D&D Encounters: Dead in Thay sessions 9 & 10

This season of D&D Encounters is now hurrying towards its conclusion: the next session we run will be the last! Session 9 saw us somewhat down on numbers, with only(!) 20 people turning up, but Session 10, which coincided with the release of the D&D Starter Set saw us reach a high of 27 people. As this session also had one of our DMs absent due to a cold, I had to quickly promote one of our players to DM status, whilst taking a table for myself.

Most of the action in the ninth session was focused around the Master’s Chambers, where the groups discovered a number of Red Wizards of Thay who knew what was going on. The Red Wizards, once captured, divulged that information to the players, including the methods of getting into the Vaults of Extraction.

It was quite amusing to see how much information the groups got – they’ve been struggling through without actually knowing the way through to the Vaults for most of the season, but this session was the time that they all found out! Two glyph keys to the Vaults were obtained – the third key required had been actually possessed since the second or third session by one of the groups, but they’d not realised its significance!

Thus, when we came to the tenth session, all the groups moved onto the Vaults. There are a few areas of the main Deadvault not explored, but very few, and it made more sense for everyone to move into the Vaults together.

Two of the other tables had little trouble with what they found in the Vaults, another table had moderate difficulty, but all emerged victorious.

The final table… well, that was mine.

When you have four players who are brand new to D&D, what do you do? Introducing them to the game at this point in Dead in Thay – which is really the culmination of about 22 weeks of adventure – is not entirely ideal, but I handed out pregenerated characters – Ranger, Rogue, Cleric and Wizard – and let them experience what the game can be about, giving advice about their abilities and the best spells to use as appropriate.

I generally ignored the environmental effects of the temples, as being a bit complicated to run for this group, and instead concentrated on the role-playing and combat aspects of the game. They found themselves first entering the Temples of Plague, where a rather dedicated Red Wizard with his Deathlock Wight assistant were working on a strange contraption…

The group began by engaging him in conversation, and assuring him that they were meant to be there and that he wasn’t! The rather confused wizard was all prepared to accept their word for this before his assistant, rolling his eyes, set him straight and caused their bodyguards – zombies and a dread warrior – to attack them. A fireball spell from the party’s mage slew most of the zombies and badly damaged the Red Wizard and his assistant. The party’s cleric was kept busy with the dread warrior, whilst the ranger and rogue sniped away at the wizard, eventually felling him and his associate.

With the rest of the undead slain, the group needed some healing, and their cleric was happy to oblige, though he was concerned at how quickly he might be using up his spell slots.

The contraption proved to have a half-orc in it; the Halfling ranger misheard this as “Halfling” and immediately demanded the prisoner’s release, causing a few odd glances from his friends, but the group released the half-orc. He proved to be one of the Chosen, and indeed the Chosen of Yurtrus, orc god of plague and disease. He was most hostile to the party, though enfeebled, as the contraption had been syphoning off his god-given powers and sending them to the Phylactery Vault below, where they were aiding the plans of the ruler of Thay to become a god.

Another strange contraption was found in the next chamber, which was all overgrown with vines and creepers. As the group investigated the contraption, which had an elf woman in it, they were surprised by a wraith and several will-o-wisps. Their cleric took an energy-draining hit from the wraith, which reduced his maximum hit points by 15! They treated the wraith with a lot more respect after that, especially as their non-magical weapons were proving mostly ineffective against the incorporeal spirit.

However, magic and swordplay proved too much for the defenders, and – though the group needed healing once again – they were able to release Eira, the Chosen of Rillafane Rallathil. In gratitude, she gave the ranger her magical bow, so at least the party had one magical weapon. (It must be said that the ranger badgered her quite a bit until the bow was handed over, as he quite admired the description of its graceful curves).

Eira accompanied the group into the final room, where the group found a Red Wizard, his apprentice, and a number of Yetis in a room that was decidedly wintry in aspect. The group had approached stealthily, and so were able to completely surprise the wizard and his minions – it wasn’t all that long before he and his apprentice were down. The Yetis proved more of a problem, but soon they were dead (and the party required more healing).

If this had been any other group, they would have recognised the withered husk in this room’s contraption as Hedrun Amsfirth, the Winter Witch of Legacy of the Crystal Shard; however, the Chosen of Auril’s true identity was of little importance to them. She had been brought back as a wight, and they took little time to dispatch her as well.

