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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Grateful Miscellany

They say you should practice gratitude; taking a few minutes each day to reflect on what you're grateful for has beneficial effects on your mindset, emotional health, and even physical health.  You can find it all over the wise Google in mainstream publications - the science of gratitude.  Life is stressful, you've got to take care of yourself - get out and run or exercise, eat and sleep well, cherish the folks around you.  I'm a pretty grateful person overall.  (Coincidentally I'm a giant Grateful Dead fan, too).

Here are a couple of things I noticed this week in the gaming world that inspired some gratitude and appreciation.

Mike Mearls on Greyhawk
I rotate across a bevy of podcasts on the way to work, mostly non-gaming - history, philosophy, even some fantasy football.  Once in a while I'll fire up something about gaming.  I wouldn't categorically recommend WOTC's "Dragon Talk"; it's usually a bit of marketing, some exposition on obscure Forgotten Realms lore (yawn), and then a guest.  Some of the guests are doing fantastic things with D&D - psychologists using D&D to improve social skills with autism kids, for instance - real heartwarming stuff.  But many of the guests are streamers, celebrities, or improv groups talking about their shtick.  Every once in a while they do a "Sage Advice" where they deep dive on some rules with their rules guru, that's usually golden.  Dragon Talk is in my podcast queue; I'll typically look at the details and delete anything that seems yawnstipating.

This week's first serendipitous moment when I was doing clean up on some old Dragon Talks sitting on the iPod and saw one that had an interview with a cartographer, so I fired it up in the headphones while doing some house cleaning.  The cartographer interviewer was fine, the real gem was a 45 minute interview with Mike Mearls on why he loves Greyhawk as a setting.  (You can listen to it from here:  Dragon Talk with Deven Rue - Mike is at about 9 minutes in.)

The interview starts with an overview of campaign settings, from OD&D's start, the Greyhawk supplement, up until about the Forgotten Realms Greybox.  The theme of the interview, though, is why Greyhawk is different from the Forgotten Realms, and analysis on Gary's approach.  Greyhawk is human-centric, and focused on political states with very real human motivations.  Unlike later campaign sets, it's very much a tool box that presents the world right on the cusp of change (the return of Iuz, for instance) but doesn't tell the DM how the change needs to go.  It's a launch point for DIY D&D.

By comparison, the Forgotten Realms is all about the metaplot.  There are oodles of canonical references, novels, and published campaign arcs.  The Realms is ideal for the dungeon master that wants to run the game, but can't spend much time each week preparing their own stories; you can pick up any of the WOTC hardcovers for 5E and run something out of the book.  And to be fair, WOTC has been doing a good job of creating open-ended sandbox campaigns in the Realms.  I'm not a big fan of the Realms for many reasons, but I like how they've done most of their 5E adventure books.

But the main point of the podcast is Mike gets why Greyhawk is so highly regarded by our niche.  Down with canon.  I actually think if WOTC publishes a Greyhawk source book, their internal struggle is with whether they return to the 1983 Brown Box setting and omit Greyhawk Wars and From the Ashes (which pushed Greyhawk down the meta-story canon path).

Incidentally, Wizards of the Coast currently has a 2019 marketing survey posted to collect feedback on how you play D&D in 2019, including your favorite settings.  Get out there and vote for Team Greyhawk.  (Wizards of the Coast 2019 survey).

The Monsters Know What They're Doing
My other serendipitous discovery this week was the blog, The Monsters Know What They're Doing.  The author, Keith Ammann, has been writing weekly breakdowns of monster tactics for the past 3 years.  He deep-dives the Monster Manual or sourcebook entry, combining an analysis of the monster's attributes, skills, combat statistics, and flavor text, to provide a ready-to-use set of tactics at the table (for 5E).  Your kobolds will behave differently from orcs, which are different from goblins.  He's doing that for everything.  It's yeoman's work, and his blog is easy to search so you can target a specific monster and review tactical suggestions in advance of your game session.  Need an idea what the monster shaman will summon with the Conjure Animals spell?  Chances are he's got a breakdown for you in the tactics.  He's collected a few years of his material into a book - I don't have it yet, I just discovered the blog this week from an online mention.  I'll post a review if I get it; in the meantime the blog is free, searchable, and a fantastic labor of love.  If you're a DM for 5E, it will give you ideas when planning tactics for upcoming monster encounters and put you in the monster's shoes.

In the spirit of sharing, are there any world-building, DMing, or similar gaming podcasts you've been enjoying?  How about other hidden jewel blogs like The Monsters Know that you want to pass along?  Drop a note, thanks!

And one non-gaming thing to be grateful for - the Dead are touring again!  They played Halloween night in my area (Madison Square Garden) and I'll catch some shows this weekend down in Virginia, too.  (Photo courtesy of my friend Mindunn who maneuvered through the floor and got some great pics).  Happy Sunday.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Greyhawk Take the Wheel

Typical Adventurer's League Party, with a Human

The room description had several "death cultists" laying on the floor playing dead as if they were ritually murdered, a single smoldering torch on the ground in the center of a chalk diagram.  The characters entered warily, and weren't surprised as the cultists clumsily got to their feet to attack (roll initiative).  The first player to go used a cantrip to douse the single flame, plunging the room into darkness.  The human cultists were now hopelessly outmatched because the entire player group were dark vision lurkers, and I remembered I was imprisoned in 5E's equivalent of purgatory - the Adventurer's League.

