Friday, February 27, 2015

The Curious State of WOTC D&D

5th Edition is complete.  We have all the core books - a Player's Handbook, DM Guide, and Monster Manual.  An adventure path style campaign was released last fall (Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat) with a second one on the way in April.  And that's about it as far as the official release schedule.  Are those crickets chirping at WOTC headquarters?

If we dig a little deeper, the picture gets even grayer.  There were layoffs with the D&D team in the past few months.  The campaign books are being developed by 3rd parties and printed under the WOTC label.  There is no sign of any online magazines, although a few quality articles are coming out per month on the WOTC D&D site.  Meanwhile, competing game lines like Pathfinder continue to flood the faithful with material.

What the heck is going on here?

This is fascinating for me to observe.  The combination of layoffs, outsourcing, and limited release schedule can be interpreted in multiple ways, but I'm reading into this a new approach towards sustainability.  The latest version of D&D is the most old school friendly of the recent iterations, with the easiest path to conversion of older materials to 5E.  Wizards continues to release their back catalog as PDF's on the D&D Classics site.  Why should they invest in rehashing existing materials like campaign settings or adventures, when they can direct players to 30+ years of materials in PDF for easy conversion.

The layoffs and re-tooling of the team in WOTC also appear to suggest aligning for the long haul.  The brand is still a valuable property for licensing, with continued interest in 3rd party computer games, movie rights, board games, and miniatures.  If you ran a company and decided that the table top RPG "glory days" were in the past, but you wanted to keep an evergreen roleplaying game product in the market and take advantage of your 30+ years of historical products, I bet your strategy would look quite a bit like WOTC's.  You could keep a smaller in-house crew, shift the labor of new adventure development to 3rd parties, and retool the internal team for long term support of the brand and licensing.

Chaosium has been successful keeping Call of Cthulhu alive as a property for 30+ years with a similar model.  They seem to run a skeleton crew, keep most of their back catalog available as PDF, and keep everything widely compatible with newer versions of the rules.  Many of the major new products are work-for-hire or independent contractors.

Anyway, that's how I'm reading into the lack of a market flood of 5E products coming out of Wizards.  Somewhere along the line, they made a conscious effort to get into 5E for the long haul while they try and leverage the D&D name in other venues, like the rumored movie rights.  Unfortunately, the modern crowd seems to equate 'market flood of products' with success, and so there are rumblings on the left that D&D 5E must be unsuccessful.  And WOTC hasn't done a fantastic job marketing the ability to convert older stuff to 5E or going after the old school demographic with 5E's friendliness to older style of play.  One of the recent positions they added was a communications manager, so perhaps we're going to see more fan outreach on the horizon.

I'm pretty happy with the current state of things.  I'd like to see a formal OGL or similar license for 3rd party publishers, although stalwarts like Frog God Games are still finding a way under some of their older agreements.  Maybe in a couple of years I'd like to see a 5E treatment for Oriental Adventures or wuxia friendly 5E, but no rush.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Introducing - The Outlanders

In which a new campaign is launched, and the players demonstrate their quality.

We started the new campaign last night.  A few of the guys have played some 5E, for the others this was their first foray.  I kicked off with some basic ground rules:

  • The campaign is built around a "delve" concept, short dungeons meant to be completed in a single evening.  I expect each game to start and end in town, to support an episodic cast of players.  If you miss one week, you're free to show up the next and know that you'll be able to jump in.
  • 5E combat features a lot of swing - monsters and characters that hit hard, and dice matter; the players should plan on utilizing sound old school tactics.
  • While I like the Inspiration mechanic, I plan on focusing it more on things that reinforce the setting than character background choices like bonds and ideals that might draw focus from group play.  Invoking the gods or demonstrating heroic ideals from the epics are good examples of play that could earn inspiration.

The players for the first night introduced their characters - Modred, a Gold Dragonborn Bard; Etor, a Spartan Fighter; Gati, a Halfling Rogue; Aldrian, an Elf Druid.

Modred:  The Dragonborn are a manufactured race, created from dragon's teeth sown in the ground (ala the myth of Cadmus and Jason - the Spartoi).  Modred has come to Taenarum to confront Hades in song, and liberate the spirits of the dead Dragonborn, or join them.  (I totally want to see a death metal showdown some day, like Finn versus Death).