Eira gratefully thanked the group, and prepared to return to the gatehouse and to freedom, whilst everyone else was now ready to take on the Phylactery Vault. In just a few short days, the players will discover what awaits them there…

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D&D Review – O1: The Gem and the Staff

There are many unusual things about O1: The Gem and the Staff, but perhaps the strangest is that it consists of two, linked 30-minute adventures designed for a single player and a DM. It was originally used as a tournament adventure at Wintercon VII in 1978 and saw limited publication there by Metro Detroit Gamers as Quest for the Fazzlewood, but it was re-released by TSR as part of their Basic D&D line in 1983.

The original idea of the adventure in a tournament was that the DM and player would swap for the second adventure, and points would be allocated for how well each progressed in the adventure; the point-scoring system is given in the text.

The economics of the adventure are not favourable to it: it provides two players with a total of 1 hour of entertainment before it has been completed. As most other products of its size would provide entertainment for 6-10 players lasting 6 hours or more, it really isn’t that surprising that a line of One-on-One adventures never took off. In fact, the Fighting Fantasy game line, where the book takes the place of the Dungeon Master, actually do the job far more effectively. The role of the Dungeon Master here is quite limited, with many actions being scripted. There are a few areas where having a Dungeon Master is an advantage, but – given the time limitations – any extended role-playing with the inhabitants of the adventure is likely to cause you to fail.

Both adventures are written for a pregenerated, 8th-level thief character, Eric the Bold. In the first adventure he is blackmailed to steal a gem from a wizard; in the second adventure that wizard gets him to steal a staff from another rival as recompense for his first theft (or as the price of his freedom if he was captured in the first adventure). Each adventure, as is common for tournament adventures, is quite linear, and although the potential for combat exists in both, most battles can be avoided; just as well, because a lone thief is quite vulnerable.

Stylistically, the adventures draw on tales of high adventure where not everything has to make sense: Why does the wizard have a giant serving him? Why not! It’s a style that is somewhat out of favour now, but you can find in the works of Vance, Leiber, Fletcher and Pratt, and some Moorcock. The wondrous is enough – it’s magic! (The term “screwball fantasy” may be appropriate).

Actually overcoming the challenges of the adventure requires some thinking, but that’s something that should be welcomed. There’s one trap that is quite unfair, but as it’s also the primary link between the two adventures, so I can’t be too unhappy about it. (It can be avoided; it just seems unlikely that the player could avoid it given how the adventure works). It might be initially surprising how little is actually overcome by using thief skills (such as open lock, find traps), but an adventure relying only on those would be extremely boring; making simple dice rolls isn’t entertaining, and the risk of failure from a single roll when there isn’t another way past

The Gem and the Staff comes with two 16-page books, one with the adventures and one with the maps – drawn in large scale so that the players can actually put cardboard figures (also included) on the map to show what they’re doing. The art is quite good and I was rather happy to see one picture showing Eric the Bold under the effects of one of the curses he might suffer!

Ultimately, The Gem and the Staff is an interesting experiment, although I find the format it uses is just too limiting – especially given the space given to maps. TSR produced one other adventure in the “O” series before abandoning it. UK5 (1984) is also a one-on-one adventure, would return to in two other adventures in the mid-80s, before they produced eight “Head-to-Head” adventures (the HHQ line of Fighter’s Challenge, etc.) in the early and mid-90s.

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D&D Concepts: Marching Order

One of the suggestions in the new D&D Starter Set is that you work out a Marching Order for your party. This is a pretty simple concept – it’s the formation that you use when moving around – that has seen some development through the history of D&D.

In the early years of the game, adventuring parties were often much bigger than they are now. Nine characters seems to be a fairly standard amount, or at least it’s presented that way in the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide. Dungeons tended to consist of rooms connected by 10 foot wide corridors, so the standard formation for travelling was considered for that width. Although later editions standardised the amount of space a character took up as 5 feet, the AD&D DMG has each character taking up 3-1/3′ so that three characters could stand abreast. Thus, a party would arrange themselves into a formation of 3 rows of 3 characters each – a 3×3 formation – often with shorter characters (halflings and dwarves) in the front rank so archers could fire above them from behind.

These days, you will tend to have from four to six characters, so, with the 5′ space for characters, you get a 2×2 or 3×2 formation.

You can generalise all of this to a party need a Front Rank, one or more Middle Ranks, and a Back Rank. Who goes in each?

The Front Rank and Back Rank tend to serve similar purposes: they are the ranks that will tend to be attacked. Most often, it will be the Front Rank that ends up in combat, but the Back Rank will be first into combat in those cases when the party is attacked from behind. As a result, you need good armour classes and high hit points in those ranks.

