Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Can 5E Play Like an Old School Game?

Answer:  It can get most of the way there, but is the juice worth the squeeze?

I prefer to run site-based adventures like hex crawls and dungeons, and let the story of the game emerge organically from player choice.  The referee provides enough information or opportunities to get information that the players can boldly plan their own adventures.  You also need an experience system that's transparent, and a way of telegraphing danger and relative risk-reward so the players can make smart (or at least informed) choices.

This play style I just described is what pulled me back to 1st edition AD&D and away from 4E or even Pathfinder.  Along the way I discovered the OSR and games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Now I've spent the past year throwing myself exuberantly into 5E.

Since running the campaign Tomb of Annihilation for 25+ sessions now, I'm wondering whether the issue with 5E and the old school is more about the types of adventures being delivered, versus how much "system matters".  Tomb is very much an old school style campaign - a sprawling hex crawl filled with adventure sites and mini dungeons, followed by a ruined jungle city, a Yuan-Ti dungeon lair, and a multi-level high level dungeon.  It's certainly proof positive that an old school site-based adventure works under New D&D.

That all being said, there are some issues with 5E that curtail it's ability to be an apples to apples replacement for an OSR game; there are pinch points where system does matter.  Here are my observations:

Lethality
As a whole, 5E "seems" less lethal.  It's no joke that 1E Magic Users can be killed by a house cat and a good roll.  Healing is freely available through short rests, total healing happens each long rest, and several classes have healing capabilities within combat.  Furthermore, many Save or Die monster effects have been softened.

That all being said, I've had a fair amount of deaths in Tomb of Annihilation, and we haven't gotten to the hard part yet.  Plus, it seems like the referee can either toughen the monsters, or apply a simple house rule like "gain a level of exhaustion each time a character drops to zero hit points" to make the 5E hit point Yo-Yo more challenging

Combat Duration
Combats in 5E are typically long and intricate.  Hit points are inflated, which reduces some variance.  Monsters stick around long enough to use their cool tricks because they have more hit points... but they do stick around, extending battles.  We play 3 hours per week, and usually only get in 1-2 real combat per game, maybe a third if it's a wandering monster or simple challenge.  Adventurer's League is a little better, with 4 hour sessions.

Combat duration is probably the biggest hurdle to wanting to run a 5E-style megadungeon or large dungeon.  I'd love to hear observations from readers who have tried running one.  For instance, has anyone run the Dungeon of the Mad Mage?  Please drop a comment how it's going.  At 2-3 combats per game session, it seems like it would take forever to explore large dungeon levels - or the ideal 5E dungeon level should be smaller?  Potentially a GP=XP rule would give players reasons to avoid fights.

Resource Management
I've seen a lot of comments that 5E undermines resource management.  It's true that many classes have light cantrips (obviating the need for torches).  It's unlikely that torches and lanterns will be the party's primary light if you don't house rule anything.  For out Tomb of Annihilation campaign, managing food, water, insect repellent, and weight, was a huge issue for the first few character levels.  The players were constantly hiring porters to help haul stuff (and then struggled to keep them alive in the monster-filled jungles of Chult).  As the players leveled up, some of the resource issues lifted - for instance, when the cleric gained the ability to Create Water, life became a little simpler as left over spell slots each day got converted into fresh water.

My experience was there's enough resource management in 5E, and it starts to fall away naturally after it's served it's purpose.  Referees just need to use the rules that exist.  Note:  encumbrance is technically an "optional" rule, so I guess there's that.

Gold for XP
5E should've had formal rules for GP = XP.  Not only does it directly support site-based exploration play, it naturally creates resource management challenges (hauling treasure back to town).  After my lost post, I now think it's not too hard to house rule the XP approach and  keep the existing XP tables intact.  I'd make domain ownership part of any such campaign as there needs to be some meaningful things to do with character wealth.

Player Skill or Character Skill
Isn't there a meme where a little girl asks "why not both?"

The Darkvision Problem
I've complained about how many non-human mutant races are in the game.  It is the Mos Eisley Cantina level of weirdness out there, friends.  But it's easy enough to create a human-centric campaign world and establish campaign reasons why there aren't a lot of screwball mutants running around.

I'm a little more chill about Darkvision once I learned (by reading the rules) that it only lets the user see a gray-scale and dim version of the world (which gives disadvantage on finding all the things adventurers care about, like secrets and traps).  I haven't had a party yet rely on Darkvision for exploration once I pointed out how the rules work.

