5E Adventure Review: Thralls of Zuggtmoy

Thralls of Zuggtmoy is a 5E adventure originally released in three parts and finally as a consolidated document on the DMs Guild. This is an adventure that shares a format with the D&D Adventurers League adventures and, though it isn’t DDAL-legal, at least one of its authors is now writing DDAL content. I presume the reason that it was released in three parts was to just get something out there quickly, because each part is incomplete by itself. The consolidated document, which is 43 pages long (albeit with repeated and redundant advice) is a more attractive product.

The adventure’s premise is a good one: The dreams of a local tribe’s seer have been stolen, and the adventurers must delve into a canyon deep into the Anauroch desert, fighting gnolls and cultists to what stole the dreams and restore them. As it turns out, there’s a cult of Zuggtmoy worshippers responsible, who have been addicting the local gnoll population to fungal growths, and wish to use the dreams to power a ritual to summon one of Zuggtmoy’s demons into the world.

The first part of the adventure details the characters entering a set of canyons where gnolls live. The structure of this is fascinating: it is entirely possible for the players to bypass most of the encounters and find the entrance into the cultist caverns. Or they might get lost, and need to complete all the encounters. There’s a good variety of encounters here, but a great variance in play time.

The second part of the adventure details the fungal caves. These are inhabited by evil myconids and other fungal threats – both creatures and hazards.

The third and final part of the adventure details the inner sanctum of the cult. Again, it has a few pathways through it, although I’m puzzled by one central tunnel that is trapped and isn’t used by the cult. Why exactly was it built? It’s also obvious that the cult don’t want adventurers to get their treasure; it has a a mimic and several traps guarding it. You can just imagine one drug-addled cultist after another disappearing without a trace when adding to the hoard!

However, the design of the adventure stands up: There’s a good mix of encounters, although pure role-playing opportunities are rare, and it has a suitably difficult confrontation to round out the adventure. The actual feel of the adventure will depend greatly on the DM’s descriptive skills, where the DM can set the tone somewhere between a horror adventure and a standard dungeon crawl.

One aspect of the adventure that certainly doesn’t work is the intention to start it in medias res: The opening description from the DM is, unusually, in the past tense. Unfortunately, all of this is then undermined by immediately allowing the players to interact with this “past” situation. To do this correctly, you need just a brief summary of what came before and then throw the characters into it. What the writers should have done is have the mission briefing proceed as normal, and then skip over all the boring wilderness travel to get to the canyon.

Another point on grammar. This is the wrong way to phrase the opening sentence if you’re describing something in the past: “You all stood before the Chieftess”. It should be “You were all standing before the Chieftess” – the continuous past is required here, as you’re describing something that was ongoing at that point in time.

There’s not all that much boxed text in the adventure, although all the areas are described in the text.

The adventure is presented attractively: good formatting, attractive (if infrequent) art, and excellent maps. One flaw in its otherwise excellent layout is the cover: it’s too difficult to read the title of the adventure, especially as a thumbnail.

Overall, despite some problems with its presentation, this is a superior effort, well worth investigating.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Review | Leave a comment

AD&D Adventure Review – DL4 Dragons of Desolation

The First Book of the Dragonlance adventures concluded in 1984 with Dragons of Desolation. In this adventure, the heroes guide the refugees of Pax Tharkas into the dwarven city of Thorbardin, and then have to persuade the dwarven council to let them stay. They are fine with it… just as long as the characters retrieve for them the fabled Hammer of Kharas from a floating tomb…

There are some interesting things going on in this adventure. A dream sequence has visions tailored to the pregenerated characters, preying on their fears. Many of these situations – further clarified – would appear in the novel series (most moved to the Cyan Bloodbane sequence of Dragons of Winter Night). However, they gave fantastic opportunities for players to roleplay, especially when they found themselves in situations like those of the dreams. While most of the dreams related to the climax of this adventure, two dreams – those of Sturm and Laurana – related to a later adventure.

Instead of mapping the entire dwarven city, the adventure provides a poster map that contains 16 geomorphic maps (about 300 feet x 300 feet) that can be combined to create certain areas of the city; their arrangements are then listed for the areas the characters are expected to enter.

We also finally get a climactic confrontation with Verminaard, the main Highlord foe of the First Book. As might be expected from this series, it uses railroading for dramatic effect in setting up the final encounter. We also get the revelation of who the traitor from Dragons of Flame is, as he (or she) finally reveals himself (or herself). To nobody’s surprise, it’s Eben Shatterstone; changing the identity of the traitor is likely one of the first things you should do when running the adventure for people familiar with the story. Make it Laurana! That will surprise your players!

So, we’ve got the conclusion of the first storyline, big battles against the Big Bad, an interesting location or two to explore, and dream sequences providing material to fuel role-playing. This should be great, right?

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

It takes seven pages to describe travel through the dwarven fortress, with very few significant encounters, and get the players to the main event: exploring the Tomb of Derkin. Later adventures would realise the power of the event-driven scenario that doesn’t need pages of unneeded room descriptions and just hits the highlights, but that wasn’t employed here. As a result, it’s not until page 16 of a 32-page booklet until we get to the Tomb. And that’s dealt with in three pages. Hickman is known for his interesting dungeons (see Pharaoh and Ravenloft) but that deserts him here.