The one exception in the Front Rank tends to be the trap finder; it’s very easy to find traps when the barbarian in the front rank has already fallen down the pit trap, but most parties want a little more warning than that! Alternatively, the tracker will want to be in the front rank when you’re following a trail.

The Middle Ranks contain the characters you don’t want in the front rank during combat – typically the wizards, who have poor Armour Class and Hit Points, but rogues, spell-casters and archers may also be there.

So, what happens when you only have two ranks and the wizard is standing with no-one between him and the large bugbear that has sneaked up behind you? Well, the typical reaction to this is for the wizard to get squished (or to quickly use a thunderwave spell to push back the bugbear and then slip behind the fighters…) In earlier editions of D&D, we used to hire men-at-arms and, at later levels, henchmen to fill in the spots further up the list.

Men-at-arms are mercenaries who fight for pay. If you’d like to include one in your game, I’ve included some house rules at the end of the article you could use – at least until the full rules come out in the near future.

The chief problem of putting characters into the various ranks comes when combat begins: who can participate? Although characters in back ranks can cast spells or fire missile weapons, they will normally be penalised for the opponents having cover (from the other members of the character’s party!) This, at least, is kinder than the rules in AD&D, where you’d be quite likely to hit your allies instead!

Another option is to use Reach weapons from the second rank – pikes, halberds, whips and lances. Again, I’d impose a cover bonus to the target’s armour class, but at least members of the second rank of characters could attack. If the spell-casters are in the second rank, one of the first actions in combat would be for the spell-casters to move back so that the fighters in the back rank could move up. Note that you can happily move through allied characters without penalty.

With larger parties (five or more characters), five-foot corridors prove a major problem. All of a sudden you’ve only got one character in the front rank and able to attack. They’re great defensively, but they can be very frustrating to play in. As a DM, I rarely use corridors of that width just because you can have a lot of players sitting around unable to participate. If you are going to use them, having them as part of a maze of several intersecting corridors – so the characters could be attacked from different directions – makes a much more interesting set-up.

Twenty-foot wide and wider corridors are quite challenging for the party, as it is much harder to protect the more vulnerable members of the party, especially using the 5E rules. I would tend to spread out more to protect the centre.

It is worth noting that keeping very close together is great when you’re in non-magical combat, but is quite dangerous when Area of Effect spells like fireball start getting thrown around by the enemy. Know your opponents and be prepared to change your tactics when necessary!

Ultimately, the marching order provides the DM and players with a quick reference when the group is attacked for where everyone is. The marching order should protect the vulnerable characters and allow everyone to participate effectively in the combat.

House Rules for including Men-at-arms in Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Mercenary soldiers between jobs and young, untrained fighters often seek employment with adventurers. It is high-risk work, for which they are well compensated compared to their usual scales, but hiring them can prove very useful for new groups of adventurers delving into dangerous places.

If the Dungeon Master has men-at-arms available for hire, they are hired on a per expedition basis of 2 gold pieces per day.

Man-at-Arms; AC 16, hp 10, MV 20′, longsword +3 (1d8+1). Str +1, all others +0. Scale mail + shield.

Men-at-arms are not stupid, and will not perform needlessly dangerous acts. If commanded to perform an action the DM considers dangerous, or if one or more of the party are rendered unconscious or killed, they may refuse the order or flee. For a simple loyalty system give them a rating of 7 plus the Charisma modifier of whoever hired them. When loyalty must be checked, roll 2d6: if it is higher than their loyalty rating, they have failed the check and will refuse the order or flee.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design | 2 Comments

The Lost Mine of Phandelver – Session 1

The new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set was released to all stores this week. If you look around, you’ll find a lot of reports as to how the adventure in it plays. This is one of them. If you plan to play the adventure, it’s probably a good idea to stop reading now.

Because there are going to be lots of SPOILERS ahead for the adventure.

We ended up with two tables at Goodgames Ballarat of people playing through the adventure, after our regularly scheduled D&D Encounters session. I took five of the more experienced players, whilst Josh had a table of four players playing D&D for the first time. Encounters had run relatively late, so we were rather late in starting and I wanted the players to create their own characters. Unfortunately, I had the only copy of the Basic rules, although I also had two computers with me that had the rules as well.

Creating characters with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules didn’t take that long, especially as the players were used to how the classes fit together thanks to the playtest. Spell selection for the wizard and cleric took the longest!

