Sunday, March 20, 2022

Favorite DM Advice of the Week

Writing a blog is a bit outdated.  So is hanging out on FaceBook.  At one point I joined a "Grognards Who Play 5th Edition" FaceBook group, and it can be as cringe as you would expect.  "I played 4th Edition, so I know what D&D was like back in the day".  I have to consciously pause and remember the playing base is huge, and people have encountered the game for their first time across a wide range of editions and play styles.  That means sometimes it's a Gen Z or Millenial 3rd edition or 4th edition player saying they pre-dated 5th Edition, so they're the grognards now.  I don't even care.  We're in week 3 of a brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, if you played 4th Edition and now you want to be known as an old timey war gamer, you go for it.  The world could end tomorrow.

In the meantime, here's some great DM advice that popped onto the Grognard's group this week (courtesy of a fellow old timer "Josh S").  They do a good job of distilling far more verbose descriptions of the old school mindset into 3 basic precepts:

1. The story is whatever the player characters do.

2. The DM’s job is to adjudicate the rules and bring the world to life.

3. The dice never lie. Don't ask them questions if you aren't prepared to accept their answers.

Carry on with your regularly scheduled programming.  Let's all be careful out there.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Death and Skullport (an Undermountain play report)

I'm still playing catch-up on older game reports for our Undermountain campaign.  The objective of the players has been to find a way through the dungeon to the underground pirate city of Skullport, which is home to the headquarters of the secretive Xanathar's Guild, the major thieves' guild in Waterdeep.  The Black Staff, a wizardly protector of Waterdeep, has commissioned the players to eliminate a threat facing Waterdeep - the minds of ordinary citizens are being replaced by intellect controllers under the control of a mind flayer working with the guild.  After months of play, the players are getting close to their objective!  Last game, they agreed to act as ambassadors to the hobgoblin nation of Azrok and take a diplomatic missive to Xanathar's agents.

As an aside on Undermountain (I'm using the 5E Dungeon of the Mad Mage) it really does a fine job of creating a living underworld, with connections between inhabitants, between levels, and story elements that can drive the campaign forward.  I recommend the dungeon master develop story reasons for the players to be interested in Undermountain that fit their own campaign and the play styles of the players.  For my group, the aspiration to be members of the Harpers and the group 'Force Grey' gave them sufficient reason to take on complex quests from figures like the Blackstaff. The books Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage provide you a lot of "lego pieces" to customize a cool exploration based campaign.  It's classic 1970's dungeon crawling, but with 5E systems.

Skullport from Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Skullport is a harbor town located in a large cavern on the shore of an underground lake.  Apparently there used to be locks and waterways to reach the city from a hidden sea cave on the surface, but that way no longer allows large sailing vessels to reach the port, and the population of the town is dwindling.  The mouth of the harbor is guarded by an oppressive fortress squatting atop the aptly named "Skull Island".

There are several cave passages between Undermountain (level 3) and the town of Skullport; the slow moving Sargauth River that flows through level 3 also leads to Skullport harbor.  My players used a passage guarded by the hobgoblin kingdom, the "Ghost Way", where they indeed needed to skirt a haunted cavern to reach Skullport.  We spent 1-2 game sessions with the players carousing around Skullport, visiting pubs such as the Black Tankard and the Dragon and the Flagon, while seeking the location of one of Xanathar's agents to give the wax sealed scroll with a message from the hobgoblin king.  Word reached the commander of Skull Island, an 8' tall half-ogre champion called Sundeth, who flew out of the dark cavern on a wyvern mount to receive the character's message.  Sundeth dispatched a courier to take it to Xanathar; the players foresaw something like this happening and made their rogue, Teukros, invisible in advance.  Teukros was able to tail the courier to an entrance to the thieves' guild, in the basement of an inn called the Gut and Gartner.  A long arc of the campaign was coming to a close and the players were now ready to return to the surface, share their intelligence with the Blackstaff, and identify what comes next.

There's a saying "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink…"  It applies equally to RPG players.  There have been several times during the course of the campaign where the character's faction connections, be it Force Grey, the Harpers, or even the Zhentarim, have made it clear there are friendly agents in Skullport who could aid the characters in getting back to the surface if they're able to make contact.  My group of players considered this tact and declared, "seeking out friendly agents sounds too much like work, let's figure out if we can sneak or fight our way back through the drow city".   (The last time they tussled with the drow a character died and the rest of the player characters fled for their lives).

Backtracking through the hobgoblin kingdom, making their way to the drow outskirts, and sneaking through the drow city was certainly a legitimate option to try.  They came up with an intricate plan to go "light-free" and  guide their blinded characters with ropes, while sneaking along the outskirts of the ruined dwarven hold and avoiding drow patrols.  Unfortunately, they had a barbarian in the group.  Bosko, their goliath barbarian, got frustrated about not being able to see in the darkness; he tossed his drift globe in the air, yelled the command word for daylight, and charged into a nearby intersection, daring the drow to come out and fight like men.

There was a movie in the late 1960's, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - it tells the story of the legendary train robbers and gun fighters.  At the end, Butch and Sundance are living as outlaws in Bolivia where they are identified by the local police while eating at an outdoor cafĂ©.  The Bolivian Army arrives and surrounds them completely, and the movie ends in a hail of gunfire.  That's a good metaphor for what happens next to my players.

Bosko and some of the frontline fighters (like Alfred, the duelist fighter) created one front at an intersection, dueling at a  drow elite warrior and some flunky soldiers.  Virsk (cleric), Teukros (rogue), and Ace (their elf wizard), were embattled on a nearby street fighting a gaggle of quaggoths, including a quaggoth shaman who was frying Virsk with a heat metal spell.  Giant spiders were bearing down on them from above and plopping into the combat, and ordinary drow soldiers would pop out of an alley, fire a sleep dart with a hand crossbow, and then duck back out of sight, using effective hit and run tactics.  It was all very exciting and cinematic (for me).

