones taught us anything, betrayal at the hands of supposed friends and allies spawns bitter tears, and revenge is a dish best served cold.  Our most memorable villains have been NPCs that the players can't immediately kill - either because of the political situation, or because they're not powerful enough.  I firmly believe games need powerful NPC characters that can challenge the players both inside and outside the dungeon.  In fact, using my my last post as a guide, the Gygaxian demographics of classic locales such as Hommlet or the Keep on the Borderlands indicated that 15-20% of the people living in settlements have character levels, capable of helping or hindering the player characters.

When 5E came out, there weren't too many pre-made NPC stat blocks in the base game - the Monster Manual included 20 or so out of 450+ monsters.  The referee was mostly on their own to use the Dungeon Master's Guide to build additional NPCs as monsters.  Now that there's well over a dozen adventures and soucebooks, the game has accumulated quite a few more pre-made stat blocks for NPCs (90+ in fact).  To make it easier on myself populating the world with people-monsters, I aggregated them in one place - you can check out a copy here ( 5E NPCs by CR *).

As a simple experiment, I took a look at two classic adventuring parties - how easy would it be to quickly assemble them using the 5E NPC stat blocks?  Without further ado here is the gang of Aggro the Ax, who faced off against Gutboy Barrelhouse and company.  (Bonus points if you remember where these guys showed up!)

A few points to call out.  There are not exact matches - Arkayn is listed as a Cleric 4, the Priest NPC statblock is for a level 5 Cleric.  There is no Level 5 Wizard stat block, the Illusionist from Volo's Guide to Monsters is level 7 (but only CR 3).  It'd be easy enough to swap out some spells if you think Abner should be a blasty wizard.  For Blastum, the 'Evil Mage' stat block from Lost Mine of Phandelver is a level 4 caster, so that's a good match.  I didn't see any Fighter/Wizard spell blocks on the list, so I made Barjin a Bard (a 4th level caster stat block).  It took just a few minutes to pull these together, which is good.  I'm pretty confident I could quickly build out a handful of rival adventuring parties for game use from the volume of NPC stat blocks that now exist in the 5E accumulated bestiary.

Here's a watch out though.  The NPC stat blocks top out at CR 12!  Let's put that in perspective.  In 5E terms, a CR X monster is meant to be a hard fight for a 4-person party of X level.  A CR 12 NPC should be a challenging encounter for a 12th level party.  In reality, optimized and competent players punch way above their weight class.  Plus the action economy dictates that a 4 on 1 fight will not go well for the monster side.  A CR 12 NPC is something like an archmage or archdruid (18th level casters).  Your goal as referee is going to be to ensure any one these CR 12 NPCs never faces off solo against a group of powerful opponents - they need to have strongholds, retainers, henchmen, and allies to round out their defenses.  I've run some Tier 3 5th Edition (character levels 11-16) and it's fun trying to challenge over-powered characters.  Looking forward to thinking about high level NPCs hang onto their power in a world with player characters.

* I didn't include NPCs from specific settings like Ravnica or Eberron, but I'll update the doc if/when I add them in there.  Let me know if anyone has an issue accessing it; this is the first time I'm posting a file via Google Drive - if it works I'll do it more.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Compost Heaps and Snowflakes - a Look at Hommlet, Phandalin, and the Keep

Last post I laid out a thesis - as the style of play in D&D has shifted towards "unique and special heroes", it's significantly altered how designers approach world-building - particularly around setting demographics.  I used the Fight Club/Tyler Durden movie quote as a launch point for a look at how styles have changed.  As an experiment I'm now reviewing the design choices in a few of the iconic starting locations for early D&D and then Fifth Edition - comparing the Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands with the Village of Phandalin (the starting locale in both of 5E's boxed sets).  The designer's approach to detailing the demographics and factions of the home base imply what the game is about and activities contemplated in the respective locales.

Home Bases in the Compost Heap
Two of the most well-known starting bases in D&D's history are The Village of Hommlet (from module T1 of the same name), and the Keep, from module B1 The Keep on the Borderlands.  Both were penned by Gary Gygax, co-creator of the game, and have a lot to say about his world-building philosophy and view of player characters.  Let's start with a look at Hommlet.