Anyway, those are the "problems" I've seen with 5E.  After talking through them, it seems they're mostly easy to resolve other than the length of combat.  That particular topic warrants further discussion - there are variables like the pace of leveling, the XP system, how many encounters should players deal with before leveling, how big should a dungeon level be, how much ground should a party cover in an evening, that kind of stuff.  All important questions for home-brewing adventures , building dungeons, and running games.  I'm sure smarter people than me have trod this ground.  I'll see what I can find.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

5E: Make Treasure Great Again

I like point-based experience systems.  Viewing it in terms of indicators, they're both predictive and performance measurements, leading and lagging.  They work best in a game setting where the players have enough information to make meaningful choices about the level or risk they want to undertake.  "We're only level 2, but last week we found the stairs down to dungeon level 3.  Should we try it out?  We may score a lot of experience".  There does need to be a story side to the game, too, to supplement the gaming side of play.  There should be quests and story-based reasons to explore the aforementioned level 2 or level 3 that provide additional enjoyment.  This combination of enabling player choice and story rationale is the alchemy that made old-school gaming fun.

Last post I railed against milestones and 5E's default approach to point-based experience, which is based on combat victories.  Treasure is a more elegant measure because it opens up a greater range of player options and tactics than kick in the door, fight the monster, loot the bodies.  (Although I do love me some Munchkin).  Several commenters asked why not try treasure as the point-system for 5E, and some also pointed to online resources where folks have tried it out.  As a thought experiment I decided to take a look at treasure for XP for the Fifth and see what implications it could have for a campaign. Spoiler:  I think it can be fairly workable!  Thank you for the ideas internet amigos.

Some Wealth Comparisons
One of the issues with treasure in older editions is the exorbitant wealth that player characters bring back to civilization, straining credulity.  I did a comparison of expected money for an old school game versus a 5E game sometime ago (old school to 5E treasure comparison), the old school party will accumulate some 3 million gold pieces in value by 10th level (600,000 gp per character).  By comparison, a 5E party using "horde-based treasures" from the DMG will only have only gained about 20,000 gp per person.  That's no small difference, and underlines how "cash poor" 5E characters are compared to the expectations of other editions (or said another way, how bonkers was the gold expectations of 1E and BX).

How about if we were to substitute XP for Gold for your 5E game?  Cumulative experience requirements for a party of 5 to reach 10th level is in the neighborhood of 425k experience (425,000), so that corresponds more or less to 425,000 gold.  On the one hand, that's a lot less "money" than the 3 million required for your BX characters to reach level 10.  It floods your 5E game with a bit more money than the modest 20,000 gp a single 10th level character is expected to accumulate.  Poor Adventurer's League characters get hardly any money at all - the 10th level "Season 9" character will officially only have 1,760gp.

I put these in a simple chart for comparisons and highlighted level 10:


The big take away for me:  Converting 5E to use a GP-based experience system represents an increase in character wealth, but it's should be more manageable in-game than the equivalent wealth (millions of gold pieces) an old school party will recover.  So let's assume your 10th level party now has 400-500,000 gold pieces.  How can they reasonably spend their money?

Spending the Money
Old editions provided several "money sinks" for wealth that ensured characters donned their armor, hoisted their backpack, and trudged once more into the dungeon or wilderness.  The cash outlets were stronghold construction, magic item purchase, training costs, and taxation.  Let's see how these fare under the Fifth.

Strongholds are covered in the DMG.  A small keep or castle costs 50,000gp, a large one can cost up to 500k.  Monthly upkeep ranges from 3k per month up to 12k per month !!!  Plus there's the potential need for standing armies.  Considering a single level 10 PC will have 80-100,000gp, they'll have enough money to establish and staff their own stronghold.  As long as the referee is willing to have a consequential domain-level side game, strongholds will take a big chunk of player cash.   (Ideally you'd also have some kind of land income to offset the maintenance and upkeep costs, and potentially fund standing armies.  Dust off the ACKS or BECMI Companion Rules).

Matt Colville's book (Strongholds and Followers) is a little friendlier for mid-level characters to get started with strongholds, with costs down in the 6-10,000gp range for starter models.  Players can embellish their strongholds over time up to that 50,000gp range.  After recently running Dragonheist and seeing how much lower level characters enjoyed having their own place (Trollskull Manor), I submit 5E referees should encourage more of this style of play as part of "downtime".