One of my Adventurer's League tables is completely overrun with mutants.  3 Aasimars (angel-blooded humans), a deep gnome, a half-orc, and a shadar-kai.  If you mostly play original D&D, those race names are a bunch of word salad, but I assure you they've been added to the game the past few editions.  My other bi-weekly adventurer's league party includes a Tabaxi (cat-person), a dragonborn, and a turtle-man (plus a few "normal races").  Even my home game has a pair of Aasimar and a deep gnome (recently deceased).  The monsters have become the player characters.

I know any grief I'm feeling due to my time with Adventurer's League (AL) is self-inflicted.  It's meant as no disparagement to the players, they come from a different culture.  I've found the AL players to be funny, sociable, well-versed in rules knowledge, tactical, and gracious to welcome public dungeon masters.  My complaint here, and it's one of subjective taste, is the AL rules encourage players to create adventuring parties full of these mutants and monsters.

I complain about the Forgotten Realms, but I'm not even sure the problem is the Realms as much as it's the Adventurer's League itself.  As a player, your goal is to devise an interesting and effective character, within the rules.  By my count, there are more than 55 legal races in Adventurer's League, including such well known stalwarts as Triton, Kenku, Ghostwise Halfling, Earth Genasi, Deep Gnome, Firbolg, and Scourge Aasimar.  As a dungeon master, when you sit down to run a game for a public table, expect the party to be motley denizens from the Mos Eisley Cantina.

I'm sure this is a knee-jerk get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids moment on my part, I'm willing to own that.  My context for a good D&D game setting is the Village of Hommlet, or the Keep on the Borderlands.  A proper D&D setting is faux-European fantasy, where the forces of civilization, humanity, strive against Chaos.  The home base is a haven of civilization on the edge of more dangerous borderlands or wilds.  Proper D&D settings are human-centric and have a historical texture to them.  Dark Ages or Medieval Europe with a patina of magic and some monsters; non-human races are present but rare.  Many places will view them with suspicion as dangerous outsiders.  Greyhawk is still my platonic ideal for the perfect D&D setting.

When an AL player sits down with a "Shadar-Kai Shadow Sorcerer" there's no point in even asking them what they're doing in a large human city; the players haven't considered it.  (Shadar-Kai are obscure death elves that live in remote corners of a different plane of existence, the Shadowfell.  Apparently also to be found lurking in your local tavern with a sign, "will adventure for gold").  The culture is about players assembling races and classes because the mechanical bits sound cool.

I'm running a lot of 5E to make the game intuitive.  I can sit down with an OSR rules set and natively know if a particular fight or combat is difficult or easy when designing my own stuff.  I've got my 10,000 hours behind the screen with first edition games.  5E manages to be both swingy and grindy at the same time.  Running many games and many combats is helping me internalize encounter design.  I guess at the end of the day I'm interested in working on my own adventures and home-brew, and this is a good way to see a lot of the game system in action.  I've volunteered to run every high level adventure I can (Tier 3 in AL terms).  Despite this tirade it's still great fun.

But I part ways with the 5E aesthetic around race and class.  For Adventurer's League, you have to embrace the silliness and recognize the players are going to be the D&D equivalent of The Munsters or The Addam's Family, two 60's sitcom TV shows.  Actually, The Munsters is a good analogy - if some fool shows up with an actual human character, the "Marilyn Munster" of the table, it's not uncommon for the rest of the group to shake their heads sadly about their poor under-talented compatriot.  "Low end of the gene pool, that one, and no dark vision, either".

My next home campaign needs to be Greyhawk.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Look at Matt Colville's Strongholds and Followers

My roots in the roleplaying game hobby go back to the 1970's - the late 1970's, mind you, but I was still old enough to crack the Holmes Basic and fully embrace the game by the time the Moldvay boxed sets were on shelf at Toys R Us.  It would still be a few years before I started collecting those storied hardcovers for AD&D and we embraced "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons".  One of the things we noticed as we matriculated to the 1E Player's Handbook was this concept of "name level" - a 9th level character could clear some wilderness, build a stronghold, and attract followers.  AD&D characters had an end-game that transcended dungeon crawling.  Hitting 9th level was the big time.

Both AD&D and Basic embraced this end-game in subtly different approaches.  AD&D was supplemented by war-gaming based miniatures rules called "Battlesystem".  The Basic and Expert boxed sets went on to have Companion, Masters, and Immortal sets (we abbreviate the lot of them as BECMI), and BECMI introduced domain-level game play, threadbare economics and taxation, and several abstract war simulations known as War Machine, Siege Machine, and Sea Machine (naval battles, yo).

I loved BECMI.  The BECMI rules were compiled into a single volume as the Rules Cyclopedia and I've worn out several copies.  Plus the bindings were terrible on Rules Cyclopedia.  Unfortunately, domain level play and mass warfare is not something 5E has embraced, it's been overlooked by the benevolent WOTC overlords.  Enter a character named Matthew Colville.  He is a frequent Youtuber, game designer, and fellow child of the 80's.  His show "Running the Game" is a great resource for new dungeon masters embracing the hobby.  I'm a fan.  Sometime in the past couple of years he took a stab at rectifying Fifth Edition's lack of domain play and published his take on the subject, Strongholds and Followers.

