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.