Magic Item EconomyXanathar's Guide to Everything included suggested costs to buy and sell magic items for 5E - by popular demand, I presume.  Here are a few sample costs of items, ranging from uncommon up to legendary (costs shown are the max for that category):

  • Bag of Holding (U) - 600gp
  • Boots of Speed (R) - 10,000gp
  • Flying Carpet (VR) - 50,000gp
  • Cloak of Invisibility (L) - 150,000gp

5E is notoriously strict on magic item disbursement compared to older editions, and I've seen many online discussions scoff at the notion of making magic items for sale.  I'm not sure buying magic items is the "campaign wrecker" of the accusations.  I would not put a 24-hour Ye Olde Magic Shoppe on the village corner.  But couldn't there be an exclusive auction in distant Byzantium or far Carthago where rare and sundries are sold for exorbitant prices, reached after a long journey?  How about the local lord who is losing the manor due to misfortune and needs to forfeit an heirloom that was enchanted in a gentler age?  (Even Sam stole his family's Valyrian sword to fund his stay with the Maesters in Old Town, GOT fans).  Maybe the Collegium of Wizards takes commissions and puts students to work on long term enchantment projects to offset tuition (plus they'd require the players to collect any dangerous ingredients their item required).  The point is, I'm sure there are discrete and narrative-friendly ways to allow occasional buying and selling of rare objects without devolving into 4E's residuum and shopping trips to the Magic-Mart.

I don't think I'd implement training as a requirement for leveling up, 1E style.  Players hated it as much as being taxed to oblivion.  (With apologies to Gary). Since we're only dealing with a hundred thousand extra gold pieces, and not several million gold, I don't think we need to pursue such extreme measures.  But you can have the characters tithe 10% to the local church, as it's good for them (even in D&D).

Let's not forget living expenses from the PHB.  Before the players have those strongholds, living comfortably costs about 60gp per month for food and board.  It all adds up.

A Proposal
Older editions assumed 75% or 80% of a character's advancement came from treasure XP, the rest was from monsters.  These are easy to calculate numbers if the referee still wants to award some experience for defeating monsters; you'd just divide the monster XP by 4 or by 5 respectively.  In this way, you can seed your campaign setting with treasures - guarded by monsters, guarded by traps, forgotten and hidden, where ever you want to put it, and separate treasure XP and monster XP close to the earlier games.

A procedure for stocking a level would go something like this - using the experience table above, you'll see that a party of 5 needs 3,000 XP to go from level 2 to level 3 (600xp per character times 5 = 3,000xp).  You'd build your dungeon with enough encounter experience to provide the 3,000 XP worth of combat challenges (monsters).  Ideally, you'd include more monsters than required, and assume some wandering monsters, too.  You can disregard "game balance" concerns for encounter building, because the XP system no longer mandates that the players engage and win every combat to advance - fleeing and avoiding combat are now sound options that don't penalize advancement.  After stocking monsters, you'd then populate the dungeon level with enough treasure to deliver 3,000 XP or close to it.  When it comes time to award experience points, the treasure points are worth 1GP = 1XP, but the defeated monsters are 1/5 Monster XP = 1XP.

This shifts wandering monsters from a windfall of extra experience back to being a low value irritant.  In old school games they are to be avoided.  By minimizing the experience you get from combat, fighting in general returns to being a sub-optimal use of the player's time from an advancement perspective, and we get back to more of that Sword & Sorcery or picaresque vibe of the old school.

I no longer think it'll be hard to switch over to a treasure-based XP system and be worried about the implications; I just needed to run the numbers and reflect on whether there are meaningful opportunities to spend money.  It looks to me like it will work.  If I'm being dangerously naive, please let me know in the comments.


Saturday, January 4, 2020

5E's Biggest Fail: Experience and Advancement. (And a Poll)

Character advancement has been an underlying objective in Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning.  The players maneuver their characters on adventures, they accumulate "experience points", and the characters gain levels and become more powerful.  It's a strong incentive model and a big part of D&D's enduring appeal.  Regardless of the "story" elements present in any individual campaign, character advancement is a default goal that informs the action at the table.  Unfortunately, the experience system is the weakest part of Fifth Edition and my least favorite thing in the new edition.