Physically, the book is really nice.  The artwork is good, the layout is clear and simple.  It hearkens back to D&D's roots in pseudo-European fantasy, which is fitting for a book that's about castles and strongholds.  40% of the book is dedicated to strongholds and what characters can do with them; the rest of the book is a sample adventure (based in Matt's homebrew world), a bestiary of monsters from his home setting, and then an appendix that presents a simplistic mass-combat system "Warfare".  I like the book, but there's stuff missing to fully embrace domain play, and the sample adventure and bestiary are basically filler.

The principle sections of the book are the rules and systems for establishing strongholds.  The basic stronghold types are Keep, Tower, Temple, and Establishment, with variants for all of the character classes.  Barbarians may establish a Barbarian Camp in lieu of a Keep; a Paladin would have a Chapel, a Warlock a Sanctum instead of a Wizard Tower, that kind of stuff.  There are simple rules on building strongholds, recovering them from ruins, and even joining forces with your fellow player characters to build an amalgam.  It's all good stuff, simple and easy to execute, and fun.  Attracting followers and amassing units and troops is tied into the stronghold rules.

5E is "player-character-centric" with combat abilities being the principle reward as characters gain levels.  Matt's chosen to attach mechanical benefits to owning a stronghold that enhance a character's abilities.  There are demesne effects, stronghold actions, and class feature improvements that come along with owning a stronghold and surrounding territories.  Conceptually, demesne effects and stronghold actions are reminiscent of lair actions that monsters get; the class feature improvements are straight power boosts.  For instance, the fighter gets to turn one or more of his attacks into an automatic critical as a reward for owning a stronghold.  Once used, these abilities don't return until the character spends some extended time at the stronghold (a new type of rest called "extended rest").  I don't love the class features, they're what we called a dissociated mechanic in the 4E days, "I can hit you really hard because in a remote land somewhere, I own a castle!", but I can see how they would create a pull for reticent players to dip into domain ownership.  I always viewed the domain game as an end in itself, a chance for high level characters to shape the world and campaign setting, but Matt's approach probably casts a wider net by appealing to both power gamers and the story people that care about campaign effects.

I don't have much to say about the adventure; "Siege of Castle Rend" is fine, and it does put a ruined castle in the hands of mid-level characters and give you the opportunity to start using the domain rules ahead of the end game.  The monsters in the appendix are also fine; most of them are based on planar factions in Matt's world and tiered to interact with low and mid-level characters.  There are lower level angels (the Celestial Court), chaos lords from the Court of All Flesh, fey lords from the Court of Arcadia, that kind of stuff.  Not bad, just nothing I needed in a castle book.

The Warfare rules are only about 7 pages in an appendix, but hearken back to War Machine from the old Companion Rules box set.  Essentially, the prep work is creating a "Unit Card" for each group of soldiers in your army, and then calculating some unit attributes off of the unit's equipment, training, size, and characteristics.  The warfare resolution rules use simple percentile dice, orders, and some battlefield factors.  I loved War Machine, this is very reminiscent of War Machine, and definitely something we'll use - or at least try them out and see how they work at the table.

Overall, I will absolutely be using Strongholds and Followers in my campaigns.  I don't love the class features that give the characters combat abilities because they own a keep somewhere, but I can see how they fit the 5E Ethos and will motivate players to establish bases.  We live in a world where a Bard can heckle someone to death with a Vicious Mockery magic cantrip, after all, so amping your combat juice because you have a distant lair isn't that egregious.  However, to do the domain game well, there's a lot missing that has traditionally been included in these types of rule - economics, taxes, wealth from the land, population growth, and guidelines on generating rival domains, army units, and their high-level rulers.  In other words, this is no ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King) for 5E.  I have seen rumors that Matt was working on a follow up book actually called Kingdoms and Warfare, which would seem to fit the bill.  I haven't been keeping up with Matt's Youtube channel to know if it's a project he's actively talking about or working on.  I hope so - Strongholds and Followers is promising, and I'm certainly part of the target audience.  I like that designers are reviving game elements from earlier editions that have been ignored by the crowd in Renton.  (Edit:  I found out today, 10-21-19, the kickstarter for Kingdoms and Warfare is live.  Very nice, I'll definitely be backing it!)

You can get a copy of the book here.  (It seems lazy to do a review and not link to the store!)  It's only $30 for both the hardcover and PDF, I found this to be a fine value when so many 3rd party hard covers seem to be $40-50.

All art copyright 2018 MCDM

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Importance of Hex Crawl Agency

I discovered the "OSR blogosphere" some 8-9 years ago and the insights I gained elevated my approach to running dungeons and hex crawls.  We stand on the shoulders of giants; those early bloggers articulated important tenets on running games that maximized player choice, the essential foundation for a fun game.  The most important tactic I've internalized is the need to radiate information as a dungeon master to enable player agency.  It becomes a virtuous cycle:  players have some information, players make meaningful choices, choices lead to action, action lead to more information, and so on.  The game begins to propel itself.

An example that stuck with me was the meaningless of a typical dungeon intersection*.  Which way should the players go?  Absent useful information, going left or right is basically a coin flip - a random choice.  This is how dungeons become boring.  Instead imagine the characters are at the intersection, but to the left wafts an off-putting odor like stale vinegar; a slimy trail leads off into the darkness.  To the right they can hear the faint echo of maniacal laughter drifting from some distant hall.  It's not much information, but now it's better than a coin flip - they have a basis.  If the players previously heard a rumor about the deranged murderer Smiling Jack, who haunts this level, even better.