By the end of it, we had the following characters at the table:

Ailar (Sam), an Elven Wizard (Sage)

Reid (Jesse), a Halfling Rogue (Criminal)

Fred (Dave), a Human Cleric (Soldier)

Vjrm (Josh), a Human Fighter (Soldier)

Milo (Tait), a Halfling Rogue (Criminal)

Or that’s how I remember it – I might be mistaken on some of the backgrounds. The introduction to the adventure states how they’re accompanying a caravan to the small mining village of Phandalin, having been hired by a dwarf, Gundren Rockseeker, to bring a wagonload of provisions to Barthren’s Provisions. At least, that’s the default, unless the players can come up with better reasons (or you use the pregenerated characters in the Starter Set, which have some really good backgrounds). Both Reid and Milo apparently were paying of a debt to Gudren, as he’d caught them trying to steal from him. Ailar had bought books from him, and at least one of Fred or Vjrm knew him from their soldiering days.

He’d gone on ahead with his companion, Sildar Hallwinter, as he wanted to deal with business in Phandalin. That was when the trouble started.

The group had been travelling for a few days when they came across Gundren’s and Sildar’s horses, dead by the side of the road. Fred, who was driving the oxen who pulled the wagon, called a stop, and everyone began to look around and tried to find cover. Vjrm made his way into the trees by the side of the road and began to stealthily make his way towards the horses – he was wearing chain mail, and it wasn’t heavy enough to cause his Stealth check to be under disadvantage. He rolled really well and reached the area without problems. The horses seemed to have been slain by arrows and he could detect no-one about.

Milo was the one to see the goblins lurking at the side of the roadway, and he shouted a warning and ran towards Vjrm. Vjrm heard it too late, as he stepped out of cover, only to be struck by arrows from two goblins; two more goblins fired at the rest of the party, inflicting some minor damage. Fred used his healing word spell to restore Vjrm’s health, but Vjrm was having trouble spotting the goblins. He chose to duck behind a log, minimising his exposure to the ambush.

Goblins are really scary for first level characters in the new Dungeons & Dragons! One of their abilities is Nimble Escape, which allows them to disengage or hide as a bonus action on their turns, which is very similar to what a rogue can do. As a result, the goblins would shoot from concealment, then make a Hide check. With a +6 to their checks, they were normally rolling pretty high and beating the Passive Perceptions of the group; the heroes were taking damage without being able to shoot back.

However, with Vjrm behind a log, the two goblins on the right-hand side of the trail needed to rush up and slice him with their scimitars, thus exposing them to the rest of the group. Fred readied an attack, and so when the goblins broke cover, either to shoot or to attack Vjrm, he was able to react. A couple of goblins died quickly as the party began to work out how to combat them. The remaining goblins, realising that Fred was a threat, took him down with a couple of well-aimed arrows, but – whilst bad for the party as a whole – the group were able to close with and kill the last two goblins. Alas, they had no treasure. And, what was worse, was that their cleric was lying unconscious next to an ox. What were they to do?

This provoked a furious discussion between the players. Some were in favour of just waiting for Fred to wake up. However, others in the group were really worried about what would happen if more goblins came along! They held the day, and the group decided that instead of pushing on, they’d take the wagon back down the trail for half-an-hour, and then wait for Fred to wake up. The intensity of this discussion had a lot to do with how dangerous the goblins were; they weren’t all that hard to take down (at least once the party had discovered where they were), but the damage they could put out was significant – and potentially deadly if they rolled a critical hit! With the plan having been agreed to, they enacted it, and were not ambushed by more goblins.

Neither Gundren nor Sildar’s bodies were evident, so the group expected they’d been taken by the goblins. However, with Fred out of spells and the group still hurt, they did not feel like pursuing the goblins at this time. Instead, they pushed on until they reached Phandelver in the late afternoon. Their arrival caused some small amount of interest before the townspeople went back to their business. Phandelver is a small town of about forty or fifty buildings, built on the ruins of an old settlement. The group first made their way to Barthren’s Provisions, so they could get rid of the wagon and discover if Gundren had actually escaped and made his way to the town.

They were greeted by the owner, Elmer Barthren, who was glad to see the supplies but rather less glad to learn that his friend, Gundren, was missing. No, Gundren hadn’t arrived before the party. Barthren, after paying the group for the supplies, told them that he’d really appreciate it if the group found his friend. He also mentioned that Gundren had two brothers who were camped somewhere out of town, although he hadn’t seen them for a while.

The group then made their way to the inn, or at least most of them did. With the day ending, Milo decided to do some light-fingered larceny, and burgle the local smithy. (Of the two halflings, Milo is a burglar, whilst Reid is a blackmailer, according to the backgrounds they rolled). However, the luck of the dice was not with Milo this session; he failed to open both the back and front doors, and then fell off the roof when attempting to climb up and try and find another way in. He limped back to the party.