Traditional D&D awarded experience points primarily for treasure, with a fraction of the experience awarded for defeating monsters.  Depending on the edition, 75% or 80% of the player's experience was gained by recovering treasure.  "Treasure as XP" had profound implications for how players and referees approached old school D&D games.  Dungeon Masters established their campaigns to involve significant exploration, with dungeons, lairs, and hex crawls as popular structures for organizing campaign information and presenting challenges to the players.  (We use the term sandbox play to describe this overall method of presenting a ready-made setting seeded with adventure opportunities; in the video game realm I've seen the term "open world").

The sandbox approach has implications for the players.  Information is their currency to proactively plan their adventures, balancing the perceived risk and reward and making choices regarding which opportunities to pursue.  As players cleared lairs and dungeons, their characters earn experience points by successfully returning to town with treasure.  Treasure is an easy-to-use abstraction for keeping score, since it it's assumed the players explored, overcame traps, used their magic, and outsmarted or defeated monsters through combat or stealth in order to win the day.  Treasure provides transparency that enables player planning.  D&D is a game, after all.

Fast forward to 5E.  I've seen it affectionately called a "nostalgia edition", but the experience system actually hinders the type of game play I described.  By the book, 5E only incentives players to fight and kill monsters, gaining experience solely through combat.  Whereas old school D&D rewarded smart play through exploration and planning, 5E rewards killing everything in sight. Sneaking, stealth, and carefully avoiding fights is actively discouraged by the advancement system.  It is not generally in the player's interest to avoid combats.  Why is "kill them all, let god sort them out" style of gaming the default?

Alternatively, many referees have adopted an arbitrary approach called "milestone experience" (and since I've been running some of the official hardcover adventures in Adventurer's League, I've become a reluctant co-conspirator in the milestone travesty).  Milestone experience is somewhere between a "participation award" for showing up, and outright manipulation - do what I want you to do, little puppets, and I'll give you your cookie.

The reason this topic is important is I'm trying to figure out how I want to move forward with developing homebrew adventures in the land of the 5th.  The lure of returning to proper OSR games is strong.  But 5E is the game system my local players enjoy; they play it at conventions, they own the books, they like the powerful PC's and the unusual races.  There's a crazy number of people that play at the local Adventurer's League nights in the area.  I don't know if my readers are OSR people or 5E people or somewhere in between, but the popularity of "New Dungeons & Dragons" is through the roof.  These are all good reasons to stay the course and figure out how to bend, fold, and mutilate 5E to support a more satisfying play experience.  I honestly don't think of myself as one of those "get off my lawn damn kids" grognard types, clinging to the old ways like a reactionary 1950's apologist, but maybe there is an actual generational thing at work regarding my antipathy towards storytelling and milestones - newer gamers may not mind being told what to do and how to conform to someone else's plan.

I've done some poking around, it doesn't look like any internet brethren have made a good way to replicate treasure as experience points and implemented an old school style sandbox with the 5E; there are some tries.  I believe the vitriol driving this screed is that I'm not terribly interested in rewriting the experience system; the game as written should support the styles of play that made D&D amazing.  Complaining and then claiming to be too lazy to do anything about is not a good look, granted.  I own my turpitude.

Of the 10 or so published adventures, a few of them do present open worlds built on a hex crawl or megadungeon premise.  They expect the players to kill everything in sight.  For instance, Dungeon of the Mad Mage provides just enough experience for a party of four (four!) to advance if they clear the entire level.  Picture a group of "heroes" tromping through the dungeon corridors like The Terminator, blasting monsters from behind.  Suffer not an orc to live.  Wipe them out, all of them.  Exterminate.

Nonetheless, in the next post I'll take a look at the 5E sandbox books (Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and discuss their approaches to XP.  Maybe it's not as bleak as I'm presenting and I need to embrace the ultraviolence.  I've been using an unofficial XP system for my Chult game called "Three Pillars" (from Unearthed Arcana), so I'll talk about how that's been going, too.

In the meantime, I am curious - if you stop by the blog from time to time, do you play 5E or older versions of The Game?  I've posted a poll on the right - let me know!


Thursday, January 2, 2020

Checking in with Chult

It's been a few months since I mentioned my weekly home game, playing through Tomb of Annihilation with the old guard.  The players are just finishing their exploration of the Forbidden City, Omu, so it's a good time to check in.  By way of reminder, Tomb of Annihilation is loosely divided into 4 exploration arcs.  The first arc is a hex crawl across the continent of Chult, trying to find the Forbidden City.  The second arc is exploring the sprawling, ruined jungle city itself.  The third arc is infiltrating a Yuan-Ti dungeon beneath the city, the Fane of the Night Serpent.  The final arc is the assault on the Tomb of Annihilation, one of Acererak's death trap dungeons.