Derkin’s Tomb is particularly problematic, as it eschews the traditional traps, tricks and monsters format to remove the monsters. Instead, a guardian uses magic powers to slow the characters down and try to get them to leave, aided by such spells as guards and wards. I think it’s hard to run, although a DM could make something of it. There are three items of particular interest in the tomb: The Hammer of Kharas, the revelation of the fate of the dwarven hero Kharas, and a pair of really powerful magical spectacles that give true sight, comprehend languages, read magic, infravision and ultravision. Tasslehoff Burrfoot would make those glasses famous in the novels. In an AD&D game? Wow! They’re incredible!

Maybe Derkin’s Tomb wasn’t the main event. Perhaps it’s the battle with Verminaard? Well, it forces the capture of the characters, a set scene where the traitor gets controlled by the Hammer and betrays Verminaard (who kills the traitor), and finally the players need to fight Verminaard, a few evil dwarves, and a new creature, a fireshadow – a creature from the lower planes that’s corrosive dark flame can convert characters into creatures like itself. It’s the best part of the adventure – a very dangerous and ingenious monster. It’s page 21, and the adventure is over. At least this battle is likely to be entertaining.

The remainder has some important story-telling stuff, like the marriage of Riverwind and Goldmoon, and a lot of monster and magic item appendices. There’s a lot of world-building going on here, so we also get some capsule descriptions of the dwarven tribes, and the wedding song. With scored music, no less. (When I first got these adventures as a teenager, I played through and sang all the songs presented in the adventure. This is not one of the better ones).

What has gone wrong in this adventure? There’s one basic underlying cause: The writers don’t yet understand the pacing of story-driven adventures. A lot of material is used here to allow the DM to create encounters if the players decide to ignore the plot. However, this isn’t inspiring material. The basic plot can be summarised very simply, and, without the Tomb being an interesting adventure location, it falls apart remarkably quickly. There is some tension in finishing the quest before the Dragon Armies catch up and kill the refugees, but the players are unlikely to be properly aware of that; whether they’re succeeding or failing with respect to the time pressures is hidden to them.

The remarkable lack of incident derails the adventure. Even Dragons of Flame, which takes railroading to an absurd level, has things happen all the way through. I’ve never read Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, the novel that was written many years later to fill in the gaps in the Dragonlance Chronicles, but from the plot summary it has a lot of events that aren’t in the adventure. I’m not surprised!

Ultimately, Dragons of Desolation is a disappointment. It ties up several ongoing plots, but the material rarely inspires. This is one of the biggest misfires in the Dragonlance series of adventures.

Posted in AD&D, D&D, Review | 2 Comments

The Total Party Kill I Remember Best

I occasionally think of myself as a “Killer DM” – you’ll find it on my profile at RPG Geek, for instance. However, when you get down to it, I don’t kill that many player characters. The fact is, I’m far more interested in seeing how the story plays out, and it’s hard to have a story when everyone’s dead.

Thus, upon hearing my players last night planning to continue exploring the goblin cave despite some of the first-level party being wounded and no-one in the party having healing magic left, I stepped in and suggested they might want to rest. I didn’t enforce it, but the party (luckily) saw the light and went to rest.

However, when a player persists in Really Foolish Behaviour and ignores all the signals, I can get quite annoyed and the gloves come off.

I’ve had about three or four Total Party Kills (that is, a situation where every character in the party dies) in my Dungeon Mastering career. The most memorable of these came in the early days of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons – about 2001. The group had wandered away from the main storyline I’d designed, and I was filling in with a prewritten adventure. The climax of the adventure came as these low-level characters faced an ettin in the dungeon. As I recall, the original plan for the adventure was that the adventurers were meant to talk to the ettin instead of fighting it. However, this didn’t go as planned.

The players were smart enough to realise that fighting an ettin was going to be dangerous, so they came up with a plan: One of the adventurers would engage the ettin in melee while everyone else stood back and launched missile weapons at it.

They hadn’t taken into account one thing, though: Under the rules at the time, if you had an ally in melee with your target, your ranged attacks suffered a -4 penalty on the attack roll unless you had special training (a feat) which no-one had. That’s a significant penalty. The ettin was also gaining an Armour Class bonus due to the cover the ally was providing. So, this meant the ally in melee was the only one with a realistic chance of hitting. Unfortunately, the ettin had a far more realistic chance of hitting and dealing damage, and so shortly after this strategy was put into effect, the ettin hit and slew the adventurer unlucky enough to be in melee.

This is the point at which I, as a player, would run away, realising that we didn’t have a chance. This is not what this group did.

A second character ran up to melee the ettin while the rest launched missile weapons at the ettin. We got the same result. A lot of missed ranged attacks, and one dead adventurer.

You can see what happens next, don’t you? They didn’t run away. A third character, and then a fourth, charged into melee!

Shortly thereafter, only one adventurer was left alive. He was at range, and had a good chance to escape. (I tend to let characters escape when they run; it enables intelligent play). Instead, he chose to run into melee with the ettin, and I shortly thereafter achieved a TPK.

There’s a form of mass-madness that overcomes players at time, where they’re convinced that despite the odds, they’ll be able to succeed. Sometimes we, as DMs, can point out that there are better strategies. However, when the party insists – and keeps insisting – that they deserve a TPK, it isn’t our place to argue with them, but just to give them what they want.

As it happened, there was one player who missed that session. He returned the next week, to discover everyone sitting there with new characters. He was a little surprised!

Posted in D&D, D&D 3E, D&D 5E, Play Advice | 3 Comments

Greyhawk Initiative: Another Look

Mike Mearls’ “Greyhawk” Initiative system has provided a welcome shake-up in the consideration of the Dungeons & Dragons rule system. It’s a completely optional system, and one that seeks to provide a little more unpredictability and tension into combat by removing the predictable order of actions that is part of the basic 5E ruleset.