One of the things I like to do stylistically, when it makes sense, is to use "cut scenes" to raise the tension at the table.  It's a good technique to give the players information their characters don't know.  In a situation like the pitched battle in the drow city streets, I'd describe (in between combat rounds) how forces are mobilizing in other parts of the city; bells are rung and drow soldiers fall out of the barracks with their gear; the drow priestess abandons her meditations and brandishes her freaky tentacle scourge as she makes her way out of her sanctuary.  As a dungeon master, this transparency gives the players necessary information to make choices, raises the stakes and tension, and relieves my conscience in case the reinforcements flatten the player characters if the players don't switch strategies.  The key to being a fair bare-knuckled DM is to give the players the information they need to plan and make choices so the consequences aren't arbitrary (particularly when a TPK, total party kill, is looming on the horizon).

This was an interesting moment for the players.  I actually had one player, who plays in many other 5E games, quip to his compatriots, "It's nothing to worry about, we'll be fine - 5E is balanced for the players to win".  The others were hearing the ominous forces winding towards the battle front and were looking for ways to escape.  There are modern DM's who embrace a "fail forward" philosophy - no matter how boneheaded the player's choices are, they'll find a way to minimize the negative results to avoid total failure or death.  Do any of you do it that way?  Character death has been part of the campaign since we started, and the players have known all along failure can be final.

This session ended with several of the characters at zero hit points or unconscious, finally succumbing tothe drow sleep poison darts flying in at them; Teukros broke off using his rogue skills ("bonus action disengage" the 5E rogue's cheesiest declaration) and creating darkness to cover the escape of him and Virsk the cleric.  Bosko, Ace, and Alfred were cut off and became prisoners of the drow (ultimate fate yet to be decided).  Teukros and Virsk stumbled into a cave that looked out on the swirling black waters of the Sargauth river.  There was a raft nearby.  We ended this game with them drifting off into the darkness, putting distance between themselves and the carnage back in the ruins.  The river would eventually take them back to Skullport.

The players of Bosko, Ace, and Alfred would make new characters for next game - thugs or outlaws that could be met in one of the dockside taverns in Skullport.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Game Report: Diplomacy on Undermountain Level 3

Following their trouncing by the drow elves in the eastern passages of level 3, the party stealthily retreated to the west and south after sufficient recovery (in 5E terms, they finished a long rest).  There was a straightforward battle with a chimera in a side cavern, and then the party scouted a ruined dwarven city sprawled across the floor of a very large cavern.  The ruins were inhabited by giant spiders and drow patrols.  They took refuge in an abandoned dwarven dwelling and surprised a lone drow elf while he was relieving himself.  He was quickly taken prisoner.

It's been a long time so I don't remember exactly the word they used to intimidate or cajole the lone sentry to guide them through the ruins, avoiding watchposts and getting past the drow garrison in the ruined city.  But they left the low level drow flunky once they got beyond the city and made their way through warren-like tunnels to the edge of hobgoblin territory.  Again there was more negotiation, this time convincing the hobgoblin captain in charge that they were also enemies of the drow and potential allies to the hobgoblin nation.  (By way of reminder, the player's objective on level 3 was to find their way to the underground pirate city of Skullport and they were hoping to get the location from the hobgoblins).

The Legion of Azrok is the name of the hobgoblin kingdom on level 3 of Undermountain.  I'm not familiar with the original Undermountain, but there were elements of Azrok that reminded me of the old Orcs of Thar Gazetteer from Mystara era Basic D&D.  Humanoid societies there were presented as mirrors of the human world; the hobgoblin stronghold, with its building sized banners festooned with the Legion's heraldry gave it the feel of an autocratic police state; militaristic hobgoblins patrolled with regularity, checking the "papers" of visitors like the KGB or gestapo.  The players were subjected to the surreal experience of being marched by uniformed hobgoblins to a chamber where bespectacled goblin artists hastily sketched "guest visas" for visitors to the hobgoblin nation.  It was good for some comedy.

It turns out the hobgoblin nation was in dire straits.  The drow elves had recently invaded from a lower level, driving the hobgoblins out of the eastern part of the ruined dwarven city and inflicting heavy casualties.  The Legion of Azrok was on a war-time footing.  They were casting about for allies.  An ambassador from Xanathar's Guild was being entertained, a mind flayer named Ulquess.  The pirate city of Skullport sat nearby to the west of Undermountain level 3, and apparently Xanathar now controlled the entire city.  The hobgoblins were open to an alliance with the beholder Xanathar.

In their audience with the hobgoblin king and his queen, Lurkana, the players offered to help the hobgoblins against the drow, in return for safe passage to Skullport.  However, they wanted a private audience with either the king or queen.  The news that a mind flayer ambassador was loose somewhere in the Hold of Azrok was chilling to them.  (Whether you're new to these game reports or not, there's been a campaign-long theme where mind flayers allied with Xanathar's guild are using intellect devourers to murder and replace prominent people topside in Waterdeep City).  The players were immediately concerned the hobgoblin court was compromised.

The characters had a small supply of Potions of Mind Reading in their inventory, going all the way back to when they were adventuring topside in Waterdeep during the Dragon Heist phase of the campaign (they got roped into a Zhentarim side mission that involved knocking over a potion shop).  Ace, their elven wizard, now used one of the potions during their private audience with Lurkana to verify neither she nor her guards secretly had mind flayer pets lurking in their skulls.