The same techniques apply to the hex crawl but more so.  During our first Chult session, the players gained a partial map with some locales marked right on it, which they discussed with guides in the city to learn rumors or hearsay; from a chance meeting with a priest, they learned of a powerful oracle in a ruined locale not yet on their map (but supposedly visible from a ruin that was already marked on the map, a place called M'bala).  One guide they interviewed offered to lead them to M'bala for free, if they first accompanied her to a place called "Firefinger" where she wanted to retrieve a lost heirloom from some enemies.

It's important to occasionally frame the options to make it straightforward for players to understand their alternatives, but let them work through the implications and how to proceed.  Example from the paragraph above, I'd say something like "Based on what you've learned in the city through your sources, you could":

1.  Hire a guide to take you down the western river by canoe to M'bala, as a first step to finding the oracle at Orolunga.
2.  Go with the free guide to Firefinger along the eastern river, help her recover her heirloom, and go to M'bala on the next journey.
3.  (Ideally the players have 3-5 reasonable choices at any given time...)

Continuing my example, the players did choose to go to Firefinger with the free guide.  They met a bird man prisoner there and learned about the monastery of the bird-men and received an offer of friendship (it became a new location on their map called Kir-Sabal); they also learned of another ruin near the bird-men monastery, an evil forsaken place called Nangalore (they put Nangalore on the map in a wide circle - they had a sense but not the specific hex).  Meanwhile, an earlier interaction now made sense; a potential patron from the city had offered the gift of a sailing ship to explorers who could provide a map showing the location of both Nangalore and Orolunga.  They now had a rough area where both places sat on the map.  Information, choice, and action leads to new information which keeps the cycle going.

In my prior discussions of running the hex crawl components of Chult well, I focused on the procedural aspects of keeping the hex crawl moving briskly and delivering evocative encounters.  However, the concepts discussed here, radiating information and helping the players to frame their choices so they can plan and decide, are most important to ultimately making the game fun and satisfying.

*Pretty sure I'm remembering an example used by Matt Finch, but lots of smart folks have expressed the importance of information and choice for sandbox games.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Assault on Chult

Note:  the map below has spoilers

My home campaign is 15 sessions into the player's assault on Chult (the Tomb of Annihilation campaign).  I'm estimating we're a third of the way through the campaign, about to finish the first of three campaign arcs.  The first arc is exploring the jungles of Chult, and trying to identify the locale of the Forbidden City.  The second arc is exploration of the Forbidden City itself and learning how to open the lost tomb.  The final arc is exploration of the tomb itself.

I'm not going to do detailed campaign recaps, as we're already 15 sessions in.  I'll do a survey of the player's progress with exposition on tips and referee choices that have worked out well for us.

The most important suggestion I have for starting a new Chult game is to adjust the urgency of the "Death Curse".  By the book, the campaign starts in the Chultan city of Port Nyanzaru under pressure to find a corrupt relic lost in the jungles.  The relic is affecting the whole world; Raise Dead and similar clerical magic has stopped working.  People brought back via Raise Dead or Resurrection are dying.  Both effects together are being labeled "The Death Curse".  The character's patron, a retired adventurer and recipient of a Raise Dead, is dying, and hires the characters to find the source of the Death Curse (quickly).  They are one of several similarly hired adventuring parties.

The problem is that Chult is a sprawling hex crawl with many interesting side quests and adventure opportunities.  Perkins and the WOTC team created a great hex crawl.  But if the players are under too much immediate pressure due to the Death Curse countdown, they'll focus solely on the Forbidden City, missing out on a lot of the fun discovering lost ruins in the jungle.  I bifurcated the effects of the Death Curse; the corrupt relic starts the game blocking souls from Raise Dead and Resurrection.  It's important to find the source of the curse, but the player's patron isn't dying by the minute.  I marked a time on the calendar (60 days) where the corrupt relic has absorbed enough souls from the recently dead that it's ability evolves, and begins to leech once-dead souls brought back via Raise Read or Resurrection.  It gives the players a more relaxed entry point into exploration of Chult, while setting a countdown later when the relic begins unraveling recipients of Raise Dead and providing a time clock when it's appropriate.

Expedition 1 (Right of Map)
The first arc starts in Port Nyanzaru, a frontier city squatting on the edge of the foreboding jungle, nestled between sluggish jungle rivers.  The players hire a guide, buy equipment, and set off on their first forays into the jungles of Chult.

My advice:  first, use the encumbrance rules (a "variant rule" in the player's handbook) and let the players know you'll be enforcing rules around heat exhaustion, daily water intake, and the difficulties of logistics in the jungles.  There is a fair amount of bookkeeping during this phase, creating inventories of food, bug repellent, tents and camping gear, canoes, and developing hex crawl "standard operating procedures" such as how to set up camp, daily jobs, canoe assignments, night watch schedules, etc.  Once they have all of this in place, the hex crawl procedures run smoothly.

I get the sense many modern referees ignore encumbrance and requiring the players to plan.  My players learned to hate and respect the jungle - the storms, the oppressive heat, the difficulty of bushwhacking overland and having to leave behind things like armor because carrying food and water was more important.  Plus the presence of dinosaurs and bands of undead, the remnants of an ancient army.  "I hate the jungle" became a running theme with the party's paladin, forced to leave behind heavy armor in order to hack through vine-choked jungle on 10 mile marches.  5E's encounters typically challenges the characters, but table top planning challenges the players.  Now that the characters are reaching mid-levels, they appreciate the way they can avoid the worst of the jungle because their wealth or class abilities afford them better options.