The rest of the group were meeting the innkeeper, a young man called Toblen Stonehill, who’d come to the town to be a miner, but found he made a better innkeeper. As he was serving the group, he let them know about his frustrations with the mayor, and about the Redbrand Ruffians, a group that were strong-arming businesses and the mayor was ignoring.

Then Milo limped in. Instead of telling the group what had really happened, he told them that he’d been roughed up by a gang of ruffians. Vjrm, who is very loyal to his companions (a personality trait), immediately wanted to go and teach the Redbrands a lesson, but he was prevailed upon to rest the night – if the group couldn’t handle goblins, how would they handle bandits? So the group rested.

It was just as well. The next morning, they made their way to the Sleeping Giant taphouse, where the Redbrands were meant to hang out. They’d heard that there were about a dozen Redbrands, but they were pleased to find only four lounging on the porch. Insults soon turned into weapons being drawn, and the battle was on. And it was exceedingly tough; this encounter is probably designed for a party of second level characters, but it gave great trouble to the first level characters. A few rules changes from the playtest caught the players out; in particular, Dave wasn’t aware that he suffer disadvantage on ranged attack rolls for his spells if he was adjacent to the enemy; luckily for the group, his Guiding Bolt hit and slew the ruffian even with him taking the lower of both rolls!

However, with the ruffians making two shortsword attacks per round, each dealing 5 damage, it was potentially a very deadly encounter. The group survived – many of them on one hit point remaining! – and the ruffians were slain.

Talking to the surly owner of the taphouse, the group learnt that the Redbrands lived in the ruined manor on the hill at the end of town. Vjrm took one of the bodies with him, and took it to the centre of town where he strung it up as a warning to all the Ruffians.

This garnered quite a bit of attention, and although most of the townsfolk were quietly approving or offering encouragement, the group soon found themselves being confronted by an angry, fat, out-of-breath man: the town mayor, Harbin Wester. He scolded them for provoking the Redbrands – who weren’t that much trouble, really – and worried about what would become of the townsfolk. The group placated him (somewhat), and began to plan their next moves. Would they go after the rest of the Ruffians or would they try to rescue Gundren and Sildar from the goblins?

Unfortunately, we were out of time. I awarded each of the players 155 XP, which wasn’t enough for them to reach 2nd level. However, the group had performed fantastically well at role-playing; all the players had been involved and it had been the most role-playing I’ve seen in a session of D&D for a long time. The character traits really helped them form personalities quickly and they played them well. It was a fantastic experience and I’d awarded three of them Inspiration during the session for their great role-playing.

The fights were hard. Really, really hard. The goblins could have quite easily killed everyone, especially with their ability to hide after they attack. For new DMs, I suggest you advise your players to use the Ready action (page 11 of the Starter Set Rulebook) to attack in reaction to the goblins’ attacks. (The goblin attacks will still resolve first, but the player attacks will resolve before they can attack again). Also, a Wizard casting the sleep spell will be likely able to neutralise a couple of goblins even if the Wizard can’t see exactly where they are; as an area effect spell, the goblins just being close enough will allow it to function.

Any way, it will be a fortnight before we continue the adventure; next week my AD&D campaign will resume. Next Friday, my other D&D group will experience this adventure for the first time – I wonder how they’ll do in comparison to this group?

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Visualising Combat in Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons was originally published as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”. The use of miniature figures was mandatory, right? Well, even in the very early days, Gary Gygax was playing the game without miniatures. In fact, there weren’t all that many rules in the early D&D that actually required the use of miniatures; nothing like the rules of 3E and 4E, which presumed the use of a grid.

So, D&D can be played with or without miniatures. In fact, the new Starter Set doesn’t come with miniatures or tokens at all.

How does combat work without miniatures? The phrase we use to describe this type of play is “Theatre of the Mind”, and it’s worth looking at how combat works with miniatures first.

Note that although I’ll be using the word “miniatures” a lot, there’s nothing stopping you using any sort of physical representation for the characters and monsters. I’ve used coins, glass beads, bits of paper, lego pieces and chess pieces instead of miniatures. You can use whatever works for you, especially as amassing a good miniatures collection takes a lot of time and money.

Grid-based Combat

In grid-based combat, each miniature is placed on a battlemat, typically divided into 1 inch squares. Man-sized creatures fill a single square (1″x1″), Large creatures fill more space, typically 2″x2″ (Large) or 3″x3″ (Huge).

Each 1 inch square corresponds to a 5 foot by 5 foot (5′ x 5′) area in the game world. Occasionally, a distance like 30 feet is instead described as 6 squares.

