Examining a Subclass: Path of the Courageous Heart

I’m fascinated by the new subclasses in Xanathar’s Lost Notes to Everything Else. In fact, most new class designs fascinate me, although actually evaluating them? It’s hard. You need to playtest them. As it happens, the element of D&D that will see more play than anything else after the basic systems are the character classes. An individual spell that goes wrong can be easily excluded. A class that makes missteps? It’s harder.

My analysis of the subclasses is necessarily incomplete: I don’t have time to properly evaluate them through playtesting. Another caveat: Even if I do playtest them with my group, a different group could end up with a completely different take, because their emphasis on the type of play differs markedly from my own. So, you certainly should not take my word as absolute gospel. Find other reviews of the product, and see what they think. And when you do get it, once you’ve read and (hopefully) used it, write some notes of your own. With a product like this, even a partial review of the bits you’ve used helps not only potential purchasers, but also the designers and developers. Feedback is essential to this hobby; very few products of this type can get enough playtesting, even if they’re released by Wizards of the Coast. At some point the designer just has to stop tinkering and release something!

So, let’s have a look at the first subclass in the book in a little more detail than I offered in my first look at the book, the Barbarian Primal Path, Path of the Courageous Heart.

The description of the subclass indicates that it’s something of an accidental profession, for characters who are more lucky than trained, but who have taken up the path of the adventurer to protect the weak – and by dint of being lucky and brave, they get away with it. It reminds me of Tika Waylan’s fighting style in the Dragonlance Chronicles. I’m not sure if I really like the concept as a full character class of 20 levels; I prefer to think at the higher levels they’d actually have some training. However, that’s the concept we’re given, with so let’s see where it took the designers!

Third level gives us two abilities: Matter at Hand and Favor the Bold. Together, they allow the barbarian to deal 1d4 + Strength modifier damage with unarmed strikes and improvised weapons, and, when raging, to gain +1d4 to attack rolls with such weapons. You also get a +1d4 to saving throws while raging.

This sacrifices damage for accuracy. There’s basically no time in the game you’d ever use an improvised weapon if your barbarian wasn’t raging, so in the early levels this is restricted to two or three encounters a day. Not so bad for an Adventurers League game, but a bit more restrictive in a home game. At later levels, you have enough uses of rage per day for it basically to be “at will.”

The question presents itself: Is this worth it? I’ll do a comparison here for average expected damage with a barbarian with a Strength of 16 wielding, first a longsword, and then a greataxe. This gives a +5 to damage from Strength modifer and raging, and likewise a +5 to hit. The calculation for the unarmed attack includes the additional 1d4 modifier to hit. I’ve left out a consideration of critical hits.

Armour Class
of Foe
Unarmed Longsword Greataxe
11 6.6 7.1 8.6
12 6.2 6.7 8.1
13 5.8 6.2 7.5
14 5.4 5.7 6.9
15 5.1 5.2 6.3
16 4.7 4.8 5.8
17 4.3 4.3 5.2
18 3.9 3.8 4.6

Now, let’s look at the figures when the Barbarian makes a reckless attack:

Armour Class
of Foe
Unarmed Longsword Greataxe
11 7.4 8.9 10.8
12 7.2 8.6 10.5
13 7.1 8.3 10.1
14 6.9 8.0 9.7
15 6.7 7.6 9.2
16 6.4 7.1 8.6
17 6.1 6.6 8.0
18 5.8 6.1 7.4

Fascinating, isn’t it? The basic answer is “no, it isn’t worth it”. If you’re attacking a lot of high AC foes, it draws slightly ahead of the longsword, but typical campaigns won’t have that number.

Now, there’s one exception to this which makes the improvised weapon option better. It’s this: “If your improvised weapon is similar in shape and function to another weapon, you can use that weapon’s statistics instead.” And that exception gives me a lot of problems. So, you are brilliant at wielding items that are like greatswords, but are worse when you actually have a greatsword in hand? That’s a problem. It doesn’t make sense, and pushes the subclass towards into a box marked “overpowered”. Somewhere it’s heading with the next ability.

It’s at sixth level that you gain Hearty Blow. This grants you an additional 1d4 damage when you strike with an unarmed or improvised weapon when raging. After suffering through three levels of an inferior option, you gain something that makes the class begin to hold its own. It doesn’t end there – you get another 1d4 at 10th level, and finally a further 1d4 at 14th level. At that point your unarmed attacks are dealing 4d4 + Strength modifier + rage modifer damage. While you rage, of course.