Etor:  Etor was a Spartan soldier who deserted on an overseas campaign, and spent years in the wilds north of Greece.  He's come to Taenarum because he's a professional adventurer now.

Gati:  Halflings originate on an isolated island that was discovered by explorers after the Trojan War - when members of the Greek fleet were blown off course.  The race indulges in drink, pleasure, and leisure, and hold Dionysus as their patron deity.  (Now I can't help but picture Halflings as the chubby little satyrs from Fantasia).  Since the Halflings have learned about the outside world (and vice versa) many youthful Halflings have stowed away to see the wider world.  That's why Gati left too.

Aldrian:  Aldrian is an elf druid revering Artemis in the wild forests beyond the Alps.  A vision called him to the south of Greece.  He believes the will of the goddess will be served by exploring the dungeon.

The players agreed that they met at the Adventurer's Guild Hall in Psammathous Bay, the small seaside village along the cape from which jaunts to Taenarum are launched.  They call themselves 'The Outlanders', because they all managed to choose Outlander as a character background, sight unseen.  One of the hallmarks of the Adventurer's Guildhall is a "scoreboard" on the wall, where a running tally of total gold earned is kept on the wall, along with the status of various rival adventuring parties.   The game was officially 'in session' with Lykourgos, the proprietor of the guild hall, banging a tankard on the bar top loud enough to silence the crowd.  "A new group of adventurers has incorporated.  They call themselves The Outlanders."  Lykourgos walked over to the scoreboard and hung the placard with the player's group name on the bottom rung of the scoreboard, with zero points.  "Outlanders - welcome to the Scoreboard!"  And many cries of 'huzzah' went up around the tavern, and then the various rival groups went back to their drinks and conversations… although comments like "Wonder how long it will take for that group to end up in the dead pile", was also heard a few times around the hall.

The players spent some time seeing what kind of rumors they could pick up, and whether there were any quests being dangled about the town (queue the sound of furious DM dice rolls).  A distraught woman at the bar, Desma, was hoping to hire adventurers to rescue her husband from a dryad.  His companions returned to Sparta, leaving him enslaved in the clutches of a vampish dryad.  Meanwhile, the captain of the guard pointed out how Lord Yorgos, the ruler of the nearby area, would be happy if an adventuring party took care of some bandits that were camping somewhere near the entrance.  In both cases, the more powerful local adventuring parties - the Nefarious Nine, or the Big Gold Hunters - couldn't be bothered with dryads or bandits - so the players saw these as good opportunities for themselves.  Off they went to the dungeon.

The walk to Taenarum from the village cove is a couple of miles across sun drenched hills and the ridge line.  At the end of the cape, overlooking the vast and open water, is a high sea cliff and a large passage carved into the living stone.  The post and lintel of the doorway is chiseled with images of giants holding up the roof, and a weather worn visage of a gorgon over the entrance.  The players prepared a torch and descended into the darkness.

The road to the underworld is spacious and high ceilinged, a broad twenty foot passage with numerous nooks, alcoves, side rooms, and even side passages.  After about twenty minutes, the players came to the first dungeon - an archway with a long passage leading off to the right.

How I drew up the first delve area in my planning went something like this… the players would miss a trip wire, alerting the nearby bandit camp, causing an ambush in the bandit area that would drain most of the party resources.  The party would be softened up for the "bandit captain", a super dangerous encounter for 1st level characters.  I'd be fine if the bandit captain dropped most of the players and then took the party prisoner.  Getting sand kicked in your face at first level is good for building character, amiright?

What really happened is that the Halfling thief checked the hall for traps, easily found the trip wire, disabled it, and found the bandits long before they knew anyone was there.  The players ambushed the bandits, wiping them out without a problem, and were also able to surprise the bandit captain in his lair a few minutes later.  Things didn't look good for the DM's team.

Despite the players seriously outplaying me, the raw power of the bandit captain versus four first level fighters began to tilt the fight.  The bandit captain was on the other side of a large table, and Etor charged from one side, and the Dragonborn charged from the other.  Etor was dropped to zero hit points by the bandit's "three attacks per round" routine, and while the druid was using 'healing word' to revive the fighter, the Dragonborn got pounded.  The Dragonborn was knocked out of the fight, the Druid took his place and was also knocked out of the fight, and the Halfling needed to run under the table and start doing thief backstabby types of things.  A timely critical by Etor finished the bandit captain, and the players were able to stabilize and revive their fallen friends.

