5E Adventure Review: Doorway to Darkness

Doorway to Darkness, an adventure for four 2nd-level characters by James Desborough and M.T. Black, takes a solid idea – a mine being overrun by zombies – and adds enough unusual features to it to provide interest and entertainment. It’s very easy to just have a parade of combat encounters. Having features to mix them up, to engage the players and tell a story, is important. And this adventure achieves that.

The final encounter is a good example of that. The authors take a standard shadow, triple its hit points, and have it animating zombies as the players desperately attempt to destroy it and rescue the miners. That’s enough of the unusual and challenging to entertain the players. This is what you want to see.

There are a few design and editing oddities in the adventure. The characters get a chance to see the final encounter through a crack in the wall before they reach it – an excellent design trick – but while the description notes there are two young miners struggling against the zombies, only one is described once the players reach the final chamber. There’s no body on the floor to provide a moment of tragedy; the other miner just vanishes.

Another oddity is that there are two side-passages leading to additional encounters, but, as both appear after the crack, and are obviously not leading towards the proper chamber, they’ll likely be ignored. It’s not a major problem, but it’s something that I noticed.

There are a few clumsy phrases, and it feels like there are too many introductions (something I’ve occasionally fallen prey to…) but these are redeemed by lovely incidental touches – the miners have accidentally built their camp on consecrated ground, so they’re protected from the worst of the attacks. Of course, the mine is another matter!

Doorway to Darkness presents an entertaining scenario, playable in a single session. It has a few rough edges, but the core is sound. It is available individually or as part of the Collected Adventures of M.T. Black package.

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5E Adventure Review: Killer Kobolds

Tony Petrecca’s Killer Kobolds is an adventure for 8th-12th level characters. Yes, you read that right: A high-level adventure featuring kobolds.

It’s also a beautifully-constructed adventure. Deriving from events in Tony’s home game, we get to see what Defence in Depth means when applied to kobolds. I’d stay well clear of this one if you’ve got a group of players who prefer to negotiate: it’s a combat-heavy piece that will really challenge the tacticians of the group.

The story starts with the adventurers being hired to save a kidnapped child; one kidnapped by kobolds. The kobolds live in a stronghold carved into a cliff by a (now-deceased) eccentric gnome. This gives the players the first taste of what it’s like to fight kobolds who are prepared for battle. When you combine this with several traps, it’s the sort of scenario that quickly lets the players know that they’re not in a regular D&D adventure, but one that is more tactical and fast-paced. The kobold leaders typically don’t stay around, but instead retreat to rally the next wave of kobolds.

Unfortunately for the adventurers, the kidnapped child isn’t present in the mansion, but – according to notes left by the kobolds – has been taken to a second location to be sacrificed in a ritual to summon great power. The next section of the adventure details the travel through the wilderness to the next location. As might be expected, kobolds continue to harry the adventurers as they continue, including the dreaded kobold air cavalry! (They’re kobold-dragon hybrids with wings. They drop bombs.)

The final section of the adventure reveals the true extent of the kobolds’ plans, and demonstrates to the adventures how difficult it is to fight kobolds when they’ve got ingenious traps and tricks backing them up. It’s a fantastic conclusion to a very nicely-written adventure.

The adventure is light on artwork – what exists is of high quality – but has numerous maps, which are very effective and attractive. There adventure has a mix of computer-generated and hand-drawn maps. The one problem with the computer-generated maps is one I’ve seen several times: the grid lines are somewhat hard to discern, especially if you print in black & white. Otherwise, they’re quite useable.

I do note that this isn’t “Tucker’s Kobolds“, which demonstrated how to use basic kobolds to challenge the party. This adventure does have regular kobolds, but they are supported by a good number of advanced kobolds.

So, is it worth picking this adventure up? Absolutely – with the caveat about the sort of player it’s designed for. This is an excellent adventure, well worth buying.

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Dungeons & Dragons Tips: Know Your Character’s Abilities

Playing Dungeons & Dragons well requires several skills. You don’t need to be great in all of them, but it helps to have some familiarity with all of them. For parts of the game like role-playing and exploration, you get better at them with practice. This is especially true of role-playing. The more you speak to DM-controlled characters, the better you get at it. I’m quite good at it now. I was hopeless when I started. You can get better!