This makes the figures look a lot better! I’m assuming Strength 18 for level 6, and Strength 20 for levels 10+. (6th: +7 to hit, +6 damage; 10th: +9 to hit, +8 damage; 14th: +10 to hit, +8 damage).

Armour Class of Foe Unarmed
11 9.4 10.6 14.7 13.8 17.1 13.8
12 9.1 10.0 14.7 13.1 17.1 13.8
13 8.8 9.4 14.5 12.3 17.1 13.1
14 8.3 8.8 14.1 11.6 16.9 12.3
15 7.8 8.1 13.6 10.9 16.4 11.6
16 7.3 7.5 12.8 10.2 15.8 10.9
17 6.8 6.9 12.0 8.4 14.9 10.2
18 6.3 6.3 11.2 8.7 14.0 9.4

The longsword figures are comparable to unarmed at 6th level, and they disappear into irrelevance at later levels. Yes, unarmed or improvised strike ends up doing significantly more damage than the longsword!

And yet… there’s one problem here. The improvised or unarmed strike is not counted as magical. You can’t get bonuses from a magical weapon. Halve all the damages, and the figures suddenly look a lot worse. The Path of the Zealot barbarian is dealing extra radiant damage (an extra 1d8+7 damage per turn at level 14). The Bear Totem barbarian is taking half damage from everything except psychic. The Wolf Totem is granting all other characters advantage on their strikes.

It’s underwhelming at low levels, and at high levels can be significantly hampered! How good it is depends on how kind your DM is in his or her monster selection.

The tenth level power, Stroke of Inspiration, fits my definition of a power where the benefit doesn’t reflect the cost. The benefit? You get to reroll a failed Charisma, Intelligence or Wisdom-based check with advantage. The cost? You expend one of your uses of rage.

This isn’t quite so bad as I make it out to be; you do get a lot of uses of rage each day (four to six times, for most of the levels at which you have this power). It’s just such a borderline power. There are almost no times when it’s worth your while rerolling such a check; the other characters will be rolling better than you. It will occasionally be great; mostly I expect it will be forgettable. Honestly? I wish there were more things about this subclass that triggered off Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma. Explore the concept of the inventive, lucky barbarian!

I will note that I much prefer a reroll with advantage to “you succeed on the check”. There are checks that, even with a roll of 20 on the die, you’ll fail. Having the supernatural ability to do the impossible is something I dislike intensely.

The final power, gained at 14th level, is Tenacious Heart. This triggers whenever you use Relentless Rage to try to stay conscious. You can reduce the DC of the check to keep fighting by 5, grant allies within 30 feet of you advantage on their next attack, or give each ally within 30 feet of you 10 temporary hit points.

I like this power a great deal. The versatility helps greatly, as you can tailor its effect to the situation. I still have the feeling that it might be a little weak, and this is definitely a power I’d like to see in action at the table: perhaps the bonuses don’t matter; perhaps they matter a great deal.

That’s my more in-depth look at Path of the Courageous Heart. I find it a very problematic class. I don’t like classes that take several levels to get going; waiting until 10th level for your unarmed strike to get good – sometimes – is too long for me. There are times when it’ll work well, but I’d prefer a more reliable subclass for my barbarian.

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Xanathar’s Lost Notes to Everything Else – A First Look at the Subclasses

One of the interesting innovations of the DMs Guild and Wizards of the Coast this year has been to elevate the work of a group of skilled designers. Titled the “Guild Adepts”, these designers have had early access to upcoming D&D products, and have crafted supplementary products. The latest of these releases is Xanathar’s Lost Notes to Everything Else, an 87-page pdf that covers a range of new character options and DM material, much as does Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A third section adds material for Chult. Some of this is reprinted from previous Guild Adepts products, but having it all in one document for players and DMs is appreciated.

The book begins with a collection of 25 subclasses, providing even more options for players. Each class gets between one and three of these classes.

Subclasses are tricky. In fact, any new mechanics are tricky, and you need to playtest them before you really get a good grasp on them. That said, here are my initial impressions.