Despite my stated goal of finishing an entire delve per night, this night was heavy on roleplaying in town, telling war stories from Gen Con's past, and otherwise just catching up and getting the band back together, so over half the night was spent on that kind of stuff.  Not willing to risk the wrath of They Who Must Be Obeyed (the wives, and it was a work night) we ended on time and the group returned to town.  I imagine the players will finish this area next week and then I'll post a map of the area.

Overall, it was a fun game night.  Player skill matters, but the damage output of monsters is high enough that hot or cold dice create a lot of tension round to round.  I have some concerns about how this "delve approach" of short game nights will work versus resource management, healing, and spells, but I'm willing to see how it goes.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Needs More Drow

It's a lazy post for a lazy Sunday afternoon while I get ready for some Sunday night games... how would you work Drow Elves into the world of antiquity?

We'll be playing a 5E game and I've worked a number of the 'modern D&D' races into the setting already.  Dragonborn are descendants of the Spartoi, the dragon-men created by Cadmus (and Jason) by sowing special dragon's teeth.  Tieflings are outcasts from the decadent cities of the East.  The game doesn't use Orcs; I'm using the Half Orc to represent humans cursed by the gods to live as hideous outcasts.  Dwarves are creations of Hephaestus, while their dark counterparts, the Duergar, are minions of Hades.

How would you put Drow into the mythic world?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Design Principles for a 5E Megadungeon

We're on the eve of kicking off my first foray into a 5E megadungeon and campaign, assuming weather complies and the players can make it over tomorrow with more snow in the forecast.  For this one, I've gone in a much different direction than the ways I've designed and built megadungeons in the past.

The Old Way
A fair amount of time in the OSR was spent looking backwards to the 70's and trying to recreate how Gary did it with famous campaigns like the dungeons of Castle Greyhawk.  The campaigns seemed gloriously fun and the return to the megadungeon sandbox style was a refreshing escape from scripted stories and DM as author.  I'm immensely grateful for all the tips, tricks, techniques as a member of the OSR movement.

However, the context for modern gaming is changing.  I'm finding that my adult gamers can't make every game session; we can't game 8 hours at a time; players want faster gratification and aren't interested in the skill-testing inherent in gigantic dungeon crawls.  Creating a sprawling dungeon level of 100+ rooms for each level of the megadungeon was fine from both sides of the table in the days before we had kids; I'm seeing that my approach needs to adapt to the realities of busy families and modern people with shifting schedules.  Plus, the table top is competing for mindspace with consoles, tablet games, online stuff, all sorts of competing media.  The RPG model needs to assume episodic attendance and shorter sessions - at least for me, and maybe you too.

I tend not to give WOTC a lot of credit, but the idea of the "dungeon delve" as it was positioned in 4E (and maybe even late in 3.x) caught my attention while I've been pondering solutions.  Dungeon delves were short, self-contained scenarios consisting of a series of rooms and a few encounters, perfect for a single night and a pick up game.  They line up well with the modern context - intermittent attendance, pick up games, shorter sessions, faster character advancement.

How would I go about re-envisioning the megadungeon as a sprawling collection of loosely connected delves?

Here's a section of a top down view of Taenarum, complimenting the cross-section I posted a while ago. I'm not happy with this map, there's a long way to go, but it gives you the idea on what I'm thinking:

The overall structure of Taenarum is a large passage winding into the depths of the earth, the legendary road to the Underworld, crossing vast caverns and spaces.  I figure each hex is probably a quarter of a mile, so some of the caverns will be miles across - large enough to hold lakes, islands, even underground cities.  Along the way are countless rooms, nooks, side passages, tertiary halls, and entrances to mini dungeons.  Here's an example of what I mean by a mini dungeon:

One other change I'm doing is trying to do everything electronically, right from the start.  No graph paper maps or hex paper, everything is in notepad or graphic files.  You never know if you'll want to collect it in a book for readers or vanity publishing.  Maybe my players will want to 'Return to the Black City' and I'll have the chance to recreate some older stuff this way.  How cool would that be?