Hommlet's main track
I've started so many AD&D campaigns in Hommlet through the years I can practically close my eyes and imagine entering the village from the west on foot, passing Elmo's farmhouse, and turning up the tree-lined road towards the Inn of the Welcome Wench - with the sounds of the blacksmith's shop across the way ringing out in the morning air.  It's a D&D equivalent of the Prancing Pony and the Village of Bree, a launchpad for adventure.  What jumps out to you when reading the depictions of Hommlet is how every cottage and building has a description that goes beyond a superficial view of what the players see - it'll include the strongbox with 50sp under the loose floorboard, or how the farmer is a member of the "Old Faith" and trains with his strapping sons for the village militia.  Their spears and ringmail armor are polished and in the shed out back, in case you need to know.

In fact, many of the people in Hommlet have character levels as adventurers.  Elmo is a 4th level Ranger, who keeps a magic battle ax, chain armor, and shield, buried in a lead-lined chest to foil detect magic attempts.  The Druid of the Grove is 7th level.  Not only are the nearby rulers, Rufus and Burne, retired adventurers themselves (8th level fighter and magic user respectively), but the players can hear local tales about how the pair fought a green dragon and a large horde of bandits in their younger days.  Now they're spending their adventuring hoard on a sturdy tower and keep, and protecting the area with a troop of mercenaries, the Badgers.

What does this approach to setting design imply about the world?  First - the player characters are not particularly special.  The world is full of monsters and dangerous places, and the player characters will not be the first people to take up arms against the night creatures and return from their exploits with wealth and experience.  Hommlet has 15 non-player characters (out of about 75 or so) that have character levels.  In fact, the village boasts a 10th level thief, a 7th level assassin, 8th level fighter and magic user, 7th level druid, 6th level cleric, and then a handful of lower level NPCs.  Essentially 20% of the village has a level like an adventurer!  This is a place that could mount a defense against an assault on the village, or put a bunch of rogue player characters in their place if they turned into actual "murder hobos" and unleashed mayhem, as the haters would say.

This type of design anticipates a range of alignments and play styles at the table - not everyone is expected to be Dudley Do-Right.  Gary planned for scoundrels.  You don't hide Elmo's magic armor in a lead-lined chest under the floor unless you expect mischievous player characters to use their detect magic spell to try and find something to steal.  Hommlet envisions a game world where characters with magic and powers are known, and reasonable people train and prepare because the wilds have bandits and monsters.  People that come to town might have low morals.  Be ready for them.

Furthermore, it shows a career arc for player characters, right from the beginning, that grounds their journey in the world of the setting.  Adventurers accumulate wealth and fame, and then settle down as rulers or leaders in the community.  The clerics build chapels or temples or groves, wizards create towers and places for their libraries, fighters attract men-at-arms and settle the wilds.  They don't necessarily stop adventuring, but the types of challenges that cause them to take up arms are different, the threats must be greater.

Approaching the Keep on the Borderlands
Let's pivot to the Keep on the Borderlands.  The civilian section of the Keep is far more limited, with only about 30 or so non-military personnel in the "outer bailey".  Overall, the Keep has about 10 people with character levels, ranging up to a 6th level fighter and 5th level cleric.  However, because it's a military installation on the frontier, there's a much larger contingent of guards - 140 level 1 fighters as soldiers.  Much like Hommlet, the depictions of the Keep include details that would only be relevant if the players attempted some mischief, like stealing from the jeweler or looting the chapel.  Also like Hommlet, there's enough "beef" present to make short work of any clumsy attempts to rob the good citizens of the Keep.  The players can try, but they'd better be careful and lucky.

There are two other facets of Hommlet and The Keep to discuss - the idea of factions and quests.  Factions represent roleplaying opportunities for the characters to establish their identities and develop allies.  In Hommlet, the factions include the new faith (based around the church of St Cuthbert) and the old faith (represented by the druid of the grove).  Most citizens are identified as belonging to one or the other of the village's principal religions.  There is also a loose faction concerned with law and order - not far from Hommlet is the large ruined dungeon, the Temple of Elemental Evil, and various factions for good in the nearby kingdoms have agents in or near Hommlet keeping watch on the nearby evil temple.  Elmo reports back to the Viscount of Verbobonc, for instance.  These factions give the players opportunities to learn rumors and lore for adventures - an early form of quest-giving.

The Keep on the Borderlands is straightforward; basic D&D used a simple Law vs Chaos alignment structure, and the Keep is a bastion of law (civilization) out on the chaotic frontier.  Everyone in the Keep stands for a Law, other than one of the prominent NPCs in the outer bailey who is a secret agent of Chaos.  Like Hommlet, the players have the opportunity to collect rumors from citizens of the Keep, which can lead them towards various adventure sites in the nearby wilds.