  • Path of the Courageous Heart (Barbarian). A barbarian class that relies on luck and improvisation. Trades damage for accuracy, and I find the result underwhelming. Instead of attacking with a 1d12 greataxe, you get to do 1d4 damage with an improvised weapon and have +1d4 to your attack roll when raging. Mostly I’d just prefer to attack recklessly, as losing the damage is horrible. Pass. (The idea that you get better damage if your “improvised weapon” is close to a real weapon relies too much on the DM being kind to you. It’s ludicrous that you get 1d8 damage and added bonuses if the improvised weapon is “like” a longsword but isn’t actually a longsword). The class does start getting extra damage from level 5 when raging: an extra d4, and the full progression is Level 3: 1d4, Level 5: 2d4, Level 10: 3d4, Level 14: 4d4. Which leads to the strange situation that an ability may be too powerful and not powerful enough depending on which level you are and what you’re fighting. These improvised attacks never count as magical, so you’re greatly disadvantaged against demons and devils and most higher-level foes.
  • Path of the Red Reaver (Barbarian). The barbarian as a vampire/blood hound. The interesting thing about this is it uses Hit Dice as a resource, and works best when at below half hit points. I miss the “bloodied” term from 4E, which would make the descriptions here more succinct. It’s an interesting subclass.
  • Path of Sacred Kin (Barbarian). Barbarian as spellcaster, using the template of the Fighter and Rogue subclasses for spell progression – as you might expect, it’s a slow progression. The spells come from the Sorcerer’s list, and there’s a lot of fiddling around with what Rage means, so you lose some abilities but gain the ability to concentrate when raging. And a bunch of other abilities that strike me as overpowered. Resistance to “magical” damage? What the heck does that mean? Magical weapons, fireball, etc? Looks overpowered, probably is.
  • College of Discord (Bard). Wielding instruments as weapons and teleporting around the battlefield, this is likely to appeal to a lot of players who enjoy the more martial type at bard. At 14th level, the discord bard gains the ability to create a combined haste and slow effect. It’s complicated to adjudicate but as wacky and fun as it sounds.
  • College of Keys (Bard). Talks to locks and traps. Fun ideas, but you’d have to be in a very trap-focussed campaign for this to be useful, and to have no rogues in the game to upstage. It just feels a bit too one-note to me.
  • College of Mourning (Bard). Specialises in easing the transition from death to life by casting animate dead. No, I don’t understand that either, but it’s a fun class. The other abilities are more appropriate.
  • Entropy Domain (Cleric). Somehow, the entropy domain helps protect yourself from it. The ability to drain spell slots from casters is a good idea, though, even if I think it’s confusingly presented. Overall, I don’t think the abilities match the flavour well enough.
  • Survival Domain (Cleric). No, this isn’t about surviving the wilderness – rather, it’s a domain that helps people survive combat. I think it’s misnamed. This is a new War domain, and a potent one. Although the to confuse us further the domain grants Nature and Survival skills despite them not relating to the other domain abilities. I’d happily play a cleric of this domain.
  • Circle of Seasons (Druid). Underpowered, badly written, and horribly edited. I don’t understand what some of the abilities do! Expending a use of wildshape to do 1d6 damage a round to a foe, who might save against it? This is incompetent design.
  • Circle of the Spiritlords (Druid). There may be something cool here, but the writing is so terrible that it doesn’t make much sense.
  • Dragoon (Fighter). A fighter who is good on or off their mount. There are some nice ideas here, but it needs work. Line Breaker feels terribly overpowered. (Note to Pathfinder designers: there’s no such thing a Move action in 5E).
  • Runeguard (Fighter). A fighter who augments their abilities with magical runes. Cool ideas. Uncertain balance. Horrible phrasing of some of the rules.
  • Way of Atonement (Monk). I’m pretty sure this subclass is atoning for being Really Really Overpowered. Some nice ideas, but Armament of Atonement? WTF? This is not the Pathfinder RPG. (Note to designers: giving a scaling bonus of +1 to +4 on AC, Attacks, Damage and Saving throws is a bad idea. Don’t try to break Bounded Accuracy).
  • Way of Empathy (Monk).
    This is a very nicely-designed class that allows a monk to aid allies at a cost to their health. I like this one. Very elegant and interesting design.
  • Oath of Predation (Paladin). The predation in this case is that the paladin enforces cult mentality. It’s a strange, dangerous class, and very hard to evaluate. I don’t like it existing in D&D as a character option.
  • Oath of Providence (Paladin). The rationale behind this subclass is very confused – it’s really a Paladin who is lucky and forces the enemy to be unlucky. As written, it’s a paladin who believes fate is more powerful than the gods and we’re helpless before it. Which is nonsense for how the class works as the hand of a god. Its capstone ability, as written, works only for a minute when the paladin first gains 20th level! Some nice ideas, but could do with more development – and better editing.
  • Burghal Explorer (Ranger). I had to look up Burghal. This class is a ranger of ruins, sort of. Or maybe an urban ranger. Its Grazing Strike ability is potentially overpowered, its capstone ability of Close Quarters – you gain cover when adjacent to two other creatures – is underpowered. Some nice ideas, however.
  • Wasteland Wanderer (Ranger). I dislike additional bonuses to Passive Perception and Investigation. They already come from a feat. Safety in Numbers doesn’t make sense and is too complicated. It’s meant to be a hyperaware ranger of the wastelands. Whatever.
  • Divine Herald (Rogue). Some of the abilities don’t make thematic sense (Guise of the Believer, I’m looking at you), but overall this is a well-constructed subclass that allows a rogue/cleric hybrid in the same way that the Arcane Trickster is a rogue/wizard hybrid.
  • Fey Magic (Sorcerer). It’s a sorcerer who can also learn Druid spells. Nicely put together – may be too versatile, but should be interesting to see in play.
  • The Chaos patron (Warlock). A very chaotic subclass. And a lot of fun. I don’t care so much about balance when the results are so interesting (and random). It needs better editing, though.
  • The Noble Genie patron (Warlock). You gain the services of a genie who fetches spells for you, increasing your versatility. Interesting idea. Not sure about balance, but interesting.
  • Beguiler (Wizard). It’s allows a wizard to gain touches of bards and rogues. And the Sneak Spell ability tells you all you need to know about the cluelessness of its designer and developer when it comes to rules. Adding your Intelligence modifier to cantrip damage is not such an amazing ability that you need two paragraphs of text to layer on restrictions that overcomplicate it. Some good ideas in the subclass.
  • Mage Hunter (Wizard). It’s all in the name. And in the complicated mechanics. Somewhere. Tell me why a wizard needs a weapon, which they’ll never use because their spells are so much more powerful?
  • School of Reconstruction (Wizard). Your single-target evocation spells can also heal. Which is also why this class will never see play in my games. Who needs clerics when you have this class?