Their first expeditions (sessions 1-4) took them to a place on the map called Firefinger and then back to the city, moving from levels 1-3.

Expedition 2 (Center)
After their first major expedition, they spent more time in the city looking for rumors and learned about a storied oracle at Orolunga that might provide a clue to the resting place of the corrupt relic.  On this expedition, they went with more canoes and hired local porters, so they'd have hirelings to carry extra food and water (and potentially lug armor and other heavy gear).

I worked in themes from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now on this river trip, with distance equating to regression into horror for those that didn't respect the jungle, culminating in their visit to Camp Vengeance, where the paladins and crusaders of the Order of the Gauntlet were on the verge of madness (and the commander, Niles Breakbone, was my own Colonel Kurtz).  There's also a fine DM's Guild adventure called Hunter, an homage to the Schwarzenegger movie Predator, that I worked in as a side-trek on this expedition.  I'll probably write a review, we enjoyed Hunter quite a bit.

This expedition also took the players on to M'Bala, and then out to Orolunga, where they did get insights on the corrupt relic and a locale for the Forbidden City (Omu).

I'm not a fan of the over-powered NPC characters that traipse around the Forgotten Realms, and Chult has it's own - the immortal Artus Cimber and his holy sword wielding sidekick, Dragonbait.  Artus, who went by the name "Sam", was encountered in Orolunga as a surly adventurer seeking his own answers from the oracle.  He and the players learned they may have a common goal, the defeat of a legendary jungle warlord Ras Nsi, but the two sides parted amidst mutual insults.  Later, the players ran into a hunting party of Zhentarim assassins on the trail of a wanted fugitive, Artus Cimber, and the players connected the dots between "Sam" and Artus.  Artus is now "in the game" in case I need a high level helper NPC at some point during the end game, but there's a bit of a rivalry so I don't feel obligated for them to team up because they're both "good guys".  He can act as a provocateur or rival.

The other recommendation from this arc was to threaten the hired help.  5E characters are notoriously tough to put down; my game still doesn't have a fatality, although we've come close several times.  NPC's don't have plot immunity and the guides and porters are critically important if you're running the hex crawl with encumbrance and logistics.  It's been great fun having monsters choose the easier targets and stressing the players about such important resources.

This expedition covered sessions 5 - 12, and saw most of the party hit levels 4 and 5 before returning to the city.

Expedition 3 (Ocean-based)
By this point, the players knew a lot about Chult and had many targets for their next journey.  However, the jungle ruins don't provide a lot of cash and their pouches were getting light.  They learned about a lucrative pirate hunting opportunity in the city dock ward, and hired a ship to go pirate hunting.  Drink up me hearties yo ho.  This allowed me to introduce the dragon turtle in the Bay of Chult, and we had a great time running an intricate ship-to-ship combat when they intercepted a pirate ship by trailing a loaded merchant vessel - the pirate ship was called "The Stirge" and they ultimately captured it and sailed it back to port to collect a heavy reward.  I also ran a pirate-themed lighthouse encounter from one of the DM's guild supplements, Encounters in Port Nyanzaru.  When all was done, the characters were flush with cash, owned their own sloop, hired a captain and quartermaster, and planned a long voyage to Shilku Bay to begin their trek to Omu, the Forbidden City.

My advice if you try something similar is to leverage the ocean voyage rules from Ghosts of Saltmarsh for 5E.  Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a nautical campaign, and the appendices cover detailed vehicle rules for ships, downtime on long voyages, sea hazards, ocean borne encounters, the works.  It's a great resource to put some nautical flair into your Chult game.  One of the Unearthed Arcana articles had additional ships (I think I got "sloop" from the UA article).  I have irrational love for pirate adventures.  The Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign is in my future, along with grog, sea shanties, and a bunch of pirate movies.  (In fact, I'm currently streaming Black Sails with my wife).

Expedition 4 (South)
When the characters set out for the south of Chult, they were loaded up for a long journey.  They used the wealth from pirate hunting to buy some magic items, many potions, and sufficient food and gear to stay in Omu several weeks.  Their patron had been tracking them via Dreams and Sendings magic; now they learned from her the Death Curse has entered a new phase, and recipients of Raise Dead that predated the Death Curse are beginning to unravel.  She's dying.  Suddenly there's a time clock!

Their new guide for the expedition is an albino jungle dwarf named "Musharib"; he waived his fee if the characters would help him explore Hrakhamar first, so they've been clearing that mini-dungeon - a dwarven forge overrun by Fire Newts.  They learned of the dragon in Wyrmheart Mine and plan to assault it next, then head for Omu and the next leg of the campaign.

I'll post another set of observations sometime after they've explored Omu and are entering the final arc, the Tomb of the Nine Gods.  Feel free to generate a discussion in the comments about your own Chult game and how things went by you, I'd love to hear it.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Road to Hell is an Adventure Path

A Review of Descent into Avernus
Baldur's Gate:  Descent into Avernus is the latest hardcover campaign for Dungeons & Dragons.  It has problems.  The premise is spectacular; an entire city has been pulled into Hell (to Avernus, the first level of Hell, to be specific) and the characters get the chance to traverse the Hellscape, wrestling with themes such as dark pacts, corruption, choosing a lesser evil, and redemption.  There's a scene where the fallen city, suspended in the sky above Hell, is inexorably being pulled down into the River Styx by massive hell-forged chains.  You can almost hear the screams of the innocent and the forsaken from above.  Unfortunately, in order to reach the payoff of the premise, the game master will need to overcome flaws inherent in the adventure path format, flaws that are expressed egregiously at times here.  Mild spoilers to follow in the review.