Where Snowflakes Get their Jobs
Fifth Edition has two boxed sets - the 5E Starter Set and the 5E Essentials Kit.  Both sets came with a basic set of rules and a starting adventure, featuring the village of Phandalin.  If you're a newer player, you may have encountered Phandalin as your model for an introductory home base - either through Lost Mine of Phandelver or Dragon of Icespire Peak, the two starting adventure books.  Phandalin doesn't loom in my memory as a living, breathing place the same way as Hommlet, but Hommlet had 40 years and several beloved AD&D campaigns to establish itself.  I came to appreciate Winterfell and the Nentir Vale during 4E, so newer settings can resonate.  The Forgotten Realms have never excited me, so the bar for Phandalin is higher.  But let's assume I'm a newer player that started with a 5E boxed set, the way I started with the Moldvay Basic Set way back in 1981.  What lessons would I glean from Phandalin about world building and expectations of the game?

First off, Phandalin is sparsely described.  There are 30-35 buildings in the village, but only a handful have descriptions.  There are 14 named characters in the village across the two adventure books.  There are no game stats anywhere.  The text literally says "The characters have no reason to fight ordinary townsfolk, hence no game statistics are provided for them".  Nor are there guards, soldiers, or any type of law & order beyond a non-combatant "town master".  There's a saying - in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  In a village where everyone is a mere commoner with 4 hit points, a couple of player characters with infinite magic cantrips (take your pick - fire bolt, ray of frost, or eldritch blast) could declare themselves emperors of the village.  I guess there's no point in sacking Phandalin, since none of the locations have anything of value.

You begin to understand what a 5E setting implies about the game.  Characters with adventuring levels are extremely rare - a typical village has no one like the player characters.  Settlements are vulnerable to bandits, ruffians, and any type of predatory humanoid unless adventurers come along to save them.  A town or village is only there to provide clues, hooks, and rumors that quickly route the players out of town to where the adventures happen.  Town is not  a place for action.  Obviously, this also requires everyone at the table to agree to play a "hero" - scoundrels and rogues need not apply.  I'm imagining one of those badly designed video games, where you try and use your attack button on the store clerk, and the game flashes a "you can't do that here" warning on the screen.

One thing Phandalin does well is quests.  Both starting adventures have ample rumors, clues, and quests scattered liberally across the NPCs in the village.  Icespire Peak is a little more heavy handed, with an actual "job board" posted at the town masters, but I don't disagree with the sentiment there.  The surrounding areas are presented like an open world, with many small adventuring sites.  I like the approach the writers (Perkins and Baker) made in building out the nearby wilds.  There are also a handful of the Forgotten Realms "factions" represented in Phandalin, such as the Harpers, Order of the Gauntlet, Zhentarim, etc.  These can be allies and sources of information for similarly aligned player characters.  None of the contacts are retired adventurers.

What a strange turn modern D&D has taken from the roots of the hobby!  The presentation of Phandalin characterizes how D&D has moved away from explicitly supporting Sword & Sorcery fantasy fiction, clever tricksters, or sullen anti-heroes; there's no longer any model for a career arc from adventurer to authority figure or ruler; even absolute novice adventurers are rare and powerful compared to ordinary people, and could quickly overwhelm a "rugged" frontier settlement like Phandalin.  I will say, in later adventures like the hardcover Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, more care and attention was placed on establishing a city that has institutions and authority figures experienced with dealing with powerful adventurers.  Waterdeep works as a more sensible 5E settlement that assumes adventurers are present in the world and society has adapted to their presence.  Unfortunately, new players get stuck with Phandalin as their model.

Despite my criticisms, I'm currently playing 5E and my players love it.  My project has been to fold, spindle, and mutilate the Fifth so it behaves more like the older editions.  It's a work in progress.  And don't get me wrong - AD&D 1E is full of its own warts.  Weapon speed factors, weapon vs armor class, training costs, psionics, the whole of Unearthed Arcana, the monk class.  It's a rough game to try and play "by the book".  The only truly perfect edition is Moldvay basic (and yet there are detractors of race as class out there).  So don't take any of this too seriously, I'm just poking fun when I use descriptors like compost heaps and snowflakes for game styles.

However, since I am trying to get my 5E settings to behave more like Hommlet, and less like Phandalin, I need to take a harder look at NPCs in the Fifth and what we can do there.  How would we do a 5E version of Hommlet?  How do we create rival adventuring parties?  That's coming up next.