If you get the impression that I think it’s a mixed bag? You’re right. And I think some of the material shouldn’t have been released in this form.

The key for getting on my good side? Elegance.

The theme of the class needs to be simply stated. The mechanics should support that theme, and be written clearly. The mechanics should also be easy to apply.

If you manage to get those all together, you’ve got a winner.

The subclasses of Xanathar’s Lost Notes? They need better editing and development. There are too many rough edges. Consider the Chaos patron ability “Tumble through Chaos”:

Starting at 6th level, you can conjure a portal to travel through the planes of chaos. You can cast dimension door with this feature without expending a spell slot or material components. However, denizens of that plane try to hamper your progress. When you use your action to use this feature in this way, you declare your intended destination and then roll 1d4 to determine how the denizens intervene. Whenever you would bring a willing creature with you, that creature always arrives at the intended destination unharmed.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest. At 14th level, at the end of the turn you use this feature, you can roll 1d6 and, on a 6, you regain the use of this feature immediately.

Looks good? It’s not too bad, except:

  • Dimension Door doesn’t use material components
  • The Chaotic Intervention table has 6 entries, not 4.
  • Rolling yet another d6 at 14th level is a bit too much dice rolling for me.

How would I word it?

At 6th level, you gain the ability to travel through the planes of chaos, although the inhabitants of those planes may try to impede you. As an action, you can cast dimension door without expending a spell slot. Roll 1d6 on the Chaotic Intervention table when you do so to determine the additional effects of this travel. Any willing creatures you bring with you arrive unharmed, regardless of the results of the roll. Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest. At 14th level, if you roll a 6 on the Chaotic Intervention table, you immediately regain the use of this feature.

Do I need to mention that dimension door doesn’t need a spell slot? Possibly. I’m not happy with the first sentence: it doesn’t state that you’re travelling short distances in the real world by using the chaos planes; is that implied enough by what the spell does?

Editing and development are tough to do well. If you get a good editor, treat them well! It often easy to see the problems with rules text; it’s much harder to find solutions.

And I’m very hard to impress with new mechanics. I hope you’ll like the classes more than me!

I’ll have a look at more of Xanathar’s Lost Notes in the upcoming days.

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Terrain of the Mind

Expanding on my recent article on how I run D&D combat without miniatures, here are a few notes on how I run terrain in that mode. It’s a different experience from using miniatures, and certain types of terrain change from being obstacles to the players to being opportunities instead.

Choke Points – Doors, Archways, Corridors

These are the narrow places where only one or two creatures can fight abreast. The result? Only a couple of creatures on each side can enter melee, the rest are consigned to ranged combat or casting spells that work at a distance. All ranged attacks must deal with cover (a +2 bonus to AC), and is this the right space to say how much as a DM I hate sharpshooter?

When you have a corridor leading into a wider room, it is possible for those in the room to have better cover or even be unseen from those in the corridor if they wish.