The adventure begins in the city of Baldur's Gate, in the Forgotten Realms.  A flood of refugees from a nearby kingdom, Elturel, have reached the walls of Baldur's Gate telling woeful tales -  the holy city of Elturel is wiped off the face of the earth, a gaping crater where the city once stood.  There is chaos at the city gates as the watch is overwhelmed with the refugee crisis at the walls.  The characters begin the game impressed into service as deputies by the watch to perform side missions while the watch is occupied with the border crisis.

The problems with Descent begin up front.  The players are ordered to go talk to someone to learn a clue by the watch captain.  If the characters don't do it, the captain sends a patrol to rough them up; then it's a second patrol to rough up the characters further, and so on, until they comply (or perhaps bag the adventure entirely?)  From that point, there is a tortuous series of events and encounters the players need to follow to learn the dark secret behind Elturel's disappearance.  Secret doors that if the player's fail to find them, the dungeon and campaign are over.  An evil NPC set up as a villain to slaughter, but if the player's don't accept his surrender, they'll miss his monologue with the clues to the next scene.

These types of issues aren't fatal to the adventure, but they're distasteful for a referee to negotiate.  "Oh, you killed the important NPC and missed his info-dump?  I guess the guard captain asks for the body to be retrieved and arranges a Speak with Dead so he can deliver the info-dump".  I can put a neon sign on the important secret door.  I can have a frank talk up front with the players, out of game, that the campaign starts as a railroad and ask them to agree to limit their choices for the good of the story.  Be warned, however, that most of the campaign is driven by flow charts that map out a path the players must follow to advance.  I expected more from a professionally produced campaign, as the hardcover campaigns produced by Wizards of the Coast have consistently gotten better since the first few.  This is regression.

Once the story moves to the wastes of Avernus, player choice expands and the themes of the campaign take prominence.  Avernus is presented as a large sandbox with a map; the characters are still required to follow a flow-chart along the adventure path, but the execution is more naturalistic and forgiving for players that want to go 'off road'.  The overarching story involves the ruler of Avernus, a fallen angel named Zariel; the players piece together the angel's fall from heaven by encountering locales that hold echoes of Zariel's past.  Along the way, the characters will likely be rumbling across the wastes of Avernus in souped-up, wheeled death tanks (infernal war machines) straight out of a Mad Max movie, either chasing, or being chased by, warlords of Avernus in their own death machines.  Yes, the wastes of Avernus are as cool as they sound.  Queue your "Fury Road" sound track or your Ronny James Dio albums.

In addition to visiting locales that delve into the angel's past, the Avernus sequences put the players into contact with demon lords, arch devils, movers and shakers in the cosmos and the war between the Abyss and the Nine Hells.  The player choices are consequential and the end-game is wide open.  They could attempt to redeem the fallen angel, join her, defeat her, save the fallen city of Elturel, or condemn it.  One way or another your version of the Forgotten Realms will be different after this campaign.  Failure is an option.  The wide open nature of the end-game here is the best attribute of this campaign.

I looked at the writing credits, and it's an ensemble cast on both the story and the writing.  Eleven story creators, fifteen writers, a handful of editors.  Is it any wonder they needed to present a scene-based adventure path?  An adventure path is a sensible way to atomize the work, but leads to tenuous plotted connections between scenes.  Stylistically this puts Descent into Avernus closest to the maligned 5E adventures, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, also adventure paths, and in contrast to the excellent open world sandboxes of Tomb of Annihilation and Curse of Strahd.

I had already committed to one of my Adventurer's League tables to run Descent into Avernus as a bi-weekly game, so I'll need to make peace with the problems and position the story as best I can. It seems that if a referee can elide the early issues, the heart of the campaign in Avernus promises a spectacular mid-game and end-game, and the high level arc is especially consequential and wide open. However, due to the early problems, I'm finding it difficult to give an unqualified recommendation without actual play.  I'll circle back in several months to confirm whether my concerns about plot and player choice were founded, and how difficult was it to improve the experience.

Images: Wizards of the Coast (cover art by Tyler Jacobson)

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A look at the D&D Essentials Kit

The D&D Essentials Kit is a boxed set published earlier this summer - I picked one up at the local Target.  I didn't need the rules, although the set does come with a sturdy rulebook, a flimsy Dungeon Master's screen, dice, and accouterments.  I picked up it because I was intrigued by the rules for "sidekicks", and I heard good things about the adventure module.

Sidekicks are non-player characters (NPCs) that accompany player characters - the typical retainers and henchmen of old school games.  They use 5th edition "monster" stat blocks in lieu of a full character sheet, with simplified abilities, making them easy to run at the table as a complement to a player's regular character.  Ostensibly they're in the game to support solo adventuring (one DM and one player, with a few sidekicks) but we immediately started using them for old school style henchmen.  Emporo the Mighty and Josh, both fighters, are accompanying players in my Chult campaign as sidekicks.  There are three flavors - a spellcaster sidekick (clerical or arcane), a warrior sidekick, and an expert (rogue) sidekick.  There are tables for leveling sidekicks so they maintain parity with their patrons.  Sidekicks only take up two pages in the rulebook but were completely worth it.