Moving diagonally often causes a few problems – if you count each diagonal as 1 square, a character can travel further on the diagonal than straight ahead! For simplicity’s sake, both 4E and 5E default to this behaviour if you use a grid, but 3E counted each square as 1.5, rounded down. Thus a character with a 20 feet movement rate (4 squares) could only travel 3 squares diagonally.

The chief advantage grid-based combat has is precise positioning. When a wizard casts a fireball, it is easy to count squares from the blast point and work out which creatures are affected by the blast. Grid-based combat also allows for easy calculation of whether the flanking bonus applies – in both 3E and 4E, if two characters are on either side of a figure, they gain combat advantage against the figure, which gives a bonus to hit and allows some special abilities, such as sneak attack to work. You will notice that no such system exists in the new Dungeons & Dragons! Instead, sneak attack merely checks if an ally is adjacent to the opponent you’re sneak attacking!

The main disadvantages for grid-based combat are due to the extra detail it provides; it can slow things down, especially when characters are trying to best position themselves on the grid. I don’t feel it deals with large creatures very well, making them entirely too bulky – I preferred the 1″ bases of tall large creatures such as Ogres in 3rd Edition.

Both 3E and 4E do not actually have facing as part of the game; they assume that characters are constantly looking around themselves at threats. In certain forms of miniature combat, the way your miniature faces is the way your character is facing, allowing opponents to sneak up behind you. Can you turn in response? It was that problem that flanking was created to solve, but some may find it an unsatisfactory solution.

Just a note: one of the best investments you can make if playing grid-based combat is a quality battlemat – an erasable mat marked in 1″ squares which you can draw on with a dry erase marker. The one I use is the Basic Flipmat from Paizo; it’s a really great product. The really nice 3D Dungeon Tiles in the picture are from Dwarven Forge; they’re quite expensive.

Tabletop-based Combat

If you’ve ever seen a tabletop miniature game being played, such as Warhammer or Warmachine, you will notice that there is no grid. Instead, miniatures can stand in any position on the tabletop and rulers and tape measures are used to determine how far they can move.

Spell-effects tend to be template-based: pieces of paper, cardboard or plastic, cut into the shape that the spell affects, as measuring with a tape measure tends to be rather tricky.

This is the style of miniature play from which D&D is derived. How many characters can attack the monster? It’s how many can fit around it!

The advantage of this style of running combat is that, for the most part, it’s easier to move and arrange yourselves around monsters and have unusual terrain shapes – 1″ grids do tend to cause a few problems with diagonals and curves! However, it can get a little frustrating working out the corner cases: Am I moving too far? Is that fireball hitting the thief or not? Generally, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem in D&D…


The Tabletop of the Mind

Once you remove the miniatures (or tokens or pawns or whatever else you use), you move into running D&D in a style that is called “Theatre of the Mind”. And there are a couple of ways of running it. In my 3E or 4E games, I commonly used a method where there was still a grid-based representation of the combat, but it was all in my mind. My job as the DM was to describe it to the players and move them around the mind-grid in response to their actions.

There’s nothing particularly hard about this; it’s far easier than doing “blind chess” where you can’t see the board, as there are far fewer pieces involved. If you have a couple of dozen combatants, it will probably be easier to bring out the miniatures, but most combats won’t be that difficult.

When I run games using this style, the players’ jobs are to tell me in general terms what they want to do. “I want to hide!” “I want to run behind the ogre and attack him”. I’m not trying to trap them; I’ll tell them if they can or can’t do the action. “Yes, there’s a barrel nearby you can hide behind.” “There’s another ogre in the way, but if you take two rounds, you can do it then. Do you still want to do it?”

The great advantage of this style is that it really frees up the characters to do inventive actions. “I swing from the chandelier onto the ogre’s back!” You do need to describe things well, though.

The drawback, of course, is that the players might be imagining something entirely different from the situation you are! This can lead to great frustration at the table, and I know several players who much, much prefer to use some form of physical representation. (Sketching out the situation on a piece of paper from time to time can help a lot).

An Abstract Combat

The final method I use from time to time does away with precise positioning. There isn’t a tabletop, imagined or otherwise. Instead the combatants are described purely in relationship to how far they are away from each other, with the ranges basically being “Extreme Range”, “Long Range”, “Medium Range”, “Short Range” and “In Melee”.

A character can move between two range bands by using his normal movement, and can travel an extra band by dashing. So, if the group begin at Long Range, they can advance to Short Range if all they do is Move and Dash… meanwhile, the opponents can move closer as well, bringing them into Melee.