I’ve now run two sessions with versions of these rules. (You can find my post on the first session here). I’ve kept the core of the system, while making a few little tweaks around the edges. In the more recent session I ran (appropriately, in my game set in the World of Greyhawk), I dropped the action die for bonus actions, as I believed it disadvantaged some classes (like monks and rogues) too much. In addition, I used the suggestion that attack cantrips use a d4 or d8 die depending on whether they were ranged or melee attacks, respectively, thus putting them on the same scale as weapon attacks. This was welcomed by the players.

There were times the system worked very well. The wizard was extremely gratified when he rolled a “1” on his initiative check when casting a fireball and cast the spell before the monsters moved. The players spent more time talking amongst themselves about the best strategies to use. As noted in the recent episode of Down with D&D that discussed this system, I did notice the tendency of one or two players to dominate the strategizing. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing: the fact is that military groups tend to have a leader, and he or she will work out tactical considerations and aid the other soldiers in their decisions. A more unified approach to battle is something I welcome.

The discussion of actions took some time; these combats were running slower than the regular system. However, it’s hard to say how much so as the combats I was running were tactically more challenging: with well-armoured hobgoblins armed with bows and swords protecting spellcasters in easily-defended choke points. These were tricky situations, and thus required more discussion than normal.

The lack of a ready action (it instead became a “delay”) action, when coupled with the movement rules, caused odd situations in both sessions. One example: the hobgoblins won initiative, moved forward… and then couldn’t attack with their melee weapons despite having them ready. This allowed the fighters who lost initiative to move into melee and immediately attack. This seemed backwards. The problem exists in the standard rules to some extent, as a PC readying attacks in the same situation would only be able to take one readied attack instead of his or her full attack action, but at least the PC would still get an attack.

As our rogue wasn’t at this session, we didn’t revisit the problem of the bonus disengage action, which occurs when a combatant can start in melee, attack, then move away without provoking Attacks of Opportunity – either due to Mobility, a bonus Disengage action or some other manoeuvre – thus leaving their opponent who has chosen just to make a melee attack and rolled poorly for initiative to not make an attack at all! However, that remains a problem with the system.

Thus, the biggest problem with this initiative system remains movement: preannouncing actions works very badly with the way combatants do all their actions and movement at once. I think that, ultimately, this problem breaks the “Greyhawk” Initiative system.

Is there a solution to this? I’m unsure if there is. The old initiative and action declaration systems of original D&D and AD&D had a very simple model of combat. Movement was very limited: you ran from the monsters, or you moved towards them. Once in melee, you stayed into melee until all the foes were dead or you fled. The mobile manoeuvring of current editions of D&D were quite foreign to the game – monks and rogues weren’t jumping in and out of melee at the drop of a hat. Hiding was something you only did before combat started – once you were revealed, you typically couldn’t hide again until the combat ended.

The more draconian part of me longs for a return of the less mobile combats. The miniature wargamer part of me wants to see a different round resolution order. Something on the order of:

  1. Actions (if not moving) resolved for both sides
  2. Movement resolved for both sides
  3. Actions after movement resolved for both sides

Thus, you get a situation where the movement and action resolution end up being resolved at different times. I’m sure this system would provide its own challenges and problems, of course!

The advantage of this system is it gives more control over the effects of movement. Certainly, in my more recent sessions of AD&D, I’ve judged movement to happen simultaneously; thus, if combatants moved towards each other, they’d meet in the middle. However, running a movement system where you move combatants one by one in varying orders, or using “side” initiative, is also possible.

The point of initiative and action declaration systems is to gain some balance between playable, enjoyable and realistic. The problems with the “Greyhawk” Initiative system are significant enough when coupled with the current action set that I think it needs more work – or potentially reimagining – before I’d make it a permanent part of my games.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design | 4 Comments

Original Dungeons & Dragons: The Magic-User

I recently ran a set of three short sessions using the original Dungeons & Dragons rules. I tried as much as possible to keep to the rules as presented in the original three booklets (plus Chainmail), without introducing any of the material added in Supplement I: Greyhawk or in later versions of the game. It was a fascinating experience.

I struggled with using the rules-as-written for the Magic-User class; the class that later became known as the Wizard. In a first-level game, the Magic-User is very limited. It can wear no armour, can only wield a dagger and can cast only one spell. That is, the Magic-User knows one spell and only cast it once per adventure.

Here’s the spell list the first-level Magic-User gets to choose from:

  • Detect Magic
  • Hold Portal
  • Read Magic
  • Read Languages
  • Protection/Evil
  • Light
  • Charm Person
  • Sleep

It is notable that there are only two spells that can be classed as attack spells on that list: charm person and sleep. Magic missile, which became an iconic part of the Wizard’s arsenal, does not appear; that spell would have to wait until the release of the first supplement to see print.

What you don’t see from that list is how potent charm person and sleep were. Charm person, per its original presentation, permanently put one creature under your control if it failed its saving throw, giving you a new – and potentially powerful – adventuring companion. The spell wasn’t hedged around with wording that limited what it would do for you; the creature came “completely under your control”. What a far cry from the charm person of later editions! And a particularly potent one.

Sleep put 2 to 16 first-level creatures (e.g. goblins, orcs, hobgoblins) to sleep, with diminishing effects on higher level creatures; only one fourth-level creature (e.g. ogre) could be affected. In my interpretation of the spell, I did allow one AD&Dism to affect me: in that edition, sleep did not allow a saving throw. Thus I didn’t allow it in this game. However, there’s no text stating that in the original rules, so the orcs should probably be allowed saving throws. With its ability to affect numerous foes, sleep was a spell to win combats!