In the meantime, I've posted a new poll.  Some of our best games involved roguish scoundrels landing themselves in regular fiascoes when they tried to rob the bank at the Keep, or break into the evil trading post in Hommlet.  In your games, do you treat your towns and villages like adventuring sites (fair game for unscrupulous players) or more like the Phandalin "video game" approach - "you cannot take the attack action here in town"?

Update:  I needed to pull the poll down as I exceeded "monthly views" for the free gadget - will need to find an alternative.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Are Your PC's Snowflakes or Compost?

Why Tyler Durden Would Play AD&D

"You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We're all part of the same compost heap."

I spent some time perusing a message board recently and encountered (gasp) many different opinions.  As I scanned several discussions, particularly about world building, a pattern became apparent to me- a loose correlation between how the referee views adventurers in the setting, and their approach to world building and running adventures.  I'm labeling these two approaches to player characters Snowflakes or Compost.

Referees in this type of game are likely to come right out and tell the players their characters are special.  They're also expected to be heroes.  Adventurers are rare in the setting, and the player characters, who are all chosen, god-touched, destined, royal blood, or otherwise meant for greatness, will set out on a heroic journey to do something... very important.  This is the realm of Tolkien, Shannara, Earthsea, and much of fantasy literature.

In this type of world, NPCs are like monsters.  They strut and fret their hour across the stage, and then are heard no more.  The world is constructed like those old Wild West movie sets, props to give the illusion of a world.  The elements of the game world exist to support the referee's story and enable the characters to be heroes.  Detailed demographics don't add value; the referee is empowered to make up what is needed in terms of NPC's to fit the needs of the story.  Player characters rarely run into rival adventurers in dungeons, if ever.

Adventures involving the snowflake style are probably plotted adventure paths - the goal is to build a story of epic heroic fantasy and that needs planning and authorial guidance.  Referees feature milestone experience or a similar story-based award, to keep the player characters leveling up at a brisk pace so they can face the next set of challenges.  Encounters are somewhat balanced to the level of the characters, to provide sufficient challenges for an exciting game (Goldilocks style - not too easy, not too hard, but just right).

This style seems massively popular with the influx of gamers in the past decade, and what little of I've seen of popular Twitch games.  In the OSR, we trace this shift towards heroic fantasy and plotted (epic) stories back to Dragonlance, where the players take on the role of pre-made heroes of destiny (characters from the actual fantasy novels themselves.)

This style of world building assumes player characters are made of the same "compost heap" as the rest of the world.  While adventurers will eventually rise to levels of great power, at the beginning they're no better than a common soldier or town guard, true apprentices in their chosen fields.  Adventurers are common in the world; many of the rulers, archmages, and luminaries of the setting got their starts as adventurers themselves.  (Just look at characters like Mordenkainen, Bigby, Robilar, and more from classic worlds like Greyhawk).  Because player characters became rulers with armies, compost settings needed mass combat rules, too.

NPCs in a compost game are built with the same rules as player characters, with the same levels of power.  Rival adventurers are common in this type of setting and the random encounter charts will feature NPC parties regularly, both in the wilds and dungeons.  Compost games favor an open world format - some type of sandbox, with numerous ruins and site-based adventures, and adventurers earn experience predominantly by recovering treasure. The story is less about the referee preparing an epic storyline, and more about presenting a setting with interesting choices.  Compost games are intensely interested in demographics and worldbuilding because they rely heavily on random tables - random tables are defining characteristics of the setting, the secret code.  The world is not level-balanced, and it's possible for careless player characters to stumble into danger way beyond their power level.

Editions and Bias
The snowflake style started in D&D back with Dragonlance.  I don't remember how common it was during 2E (I mostly skipped that edition) but epic adventure paths highlighting heroic characters were a defining characteristic of 3E and Paizo.  Nonetheless, 3rd edition and 3.5 took the compost approach to demographics and worldbuilding to the extreme - every NPC in the setting had player character style rules and templates applied.  It was a path of madness.  I can't comment how it may have improved with Pathfinder or PF2E.  4E completely embraced snowflake style worldbuilding, but it forced the referee to level balance every encounter to the level range of the player characters.  The 4E world made no logical sense in the absence of PCs.  A 4E Troll, for instance, had an armor class somewhere in the 30's; no NPC in the setting could even hurt a troll, unless some level-appropriate player characters came along to fight it off.  A single troll, nigh invulnerable, would reign supreme in a small kingdom!  It was terrible.