As the game has shifted to Omu, the danger curve has gotten more intense, and we've lost several player characters and NPC's.  The ruined city sits at the bottom of a rift valley, overgrown with jungle vegetation and partially flooded.  The characters are not the first explorers to find the city; the Red Wizards of Thay have a force there, and the players can discover the remains of an earlier adventuring camp.  Between Red Wizard stragglers, ruined camps, and city graffiti, they learn the "game" of the ruined city is to explore various shrines, survive the gauntlets within, and emerge with puzzle cubes which will ultimately grant access to Acererak's hidden tomb.  There are nine cubes, and it becomes a race between the players and the Red Wizards to collect all of them.  A showdown is inevitable.  Meanwhile, the ruined jungle city is home turf for the Yuan-Ti.  The blend of lush jungle, exotic diseases and giant insects, dinosaurs, murderous Yuan-Ti, and scheming evil wizards has made the Omu chapter great fun.  Plus each shrine contains a small trap or puzzle that's offered different challenges than a wilderness hexcrawl, forcing the players to flex new mental muscles.  Great stuff all around.

One of the party's magic users died during a Yuan-Ti ambush.  A fighter (Josh) was killed in one of the shrines by a clay gladiator in a brutal pit fight.  Their guide was swallowed whole by a Froghemoth and eaten, muhahaha.  Their two NPC sailors, Flotsam and Jetsom, who traveled inland with the party from the coast (acting as porters and camp keepers) were frozen alive by a Cone of Cold when the surviving Red Wizards scryed the party's encampment and attacked. Orvex, a survivor they found in the city, was impaled in a shrine.  With this kind of death toll it's like we're not even playing 5E!

Here are the surviving characters:  Stompy, a forge priest dwarf cleric (level 7); Prism, an evoker wizard (level 6); Osric, a hexblade warlock and their "tank" (level 7); Woodson, an Aasimar sorceror (level 8); Reed, halfling rogue (level 8); Emporo the Mighty, fighter sidekick (level 7).

We've stopped worrying as much about supplies and book-keeping.  The characters and their henchmen hauled enough rations and supplies to the ruined city to last several weeks, and the cleric can generate enough fresh water each day with remaining spell slots to keep everyone hydrated.  Once you get past levels 5-6 the available magic off-sets many logistical issues.  I've had to remind them of time pressure to resist the "five minute workday" syndrome.  The guys have played well, though; they used a Commune with Nature scroll early on to map out several places of interest in the ruins, so they didn't need to slog building by building.  They tried aerial reconaissance but flocks of gargoyles overlooking the rift valley made that a bad idea.  The step increase in difficulty in Omu has forced them to develop cohesive tactics and better planning.

We try to play every Sunday night, 7-10pm, and I keep a notebook for experience totals and a session log - we just finished session 25.  The jungle hex crawl portion of Chult lasted sessions 1 - 17, with several trips back to the port city, tussles with pirates, and a long ocean jaunt to the south of the continent.  Omu has covered sessions 18 to 25.  At this point, the players have vanquished the Red Wizards and hold 8 of the 9 puzzle cubes; they know the Yuan-Ti are holding the last puzzle cube in the Fane of the Night Serpent, so I expect them to plan their assault on the Yuan-Ti next session.  I expect the Yuan-Ti dungeon will only be a few sessions, and then it will be on to the large dungeon that concludes the campaign.

Overall this one's been really good.  Tomb of Annihilation starts a little bumpy in chapter 1; I can see newer players feeling a bit overwhelmed by choice when starting a hex crawl.  For an exotic locale with storied cultures, I would've also liked to see more Chultans involved in the adventure; they're mostly limited to Port Nyanzaru.  There are some "colonization themes" in the setting a referee can emphasize if they want that dynamic in the game; the Flaming Fist make good continental villains and bullies.  But those are quibbles; Tomb of Annihilation has been great fun, and joins Curse of Strahd as an excellent 5E adventure that supports a classic D&D experience.  I'm hoping to start the 5E Undermountain (Dungeon of the Mad Mage) this winter with Adventurer's League to round out the old school homages.  In the meantime, Happy New Year everyone, and feel free to ask me anything.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Dragon Heist Retrospective and Review



A friend of mine is the admin for a local Adventurer's League store, and I've been helping out as a guest DM since this summer.  When the new "season" started in September, I began running a pair of the 5E hardcover books on alternating weeks - Waterdeep: Dragon Heist one week, Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus the following week.  Dragon Heist is a compact story and we finished it this week after 6 four hour sessions.  Here's a recap of our experience as well as a capsule review.