The players convinced the queen to let them stage a dramatic scene in front of the hobgoblin court where one of the characters gave a fiery speech about the dangers of an alliance with Xanathar while Ace used a second potion to scan the thoughts of the assembled courtiers, a mix of hobgoblins, goblins, and bugbears.  One of the bugbears was being controlled by an intellect devourer and made a break for it when Ace touched its mind.  There was a short duel, the assembled court saw the bugbear's empty cranium and the horror of the emerging intellect devourer, and orders were issued to have Ulquess, the Xanathar ambassador, arrested.

The players decided a patrol of hobgoblins was no match for a mind flayer.  "I've sent a patrol of my best soldiers, they're already bringing the ambassador back here" said the queen.  "No", said one of the players, "Your men are already dead".  So they went themselves to the ambassador's quarters.  They were ambushed by a fair number of denizens who had already been replaced by mind-controlled servitors.  The mind flayer had been busy preparing defenses around the embassy, and had defensive contingency plans in place.

When the dust settled, the mind flayer was long gone - probably levitating to the top of the cavern once it learned that its network of spies was compromised.  The players had to slaughter a half dozen intellect devourers and their mind-controlled goon bodies.  The threat ended, the hobgoblin court was grateful and the players were elevated from guest visas to permanent residents if they wished.

Over the next few days, the players learned more about the hobgoblin nation and the politics of level 3.  Interesting encounters included a demonic hobgoblin trader, and a mutated necromancer, exiled from the depths of Undermountain.  The necromancer was slowly building a zombie army to help tip the hobgoblins tip the scales against the drow.  Her stories and rumors gave the players a glimpse of what’s waiting in the depths of Undermountain.

Ultimately the hobgoblins decided to cease diplomatic relations with Xanathar's Guild and close the passages between Skullport and the Hold of Azrok.  A missive was drafted and prepared to be taken by courier to Skullport, to be presented to one of Xanathar's agents. As the players were desperate to go to Skullport, they volunteered to take the diplomatic letter to Skullport themselves.  We'll pick up the game reports next time with their first visit to Skullport.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Undermountain Level 3 Play Report: Commence the Beatings

Let's begin our first of several game sessions that centered around Undermountain level 3, the Sargauth Level.  (Sarguath is the slow moving river that flows south along the eastern edge of the map).  Ah yes, the map - I've included an image below to make it easier to follow along, and added some simple annotations.

You'll notice when the party comes down the stairs from level 2, they are immediately faced with a go left/go right type of decision.  Go left (east) and you'll find yourself in a small sub area that houses a drow temple, prisons, and various drow torture/sex rooms.  If the players go right, they'll make their way to the partially collapsed remain of an ancient dwarven city called Stromkuhldur, which is now a drow military outpost.  There are some "no-man's land" tunnels between the drow outpost and the other half of the ruined dwarven city, which is now a hobgoblin base called the Hold of Azrok.  I put a few stars on the left edge of the map where there are paths to Skullport, the underground pirate city.  By way of reminder, the party's overarching goal in Undermountain is to scout level 3 and find a way to Skullport, and once there discover how to get into a secretive thieves' guild headquartered beneath Skullport.  Finally on the map, there's the river itself, and several caves and lairs which can only be reached by boat across the river.

The level 3 map is very large, but also somewhat linear.  The river is the principle feature that gives the players freedom to skip elements of the linear path, as well as the ability to explore the caves and lairs on the far side.  As we go through our play reports, you'll see my players never really learned to exploit the river in their exploration of level 3.  Because of this, they were very challenged by the drow elf hold over the middle of the map.  Level 3 presented them with a good mix of exploration, combat, and roleplaying opportunities, and several sound defeats.  Let's get on with recounting their first one!

The drow elves on this level are led by a priestess who has converted a Dwarven temple into a spider temple; they've been kidnapping people, possibly even citizens from the surface, and using them to incubate spider eggs and give birth to giant spiders.  The temple is festooned with corpses in webs with burst egg sacs that grew out of the victims.  It's a fantastic set piece if you want to accentuate a horror vibe.  There are several clues in the caves and passages before the temple, such as a hapless adventurer who died from things bursting from within, to give the players some foreshadowing as they explore the eastern area.  At the time, the characters in our party were still Bosko (goliath barbarian), Virsk (human cleric), Alfred (human fighter), Ace (elf wizard), and Teukros (drow rogue).  Their attitude was in the vein of, "Yay, we're going to smash the guts out of some spiders…"  After a relatively easy time breezing through levels 1 and 2, they would be coming back to earth very soon.

As a DM who has his roots in the 1980's, let me tell you something I'm enjoying about running this 5E megadungeon:  many of the encounter areas consist of zones where a group of rooms contain like-minded or allied inhabitants.  When the players enter the zone, you can give the monsters a tactical response as warranted by their intelligence and organization.  It's a chance to be creative.  Throw the kitchen sink at the players if you want.  Have fun.

An old school mind-set is to be tough but fair; you are an adversarial DM from the perspective that you're not there to let the players win.  They make their choices, they roll the dice, the chips fall, you report on the results.  That's how the story gets made.  You are a neutral arbiter of their actions and how the inhabitants of the game world react.  When those inhabitants are highly intelligent, organized, and dangerous, watch out, players.  Carelessness can alert whole areas and find the adventuring party taking on a much bigger force than expected.  Many combats in 5E feel like two opposing sides bashing each other with styrofoam weapons.  Escalating the tactical situations as intelligent opposition forms against the players is where you get to feel Gygaxian again.

