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'.