The Dragon of Icespire Peak
The adventure that comes in the set is "The Dragon of Icespire Peak".  It's 64 pages - 50 pages or so of adventure, the rest is a bestiary.  It describes a sandbox region around the village of Phandalin in the Forgotten Realms, consisting of 14 adventure locales - dungeons, ruins, and other adventure sites, providing enough action for a party to go from level 1 through 6.  It has everything you need to launch a fun campaign - a home base, wilderness locales, dungeons, and even a bit of overarching plot (a dragon recently came to the area, setting things in motion).

A few additional things I really enjoyed about the adventure; first, since there is an actual Dragon of Icespire Peak, it flies around marauding in the background, providing nice verisimilitude before the characters gain enough experience to go confront it.  It can show up early in the campaign as a wandering monster, too, driving home the point that the world is dangerous.

There is progressive quest guidance that provides the players options on where to seek adventure, while ramping up the danger as they range farther from home base or begin to target the dragon; it's a style that appeals to old school gamers.  Phandalin is the same village described in "Lost Mine of Phandelver", the introductory adventure in the first starter set, allowing a DM to combine both adventures into a broader sandbox campaign.  I'm looking forward to starting a new campaign (after Chult) and merging Icespire Peak/Phandelver into a sprawling sandbox game (although I'd 99% ditch the Forgotten Realms and transpose the village and surrounding locales to a homebrew setting or Greyhawk).

Our Amazonian capitalist overlord sells the Essentials Kit for about $15-16, $24 at retail.  I wouldn't normally recommend a starter set (unless you're a boxed set maven) but I've been a fan of this material; I'm making heavy use of the sidekick rules, and Icespire Peak is a fine sandbox adventure to get a new game started the way the founders intended.  (Good job, Wizards).

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Character versus Campaign

I'm still trying to get comfortable with the difference between old school characters and the latest edition.  Let's talk generalities - old school characters are quick to generate, somewhat disposable, and they become interesting over time due to emergent stories.  There's not a lot of mechanical difference between various 1st level fighters.  It's the adventures they survive that make them interesting.  Because the characters are disposable, the campaign becomes the constant at the table.  Campaign transcends character.

5E is another animal.  Players come to the table with deeply thought out level 1 characters, taking great care to select race, class, backgrounds, character options, and considering a mechanical arc for the character.  In addition to the player's handbook core rules, there are several other books that expand character options.

I know these topics have been litigated ad nauseum since 3E.  The argument goes there are way more players than game masters, so economically, market forces dictate the company makes lots of player options because it sells books.  Wizards has been fairly disciplined with their publishing schedule, so the market isn't flooded with too many 5E player options like the 3rd or 4th editions, but there's still a good amount out there.

However, I think it's more interesting to reflect on how 5E's approach to the player character affects gameplay.  I've been part of convention games, and running a good amount of Adventurer's League games as a "public DM" for one of my friends (plus a weekly home game).  Every week it's (potentially) a different set of players with different characters.  The public games are single-serving fun-size episodes.  The story and the campaign doesn't provide the continuity for the players, it's the character itself that's the one constant.  (Wherever you go, there you are, or something like it).

The positive for this approach is the amount of creativity manifested in the players.  Character story still emerges through play, the way God and Gary intended, but players show up having given a lot more thought to how they want to portray the character when their time at the table is a single-serving instance.  No one at a public game table wants to hear someone's five page backstory, but the players that get it are very good at using their turns to add some flourish and tell their character's story through brief action choices, mannerisms, or maybe a funny accent or turn of phrase. I'm sure the ever-presence of Twitch gaming and celebrity-table D&D is contributing to player theatrics and a heavier focus on roleplaying through table presence.  (The Matt Mercer effect).  I don't live in a particularly large town, one of many suburbs north of Philadelphia, but it boasts two nights per week of these "Adventurer Leagues", at different stores, running 4-5 full tables of players.  I don't know if Dungeons & Dragon has ever been more popular.  I'm not going to complain.

There are some ramifications to 5E's character emphasis I still don't like.  The characters are extremely powerful, very hard to kill, and all of the game effects that should be permanent and horrifying are typically only temporary (an example would be petrification).  I'm not a killer DM, but the lack of lethality undermines drama at the table - combat is sport instead of war, as we say.  I usually have to discard any game balance "guidelines" and be willing to throw anything and everything at the players to generate a credible threat.  (This is much easier in a home game than the public Adventurer's League setting where you're constrained by an author).  For campaign building, I don't like the limitations high-powered, high-magic characters create for the world at large.  5E D&D doesn't emulate genres well; it's created its own genre of fantasy; at best you can import flavors from other genres and nudge the default 5E assumptions towards the style you want to mirror.

Despite these cranky "get off my lawn with your 5th edition" complaints, I'm having fun.  I appreciate the player creativity I'm seeing.  Running Adventurer's League is meh, but I'm helping a friend out due to the high demand in the area.  Apparently one can run the published hardcover campaigns in lieu of their Adventurer's League modules, so I'm going to try that soon - most of the hardback campaigns are well done, and I've run enough home brew megadungeons to handle a drop in/drop out episodic public game.  The biggest dissonance I have is re-calibrating my expectations of world building, which arcs towards low magic, pseudo-historical settings with a side of horror.  I don't naturally embrace the wahoo high-magic eclectic mash-up embodied by 5E.  Getting there is a work in progress; thus I haven't tried my hand at a homebrew setting in a while.  I'm all ears for advice on how you've done it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Techniques for Hex Crawling through Chult

Port Nyanzaru squats on the edge of a foreboding rainforest and jungle that seems to cover the entirety of Chult.  Much of the early part of the Tomb of Annihilation campaign involves the characters entering the ominous wall of trees following clues towards ancient jungle ruins, camps, forts, and points of interest.  The problem is that hex crawls are troublesome to adjudicate; long winded narrative descriptions of the wilderness are dull; there's better things to do with a table full of players than to spend minutes each hex rolling on a handful of tables.  Here are the techniques I've used to make peace with the hex crawl.