However, one aspect of the game which you do have control over is in knowing what you character can do, mechanically speaking. This is especially true of combat situations, where a group of players who know what they can do and can work together are far superior to a bunch of rag-tag adventures who don’t even realize that Healing Word can be used along with another attack!

It’s worthwhile reviewing what your character can do every so often, especially after you gain a few levels. It should be noted that the official character sheets are very good at not showing you what you can do. I strongly suggest that you get a blank piece of paper, and start making a new list. Writing it all out will help you remember it all later – and you can use the sheet to refer to in the game.

Part of the point of this is to get used to the differences between your abilities and attacks. Lightning Arrow is an attack, but Hunter’s Mark is a modifier to your attacks. By categorizing the abilities, you can get a better handle on what works together and what you can do. Likewise, keeping track of the action type (and whether an ability requires concentration) is also important.

Here’s one suggested format of the sheet; I’m sure you can improve on it.

Attacks – list all the ways you have of attacking/damaging monsters here. Use the following columns:

  • Name
  • Action Type (e.g. Action, Bonus Action, Reaction, None)
  • Number of Attacks
  • Attack Roll/Saving Throw
  • Range of Attack
  • Damage Roll
  • Average Damage
  • Additional Effects

Modifiers – list all the ways you have of changing the effectiveness of attacks, saving throws and checks. Use the following columns:

  • Name
  • Action Type
  • Modifier
  • Range
  • Conditions & Notes (what allows the modifier to work)

Other – list all abilities that don’t fall under the above categories

  • Name
  • Action Type
  • Range
  • Effects

A few sample entries:

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On Collecting Miniatures

You will occasionally see people like me banging on about all the miniatures we have and how they really, really enhance our Dungeons & Dragons experiences. Then you look at your own collection of three miniatures and a bunch of chess pieces and wonder how other people ever got their miniature collections.

Here’s the truth: Miniature collecting is expensive. Most likely financially – most miniatures cost a significant amount – but miniatures can also cost you time, even if you don’t pay that much for them. That’s because the cheaper miniatures typically need to be painted, which is a terribly time-consuming affair.

I occasionally get asked why I don’t just buy cheaper Reaper miniatures and paint them instead of buying the WizKids random lines. Well, the truth is I have backed all three Bones Kickstarters. I have hundreds of unpainted miniatures. I don’t have time to paint them. When you work full-time and run three sessions of D&D a week, in addition to occasionally blogging and writing D&D adventures, you don’t have much time left over. “Time is Money”, as Benjamin Franklin said. The time I save by not painting the miniatures myself is worth more to me than the extra money I spend.

For those of you who have more time than I have, then by all means, paint your miniatures! They’ll look awesome and I’ll be jealous.

At present, there are three major ways of getting (cheaper) miniatures for use in D&D.

The first is to buy the WizKids lines of D&D Icons and Pathfinder Battles. Yes, though the Pathfinder line has a different design aesthetic, the minis are perfectly useable in D&D games. These miniatures are pre-painted but come in blind packaging so you don’t know exactly what 4 miniatures you’ll be getting in each box. This infuriates a lot of people, who like to know what miniatures they’re getting. One of the ways to get around this is to buy in bulk. A case of D&D Icons (that’s 32 boosters, all packed together) will possibly give you a full set or quite close to it, with about 1 of each rare, 2-3 of each uncommon and 3-4 of each common miniature. The exact numbers vary by release, and some sets have too many miniatures to all appear in a case. Buying a case costs a lot of money, though.

The second is to buy the miniatures from the WizKids lines of D&D Icons and Pathfinder Battles… but from resellers who have opened the boxes and are now selling individual miniatures. Due to the way the rarity system works with reselling, this means the common miniatures are cheaper (often much cheaper than you’d expect) and the rare miniatures can be terribly expensive. So, it’s great for building an army of orcs or goblins, and not that great for getting a beholder.

The third is to buy Reaper Bones. The cheapest way is in one of their Kickstarters, although the gap between the Kickstarter and fulfillment has reached a point where I’m not sure that it’s feasible to do another one. Their third Kickstarter took my money 19 months ago, and still hasn’t delivered the miniatures, although it’s likely they’ll arrive in the next couple of months (6+ months late). You can also buy individual miniatures for quite low prices. However, you’ll have to paint them yourself.