Free-Standing Obstacles – Trees, Pillars, Altars, Tables

A creature can nominate they’re standing behind a column to gain cover from the enemy. If the obstacle is large enough (10 feet across or more), the creature can use it to hide and take total cover.

An enemy creature able to bypass the melee may move to engage the hiding creature – you can’t hide from someone who can see you.

Turns and Corners – A curving passageway, a side passage

A creature may use the turn in the passageway to gain cover or total cover (as desired), allowing the ability to hide and fire from cover. Only one creature may fire from cover in a given passageway! Much as it’s fun to have that comedy moment where everyone peers around the passageway at once, it’s not really feasible.

Pits and Drops – Pit traps, Fire pits, Chasms, Pools, Bridges, Pools of Acid

A creature can use the Shove attack (see the PHB) or any other method of forced movement to push someone off the edge. If the terrain is uncommon in the area (e.g. one pit in a large room), this requires two or even three successful Shove attacks.

Hazardous Terrain – Caltrops, Burning coals, Electrified Floors

As with pits and drops, the Shove attack can push someone onto the terrain. Depending on the layout, it may also cause a chokepoint where only a limited number of creatures (1 to 3) from each side can engage each other in melee, unless the creature is willing to step onto the caltrops or coals or life-draining runes.

Decorative Details – Curtains, Windows, Chandeliers, Flower Pots

These details aren’t designed to be used by the players, but inventive players will find a use for them anyway. The important part of this is to describe that they are in the room during the initial description. When the players seek to make use of them, let them. Swinging on the Chandeliers? Dragging down vines from the trees and trying to trip the enemies? All good!

My main rule of thumb for handling these situations is to let anything work – once. After that, the surprise value is gone, unless succesful ability checks are made, typically at DC 15. The bonus for swinging on a curtain down to a foe? Advantage on the attack. The desire is to let players gain benefits from being inventive, not for them to gain a benefit from repeating the same action again and again and again.

Are there any other types of terrain that I haven’t covered? Let me know and I’ll add them to the article!

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Tomb of Annihilation (Return of the Lizard King) – Part 3

Did you know that bears have trouble fitting through doors? That was what we learned this session of D&D!

The session began with the adventurers on their way to Eelstead, a frontier outpost in the land of Chult, where the adventurers’ guide, the lizardfolk Lungan, feared that something bad had happened. The journey to Eelstead, a 50-mile hike through the tropical jungle of Chult, would take about five days.

This was my first opportunity to use the Tomb of Annihilation random encounter tables, an extensive list of potential encounters. I let the players roll to see if encounters would occur… and their dice were kind. No encounters! They reached Eelstead without difficulty. Mind you, if their dice continued to roll that way – low – they’d likely have trouble with the rest of the adventure.

Eelstead only consisted of a handful of buildings on the coast where a river flowed into the ocean. Unusually, there were no villagers on the streets. It was all quiet – too quiet! And Lungan chose that time to become ill so that he couldn’t accompany the rest of the adventurers into the village. (Good! I hate running NPCs! This was a scripted part of the adventure, but I would have been tempted to exclude him in any case – I want the focus on the players).

The adventurers did what any adventurers do upon entering a new town: They went directly to the tavern. It had patrons, but the villagers inside were strange, detached and uninterested in the arrival of the adventures. This is except for one, who quickly became violent – and as she did so, mutated, with lamprey-like tentacles growing from her neck as she attacked the characters. Something was wrong in Eelstead! The mutated dwarf proved to be a terrifying foe, and the adventurers were forced to kill her before she killed them.

During the combat, they’d noticed that one of the townsfolk had paid more attention to the combat than the others, and seemed aware of their presence. Upon confronting him, the elf – Splitoak – confessed that he’d not been affected by whatever curse was afflicting the townsfolk. He’d been out of town and returned to discover the townsfolk as they were now. He blamed the alchemists in town and pointed out where they worked to the adventurers.

The alchemists proved not to be available to comment. Their guards – who were not suffering the affliction of the rest of the village – politely asked the adventurers to leave. Impolitely, the adventurers refused. And Josh’s druid turned into a bear and attacked them.

Bears are big. Josh as a bear was blocking the doorway, meaning he was attacking the guards, the guards were attacking him, but no-one else could enter melee. The other party members tried ranged attacks but mostly couldn’t see the guards because a bear was in the way. Eventually, the bear was reduced to 0 hit points, and Josh returned to human form. He entered the alchemists’ house, along with the rest of the party, and the battle resumed – and he turned back into a bear.

The last alchemist fled the house. Josh was next in the initiative order and ran after the alchemist in pursuit. And got stuck in the doorway. A few rounds of round cursing followed from the other adventurers – who couldn’t get out the house to give chase because there was a bear in the way!