First up is automating the procedural generation ahead of the game.  For a campaign like Chult, that means having an excel table using various random number functions to pre-generate daily weather, time of day for the weather, and random chance of encounters for morning, day, and night, as well as the actual encounter table dice roll.  If I know in advance what the players are doing from a terrain perspective (ie, canoeing down a jungle river next game session), I'll go ahead and identify the specific encounters, too.

The problem during the hex crawl is switching from the 10,000 foot view (10 miles per hex) down to the encounter level and making the encounter interesting.  I use two tables to help create an instant scene.  One of them is a d100 "what are the characters or retainers doing when the encounter happens".  It has entries like "arguing about something stupid", "drinking water", "scanning the skies", or "moving in formation".

The other table is a d100 of interesting features for the current terrain.  The players are not just canoeing on the river, they are passing over sandbars and shallows, drifting by thick reeds and grasses along a marshy bank, or facing an impenetrable jungle canopy on both sides of the river and an eerie stillness (and so on…)  This helps me quickly paint an evocative scene.

An example from one of the sessions - the characters are crossing some rocky shallows, walking beside their canoes around large boulders in a slow moving part of the river.  I asked them whether any one is prone to telling bawdy jokes, and would they have one handy for the table?  (If none of the characters are telling jokes, it's invariably one of the henchmen or porters regaling the group).  A series of rocks along the river bank started to shift and slide in the water.  A giant crocodile basking in the shallows was disturbed and swings it's massive jaws around towards the nearest canoe.  Roll initiative.

The last thing we've done to keep hex crawling moving along smartly is player preparation.  They've created procedures for setting up camp (who does which jobs), what is the order of the night watches, how do the characters collect water, what's a map of the typical camp layout, who sleeps in which tent, and what seats are in the canoes.  It's worked well to keep the player's side of the daily crawl move along and give me what I need to facilitate engaging encounters along the way.  At this point we've covered about 60 days of campaign time trudging through the rain forest or paddling down sluggish jungle rivers; it's stayed fresh and interesting.  Hope these give you some ideas for your own hex crawling.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Tomb of Annihilation is an Old School Delight

I'm 12 sessions into running the 5E Tomb of Annihilation campaign and enjoying it greatly.  Depending on the day, I'd place it as the best or second best hardcover campaign published for fifth edition (Curse of Strahd competes with it).  Why do I rate it so highly?  Let's explore.

The campaign is a sprawling jungle hex crawl covering a large island/peninsula, sprinkled with ruined cities and adventure sites, with a capstone consisting of an epic dungeon.  It's an amalgam of several classic adventure modules from the 1st edition days, Tomb of Horrors, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and perhaps thematic nods towards The Isle of Dread.  There's an overarching plot about discovering the location of a corrupt relic and stopping it's baleful influence.  How the players prosecute the campaign to find the relic is extremely open ended.

As a game master who prefers old school styles of play, Tomb of Annihilation has been very satisfying.  The players have launched multiple excursions by river into the foreboding jungle, deftly guiding canoes up sluggish rivers through the oppressive heat of Chult.  They've had to manage resources (food, tents, insect repellents, and especially clean water) while dealing with hungry predators, packs of undead, and jungle-born disease.  The campaign caters to gaming styles where good planning and time management are important.

The wilderness encounters don't care about character level, nor do I advise scaling them down; it's not uncommon for low-level characters to discover locales or meet creatures that over-match them, shifting it to the players to respond accordingly and play smart - another throwback to earlier styles of gaming that test player skill.  (Though I will say, 5E characters are quite resilient and powerful).

Record-keeping behind the screen has been important.  I've leveraged calendars, procedural generators for encounters and weather, and helper tables to keep the action crisp.  I'll embellish them in a follow up post.  From the player's side, they've created a lot of "standard procedures" to speed play - what a standard camp looks like, what jobs the characters perform to set up camp, how they prepare enough water each day, and the overnight watch schedule.  We've also used the encumbrance rules (laughingly, they are listed as "optional" in the PHB) so that any overland excursion through the jungle drives tough choices.  Food and water is heavy.  Heavy armor is a liability in the jungle.

Wizards published an alternate experience approach called "Three Pillars"; I've been using that exclusively for this campaign.  5E "by the book" rewards combat only, although more and more the game seems to be shifting towards "milestone leveling" which is basically "level up because I said so".  The "Three Pillars" approach rewards exploration and recovering treasure, along with combat and winning important social victories.  It ties in better with a holistic experience.  I'm not deluded into thinking that any experience system isn’t flawed and arbitrary; I just don't think the 5E default assumptions support XP for gold the way I'd like.

I've been doing a ton of game mastering, both for the home campaign and some "Adventurer's League" at a local game store, so I plan to get back to semi-regular blogging. It seems the blogging landscape has changed quite a bit.  No more G+, so it's not clear where old schoolers hang out to discuss games.  Don't I need to turn in my OSR card now that I'm pretty much a 5E gamer, anyway?  Otherwise life has been good, the kids are all teenagers, my career is doing well.  I've missed talking about gaming.