Maybe you can see where this is going… as the players explored the eastern dungeon, they tripped on the sentries for the drow temple (which included quaggoths and a drow elf mage) and got bogged down fighting mooks while the mage gathered reinforcements.  (In 5E terms, a "mage" is a 9th level wizard, so they usually have access to some serious damage spells like cloudkill and lightning bolt).  Cloudkill synergized well with the quaggoths, who are immune to poison, while the confined spaces maximized the impact of the cloudkill on the player characters.

This battle was many game sessions ago, so apologies if I'm fuzzy on the play-by-play.  The drow mage leveraged "greater invisibility" to stay invisible while attacking, after alerting reinforcements in the temple proper.  Once the players got crushed by a lightning bolt, Ace realized they were facing an invisible caster and used "detect invisible" so he could counterspell and duel the enemy wizard.  The barbarian and Alfred hacked their way to the entrance of the temple, carving up quaggoths, troglodytes, and giant spiders along the way.  Virsk, as a storm cleric, figured out that gust of wind could take care of any further cloudkill nonsense.

The big gun in the main temple was the drow priestess.  As she made her way to the front, she dropped more giant spiders on the party through "conjure animals".  I still haven't yet succeeded in a "summon demon" roll to bring forth a Yochlol in one of these drow priestess combats, I'm 0-4.  Ace was able to knock the drow mage to zero hit points, but no one was able to make it over to his body and finish him off; my players know not to assume that powerful NPC's are instantly dead at zero hit points.  By now, the party was fairly injured after smashing through a guard post of quaggoths, an assault of troglodytes, several waves of giant spiders, and dueling an invisible drow elf wizard.  When the drow priestess dropped an insect swarm on them, characters started to drop.  Alfred died; he got put at zero hit points, and it took the players long enough to drag his corpse out of the insect swarm that he accumulated enough 5E failed "death saves" to be truly dead.  The casters were out of spells and everyone was limping along.  I think Teukros, their own drow elf rogue, dropped a darkness spell behind them so they could retreat and regroup.

The players retreated to a nearby cavern where they activated their Daern's Instant Fortress to create a secure location to rest and recover.  Virsk had been holding onto a raise dead scroll which they used on Alfred.  (This was before they made Revivify a staple).  When the players emerged from the tower after a rest, they discovered it was completely webbed and besieged by phase spiders, which was a fun combat and a reminder they were camped entirely too close to the enemy.  The players quickly made their way away from the "temple side" of the dungeon and towards the ruined drow city.

I've seen other game reports regarding level 3 of Undermountain; getting roughed up by the drow priestess seems to be a common theme; I've even heard of full on TPK's in this area.  My players would face her a couple more times before finally quelling the threat.  Next time we'll pick up with the drow outpost and their visit to the Hobgoblins.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Undermountain Game Reports: The Upper Levels

One thing becomes apparent as you read through Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  It's a big dungeon.  The overwhelming majority of the content consists of the dungeon levels themselves - maps and keys - 23 levels in all.  There are a few pages up front about dungeon history and attributes of the dungeon, and a small appendix with several new monsters and magic stuff.  Everything else is dungeon content.

There's not a lot of space devoted to storyline, plot hooks, and how to run an engaging campaign in Undermountain - the referee is mostly on their own.  Hopefully that's a skill you picked up from earlier editions, or from your friendly neighborhood OSR blogger.  Probably the most useful thing readers can glean from my game reports is how I've woven exploration of the dungeon into the themes of the campaign.  I've been effective at presenting storylines that encourage the players to explore deeper.  I'll focus special attention in the game reports on our use of plot hooks and rumors to integrate Undermountain into campaign play so you get ideas for your own games.

The idea behind the first campaign arc was focused on finding the headquarters for the Xanathar's Guild.  Several important Waterdeep citizens had been replaced by Intellect Devourers, including a high ranking member of Force Grey.  Several of the player characters were working their way through the ranks of Force Grey and were personally involved in uncovering the intellect devourer plot.  The Black Staff, the arch-wizard that commands Force Grey, invited them to a special briefing at Black Staff Tower.

"We need to find a furtive way into Xanathar's Guild headquarters.  It's located beneath the underground pirate city of Skullport.  There are entrances to Skullport from within the sprawling dungeon called Undermountain located beneath the Yawning Portal Tavern.  I'd like you to scout the first several levels of Undermountain to find the best way to Skullport; from there, spend enough time in Skullport to discover how Xanathar's agents come and go.  Once you have that well-mapped, return for further instructions."

All of the players were already interested in exploring Undermountain, although only two of them were aspiring members of Force Grey.  But everyone thought scouting several levels of Undermountain, making their way to Skullport, and locating the entrance to the crime boss lair, was fairly interesting and the whole party got behind the mission.  I think many of the typical Forgotten Realms factions could provide alternative motivation to get started with Undermountain; I liked the urgency the "invasion of the body snatching intellect devourers" created.

The first dungeon level is rather generic, with the ubiquitous "dungeon bandit hideout", some typical scavengers like trolls and carrion crawlers, and several hideouts for humanoids working for Xanathar's guild.  Many of the bugbears on this level are host to intellect devourers, which greatly reinforced our theme about the grave threat posed by Xanathar's alliance with the Mind Flayer(s).  Whenever combat would start with a group of humanoids, I'd ensure the correct bugbears would maneuver towards the characters with low Intelligences.  The bugbears would eventually be dropped to zero hit points, and the Intellect Devourer would materialize next to the dead host body, ready to brain zap another big dumb galook and jump into a new cranium.  Several player deaths were delivered this way!  Great fun for the DM, and a way to spike the tension at the table.  Intellect Devourers are terrifying.