Open Questions
I have a bunch of questions on how 5E is going to work for this kind of dungeon, which I only expect to answer through experience.  How well do the CR systems and encounter guidelines correlate to in-game challenges?  How will the short rest and long rest mechanics work, from a resource management perspective, when the game is built around episodic delves?  Heh, I have a list of observations on 5E, I'll just collate them into a 5E rules post.

Post Script
One funny thing I realized - it didn't require adoption of 5E for me to make some of these changes to the megadungeon approach!  I could have stayed with my favorite rules sets, like LOTFP or ACKS, and run smaller delvers, faster advancement by modifying the XP system, etc, and just run classic OSR rules with alterations to fit the modern gaming context.  My purist tendencies and adherence to tradition tended to get in the way, but I'm getting over it.  I'm looking forward to 5E, though, and the players like all the gadgets and powerful characters - the new races, classes, all that stuff.  I'm sure they'll show up tomorrow with tons of interesting characters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Taenarum 2.0 Player's Background

Wow.  It's been over a month since the last post.  I've been keeping super busy in the meantime, though most of it has been work related (I'll spare the details).  From an RPG perspective, I've gotten some experience running 5E games and been working with the system.  I installed mapping software on my 8.1 machine.  I got Taenarum reconfigured and ready for some 5E action!  Players are on the way this weekend, so I'm going to post a player's background here for easy reference.

Player's Background

Taenarum is the legendary entrance to the Greek Underworld.  Hades, the god of wealth and the underworld, covets the souls of mortal heroes, and his undead minions have created sprawling dungeons along the road of the dead, promising fantastic treasures and ready death.  Heroes from around Greece sojourn to Taenarum to test themselves against the death god's minions and the chance to loot Hades' wealthy vaults.

The great heroes and kings of the Trojan War have faded to obscurity, leaving behind petty city states and grasping kings.  It's a landscape ripe for a new generation of heroes , where a strong sword arm and a hefty purse can raise an army and allow one to start their own conquests.

The gods themselves are deeply divided.  Slights and insults from the war years have created rifts across the pantheon, rivalries that are echoed amongst their mortal followers.  When angered, the scornful gods send terrible monsters to punish disrespectful followers.  Apocalyptic oracles warn that the known world is on the verge of a new Dark Age…

Next are the maps I'm using for the world.  This view of the world came from the Greek historian Herodotus; if you google "Herodotus world map" you can see what I mean.  Imagine if the world really looked like this!  There are decadent and ancient city states in the lands beyond Greece, crumbling and corrupt centers of old civilization like Carthage, Memphis, and Babylon.  Somewhere in the far north dwell the bizarre and otherworldly Hyperboreans with their alien science and magic.  This map of the world is far enough away from the real world that it's easy to "fantasy it up" and place Mythic Greece at the center of it all.

Oikoumene, the Known World
Taenarum, in southern Laconia

Assumptions for 5E
I plan to run 5E using most\all of the core assumptions and keep it "by the book", interpreting races and classes through a mythic lens where warranted. Customization will mostly be new monsters, magic items, and artifacts.

The following core classes all work fine as is for Greek adventurers - Bard, Fighter, Cleric, Paladin, Rogue, and Wizard.  All the wild lands north of Greece are filled with Barbarians.  Druids and Rangers can hail from the Celtic wilds of Iberia, and Sorcerers and Warlocks can be from any number of the decadent civilizations to the east.  I'm sure the players will generate additional ideas, and I plan on taking in some player suggestions, too.

The dwarves of mythic Greece are forge-bound followers of Hephaestus; elves and the fey races are be outsiders from the wilds of Europe and the north - though keeping with the Greek theme, the natural world is somewhat split between the portfolio of Artemis (order) and Pan (chaos).  Keeping with the swords & sorcery vibe, Tieflings hail from the decadent east and demon-plagued cities of night, and perhaps Dragonborn are from some distant part of Asia (although there's also the mythic "Spartoi", the men grown from dragon's teeth by Cadmus).  I could go either way on Dragonborn.  I'm not a fan of Half-Orcs - there aren't any orcs in the game, they're "pig-men" instead - but perhaps the Half-Orc represents a human cursed by the gods - like Caliban from the cheesy "Clash of the Titans" movie.  A Half-Orc is made when a god takes a clay statue of a man, and warps it into something twisted and grotesque as punishment for a slight or insult.  I'm not 100% sure how the Drow are going to fit into the Greek mythos yet, I just know that I got a fever, and the only prescription is more Drow.