An Orc from Reaper Bones sells for US$2.79 from their webstore. A prepainted Orc from one of the older D&D Minis lines sells for about US$2.50-$3.50 at Miniatures Market. A Beholder? $30.

There are other places to get miniatures. Occasionally a company does a Kickstarter that give you a nice lot of miniatures at a reasonable price. Reaper and other companies also have lines of metal miniatures, although I find them an absolute pain to assemble, paint and transport, especially the last. And then there’s Games Workshop, which have a particular disadvantage for use in D&D by being of the wrong scale compared to all the other miniatures. And they’re expensive and you need to paint them. (But the quality of the miniatures is very high).

By a curious twist of fate, I was in exactly the right place at the right time when the D&D Miniatures first started getting produced in 2003. At that time, a pack of eight random minis cost US$10 – it went up to US$13 after a few months. So, I was able to pick up a lot of miniatures quite cheaply at these lower costs. Unfortunately, shortly after the line began, the price of oil sky-rocketed. This had two effects on the miniatures’ cost. One, plastics are made from oil, so that obviously had a direct effect on the price. The other part is the shipping costs. Taken together, they meant the days of really cheap minis were behind us. (In 2002, oil was $23 per barrel. In 2005, it had doubled. From 2008-2014, it sat around $80-$90 per barrel).

One question that continually pops up is why the WizKids lines use blind packaging. Why don’t they sell them individually so you know what you’re getting? Well, the reason relates to how many miniatures D&D potentially has, and the cost of producing miniatures that are less popular than other miniatures. The overall effect is to reduce the cost of the miniatures. Back in 2003, I coined a law (Merric’s Law of Miniatures) to describe the phenomenon, which I restate here: Non-Random Packaging, Cheap Prices, and a Large Range of Figures: Choose two. If you’d like a fuller discussion of why they do random miniatures, let me know.

As for my advice to the beginning miniature collector: Be patient. Gaining a good D&D miniatures collection takes a lot of time and money. It’s quite fine to proxy the miniatures you don’t have yet. Just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into; it will take a lot of money and/or time.

Alternative options, such as the Pathfinder Pawns, are perfectly legitimate and much more affordable.

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D&D Adventurers League checklist update

Just a note that I’ve updated my checklist of D&D Adventurers League adventures to include new Author-Only adventures and Con-Created Content.

It’s available on the DMs Guild.

It lists each of the D&D adventures that can be played in the League, breaking them down into season and tier.

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To Miniature, or not To Miniature

My friend Teos Abadia recently made fun of me for not opening a bunch of D&D Miniatures boxes that have been sitting on my shelf for the past six months or so. They’re still not open, and I’ve just put more boxes of the latest miniature release on top of them… likewise unopened.

The idea was that I’d open them and review them, but life has been extremely crazy of late – some good, some bad – and I just haven’t found the time.

It did make me wonder about my use of miniatures in D&D. The fact is that I own a lot of miniatures – somewhere upwards of 3,000 – and if I want to field an orc army for the player characters to face, I can do that. There’s just a basic problem with that: it requires me to find that orc army first. Once you have so many miniatures (and I’ve been buying the plastic D&D ones since 2003), you need to find the ones you need. It takes time. For me to get the minis out for a 4-hour session can easily take an hour or more.

That’s a significant amount of time. At least transporting the plastic miniatures is easy.

However, if you’re using miniatures, it can look fantastic (even without the 3D terrain).

Many players also much prefer the D&D experience when miniatures are involved. Different people visualise combat and action in different ways. So, by bringing miniatures to the game, I help those people who have trouble working out what I’m describing without player aids.

The flip side to this is that there are many encounters that I run that I’ve got no idea of what the monsters will be in advance. This is especially true during the big wilderness travel bits of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss. Will the players encounter trolls, ogres or perytons? No idea. Yes, I could take a big bag of minis with me, but there comes a time when it’s just too much effort.

Not playing at my house also doesn’t help.

I was writing an adventure recently and I apologised in the text to anyone who liked using miniatures. There are some combats (particularly those in three dimensions) that miniatures struggle to represent.