The other bit I greatly enjoyed on the first level was the "revenant".  There's a dead cleric named Garke trapped in a well where his murderous companions dropped his corpse before looting his stuff; Garke has returned as a revenant to exact vengeance, just as soon as someone helps him out of the hole.  He has an unerring sense of location to hunt his betrayers.  Garke became an interesting ally for the players, because they could take advantage of his help for as long as they pushed forwards after his tormentors (which drove the players down to level 2 quicker than they may have liked).  It's balanced by the fact the revenant is a powerful ally, a nigh unstoppable force of destruction.

The party at this time consisted of Ace, an elven blade dancer wizard; Bosko, a goliath barbarian; Alfred, a rapier-wielding duelist (fighter); Teukros, a Drow assassin/rogue; and Virsk, a northman cleric.  Spoiler alert:  most of them died on level 3, but we'll get to that story eventually.  At this point in their career, they motored through level 1 with minimal casualties and accompanied Garke around areas of level 2 for a bit, at least until he had pounded enough of his murderous ex-companions (the Fine Fellows of Daggerford) into a bloody pulp that his spirit was able to travel onwards to his rest.

I've mentioned in a previous post that Undermountain is "balanced" for 4 players starting at 5th level.  For a larger group, I'm just counting up total levels.  So the first level is meant for 20 levels of characters (4 5th level characters); the second level is 24 levels (4 6th level characters) and so on.  There are various "arch gates" on each dungeon level that are tied to character level as well which I'm adjusting due to our larger group size.  In this way I've got a sense how well they'll handle the challenges.

Level 2 was fairly fun.  There's a goblin market and a problem with the goblin boss who wears a special magic item called a "circlet of human perfection" that changes his shape into an attractive (naked) human.  Goblins don't have the same modesty as people so the players got a little tired of seeing the goblin junk flapping around in front of them when Yek danced and gamboled around.

There was an area where most of the players fell into deep covered pit trap, without any light sources, and couldn't figure out how to get the pit open from the inside.  Meanwhile, Virsk, the cleric, was left outside one of the pits, and had to battle alone against an undead beholder zombie while the schmucks tried to free themselves from the pit traps.  Virsk still brags about single-handedly killing a beholder (and everyone chimes in "it was already dead…").

This campaign originally started with Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and some of the potential outcomes of that adventure include the players owning their own Waterdeep tavern (Trollskull Manor) and winning a 50,000gp royal treasure.  Our players ended with both outcomes.  With the money, they tried to find a powerful magic item on auction (random magic item) and they were able to bid on and buy a Daern's Instant Fortress.  One of their first priorities when they explore a new level of Undermountain is to find a safe redoubt with a ceiling high enough to allow the instant fortress to deploy.  We've had entire games where they defended the fortress against a siege of dungeon monsters.

There was also a challenging treasure on level 2 that tied into their tavern ownership.  Much of level 2 is an old dwarven mine dating back in Undermountain history to the Melairkyn dwarves - dwarven mines, dwarven temples, breweries, and so on.  One of the distant chambers has a large trove of magically preserved Melairkyn ale in large barrels.  The upper levels of Undermountain are extremely light on treasure, and the Melairkyn ale is several thousand gold pieces (140 or so barrels at 40gp each, but each barrel is 400 pounds of weight).  One of the players was a Zhent agent and was able to secure a small mercenary force to secure the straightest path from the ale storage to the Yawning Portal.  They negotiated a cut with Durnan (the proprietor of the Yawning Portal) and then brought a healthy supply back to Trollskull Manor.  The players have maintained a side business as tavern owners, they run a Zhent black market out of the basement, and engage in some light politics in the city.

Level 3 of Undermountain is really good, and where this dungeon exploration campaign really took off.  We'll start our look at level 3 next time!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Setting up Undermountain: Rules and Philosophy

 It started simply enough with a poll.  "What should we play next?"  I made a pitch to the players about several campaigns I wouldn't mind running after our Tomb of Annihilation game, hastily put together a survey, and clicked refresh refresh refresh to see how the results came in.  Fingers crossed for Curse of Strahd.  Nope, it was Undermountain - Waterdeep:  Dungeon of the Mad Mage!  I was ultimately fine with the decision because I really do want to see if 20th level player characters can be challenged by 5E.  Plus, we'll be at this one for a while - it's really big!

Last post about this new campaign (Prelude to Undermountain) I briefly covered the major events in Dragon Heist, the prequel of the campaign that took the players from levels 1 through 5.  Undermountain assumes you are starting with four 5th level characters.

I'll continue to explore what "old school" means to me under separate cover, but I made it clear to the players we'd be giving Undermountain some "old school treatment" to recapture the fun and challenges of dungeoneering.  The first thing we did was activate encumbrance as a rule.  It's in the Player's Handbook as an option.  Nothing makes an "optimized" 5E character give a sad face more than realizing they made strength their "dump stat" and now can't carry enough gear.  Or succeed at Open Doors checks.  Requiring encumbrance has been one of the biggest factors in pushing an element of resource management and planning onto the players.  Food is heavy.  Water is heavy.  Unbalanced "optimized" characters with poor stat distribution struggle with weight.  There are simple ways 5E characters can generate food and water by burning spell slots, but even that has altered their planning by forcing them to adjust their spell preparation., and how they deploy their spells in combat.  Usually the 3rd level slots are too precious to waste on food creation, but it's not uncommon for the Cleric to use a 1st level spell to give everyone water.

Encumbrance has affected their combat planning, too.  Earlier in Undermountain, several characters opted for the heaviest armor they could buy, and were overloaded with their backpacks.  "That's fine, we'll drop our packs every time combat starts so we can have a normal movement rate during combat, then load up again after the fight…"  Makes sense, it's how the infantry does it.  Except when a fight goes badly, and you're forced to retreat, and that means sacrificing potions, gear, and food because you can't recover your backpack - the monsters are now between you and your gear.  More sad faces.  By the time we got deep into level 3 and 4, several of those characters have reverted to lighter armors so they can keep their backpacks and still move well.  They’re adjusting.