Characters in melee can strike opposition targets also in melee pretty much at will. Occasionally, I use a rule from AD&D which states that characters in melee choose their targets randomly, which evokes the chaotic nature of melee with combatants moving around all the time. Abilities like Sneak Attack, which require an ally adjacent to your opponent, are just allowed to occur if you still have another friend in the battle.

The basic rules for firing into melee sadly do not permit you to hit your allies. (In AD&D, you randomly selected which combatant – from either side – you actually attacked!) Instead I’d just apply the general +2 AC bonus for cover; the target likely has it from something!

Leaving the melee will provoke Opportunity Attacks unless disengage is used, and – in general – I wouldn’t allow a monster to break through the melee to engage spell-casters at the back unless the fighters have gone down or it’s a particularly wide open area.

To work out how spell-casting ranges work, Short is about 30′ or less, Medium is about 60′, Long is about 90-100′, and Extreme is anything you like above that.

Determining which monsters or characters are affected by spell effects like fireball is a lot trickier, and is the main problem with this form of combat. In general, at those points I try to make up a number that seems good based on the description of the combat. The goblins are spread out over a large area twice the area of the fireball? Then it hits half of them. The ogres are all clumped together in the front line with the rogue behind them? You can hit them all – and the thief! This is the most challenging part of running combat this way, and it’s something that you only get better at with experience. In general, I try to be generous to the players, without allowing them to always affect all the monsters.

In this mode of combat, the description of what is going on becomes a lot more important. It’s very easy to just devolve to “I hit for 15 damage” or “I miss”, but if you can describe what’s going on with more detail – “The orc screams in pain as you slash its chest.” “You duck and weave and the Ogre gets even angrier as he just… can’t… hit… you!” – then you can create some very memorable games. That said, it’s quite fine when learning the rules to just describe the basics. Or sometimes, I find that the mechanics of combat are far more interesting than any description we might use.

The advantage of this mode is that it requires nothing more than description, and it can really vividly bring the combats to life. The drawback is that, without precise positioning, there are combat abilities that just don’t work that well (shoving monsters about, for instance) and the trouble caused by area effects is a major consideration.

Concluding Comments

I’ve described four methods of running D&D combat above, with or without miniatures. Which do I use in my games? All of them! Not often all in the same session, but it’s certainly not uncommon for a group of characters fighting a lone ogre to not need miniatures at all, whilst when they end up being ambushed by goblins and bugbears, I break out the miniatures so that everyone has a clearer view of what is going on.

The main thing to understand about D&D combat is that it’s meant to be fun. Find out which method of play works best for you and your players, and use it. You get better with experience, and there are always new tricks to learn. Play the game, and enjoy yourselves!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design, Play Advice | 6 Comments

Caverns of the Oracle: One of my personal megadungeons

When you get down to it, my D&D designs are greatly influenced by the form of the game that Gary Gygax seemed to be writing about in the DMG. And that means dungeons. Lots and lots of dungeons. Yes, I know that he also wrote about territory development and wilderness exploration, but those sections are rather scant in the DMG, whilst there’s a lot on stocking dungeons.

Along the way, I’ve designed parts of my own Castle Greyhawk, and another megadungeon that just happened to be built next to the location that Ian chose for his stronghold. That dungeon acquired the name of the Crypt-Maze of Karak’zhn, and had the wonderful experience of one of the players agreeing to serve the Knight of Hell trapped down the bottom and then disappearing… with the map! (Amazingly, Greg was able to guide them out of the dungeon!)

My most recent self-designed megadungeon has been the Caverns of the Oracle. It wasn’t meant to be a megadungeon, but that’s how it’s developed. It started as a ruined keep where a cleric was raising undead to terrorize a nearby town. When the group weren’t able to kill him in their first foray, I had him kidnapped by duergar, so when the group returned to the keep they found the cleric missing and a set of newly constructed stairs leading down into the depths…

The depths got bigger as players explored them. They were mostly constructed using the random tables in the AD&D DMG, plus a lot of improvisation on my part, which is how I run a lot of games these days. I’d make notes as I went, so I do actually have quite a lot of material on the Caverns now. And yes, the Caverns do contain an Oracle, which is why they’re called that!

Are the caverns finished? By no means; I’m not sure if they ever will be. They’re certainly a long way from being in a publishable state, though occasionally I think I should do something with my notes.