Unfortunately, apart from the Magic-User’s one significant spell, the first-level character’s ability to contribute in combat was markedly limited.

One six-sided hit dice to determine hit points, so he or she would have from one to six hit points; possibly seven if a good Constitution score had been rolled. At this point in the game, all weapons dealt 1-6 points, so a single blow had a good chance of slaying the character outright; two almost certainly. Halley, upon rolling her Magic-User at the start of the expedition announced that she had a solitary hit point – and the original rules didn’t have “unconscious and dying” rules: once you dropped to zero hit points, you were dead.

These hit points were not all that different to that of other characters. The cleric had exactly the same range, and the fighter had only one additional hit point (so from 2-7 hit points). First-level characters had trouble surviving. However, the cleric and fighter could at least wear armour. The Magic-User? No armour was permitted, giving a standard orc or goblin a 55% chance of striking (and likely killing) the Magic-User in combat.

The solution for surviving the dungeon was simple: stay out of melee combat. And this is what Halley did, as her companions were cut down by lucky rolls from the goblins. She fled the dungeon, being the sole survivor of the first expedition.

During the session, Halley asked if she could throw daggers into the melee. I said she could, and I wandered into an odd state of not being sure if I was using the rules correctly. Daggers are not described as being a thrown weapon in the Chainmail rules, which cover most of the capabilities of weapons. There is a reference to thrown weapons using the short bow table for effectiveness; I guess that includes thrown daggers.

Interestingly, when using the alternative combat system of D&D (that’s the d20 system we’re more familiar with than the d6 system of Chainmail), the dagger is about as effective as a longsword. This is another feature that would change with Supplement I: Greyhawk, but for the original release, both dealt 1d6 damage. There may have been a difference between the weapons in how initiative was handled, but those rules were somewhat unclear – being only presented in Chainmail, and in about three versions.

However, as people who played AD&D may remember, firing missile weapons into melee was fraught with danger. The AD&D rules stated that you had an equal chance (as modified by size) of hitting any participant in the melee! So, if you threw a dagger into a melee between two allies and four orcs, there was a 33% chance you’d strike one of your allies; the Chainmail rules unambiguously state that you may not fire into a melee. Thus, I should have told Halley she couldn’t throw her dagger and condemned her to just watching (or significantly risking her life!)

Consider if the current D&D rules forbade firing missile weapons into a melee! I’d rather enjoy that; as ranged characters currently have significant advantages (and less risk) than melee characters. It would lead to a different gaming experience!

This then was the original Magic-User: one potent spell, and a character with few combat capabilities outside of that spell. What then were the early games like?

The answer is this: They varied a lot. People made and altered rules, and came up with solutions that weren’t expressed in the rulebooks. It’s very dangerous talking about Original Dungeons & Dragons and expecting it to work as it did in the books; they may have provided the basis for the game, but they weren’t the entirety of the game. The succeeding supplements and editions would revise the first-level Magic-User until it became something that could contribute more to combat than just a solitary sleep spell.

The higher-level Magic-User became a far more potent combatant, with the fireball spell being the most iconic expression of that potency. Consider this: a fifth-level Magic-User could cast a fireball spell that inflicted 5d6 damage to each combatant within its 20-foot-radius blast. The hit points these creatures would have? Likely 5d6! This is damage beyond the dreams of Fighting Men!

The spell lists for higher-level Magic-Users were more extensive than those for lower levels; there are twelve sixth-level spells compared to only eight first-level spells. The sixth level was where the Magic-User’s spell list ended in the original booklets (the full nine levels would be introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk). Spells such as Death Spell, Disintegrate and Reincarnation graced the sixth-level list. Death Spell would slay 2-16 creatures with fewer than seven hit dice. I’m not sure if this is better than Fireball, which seems much more potent at that level, but it would, at least, occasion less property damage, something that apparently destroyed much treasure in Gary’s original games!

To reach the highest levels of being a Magic-User in original Dungeons & Dragons was not easy. Halley was particularly pleased to reach level 2, and – eventually – level 3 as we finished our exploration into the original rules. There may have been much kindness on my part to allow her to survive so long; in addition to a lot of treasure-derived experience points from not particularly well-balanced treasure hoards. I have a lot of fondness for Magic-Users; my main AD&D character was one such, but it’s sometimes tricky to see past the rules on the page and create an experience that is rewarding for all involved. It’s one reason, I suspect, that riddles, role-playing, tricks and puzzles were popular: they side-stepped the dangers inherent in the combat rules.

Posted in D&D, Design | 6 Comments

Running the Sunless Citadel: The Grove Level

While the upper level of The Sunless Citadel presents a typical dungeon-delving experience, the lower level shifts gears into one of horror. The concept of evil plant-creatures is already creepy, and the body horror of the transformation of Sir Braford and Sharwyn is very unsettling. Belak fits the trope of “mad scientist” quite well, and this section has the adventurers discovering his experiments in the first set of chambers, before confronting him before the Gulthias tree.

Exactly how much you want to emphasise this theme is up to you. If I were to play up the horror elements, I’d describe the chambers as being shadowed, with the monsters emerging from the gloom. Instead of just saying “You get attacked by two twig blights”, I’d say “Two bundles of thorny twigs, twisted into the mockery of children, rush out of the shadows towards you!” Your choice of words makes a significant difference to how the players feel about the threats.

That said, if the players aren’t receptive to the horror of the situation, don’t force it. Ultimately, your players will let you know what type of adventure they’re the happiest playing. This transition can be somewhat jarring, as this horror element is not present on the upper level.