5th edition leans more towards the snowflake approach, but the pendulum slowly shifts towards the center.  NPCs don't follow PC rules, and there's no easy way to build rival adventuring parties - the likeliest approach is to cobble something together from the limited NPC stat blocks that have been published here and there in monster books.  There's nothing stopping a referee from making NPCs using player character rules, though - it's just unwieldy.  Random tables for wandering monsters weren't in the base game, they came out later in a sourcebook, but they're there now - and a few of the published adventures have started incorporating them into the design.  A 5E conceit called "bounded accuracy" ensures your village full of commoners could defend themselves against a predatory monster, such as a troll.  There's no in-game path for player characters to move into domain ownership and become rulers or wage military campaigns - 5E campaigns are laser focused on adventuring.

I suppose I'll keep plugging away on my future 5E setting for sometime after Tomb of Annihilation - but now I have a nickname for it that works on several levels.  The compost heap!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tomb of the Nine Gods - Game Reports for Levels 1 and 2

It's been a couple of months since we checked in on my weekly home game, using the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover campaign.  Previous installments are here (Tomb of Annihilation).  This is WOTC's best published campaign, full stop, especially if you grew up playing 70's and 80's D&D.  This campaign is a giant sandbox, pure and simple.  There are some overarching objectives, but how the characters get there is up to the players.  My guys ended up as privateers at one point, sailing around Chult and hunting pirates!  Overall, WOTC has done a nice job of writing most of their hardcover campaigns to feature open world sandbox adventures - Princes of the Apocalypse, Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and Tomb of Annihilation are all open structures, while Tales of the Yawning Portal and Ghosts of Saltmarsh feature reprints of classic dungeons (many from the AD&D catalog).  I'd just like to see a Greyhawk Sourcebook, please.

The Tomb of the Nine Gods is the capstone dungeon for the campaign.  It's a sprawling death trap dungeon filled with puzzles and traps (6 levels, covering 80 or so rooms).  There were 9 "trickster gods" slain by Acererak, each representing a different alignment, and their crypts are scattered throughout the dungeon.  Each crypt is basically a heist, with puzzles and traps.  When the characters succeed in opening a sarcophagus of a trickster god, they gain a useful magic item, and the character has a chance of being possessed by the trickster spirit, which then goads them to try and act in accordance with the spirit's alignment.  It's created interesting roleplaying, as some of the good aligned characters are hosting evil spirits, and frequently admonishing the spirits that "my mind is now your prison and I will never give in to your evil urges".  We've got at least one Lawful Good spirit in the mind of an evil character, "Ew, your mind is like a bathroom that's never been cleaned.  I can't unsee what you're thinking", and there are couple of character/spirits that are well-paired with each other.  From time to time, the spirits also pass useful information or lore on to their hosts.

We've played 7 sessions in the Tomb so far, covering dungeon levels 1 and 2 (sessions 28-34 of our overall campaign).  It's slow going, but not a slog.  Most rooms have the potential to be very deadly, and a few can be actual TPK's, so the players are being cautious and doing a lot of planning.  One thing I've noticed is that many of the Save or Die type effects have been replaced with "save, or take massive damage" - like 75-100 hit points types of damage.  Plus if you die, many of the traps have a secondary effect - the character is chopped in half, or disintegrated completely.  Because the over-arching campaign revolves around a "Death Curse" that has deactivated Raise Dead effects worldwide, dying in the Tomb is effectively perma-death anyway.  Not even Revivify, a common 3rd level spell to pull someone back from death's door, works in this campaign.  Death's stick.

It's no surprise the players trod slowly and carefully.  I'm expecting the campaign to take a few more months, ending somewhere between sessions 45-50, after a year of play.  Good value returned for a hard back book.

One thing the campaign has improved is my ability to drop innocuous verbal cues in descriptions to foreshadow traps, secret doors, and similar concealed structures.  There are many important rooms hidden on each level and it's easy for the players to devolve into "pixel bitching", the art of searching every 10' square for hidden stuff, at a snail's pace.  I'd much rather describe a scuff mark on the floor (where a secret door rotates out) or a discolored mark (where a hidden trap crushed a previous victim) as part of a broader description, and let the players sift through what's meaningful (if they're paying attention to cues).

Enough preamble, here's our cast of characters and then on to the highlights:

Cast of Characters

  • Stompy, a forge priest dwarf cleric (level 8).  His catch phrase is "Thems good eating!", such as after facing a dinosaur.
  • Woodson, an Aasimar sorceror (level 9).  He's good at one thing - burning stuff.
  • Reed, halfling rogue (level 9).  Their no-nonsense scout.
  • Osric, a hexblade warlock and their "tank" (level 9).  The party's megalomaniac conqueror.
  • Emporo the Mighty, fighter sidekick (level 9).  The super competent sidekick (if Osric is Dr Venture, Emporo is Brock Samson).
  • Prism, an evoker wizard (level 8). Was once a Wizard of Thay, now support Osric's schemes.