Encumbrance is right in the Player's Handbook, so actually using a rule as written isn't any great leap of genius on my part.  The one mechanic I have altered for my run of Undermountain is experience points.  Default 5E awards players for fighting.  Most of the published adventure modules are trending towards "milestone experience", arbitrary grants of a level of experience in order to propel a preset narrative.  My disdain for milestoning is as deep as the ocean.  It's a major flaw of the 5E system.  I do understand and empathize why some DM's feel compelled to do it.  I blame WOTC.  But we'll save that particular diatribe for another day.  I'm using experience points.

As written, Undermountain assumes a party of 4 player characters is basically clearing every level through combat.  They are expected to grind it down to bare stone and leave behind a barren wasteland strewn with monster corpses.  That's how you level up.  But that's not how I wanted to run the game.  I wanted reasons for the players to push and delve deeper; each time they find a new dungeon level they'll get a significant XP bonus as an exploration award (10% of what they need for their next level).  No matter their motivation or party goals on any given level, the exploration bonus has given them a significant side goal to find the way down.  They've used Locate Object, they’ve parleyed with monsters, they've  made deals with dungeon denizens to learn about the egress points.  Nobody wants to miss the night when the party might find that stairway down and lose out on the XP bump.

The other thing I did was restore XP for Gold.  There's not a lot of gold in Undermountain as the treasure awards are calibrated down for 5E standards, but it amounts to 1-2 major encounter's worth of experience per level.  Between earning extra XP by recovering treasure, and getting exploration bumps when finding a new level, the players haven't felt the need to be "completionist" and slaughter all they survey.  I'm pretty happy with how the XP tweaks are encouraging a style of play that features treasure recovery and exploration.

I've also enforced the need to deal with light.  For the most part, that's been handled by Light cantrips, and one of the characters earned a "Drift Globe", a 5E magic item, but there have been times when torches and lanterns are still required.  Characters have been separated by traps, cutting the non-magical characters off from the cantrip wielders.  They've camped overnight while the cantrip casters have needed to sleep.  They've needed torches as fire sources.  Light is one of the easier resources for 5E characters to obviate, but light management has still played a role in the game, and so they've needed to keep a modicum of light sources among their gear and part of their encumbrance.

Earlier in the game the group had more humans; however, there was a near-TPK on level 3, and the replacement characters all came with Darkvision.  The players thought they were being cute, metagaming the megadungeon.  Now I have the joy of DMing a torchless party.  The darkvision prevalence in 5E is kind of dumb, but you'll see as we get to those game reports it's not hard to challenge a torchless party and deploy effective monster tactics.  I've taken it on as a personal challenge.

Geez, this note was going to get into the actual recaps of dungeon levels 1 and 2, but just setting up the campaign parameters has taken a lot of writing.  I'll start the recaps next time.  I will wrap here with one final piece of advice I gave to the players early, which they took it to heart - they should keep good notes!.  They are utilizing a shared Google Doc.  Undermountain is full of magic arches leading deep into the dungeon, and the players have notes written on their maps about how to activate the different arches and where they lead.  They have learned about side quests, bits of legends and lore, and dungeon secrets that will only bear fruit much later in the game.  So while I keep firm and accurate records of time passing (a voice echoes from the pages of the 1979 dungeon master's guide, YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT), the players are keeping good notes about their discoveries.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

That Ineffable Quality of Old School Gaming

A couple of years ago, I said many 5E discussions observed online made me feel like Dungeons & Dragons was becoming a cargo cult.    This is never more evident than when considering how to play 5E in an old school way.  Here at the beginning of 2022, I've seen nothing to dissuade me from that position.  It's remarkable how popular 5th edition continues to be with the broader gaming world, and it's natural to want to try playing it in a way that recaptures the magic of earlier editions, too.

We just need the right combination of rules!

Here are some examples, culled from recent discussions I've observed, on what gamers say needs to happen to make 5E play like an old school game.  First, you need random character generation; characters should be generated via a 3d6 roll in order for stats.  Leveling needs to slow down.  Healing needs to slow down - 5E's daily "long rests" should be changed to once per week.  Another idea is to liberalize the use of the exhaustion rules - for instance apply a level of exhaustion each time a character drops to zero hit points in a combat.  (None of the older editions had similar exhaustion rules, but I appreciate the thoughts).

Maybe it's about changing spell preparation - let's get rid of cantrips and return to strict 1E AD&D spell preparation.  Wizards and Clerics need to strictly choose exactly what they're preparing instead of having flexible spell slots.  (We should rename Wizards to Magic Users, as well).  Or it's those missing 2d6 morale rolls for monsters that the BX system used, we must reinstate morale checks.  5E doesn't have permanent level drains or many save-or-die effects, which limits the instant death and permanent harm to players.  Gotta put those back.  Vampires drain two levels per successful attack!

Did you know there are no race/class limits in modern D&D?  Halfings aren't limited to 6th level in fighter, and elves can rise to unlimited levels in magic users.  Another commenter chimes in… 5E can never be old school until it embraces procedurally generated random content - random stocking, wandering monsters, all of it.  Another says you must abandon milestone experience and embrace GP = XP and load up the dungeons with treasure.  That is the way.

If we slow down level advancement and require training costs to level up, and spend the commensurate down-time, we will rediscover that old school feeling.  We also need to make sure the player characters have plenty of retainers, hirelings, and henchmen - those stories from the olden days always had lots of sidekicks and torchbearers, 10-person parties going into the dungeon. Finally, we need to speed up 5E character generation - there is a direct correlation between the speed of character creation and how old school the game feels.