There are several intelligent creatures – mostly goblinoids – in the grove level. Some of them, such as Balsag (area 43) are written primarily as combat pieces and have little interest in negotiation. They want to kill the intruders. The other goblins may negotiate. To play up the horror element, you can role-play them as slightly unhinged; their experiences with Belak’s experiments having sent them to the edge of madness. Perhaps the goblins here are very loyal to Belak, seeing him as the best hope the goblins have of Ruling the World – or a similar, grandiose plan. Or perhaps the goblins serve only out of fear, terrified of what Belak might do them if they disobey. Little verbal or physical tics can help portray how these goblins are different from those above.

Belak himself is not designed to engage the adventurers for long. Assuming he isn’t attacked immediately by the players, he’s there to explain the plot, let out a few maniacal laughs, and do the big reveal of the fates of Sir Braford and Sharwyn. If your players decide his plans sound fine and they want to help him in his work, you might need new players. What Belak gives the adventure is an ending point; he’s the obvious Big Boss, and the players feel good about ending his threat. The battle against Belak and his minions is very dangerous and needs to be judged carefully to avoid a TPK. While I am not averse to Total Party Kills when it is the players’ fault, I’m a lot more careful in big story-driven fights. In particular, if the players realise they’re losing and run for it, I’ll allow them to flee. This provides you with the question of what changes to make to the dungeon for their next expedition.

The answer comes from Belak’s previous actions: Belak wouldn’t consider the party a threat and would go on working as he had, although a few slain twig blights and goblins would be replaced. If Sir Braford or Sharwyn were slain, they’d not be present in the next encounter, but an unconscious or dying PC who was left behind may likely become a servant of the Gulthias tree.

The adventure gives no way to save those who become thralls of the Gulthias tree. You can invent a quest for something to reverse the effects, but I’m happy leaving it as incurable and thus playing up the dark aspects of the D&D world.

The various hints of the previous purpose of the fortress – that is, all the references to Ashardalon – aren’t paid off in the Tales from the Yawning Portal version of the adventure. In the original 3E adventures, further hints at Ashardalon would reoccur in several later adventures until the level 18-20 adventure, Bastion of Broken Souls revealed the true fate of the dragon. Likewise, you can find more on the origin of the Gulthias tree in Heart of Nightfang Spire. You can find both of those adventures on the DM’s Guild if you are curious. The Gulthias tree and the twig blights made a reappearance in the recent 5E adventure Curse of Strahd.

With the defeat of Belak, the tale of the Sunless Citadel comes to an end. What next for your adventurers? You can use the scroll referring to Khundrukar (found in area 37) to guide the adventurers towards the next adventure in the book, The Forge of Fury¸ which was the next adventure in the original sequence. Perhaps an opening in the rift leads into the Underdark and the start of Out of the Abyss or an adventure of your own devising? The Sunless Citadel may have ended, but the adventures of your characters have just begun!

Posted in D&D 5E, Play Advice, Tales of the Yawning Portal | 5 Comments

More on Miniatures

One suggestion that has been made to me many times is that miniatures are much cheaper if you paint them yourself.


There’s just one problem with that: painting miniatures takes time. And quite an investment up front in the paint and brushes.

In the spirit of making sure I know what I’m talking about, I’ve spent time over the past few weeks painting the miniatures of Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, a game that I very much enjoy. It’s an expensive game to purchase, especially here in Australia, and has 51 miniatures that you must assemble before you play. Painting is optional, but it does make them look a lot better.

What have I discovered? That I’m a better painter than I thought (while still not being particularly good), but it takes a lot of time. When I completed eight miniatures in about 4 hours, I thought I was doing well. My other miniatures are taking longer. I’m sure there are people significantly faster than me, but I don’t want to take up miniature painting as my main hobby. That’s a lot of time I wasn’t spending writing about D&D. When you’re working full-time and running games three nights a week, the time you can spend doing other activities is limited. So, I’d rather someone else painted my D&D miniatures, and I’m willing to pay the additional cost for them. The time I save not painting miniatures is significant. Yes, I might save (some) money painting my own, but the opportunity cost is that I lose that time.

(Incidentally, I’ve spent over a hundred dollars on paints and brushes…)

The other matter that gets brought up is why the D&D miniatures are distributed randomly. Back in 2003, I created a law – Merric’s Law of Miniatures – that described the basic idea:

Non-Random Packaging, Cheap Prices, and a Large Range of Figures: Choose two.

Now for a fuller discussion of the matter:

One of the major problems that faces any manufacturer, distributor or shop-owner is this: How many of each item to stock/produce?

Every product you make is a gamble: you’re gambling that someone will buy it and compensate you for making it. A company could make 100,000 flumph miniatures, but would it make any profit on it? Well, yes, they’d likely sell a bunch to Alphastream, but you’ve got to feel that their time would have been better spent making orcs.

That’s the concept of opportunity cost coming up again: when you make one miniature, you could make something else instead and make more money that way. (For stores, they could be selling something else entirely. D&D Miniatures or Magic cards? Hmm…) Of course, the store that stocks only the most recent set of Magic cards misses out on the patronage that comes from stocking a wider range.

The trouble with D&D miniatures is that there are a lot of different D&D monsters. (And a substantial number of character concepts as well!) Imagine if Wizards produced a miniature for every monster in the Monster Manual and kept them all in stock. How many do you need to make of each type?