Here’s one of my favourite tricks in the dungeon:

DUERGAR ARCHWAY. This archway is filled with a greyish mist, roiling about and preventing passage. Above the archway are set three gems – a sapphire, an emerald and a ruby. If they are pressed in the proper sequence – Emerald, Sapphire, Ruby – the mists will allow passage for the next minute. If they are pressed in the wrong order, then for the next minute the mists will inflict 2d6 damage on any trying to pass and throw them back. Non-living material may pass through the mists unharmed, however (so testing with 10′ poles or coins will not work).

If the duergar realise the code to the archway has been broken, they will change it. After several intrusions, they’ll create a more complicated code, such as Emerald, Sapphire, Ruby, Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald! In this manner, they will protect their stronghold from intruders. Captured duergar in the main dungeon will know the code to get through the archway, but most will be reluctant to divulge it.

At present, the group that have explored the Caverns are a long way from it exploring the Castle of the Mad Archmage, but they’ll need to use the gateway to the Bifrost Bridge placed in the Caverns to free Wotan, so there’ll be at least one more excursion into this dungeon!

Posted in AD&D, D&D, Design | Leave a comment

My next Greyhawk campaign: Onnwal, 606 CY

The next few months are going to see my Friday night D&D game playing through the Starter Set adventure, getting used to how the new Dungeons & Dragons rules work, incorporating the additional features of the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide as they come out. Based on comments from the Wizards design team, I expect it will take five or six sessions to play through, which means about three months.

After the Lost Mine of Phandelver is finished, it will be time to return to Greyhawk. My plans are to run the next campaign in Onnwal, a small state to the south of the Great Kingdom, which has been in a lot of trouble with the Scarlet Brotherhood of late. The date, 606 CY, is a couple of years after the last Friday campaign ended (and is about the time of my Saturday Greyhawk campaign as well).

Onnwal is a small state that was conquered by the Great Kingdom a long time ago (598 OR, or -46 CY), but regained its independence in the Turmoil between the Crowns (437 CY), joining a band of allied states known as the Iron League. During the Great Wars (582-4 CY), Onnwal was captured by the Scarlet Brotherhood, and remains in that state to this day.

Yes, for those reading the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer: the history of my campaign does not match up with all official references! I use them for inspiration, but in areas of the world where we haven’t yet ventured, I’m quite happy to reschedule events. The new campaign is going to be based (initially, at least) on the fight to free Onnwal from the Scarlet Brotherhood.

Onnwal’s population is made up primarily of Humans of Oeridian descent, with Dwarves and Gnomes making up the bulk of the demi-human population. I’m sure there are elves and halflings about, but their numbers are few.

Here’s a really nice map of Onnwal created by Anna B Meyer – see her website for more maps.

During the Living Greyhawk campaign, the UK and Ireland were in charge of what happened in Onnwal. Unfortunately, the adventures they created for their campaign aren’t available to us who lived elsewhere (or anyone now, really), due to the licenses involved. I have found the Gazetteer they did for Onnwal, so I’ll use that as reference material… somewhat, at least.

Ultimately, the campaign that we run in Onnwal will be informed primarily by the desires of my players and myself, without too much reference to what came before. The published work exists as a springboard for our imaginations, without dictating what we must do!

So, what’s the state of Onnwal in 606 CY? The Scarlet Brotherhood has possession of Scant and quite a bit of territory around. It has installed local lords (or raised up traitorous Onnwallians into those roles). Most of the local folk are farmers or fishermen, and treat the Brotherhood much as any other rules – trying to avoid them, pay their taxes and get on with their lives. However, there are some who remember what it was like to not be under the Brotherhood’s yoke, and that is where our players come in.

Culturally, I’m leaning towards Onnwal being a bit like Spain in the middle ages – well at least that bit towards the end of the Reconquista, where the Moors only have a foothold on the peninsula. The Scarlet Brotherhood aren’t particularly like the Moors – they’re far more like Nazis, white racial supremacists. But they perform the role of cruel overlords who must be rebelled against quite well.

The primary religions of Onnwal include Osprem (LN goddess of sailors), Zilchus (LN god of wealth and prestige), Procan (CN god of storms), Norebo (CN god of gambling), Xerbo (N god of sea merchants), and Jascar and Fortubo (LG god of hills and mining).

It might be that some of the characters come from the nearby city state of Irongate, which is strongly aligned with the Lawful Good god of paladins, Heironeous, but I’d prefer it if most of the characters were local.

Initial adventures? Probably surviving a raid by the Scarlet Brotherhood might be an idea. We’ll see what the players want to do first!

I’m likely to plot this campaign out a bit more than my usual campaigns, to give it more structure and the feel of an ongoing story. The initial goals for the characters are unlikely to be the same goals at the end of the campaign!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Greyhawk | 2 Comments