My understanding is there are several intrepid game designers who have collated some or all of these old school tropes into a set of rules you can apply to your 5E.  I do wonder how that's working out for people who have tried them.

I hope my tone here has been mostly bemusement and not derision.  I only mean to poke some gentle fun.  Clearly I believe it's a worthy endeavor to play 5E in a way that captures the spirit of older editions, in fact it's been my project for several years.  In my experience it's about how you run the game at the table and the style of adventure.  You're not going to find any old school feeling hidden in a rule book.  I'm about to start posting actual play reports to get caught up on Undermountain (Waterdeep:  Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and then we'll surely revisit this topic.

Maybe we need to cosplay as 1st edition players?

*With apologies to The Nightmare Before Christmas.  It's still one of my favorite movies, after all these years, and I frequently ask my IT teams to consider whether they're delivering severed heads or gifts to their customers as CX becomes so important.  Similarly Jack Skellington's hunt for that elusive Christmas spirit seemed an apt metaphor here.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Let's Look at Dungeon of the Mad Mage

In the city of Waterdeep rests a tavern called the Yawning Portal, named after the gaping pit in its common room. At the bottom of this crumbling shaft is a labyrinthine dungeon shunned by all but the most daring adventurers. Known as Undermountain, this dungeon is the domain of the mad wizard Halaster Blackcloak. Long has the Mad Mage dwelt in these forlorn depths, seeding his lair with monsters, traps, and mysteries—to what end is a constant source of speculation and concern.  (From the back cover of Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.)

Waterdeep:  Dungeon of the Mad Mage by Wizards of the Coast picks up at 5th level, slotting in as a nice follow up to Waterdeep: Dragon Heist or one of the introductory adventurers like Lost Mine of Phandelver, or Dragon of Icespire Peak.  It covers 23 dungeon levels, taking player characters from level 5 up through level 20, and it weighs in at 320 pages, one of the larger adventure books on the WOTC 5E shelf.  (On cursory glance, only Rime of the Frost Maiden also has 320 pages; most of the adventure books like Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Descent into Avernus, et al are 256).

Dungeon of the Mad Mage has an impressive room count as well - 535 encounter areas across its 23 levels, including over 1220+ rooms.  That hearkens back to the 1,000 room dungeons of the olden days (back when druids were true neutral and elven fighters maxed out at 7th level, the way Gary intended).

Most 5E adventure books start with level 1 characters and take the party up to level 10 or so; there are a few outliers like Avernus and Princes of the Apocalypse that cover a 15 level span ( 1-15).  Dungeon of the Mad Mage is the only official campaign designed to challenge 20th level characters.  We shall see if it proves a challenge, when we get there!

It's fine as far as printed megadungeons go.  The levels are interesting and varied, and each is preceded by 1-3 pages of narrative laying out factional conflicts and politics for that level.  I may complain about the Fifth but I generally enjoy Chris Perkins' work as the lead adventure designer, and he did a nice job adapting and updating Undermountain.  There's some history of Undermountain up front - it's a long abandoned elven dungeon, and then a dwarven dungeon, and then a mad wizard's dungeon and all of his apprentices, down through the years.  One of the deeper levels has a portal to an asteroid in outer space!  The room descriptions are brief and use effective bolding to highlight important information for usability.  The text is not hard to run at the table.

The maps are another issue.  The map quality is fine, but the maps themselves are strewn through the text and it's unwieldy to run at the table without a lot of flip-flip page flipping.  Back when I started Undermountain with an Adventurer's League group pre-pandemic, I used the optional "map pack" accessory that includes separated glossy map pages so you can reference the book text and have the correct map side by side behind your DM screen.  Selling an "optional" map pack accessory was some shrewd capitalism by the WOTC overlords.  Of course since the pandemic we've been 100% online anyway.

I am not enamored with the Forgotten Realms.  Years of running published 5E campaign hardbacks set in the Realms have done nothing to dim my smoldering apathy towards them.  (I have a Drizzt Do'Urden voodoo doll in my desk drawer).  But I have learned to appreciate the special charm of having a sprawling megadungeon right under the player's home base city.  It's cool that a raucous adventurer's tavern surrounds the entrance to the dungeon, and rowdy tavern patrons place wagers as adventurers get lowered out of sight into the underworld.  We've gotten some excellent mileage out of those scenes.  The Realms may be bland to me, but putting your giant dungeon under a tavern - ten out of ten, Ed Greenwood, ten out of ten.  (You can't see it, but I'm sending him telepathic heart emoji's.  With my mind).

The Yawning Portal dungeon entrance - doesn't that look fun?

There is a significant issue with experience points and pacing with this 5E version.  It's been optimized for a party of 4 players, and there's just enough combat experience, if the players complete every room, to allow this 4-person party to level at the requisite pace.  That's terrible.  It's terrible in so many ways.  As we work through how I've tweaked Dungeon of the Mad Mage for my play style, we'll address the experience point problem right away.

There are essentially no wandering monsters.  On the first two levels, there are a few text blurbs about monsters that wander the levels, but that guidance stops from the 3rd level onwards.  Did Chris Perkins get tired of writing or just run out of space?  We may never know.  What I do know is that you'll be making your own wandering monster tables if that part of the dungeoneering experience is important to you.