The Dragon Heist Experience
With Adventurer's League, a referee needs to anticipate transience with the weekly players.  An ongoing campaign needs to gracefully handle characters coming and going.  For Dragon Heist, the players created an adventuring company called The Misfits; by the second chapter, they owned a tavern in Waterdeep, and any transient characters were heretofore unseen members of The Misfits who helped run the business when not adventuring.  It worked well.

The principal group consisted most nights of Dmitrighor (dragonborn barbarian), Whistler (kenku monk), Kal (tiefling warlock), Trick (human sorceror), Mr Gloom (halfling rogue), Dick (gnome wizard), and Rycroft (human druid).  Misfits indeed.  Dragon Heist provides the opportunity for characters to be approached by factions and form allegiances with them; the Misfits had one member become a Zhentarim, and several members join the Grey Hands, an adjunct to an adventuring company called Force Grey.

The players were all experienced and competent, made good choices, and blazed through the campaign smartly.  We only lost a single player when an encounter with an assassin, Urstul Floxin, went poorly.  (Dick the Gnome Wizard was a replacement character).  However, the campaign didn't lack drama.  There's a tense battle with an intellect devourer at 1st level, and plenty of powerful, high level NPC's throughout the chapters that can lay a smack down (including death by immolation if they run afoul of a 17th level gold dragon).  One of our capstone battles involved the players fighting Meloon Wardragon, a high level fighter possessed by an intellect devourer.  There's a mind flayer and intellect devourer sub-theme in Dragon Heist, since one of the crime syndicates is run by a Beholder and employs a mind flayer and intellect devourers to infiltrate organizations in the city.

The summary of the campaign goes like this:  a previous lord of the city embezzled a half million gold pieces ("gold dragons"), and hid the money in a secret vault in the city.  A magic key to the vault has resurfaced, and the crime syndicates are fighting each other to be the first to secure the key and locate the vault.  The players become embroiled in the gang war, learn about the key, embark on a chase all over the city to claim it, and eventually become the group that discovers the lost vault.  The treasure is ultimately guarded by an adult gold dragon.  There's no chance of winning a combat against the dragon, so the players either need to think quickly and win a high stakes social encounter, or run for their lives.  The Misfits had negotiated events to that point such that they were accompanied by a doppleganger ally; they convinced said doppleganger to assume the form of the original lord's adult son and heir, Renaer Neverember, and used an extremely well-forged document to pass title of the treasure as an inheritance to their fake heir.  It was a classic heist movie moment.  Sidebar:  Heist scenes like "Ocean's 11" can be hard to pull off at the table in real time, so I let the players do flashbacks while in the vault if they think of something they should have planned for - such as the the forged documents, wearing the right uniforms, that kind of stuff.  Here's a good post from DM David that describes the technique of using flashbacks to support a heist session - good stuff!

However, our particular campaign ended with the villains getting the last laugh, and ensuring there will be a future reckoning.  Dragon Heist has four sets of antagonists, determined by the time of year you set the campaign.  The Misfits chose "summer".  Their secret adversaries were powerful devil cultists called the Cassalanters.  When Victoro Cassalanter learned his agents lost the vault key to the players, he ingratiated himself to them, portraying himself as a victim of a diabolical plot; the souls of his innocent children were forfeit to Asmodeus unless he and his wife could produce a million gold pieces by mid-summer.  He needed the gold to ransom his poor children.  The heroic instincts of The Misfits predisposed them to ally with the Cassalenters to "save the children", and they won through to the gold on Victoro's behalf.  The players were later invited to be guests of honor at the Cassalanter's mid-summer gala, rubbing shoulders with well-to-do nobles from Waterdeep's upper crust, while the Cassalanters threw a sumptuous spread for many poorer residents of the city out in the courtyard of the villa.