Wizards must guess how many people want. At the distributor level, they must decide how many to order. And, yet again, at the retailer level, the local storekeeper needs to decide how many to stock. After all of those decisions, the gamers come in, see the ten flumphs and ten orcs in stock, buy all the orcs and leave the flumphs. It’s obviously not worth making flumphs. However, what if there are a few players who very much want flumphs?

There are two basic strategies to combat this when you’re selling visible (non-random) miniatures.

The first is to sell only the popular figures. That way, you’re not losing money on miniatures that don’t sell. Of course, working out the best models to keep isn’t trivial, but that’s why you do research. This strategy keeps the price down, but you have a smaller range of figures.

The second is to sell all the figures but to put the range’s price up. The theory goes like this: You need to sell $2 worth of miniatures to make a profit. You put on offer one orc and one flumph. The orc sells, the flumph doesn’t. How much do you charge for the orc? The calculation is simple: You need to charge $2. If both sold, you could sell them for $1 each, but that’s not what’s happening. A variant of this has 100 of 100 orcs selling, and 1 of 100 flumphs selling. If you keep the orc at $1, you can put the price of flumphs at $100 each. Yes, only 1 in 100 sells, but the $100 you make compensates for the 99 that didn’t sell. Regardless, the prices have gone up, but you’ve managed to keep a larger range of figures.

The last example sort of works for the manufacturer, but it doesn’t work for a retailer. The retailer looks at their 99 flumphs and wonders why they wasted so much money.

A third strategy puts the miniatures into larger sets; that is, you can’t buy a single miniature. Instead, you buy 10 or more different miniatures packaged together. The most extreme version of this is the Bones kickstarters, which give you a LOT of different minis for a low price – although their lag in producing the miniatures after funding has been getting ridiculously long.

The fascination of the non-visible (random) model is that it works; that people will pay for a box of stuff they might not want. However, what makes the system work is that the buyers do want most of the miniatures on offer. People do look at the set lists. You typically don’t buy a box because there’s only one miniature you want. You buy a box because there’s a good chance of getting several miniatures that will be useful.

The way that the miniatures are packed makes buying in bulk – that is, cases and bricks –somewhat similar to the third strategy above. The miniatures are only semi-randomly packaged, so by buying a case, you’ll most likely get a full set, assuming the set isn’t too large. However, even with people buying individual boosters, the blind packaging still works.

For retailers, the decision of what to stock is much easier: there’s one product rather than sixty. The first D&D Miniatures product had 80 miniatures. Imagine trying to guess how many of each you should stock! If the product is popular enough, you end up selling all of what you order rather than only half. This has obvious benefits on the pricing and is a key reason why costs could be kept down.

The very high sales of miniatures couldn’t go on forever, however. When the D&D Miniatures line was first introduced in 2003, it was to a market that didn’t have any affordable miniatures. There was a great demand for the line, and so sales were amazing. After a while, the purchasers of miniatures began to find that they had enough orcs, and the chase for the rarer miniatures they needed became less and less affordable. (It wasn’t helped by a great increase in transport and production costs. The first set had eight miniatures in each booster for US$10! The price soon went up to US$13, but even that is a price unachievable these days). Once they hit the saturation point, sales diminished.

That said, the random model is here to stay, and it provides obvious and tangible benefits to both producers and consumers. It relies on the mix of miniatures being right (it’s no good if the miniatures are all variations of flumphs), but most sets follow basic parameters to make them useful to a wide range of customers. You lose the guesswork of knowing exactly how many of the less popular miniatures to stock, and the price of the line overall goes down. As long as the rate of production is kept at a reasonable level, the miniatures remain available for people to use.

And for a game like D&D, with hundreds of potential miniatures, that’s something that is very desirable.

Posted in D&D Miniatures, Design | 2 Comments

The Joys and Horrors of Passive Perception

In the beginning, when a party of adventurers encountered a group of monsters, both sides rolled a six-sided die. If a side rolled a 1 or 2, that side was surprised and had to stand by while the opposing side got a free round of attacks (or of fleeing, if the opposition looked scary).

As the game developed, certain characters and monsters changed the chances of surprising or being surprised. Rangers made it less likely the party would be surprised. Bugbears surprised more often. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules became a marvel of incomprehensibility when it came to the surprise rules, with a wealth of competing and incompatible subsystems. Everyone sighed in relief when the 2nd Edition rules were released, and the surprise rules all used the same system. It still was “roll a dice, if you roll low you are surprised”, however.

Things changed with Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. This set of rules had a comprehensive skill system, with Listen and Spot skills that allowed a character to detect whether a monster was Moving Silently or Hiding. The “both sides roll a surprise die” rule was gone. Instead, it was the interaction between skills that determined whether a battle began with a surprise situation. In addition, the role of the Dungeon Master in determining whether surprise was even possible was made stronger; many situations had neither group even attempting stealth, and thus surprise would not occur.

One interesting point about 3rd Edition: These checks were opposed checks. Thus, a 1d20 + skill modifier vs. 1d20 + skill modifier. This will become relevant shortly.

Fourth Edition introduced Passive Perception. Instead of requiring the player to make a check whenever there was something hidden around, it was assumed the player rolled a 10. This rule has carried on into the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Each character has a Passive Perception score, equal to 10 + their Wisdom (Perception) modifier. Whenever something is around that the characters might notice, the DM can compare its Dexterity (Stealth) check to the characters’ Passive Perception scores, and quickly determine if they notice it.

The Joys

This is a simple system.

The system is at its best when dealing with creatures. In this case, it is incumbent for the creature attempting to be unseen to make the roll. The fact that there’s a roll involved brings in an element of chance and risk. Good D&D play tends to not like “sure things”.