Ultimately, I think I should be using minis more than I have been. I go through phases of miniature use. Sometimes I use them for every combat. Other times, it’s Theatre of the Mind all the time. And, with 5E, it’s been very much TotM in the ascendance. Time to change things up!

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5E Supplement Review: The Undertaker

Every so often, a rather unusual product enters my review pile. This is the case with The Undertaker, a character background designed by Jerry LeNeave, known better to me as DreadGazeebo on Twitter. The product is just a solitary page, which describes the background.

It’s also an object lesson on how to design personality traits for a background. I read them, and I’m inspired by them. I want to play a character using some of the traits described. Even if I don’t use the Undertaker entire, they’re adaptable to a range of character types; admittedly, one that tends to have a tinge of the macabre.

The Undertaker shows the importance of good writing and good development of ideas. The mechanics for the background, slight though they are, don’t hold my interest as well. They also bring up an interesting point about backgrounds: is the background something you have been in the past, or something you continue to be in the present? In some cases, such as the Criminal and the Folk Hero, I can well understand that your background is something you don’t abandon. However, in many other cases, it’s something now behind you. The Hermit comes to mind.

The Undertaker background has a class feature that allows you to gain a living as an undertaker. This isn’t that interesting, especially as you’d expect that most of the time you’ll be far better served by just looting another dungeon. The optional background feature that grants you a bonus with something related to undead is more interesting, although – as a DM – I’d refine it and make it a little more specific before using it in a campaign.

The most disappointing feature about this product is that it isn’t a collection of ten or more backgrounds. It stands alone, giving a glimpse of further areas that can be explored in the game.

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5E Adventure Review: Screams at Sunset

Screams at Sunset is an adventure for levels 2-4 by Jeff C. Stevens. It is also an adventure for levels 4-6, if you use the alternative version with monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

The adventure begins with the characters coming to the aid of a farmstead that is being attacked by goblinoids – goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears – and allows the characters to investigate the mystery of why the goblins are suddenly more aggressive. A band of hapless militiamen helps emphasize the threat and the need for adventurers, and a dangerously intelligent boss awaits at the end of the adventure.

Each of the acts of the adventure is nicely detailed, with enough incidental details to make for memorable encounters. The premise and details help elevate this above what could be a mundane hack’n’slash scenario. The adventure primarily focuses on combat and role-playing. The final solution to the adventure could involve either. There are ethical decisions to be made, and I like having those.

There’s also one encounter where starting a fight can summon more monsters, so the players have to deal with the situation being more difficult than it first appeared; a good test of their playing skill.

The chief problem the adventure suffers is from writing that needs to be tightened up, in some cases, a lot. I’ve discovered that it can be hard to move from DM-mode to author-mode; in DM-mode, you want to preserve mystery and hint at the answers. You shouldn’t be doing this as an adventure author: lay out the mysteries in your adventure’s introduction, so the DM isn’t surprised by the shape of the adventure. A synopsis is very useful for reminding the DM of the salient points of the adventure, especially just before running it.

Occasionally the presentation of the encounters is not ordered as I would arrange it; for instance, the militia camp gives the generic encounters first and the essential encounters second; I’d reverse that order and use the introduction to the militia’s leader to also serve as a point to display the camp and present encounter opportunities. There are also a few grammatical mistakes and clumsy phrasings in the text.

The adventure is illustrated by attractive pieces of black and white line art that break up the text. Abbreviated monster statistics are available in the appendix, but they leave out important information (such as ability scores, saving throws and skills), and you should still own a copy of the relevant books. The stats are great for quick combats, but less useful once spells that require saving throws start getting used. The maps are very attractive and readable.

Screams at Sunset is an effective adventure, also available as part of an adventure bundle. It’s one that is well worth investigating.

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A Tip for Quicker Play of Dungeons & Dragons Combat

It has not escaped my attention that not everyone is as fast as arithmetic as I am. Adding two numbers together can take time. The play of the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons isn’t as bad for this as 3E (where adding 17 and 24 together wasn’t that unusual at the higher levels).

Combat in D&D often plays like this:

“I attack and roll an 8… add 5… Does a 13 hit?”

“Yes. How much damage?”

“4 plus 3 is 7, plus 4… 11 damage!”

Once you have a fighter with multiple attacks and the player isn’t that good with numbers… things can slow down significantly, creating frustration to other players at the table. How, then, to improve the speed?