Eventually, Josh wrenched his bear free, and they followed the fleeing alchemist to the house of the chief alchemist.

Incredibly, they then talked to the chief alchemist, rather than fighting her, and discovered she was attempting to find a cure to the affliction. She’d made a deal with the evil lizardfolk so they’d leave the town unharmed, and something had gone a little bit wrong with the concoction she’d tested on the villagers using ingredients provided by the lizardfolk.

Despite the misgivings of some in the group, they agreed to let her go in exchange for her notes, from which they were able to engineer an antidote to the curse. All they now had to do was administer it to the townsfolk. It wasn’t easy – mutated hunting dogs attacked them, as well as a group of Akabkan lizardfolk, and another poor cursed villager before they were finally able to find and cure all the villagers.

In the process, they rescued a yuan-ti pureblood, Salida, an enemy of the Akabkan, who told them of a ritual the Akabkan were planning that would elevate their leader to godhood or something like it. Salida offered to guide them to the location of the ritual. The party accepted; hesitantly, but it was their best chance of stopping a great evil from rising in Chult. As opposed to the great evil that had already arisen!

And that was the conclusion to the third part of Rise of the Lizard King. The characters had now attained level 4, and the final chapter awaited!

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Tomb of Annihilation (Return of the Lizard King) – Part 2

After the adventurers arrived in Chult through a misfiring teleportation spell that had brought them via the Feywild, they were surprised to find themselves in the middle of a battle between some lizardfolk and some dinosaurs. They were even more surprised when their wizard dropped dead, as the magic that had revived him in the Feywild no longer worked. And surprise was no longer even a functional term when a human druid ran up to them and implored for their help against the dinosaurs. (Yes, it was Josh’s new character. The players weren’t at all surprised to find him there!)

The second chapter of Return of the Lizard King
– a more focused start to Tomb of Annihilation – brought the adventurers into the middle of a conflict between two warring tribes of lizardfolk. I’d hesitate to characterise them as “good” and “evil”, but as one group is helpful and kind and the other group are fiend-worshipping warriors in search of conquest, such terms seem appropriate in this case. It always helps when the players can easily identify the bad guys!

The adventure does make a lot of assumptions that the adventurers will help the friendly lizardfolk. It didn’t concern my players; they were happy to have the direction (which is one reason I opted for this start to Tomb of Annihilation). If the party had chosen to no aid the tribe, then the main book of Tomb of Annihilation would have come out and the PCs would have a long walk in front of them!

The second part of RotLK is very combat-focused. The adventurers needed to defeat some giant lizards, rescue a lizardfolk scout named Lungan from the yuan-ti who had captured him, and fight off two groups of pursuers before reuniting with the friendly Zopchik tribe. This chapter introduces a lot of the special monsters used in the adventure: gila lizardfolk brutes and savages, chameleon lizardfolk snoops, and giant spitting lizards. As they’re new monsters, the players aren’t familiar with them and provide variance from the goblins and kobolds prevalent in other low-level adventures.

The fights are also tough! By the time of the final combat – against a gila lizardfolk savage augmented by a potion of invulnerability – the adventurers were running on fumes. It was tough. It was brutal. And the players loved it!

They were aided by having four characters who could cast healing spells. This was important, although it occasionally led to my least favourite form of D&D combat: adventurers being reduced to 0 hit points, receiving a healing spell, and then having their next turn as if nothing had happened.

Still, against the lizardfolk savage – able to inflict 32 damage in a round when using average damage scores – this was needed. No-one quite died this session, although they got close. That potion of invulnerability? I quietly removed it from the adventure as otherwise the group would never have been able to win the final battle. Which may have had an extra savage in it because the group had six players rather than four. I adjust combat difficulty all the time: you want the players to have fun, not slaughter their characters every session!

The role-playing in this session was limited. We had moments with the friendly lizardfolk, but mostly we rollicked along from one combat to the other, stopping along the way briefly to remark on how hot and humid it was, and to admire some tropical flora.

With Lungan rescued, he persuaded – one might almost say “railroaded” – the adventurers into accompanying him to the local human settlement of Eelstead, where he feared the evil Akabkan tribe had been working against his friends there. Their adventure there would have to wait for the next session; for the moment, the players happily advanced their characters to level 3!

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A Quick Word on Theatre of the Mind

I run most of my Dungeons & Dragons games as Theatre of the Mind; that is, I don’t use miniatures.

This does not imply that we end up using a lot of description to enliven the combats. In fact, my groups tend to be brutally efficient about most of them, except for the odd combat where we decide to put more effort into it.