The reason that the rolling goes into the DMs hands is so the players aren’t alerted to when something important is coming up. Getting the players to make Wisdom (Perception) checks when they’re walking over an ordinary floor tends to give the game away.

It has the advantage of not being an opposed check. Why is this important? It’s because of probability. For each +1 in the check bonus, there’s a flat 5% increase in the possibility of success. When you’re dealing with opposed checks, the chances change in a non-obvious manner, with even a small differential causing a great advantage to the more skilled participant. When most of the game uses flat rolls, having an opposed roll is very noticeable: the check doesn’t work the way you expect.

Because the Dexterity (Stealth) and Wisdom (Perception) checks use the same system to derive their bonuses, and thus the Passive Perception scores, they’re comparable: both bonuses exist within the same range. (This was a major flaw with D&D 3rd Edition, where skill checks weren’t even comparable. If you remember the system, consider all the synergy bonuses Diplomacy could get!)

It also makes determining whether a Dexterity (Stealth) check succeeds very easy – you don’t need to get everyone to roll to see if it succeeded. Just compare against Passive Perception scores. Most DMs make a note of their players’ scores at the beginning of each session.

Of course, a player can always use an action to make a Wisdom (Perception) check when they need to see a hidden creature!

The Horrors

Traps give the system a few problems.

One of the problems here is that it’s not clear what the difference between Wisdom (Perception) and Intelligence (Investigation) is. Some traps require Wisdom (Perception) and others require Intelligence (Investigation)? Even the rulebook flounders around on this one and doesn’t give a clear answer; and the adventures tend to make Wisdom (Perception) king and make Intelligence (Investigation) a poor cousin. In my games, I tend to go with Intelligence (Investigation) as the main trap-finding skill.

Another problem – and this doesn’t worry me that much, but does some of my friends – is that traps you can spot with Passive Perception become irrelevant unless you set the DC at a very high level. And there’s no die roll involved. Now, I like a party to be able to find traps if they’ve built characters who are good at finding them. It’s a reward for their effort. It also pays to have traps that are significant even when found. A pit in the middle of a room which can be walked around isn’t that interesting; a pit in a 10-foot-wide corridor blocking passage even when found is interesting, as the players now must negotiate it. The “trick” here is to think more about traps.

The more significant problem is that there’s no dice roll involved. The trap has a detection DC. The character has a Passive Perception score. Compare one to the other. It’s dull and boring, and entirely too predictable. Designers set DCs at levels that are stupidly high, just because they’re sick of the players finding traps.

The problems with Passive Perception are made even worse by two feats: Alert and Observant.

Alert says a character can’t be surprised. However, it doesn’t say the character knows where the monsters are. This gives rise to the following situation: “Roll initiative!” “I win!” “Why did we roll initiative?” “You don’t know.” “I don’t know what to do!” I don’t like feats that lead to this sort of situation – and I hate even more feats that just flat-out stop a situation from happening.

Observant gives a +5 bonus to Passive Perception (and Passive Investigation, whatever the latter means…). This is a massive bonus, which just breaks the mathematics of the game. It’s game design I really dislike. The design process probably went like this: “We’ll give the Observant character advantage on their Wisdom (Perception) checks, but only the passive ones. Oh, advantage doesn’t mean roll two dice when applied to a passive check, it’s a +5 bonus instead. We’ll just say it’s a +5 and leave out any mention of advantage.” This leads to situations where a characters Passive Perception score is in the low twenties or even higher. It’s not too bad against monsters, as they still have a chance of hiding, but against the flat DC of traps? Not so good.

It’s not entirely defined what happens when a player uses an action to spot a hidden creature (and makes the check). They’ve used their action. Can they do anything else? Can they point it out to other players?


If I could have my way, I’d likely ban a few feats from the game, Alert and Observant being two of those (along with Sharpshooter and any feat that removes the penalties of missile weapons, but that’s another article!). This would normalise the mathematics, and remove strange exceptions and the situations they create.

The most significant variation I’d add would be to change how detecting traps worked. Instead of using a flat DC, I’d incorporate a roll into it. Thus, a trap would have a detection DC of 1d20 + 6, or +10, or +12, depending on how hard it was to detect. That way, it introduces an element of chance, allowing characters with good Passive Perception scores to still detect traps more often, but removing the certainty caused by having a good Perception DC.

Yes, you could put the roll in the hands of the players, but the idea of keeping danger hidden from the players unless they detect it is a strong one. If you disagree, throw out Passive Perception and go back to requesting Wisdom (Perception) checks when the players need to notice something.

My house rule for what happens when a player perceives a hidden creature using an action is that it gives advantage (and thus a +5 bonus to Passive Perception) to all other checks of characters. This might allow them to automatically spot the hidden creature. At the very least, the square it occupies is identified and can be attacked.

Those are a few of my thoughts on Passive Perception. To listen to the podcast that inspired this article, go visit Down with D&D. It’s a fascinating podcast, well worth listening to!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design, Play Advice | 13 Comments

More on Improvising Sessions

At my current point in life, I’m finding myself extremely busy with work and with running Dungeons & Dragons, but with very little time to set aside to preparing adventures (or writing reviews or blog posts). I steal what time I can, but I’m not always able to do the preparation I want to.

(I’m hoping things get less frantic later this year; there have just been a few important work projects that have demanded much attention).

It’s not a good tactic to completely improvise sessions all the time. It can work, but it also can fail horribly. However, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and I’m getting a lot of practice at present!