Well, you can use average damage (as the monsters do in the Monster Manual). This works, but it is often not very satisfying. Rolling damage is one of the high points of the fighter’s play.

However, you can also improve the speed of combat by changing the way you determine if an attack hits.

The trick is that if you know the monster’s AC – and there’s rarely a reason the DM won’t tell you – you can quickly work out the number the die needs to roll. So, if you have an Attack Bonus of +5 and you’re attacking a Armour Class of 13, you need to roll an 8 or higher on the die. (Target Number = Armour Class – Attack Bonus). Once you know that number, you don’t have to look it up again. Just remember it. “I need an 8 to hit the goblin.” Thus, the exchange becomes:

“I attack and roll an 8! Hit! Damage is 4 plus 3 is 7, plus 4… 11 damage!”

Calculating what you need to roll on the die rather than rolling the die and then doing the calculation is quicker.

Another method you can use is to pre-calculate the target numbers. This method dates from the original days of D&D. Draw up a grid, and label the tops of the columns with the ACs from 10 to 20. Then, for each weapon, work out the number you need to roll to hit those ACs and put them in the cells below.

Thus, for a fighter with a Longsword with a +5 attack bonus and a Longbow with a +2 attack bonus, we get:

Then, in combat, the DM tells the player the goblins have an AC of 13. Looking on the table, it’s simple to determine that the longsword needs an 8 on the die, and the longbow needs a 11 on the die.

Players who are quick with numbers don’t need this technique, but remembering what the target number is tends to speed up combat significantly.

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A New Dungeons & Dragons Campaign

For the first time in a little while, I started a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign on Friday. As with most of my home campaigns (as opposed to the store-based play where I run the published adventures in the Forgotten Realms), this campaign is set in the venerable World of Greyhawk setting. I’ve been running campaigns in that world since 1998, and I was playing the world long before that. So, I have a wealth of history to work with. I’m very familiar with this world.

Although I’m writing much material for the campaign myself, I don’t limit myself to not use published sources if convenient. So, the beginning of the campaign draws upon material published by Troll Lord Games’: Gary Gygax’s and Jeff Talanian’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, being the first such source. I’m lucky enough to have a copy – if you click on that link, you can see what a limited supply does for the price… However, if you are familiar with The Keep on the Borderlands, you’ll soon understand the set-up of the Mouths of Madness, those humanoid-infested caverns that ring the base of Castle Zagyg/Castle Greyhawk.

In summary: there’s a great ruined castle with a lot of dungeons below it, and, although there are entrances to the dungeons from the main part of the castle, there are also entrances from the Mouths below.

Many a D&D campaign has started with no thought more than “let’s find monster and kill them”. It’s an extremely fun way of playing a game, but I want this game to be (slightly) more than that. So, I did two things to start this campaign off in a distinctive fashion.

The first was that I got all the players to submit character ideas to me secretly. That is, each submitted three character concepts (consisting of race, class and some background details) by e-mail, and then I chose one for them to play, keeping an eye on overall party balance. I then discouraged players talking about their characters in terms of game mechanics. The initial introductions were very interesting, as everyone tried to work out what everyone was playing. The discussions about party marching order were particularly fun.

The second was I gave the initial quest to them by a moderately shady character (there’s a secret entrance to the castle’s library from the caves – use it to recover a scroll for me), and also gave each of them a secret quest/information based on their backgrounds.

So, we have a standard dungeon adventure, but with each of the players not knowing exactly what characters everyone else is playing, nor what their goals are. No, these ideas aren’t original to me. However, it makes things interesting!

A word about the Mouths of Madness. They’re very definitely based on the Caves of Chaos of Keep on the Borderlands. Each holds a different humanoid tribe (orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds), and each has grudges against the other tribes and wants to gain supremacy of the area. The Mouths have more notes about the humanoids allying with the characters against the other tribes than in the original Caves, but the map of the Mouths isn’t as well-constructed as the Caves. Which is to say, the Caves guided new characters to the easier tribes first; the Mouths don’t have that guidance. Thus, in the first session, the PCs ended up investigating all the high-level caves first!

I have definite ideas about who the mysterious patron is, and the main factions moving behind the scenes. More on those in future instalments!

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