I grew up with the old AD&D rules, and my approach to this form of combat tends to be guided by them. In particular, I follow the following guidelines:

  • Combatants are either in melee or out of melee.
  • Combatants can use their movement to move into melee, or out of melee.
  • If you’re in melee, it’s assumed you’re always moving and you can be adjacent to any monster also in the melee you like.
  • A combatant can only retreat from melee, not forward to attack the opponent’s back ranks. It may be possible to bypass the melee if the terrain permits.
  • Rogues can always find somewhere to hide if there are obstacles in the area.
  • Characters in melee always attack the most damaged opponent in the melee.
  • Ranged characters always attack the most damaged opponent
  • Monsters split attacks evenly between characters, unless it makes sense to concentrate fire. Alternatively, I determine targets randomly.

This system has the advantage of running very quickly, and of giving characters a better chance of surviving. Focusing fire in D&D is extremely effective, and having the monsters act less intelligently improves the survival chances of the PCs significantly. I’ll change this tactic if the monsters are being overwhelmed.

When area effect spells are cast, I make quick adjudications of how many monsters are in the area. I make these values up on what seems reasonable, but the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are a good starting point if you’re running TotM.

Terrain choke points can restrict how many creatures can be in melee at once – and, as such, are very valuable. There’s nothing like surrounding a barbarian with eight kobolds when he’s charged forward into the room!

For those times when distance between groups becomes a big factor (say a combat begins with combatants 100 feet apart), then I just keep a written record of how far creatures are apart. “100 ft.” You move 30 feet You’re now 70 feet away from the monsters.

I do use miniatures on occasion, but this is my standard approach to combat. It’s fast, and efficient.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Play Advice | 4 Comments

The Joy and Frustrations of Investigations

I’m currently writing a Convention-Created-Content adventure for premiere next year. It also happens to be an investigation.

Yes, two things I’d never thought I’d do.

Investigations are tremendously popular as D&D Adventurers League scenarios, but they’re very different to the D&D scenarios I grew up with. Those scenarios involved some wilderness travel and a lot of fighting monsters in a dungeon, perhaps with some interesting features to explore and examine.

The first place I really became aware of investigative adventures was through the Call of Cthulhu game, because – as you’re far more likely to run away from monsters than fight them in that game – the investigation was its default format.

The real benefit to running a mystery adventure is that they give plenty of opportunities for the players to explore and role-play, two of the three pillars of D&D play. I’m sure you can name lots of D&D adventures that have no real role-playing in them. It’s nice to have the option to engage the people in your group that enjoy talking. When you have a city-based investigation, you also get the chance to do a lot of world-building. It’s nice for the players to feel that the city their characters keep coming back to is a real place where things happen.

However, despite their benefits, it doesn’t mean they’re easy to write.

My biggest fear is that this happens:

“Have you found a clue, Holmes?”

“Yes! This bootprint means we are seeking a left-handed pirate with a limp, who dresses in floral prints on Wednesday. As it happens, I know the very man! To the culprit, Watson!”

When you’re trying to entertain players for a running time of 4 hours, having the investigation be over after the first clue is found is a bit of a problem.

The converse: that the players never find a solution, is also worrisome. Players can be incredibly bad at finding and interpreting clues and puzzles.

You want a trail: the first clue leads to the second, the second to the third, the third to the solution. Or, because players miss clues, three clues that lead to three more… just so only the most unobservant miss them.

One of the tenets of the GUMSHOE system is that finding clues shouldn’t be hard: the interest lies in what the players do with them. Or at least, I think it is. I’ve always found it (in particular Trail of Cthulhu) to be a system I have great trouble in understanding how it works. However, it is a sentiment I share: watching how the players put together the clues they’ve found is going to be far more interesting than watching them fail Intelligence (Investigation) checks and get frustrated.

What I’d like is clues that can be interpreted in different ways, lead to red herrings, but put together and looked at the right way lead to the solution.

However, determining what I’d like to happen and actually doing it? Yes, working out the theory is much easier!

I spent a month just trying to come up with a structure I liked. I’m still not happy with it, though there are aspects I like. I knew what the crime was, I didn’t know what clues would be left behind. That took most of the development time. Once I put it together, it looked worryingly short.

However, I have faith that the players will not solve it instantly and so can have a happy time role-playing and trying to solve the mystery!