The Cassalanters and their children
It was a giant trap.  The player characters, along with the stunned noble guests in the main house, watched in horror as the courtyard full of peasants died at midnight to a horrific time-delayed poison, "midnight tears", an exotic toxin.  The players learned, too late, there were two parts to the Cassalanter's bargain with Asmodeus; the Cassalanters needed the gold, but they also needed to sacrifice a hundred souls in order to void their original contract.  Victoro and his wife black-mailed the nobles in attendance as accomplices to the horrific crime, ensuring they'll be able to cover up their misdeeds and continue their social advancement through leverage on several well to-do families.  The Cassalanters also had enough "muscle" present to dissuade the player characters from starting a brawl on the spot.  Victoro reminded the Misfits that they did indeed "save the children", even if it was based on half-truths and deception.  Victoro had bribed the characters with magic items and promises of future payments for their help, and he upheld his side of the deal.  In future games, Victoro will attempt to compel the Misfits to act as agents of the Cassalanters, the way a crime lord will exact service when he has some dirt on a mark.  It's good to have villains the players really despise.

Capsule Review of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
I provided a summary of the campaign up above.  Besides the five chapters covering the main story, Dragon Heist includes a gazetteer of Waterdeep, detailed lairs for the 4 antagonist organizations, the usual appendices of magic items and new monsters, and a pull-out poster map of the city.

Like any plotted adventure, there are connecting points between chapters that can be missed by the players, and the game master needs to be ready to nudge the action if advancing the story line is important.  For instance, our sorcerer had joined a magic guild called the "Watchful Order"; a fellow member of the Order suggested they pursue a Speak with the Dead spell as an option to learn information about a crime, thus revealing a clue to the next adventure site.  Ideally you'd like the players to consider these options themselves, but a plotted story may require the referee to prompt them with a friendly NPC here and there to keep the narrative on track.  Plotted stories are not my favorite style of play, but this one offers several patterns that made it quite memorable.

At the end of the first chapter, the players can take ownership of an abandoned tavern, Trollskull Manor.  Chapter two is all about deciding what to do with the place and exploring the neighborhood.  This was one of my favorite elements in Dragon Heist; I've found through the years many of my player groups have loved establishing a home base, an identity, and a brand for themselves.  The Misfits turned Trollskull Manor into a gambling hall and gin joint, and promoting their business (while adventuring) became a running theme throughout the campaign.  Through research and good play, they befriended the ghost of the deceased owner and own Waterdeep's first "haunted tavern" where a poltergeist helps tend bar.

I mentioned during the recap the players joined "The Grey Hands" and "The Zhentarim".  The factions provide the party with side quests and advancement opportunities that give the campaign a "world in motion" element while advancing the story themes.  The Grey Hand side quests in particular built on themselves nicely.  Dragon Heist provides some replay value because a second group could be presented with different faction choices (as well as picking a different master villain) and the pivotal chase sequence in chapter 4 changes based on the villain.  If my home group wanted to experience Dragon Heist, I wouldn't say no since the experience would vary quite a bit.

Chapter's 5 through 8 detail the lairs and organizations of the 4 principal antagonists of the campaign - the Xanathar Guild, the Cassalanters, a drow mercenary named Jarlaxle, and a Manshoon clone leading a Zhentarim branch.  It's unlikely these secret lairs will matter much during a run-through of the main story line, but I'm sure they'll see use in a long term campaign in Waterdeep - especially if the referee continues on to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, a megadungeon based in Waterdeep that picks up after Dragon Heist when the characters are 5th level.

Overall I liked Dragon Heist.  The home base, the faction missions, the big chase sequence, the "heist", all present interesting urban play patterns that provide a change of pace from exploration-based hex and dungeon crawls.  The plotted scenes weren't hard to keep on track; the Trollskull Manor side business and faction side quests were great fun.  Chapter 4 is a gigantic chase sequence composed of a handful of connected vignettes.  The chapter is okay, and moves along nicely.  There are several breaking and entering "heist" style capers that can devolve into fiascoes - infiltrating Gralhund Villa and breaking into the main vault to confront the dragon.  However, to get full value out of the book, I'd recommend it for referees interested in running a Waterdeep campaign, to take advantage of the full content.  As for my group, we'll be starting Dungeon of the Mad Mage sometime in January and I'd expect the lairs in chapters 5 through 8 to become relevant in a long term campaign.


Artwork copyright Wizards of the Coast

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.

Problems
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.

Annihilation
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.

Midsommar
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.