Improvisation works best if you have a good basis to work from. In the case of my Greyhawk game, I know a lot about the world we’re playing in. I should – I’ve been running campaigns in it for the past 20 years! Thus, I have a wealth of details relating to history, characters and places at my fingertips. I knew that my group was making their way through Verbobonc, a town quite close to the Temple of Elemental Evil, and that Prince Thrommel had not been rescued in my version of the world. I also knew that one of the player characters had been raised by the thieves’ guild. This led to a situation where a gnome thief, who had emigrated to Verbobonc from Greyhawk, asked the PCs to investigate the Lost Tomb of Thrommel, somewhere to the south of the town. That’s pretty much all I’d planned as we started the session.

I’m planning to make Iuz a major villain as the campaign, so it made sense for the One Mandatory Wilderness Encounter to be with a scouting party of orcs that were also looking for the Tomb. (Why did the gnome discover it at the same time as Iuz? No idea, but it’s something to think about and expand into a seed for further adventures). The group fireballed the orcs, so I decided that this burnt their tabards and thus stopped the party identifying them as Iuz’s forces. The fireball started a forest fire, so I threw in a patrol of elves that castigated the group and fined them for starting the fire. This distracted the party enough from the orcs so they were quite surprised when, after they found and began investigating the tomb, they heard the war horns of Iuz sounding nearby. As one of the PCs hails from near the land of Iuz, I could use that to let the players know what was happening.

In the tomb, they found the casket empty – but a hole had been bored through the rock to tunnels below. There the party escaped, only to be attacked by Xorn – an earth creature. Thus, the Temple of Elemental Earth began to manifest itself. More will be discovered in the next session, as they attempt to lure the pursuing orcs into the mazey tunnels and get the monsters therein to slaughter them.

I expect most DMs would plan this all out beforehand, but I was improvising almost all of it. I was drawing the map of the dungeon as the group explored it. I was stocking it with encounters that were fun as they entered each new room. I don’t recommend doing this all the time, but it is possible to do. The trick is to have enough of a base of knowledge so that you can draw elements together to provide an entertaining experience. At least, that’s half of it. The other half is to pay attention to how the players react to the session. If they’re enjoying it, you’re doing it right. If they aren’t, you should work out what they’re not enjoying and change that to something they do enjoy.

I was lucky: they really liked this session.

Even in sessions where I prepare, my notes can be a bit… sparse!

Those are the notes for an Original D&D game I ran on Saturday. They’re about as bare-bones as you can get – just monsters and notes on treasure. The notes on the mural were added as a reminder of something the party discovered – and that I had made up on the spot. This is a large distance away from what you get in published adventures. If I were to turn these notes into a published adventure, much detail would have to be added.

For instance, the first encounter could become this:

That describes what the players found in the room, as I improvised the description of the mural. The note about damage to the mural is based on how the players actually discovered the secret door: the cleric of Law, upon seeing the mural was dedicated to Chaos, decided to smash it with his mace. Discovering the door that way sounded cool, so they did!

The point of all this is that you don’t have to prepare adventures to published standards to run them. You can do it from just a few notes, or nothing at all. However, having a set of resources to draw upon – monster stats, sample traps, plot seeds, NPC descriptions – can make all of it easier. Improvising doesn’t mean you have to invent everything; it’s often just choosing which items to use from those available to you!

You’re fortunate with D&D: pre-designed monsters, treasures and traps are available to you in abundance. Don’t forget to read the books, so you can get ideas about what and when to use them. From there, it’s a case of trusting yourself and paying attention to how your players react. Write down what works, so that you can come back to it later and see if it can be expanded upon.

For me, this process is the best part of the game. If you ever give me a choice of what to do, I’ll be a Dungeon Master. It’s so much fun!

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5E Adventure Review: Resurgence

Resurgence is the third part of the first Hillsfar trilogy from Baldman Games, playable as part of the D&D Adventurers League. It is a curious adventure, which while being perfectly adequate, doesn’t quite manage to hit any heights. Its chief problem is that it doesn’t do a very good job of building tension.

As this adventure is the climax of the trilogy, the lack of tension is disappointing. The adventurers must find and close two portals that could be used to invade Hillsfar, but the investigative elements are purely perfunctory: you visit a location that gives you all the information you need to find the portals. There’s not even much role-playing needed. It’s just exposition.

At the first of the challenging locations, you must defeat a drow and an ettin to succeed. A few commoners are in danger during the battle, but it is a simple encounter; unfortunately, the location of the battle – a temple to Llirra, Goddess of Joy, which doubles as a festhall, doesn’t affect its play beside giving many pillars and tables to hide behind. The closing of the portal feels mundane, with only a few easily-slain drow coming through as the battle progresses.

The second portal’s location is more interesting: at a Red Plume barracks that has revolted against the First Lord. Unfortunately, there are only a very few Red Plumes in the barracks, and they’re don’t have an organised defence. There’s the possibility of a little role-playing, but it doesn’t feel weighty enough.

The finale proves a let-down, as, for the second adventure in a row, you get to witness the Big Bad run away while you’re unable to chase her, instead you have to deal with her minions. As they’re yet more fighters, it doesn’t feel like there’s much wondrous here, nor much of a threat.

Resurgence is an average adventure, which abandons the wonder of the previous instalment and ends up being quite dull. The promise of an investigation falls flat – there’s no investigation involved – and closing the portals ends up being quite prosaic.

It does have some good NPC descriptions, and it’s nice to see the First Lord coming across with a real personality. The action, however, is sorely lacking.

If you’d have to make skill checks to close the portals whilst in the middle of a fight and also have to deal with weird energy effects going on? That would have been exciting. This isn’t.

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