Level 1 - Rotten Halls
The entrance to the tomb is in the north of the ruined city.  There's a false entrance and a hidden real entrance.  The jungle surface has invaded the first level, draping the walls in vines and dappling the floor with sunlight; the traps include walls of darts and spiked pits that make it feel like an Indiana Jones excursion.  The crypts on this level were fairly easy for the group to navigate; the hazards were manageable, and there were several battles with the undead.  The most difficult death trap involved getting past an adamantine fan, into a room that required a character to enter a box in order to turn a key-nob that can only be turned when the box is closed; closing the box and turning the nob inflicted a terrible effect on the character.  Woodson went into the first and second box (wearing a Death Ward spell) which kept him from disintegrating after taking lethal damage in the black box.  Osric dealt with the final box by summoning a minor demon and compelling it close the lid and turn the nob for him.  Since that experience, the characters have been leaning hard on Death Ward.

Misty Step has helped the magical characters get out of harm's way several times, but apparently Dimension Door is prohibited.  The one time Reed activated his Cloak of the Mountebank to bypass a hazard with Dimension Door, he landed in a horrible oubliette piled 6' deep in corpses.  The real horror began when a tentacled monstrosity, an Otyugh, stalked him through the filth.  Reed had to evade the monster's groping tentacles by hiding beneath a corpse, using it as a shield, and scooting carefully towards one of the ubiquitous "green devil faces" on the wall using the corpse as moving cover (he called it his "Walking Dead" maneuver).  He pulled a lever in the green devil face, which created a vacuum, sucking all the contents of the room into the devil face's mouth (to be disintegrated by a sphere of annihilation).  This got rid of the Otyugh, but Reed had to succeed at 6 consecutive saving throws to avoid getting pulled into oblivion by clinging to the outside of the devil face.  After a minute or so, the suction ended and he was able to flip a second lever, which teleported him out of the room trap.  The players have learned through trial and error certain magical effects are denied by the power of the tomb.

The layout of the tomb is easily navigable, with a 50' wide spiral staircase surrounding an open vault that descends across the top four levels of the tomb.  In addition, there are hidden stairs up and down that can be found, there are pits that allow descent between levels, and even a waterfall down to level 5.  It's a well-designed layout with lots of interaction and mobility.  The players sent a flying familiar down the vault to begin scouting the other levels and the bottom of the shaft - t least until it was shot by an undead dwarf with a crossbow down on one of the lower levels.

In addition to running into "tomb dwarves", undead workers with green devil masks, they also ran into "tomb guardians", misshapen flesh golems in heavy plate armor and bucket helmets ("Gregor Cleganes").

Level 2 - Dungeon of Deception
An interesting features on level 2 is a gravity ring - a looping passage that makes a complete vertical circle.  As the players walk the circle, they inadvertently enter a demi-plane where a mirror copy of the tomb exists, used for testing new traps.  At first, the players didn't realize they were in a mirror tomb, but when they did figure it out they realized it could be used to "practice" defeating the puzzles and traps of the crypts before doing it for keeps in the real world.  Along the way, a few of the characters attuned to a magic item that cursed them with turning into man-goats.  Lots of bah-bah-bad jokes incoming.  Stompy and Prism are both furry goat-man hybrids now.

One of our entertaining bits was when the players stumbled into a workshop area where the tomb dwarves assembled new tomb guardians.  They ran into "Withers", an undead wizard tasked by Acererak with keeping the traps running.  Withers thought of himself as the "branch manager" in charge of guest services.  I love megadungeons, or in this case a large dungeon, that account for maintenance and expansion of the environs.  Withers viewed himself as responsible for presenting an entertaining experience for the "guests".  When the players stumbled into his office, he asked enthusiastically about their exploits - which traps and hazards were harrowing, which ones were too easy, if they ran into the owner would they be leaving a good review?  Of course he admonished them for straying into the "employee-only area", and that he'd be forced to notify the owner if they didn't comply with guest policy and return to the guest areas.  Alas poor Withers, he may be Acererak's employee of the year, but they ended up killing him anyway.

Next up, they'll be exploring level 3.  The past two weeks of gaming online (via Zoom) have worked out well for us.  Hopefully you've given it a try with your own gaming groups as we all stay indoors.