Don't let these quibbles dissuade you from checking out Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  There is no such thing as a perfect WOTC adventure module; if they published one, the world would stop.  Be thankful for their imperfect products with correctable flaws.  Mad Mage is one of the good ones.  In posts to come, I'll lay out tweaks I've made to operate the adventure more to my liking, striving even for an "old school feel" (whatever old school means), and then I'll do some recaps of our play through.  It will be fun.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

Monday, January 3, 2022

A Prelude to Undermountain

 How do you start a retrospective on a 16 month D&D campaign?  From the beginning?  I guess so, but death by explication is a serious threat to the readers.  I'll elide the minutiae and strive for broad brush strokes.

The campaign, Dorks with Bows Undermountain, started in Waterdeep with the published adventure, Dragon Heist.  I had run Dragon Heist for the Adventurer's League crowd before the pandemic and noticed it had many commendable qualities that I wanted to explore with my regular gamers.  Although several chapters are heavily plotted (like the cinematic roof top chase sequence) you can leverage the adventure to embed the characters into the political factions of the city, grant them a cool home base lair, and land them with a royal 50,000gp reward at the end of the adventure.  It's customizable with many opportunities to expand.  Politics, property, and fantastic wealth are all rife with complications, and complications are fun.  My players had agreed that playing Undermountain, the only official published WOTC campaign that goes all the way to level 20 characters, sounded like a worthy endeavor, and Dragon Heist is a fantastic way to start a campaign in Waterdeep.  So we did.

I'm not going to recapitulate my second Dragon Heist campaign; the retrospective I did after running it with the Adventurer's League crowd is fine.  As my home group ended this one, the Dorks with Bows (known around the city as "The DWB") had ties with a group called the Harpers, ties with Force Grey, and an alliance with a rogue faction of the Zhentarim.  They also made several powerful enemies.

I treat the Harpers like the Fellowship of the Ring and the Council of Elrod - a diverse group of (stereotypical) powerful fantasy do-gooders who try and keep a lid on the dark forces of the world, their ears to the tracks.  They are melodramatic, where every new threat is the single greatest threat to civilization.  Force Grey are mercenaries working for the Black Staff of Waterdeep, a powerful wizard enforcer who ruthlessly eliminates threats to the city.  They are part Suicide Squad, Dirty Dozen, and the Expendables.  The Black Network (the Zhentarim) are a continent-spanning network of criminals (I treat the zealots like the MCU's Hydra organization with different leaders portrayed like comic book villains such as Zemo or Red Skull).

Very early in Dragon Heist, one of the dungeons brings the characters into contact with a Mind Flayer and its intellect devourer pet.  It's a very dangerous encounter for 1st level characters!  The Mind Flayer isn't there to fight, it quickly melts away from the combat, but even a solitary intellect devourer is rough.  I'm not one to pull punches, and at least one PC died in that particular scene.  Much later in Dragon Heist, one of the Force Grey side quests involved the characters trying to discover why a high level fighter named Meloon, a Force Grey agent, was acting uncharacteristically.  That particularly side story ended for us with Meloon dead and an Intellect Devourer materializing outside of his empty cranium - it had been using his body like a puppet.  That set off "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" style paranoia and mayhem!  Who else among the Waterdeep elite have been replaced by Intellect Devourers?

The body snatcher problem became the catalyst for our Undermountain Campaign.  In a conference chamber high in Black Staff Tower, the Black Staff briefed the players.  The city faced a grave threat.  The Xanathar Guild has allied itself with a Mind Flayer and are using Intellect Devourers to replace prominent citizens with loyal puppets.  The Guild headquarters is known to be linked to the underground pirate city of Skullport, which has been closed off from the surface waterways for some time, but there are ways to reach Skullport from within Undermountain, the legendary dungeon beneath the city.  The player's quest, for the good of the city, is to scout and explore the first few levels of Undermountain, starting with the entrance beneath the Yawning Portal Tavern, and to report back when they've located Skullport and found the entrance to Xanathar's guild headquarters.

This is how we started our exploration of Undermountain.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

That Which is Dead May Not Die

Yesterday I mucked the stalls.  After 16 months of neglect, the old "Lich House" was completely inundated with rotting piles of spam and junk comments.  I suppose it's fine to have zero comment moderation enabled if you're going to weed the garden on a regular basis, but the Lich House had become a tomb overgrown with sketchy offers leading to the dark web.

I am putting a difficult year and a half behind me.  Beyond the obvious (we've all been living through a pandemic) I've had kids go off the rails, serious home damage, and a tough work environment - challenges in multiple dimensions that knocked me off the internet for an extended time.  We've all had those days, months, years, decades.  For me it's been this past year.  Things are turning around.  It's time to dig out of the crypt again and emerge, hesitantly, into the cool night air.

I've still been running some games!  I've had a kids and dad's group that's met regularly since about 2007, and while we skipped here and there, we mostly kept playing.  We finished WOTC's Tomb of Annihilation and moved on to 5E's official megadungeon, Undermountain (official title - Waterdeep:  Dungeon of the Mad Mage).  It's a much-maligned publication by the Gen Z crowd.  I'm determined to see for myself if 5E could be folded, shaped, and forced into behaving like a system fit for an old-school megadungeon campaign.

Oh, you've noticed 16 months away from the blogosphere hasn't dimmed my disdain for the Fifth?  It's true, the love-hate relationship with modern D&D is still in force.  My players adore this game system.  I like my players and am willing to indulge them.  I continue to see the Fifth as a personal challenge to prove that you can parrot more satisfying game styles from simpler times in the hobby.  I'm doing it for science.

Here's what's next for me.  First, I haven't been reading any blogs - I want to catch up with what people have been talking about the past year.  I'll continue to split time between what's happening in the OSR discussions versus a few of the 5E-centric bloggers out there I used to enjoy.  I'll also do some retrospectives on Undermountain to date and how I've managed to build a compelling dungeon exploration campaign for the Fifth around a 'big dumb hack and slash dungeon with no story'.