One thing I tried to do with this adventure was allow the players to get help. Perhaps they have contacts that can help them unravel it. I don’t think I’ve developed that enough, but it’d be very easy to go down a rabbit hole and emerge a year later with the “perfect” adventure, but eleven months past the deadline. You can’t include everything; the trick is to include the important things. Did I miss stuff? Only one way to find out…

…on to the playtest!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League, Design | 3 Comments

5E Adventure Review: Underworld Speculation

Underworld Speculation is a two-hour adventure for level 1-4 characters, designed by Chris Lindsay of Wizards of the Coast for use in stores as the Introductory Adventure for Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. It is a D&D Adventurers League legal adventure.

And it’s fun. Really, really fun.

The adventure comes with six pregenerated characters of level 3 that were built using options from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. They’re not the most optimised characters in existence – and they suffer dreadfully from using the standard Wizards character sheet. It’s not a good format for displaying new options. However, they do give you a taste of the new options.

The fact that the arcane archer has two-weapon fighting may be considered a clue for the setting of the adventure: It’s underwater. Archery isn’t so good.

The adventurers haven’t come to this underwater dungeon willingly, and their task is to escape. They need to navigate winding tunnels and a great cavern to do so, aided by a mysterious magic item that has great power but isn’t demonstrating what it is… not yet, anyway! At least it can give them the ability to breathe water.

The adventure makes use of several new or unusual monsters that the players may not be familiar with, and this adds to the fun of the adventure. There are also a lot of environmental effects to deal with in addition to just being underwater. When you can only hear what someone adjacent to you says,and you can see no further than 10 feet, combats become very tricky, even against weaker opponents… and the enemies aren’t that weak.

There’s a few secrets to be uncovered, and it’s a very challenging adventure to play. It doesn’t feature much roleplaying, as it focuses on the combat and exploration pillars of play.

It’s a moderately complicated adventure to run; I know I missed some important details about the encounters when I ran it, so spending some time reading and sudying it in advance is recommended.

The adventure does feature a few encounters that are placed at the discretion of the DM, but these are limited in scope and make sense for the area in which they’re placed. You’re choosing from three or four ingredients rather than hundreds, and there’s a map to work with. I’m not opposed to this approach to encounters when it’s not hard for the DM to apply; it works very well in this instance.

Quite unfairly, I wanted more stuff in the adventure! It’s already got enough to easily get to its two hour running time, but I wanted a few more things to do in the second half – particularly more details on the structures the adventurers find.

I believe it’ll become available on the DMs Guild in future, but for now it’s a store exclusive.

This is an excellent adventure, and a wonderful introduction to the world of the Xanathar!

Posted in D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League, Review | 2 Comments

5E Adventure Review: The Donjon

The Donjon is the eleventh adventure of the Curse of Strahd season of the D&D Adventurers League. A four-hour adventure for character levels 5-10 written by Ash Law, it has the adventurers rescuing the leader of an orc tribe from a slither of yuan ti serving a dracolich.

If you were wondering what this has to do with the ongoing storyline for Curse of Strahd, the answer is this: not much. It represents a side-quest away from the main storyline of the Obsessions, and, although it does link into earlier adventures in the season, such as The Ghost, it is eminently skippable as part of the storyline. My understanding is that it was a preview for the fifth season of the D&D Adventurers League adventures, but plans changed when Convention-Created Content was introduced and the main DDAL adventures left the Moonsea area. This leaves The Donjon in the unfortunate position of setting up things that would never occur.

There are many good things about the adventure. It is packed with incident. The first half has the players making their way through the Glumpen Swamp, where branching paths allow several different routes and encounters along the way. The second half is the characters rescuing the orcs and their leaders from the yuan-ti, which requires them to descend into sunken, trap-filled ruins and disrupt a ritual before the yuan-ti can sacrifice the orc leader.

The adventure feels very much like a rerun of The Ghost, but with less relevance to the overarching story. It could easily be played without reference to Barovia at all, and that’s a weakness in this season.

Both halves of the adventure provide many encounters for the players and DM to use; optional encounters abound, and each play of the adventure can be different. There’s a lot of invention here.

However, the adventure relies very heavily on the skills of the DM to pull things together. Many encounters are described very briefly, and the final dungeon is distinctly underdeveloped.

I wish there was a map of the final dungeon. There are example encounter areas, plus a lot of potential encounters described in the book, but the adventure’s form is determined entirely by the Dungeon Master and not by decisions made by the players. If there are traps along a passageway, give me a map so that the players can decide to go left or right… and if they choose the trapped path, allow them to determine that the traps are there and make another decision. There are times when you can do without a map; this isn’t one of them.

Mind you, the nature of these encounter mean it’s very easy to adjust the adventure to be longer or shorter if needed.

It’s not a bad adventure, but neither does it achieve greatness.

Posted in Curse of Strahd, D&D, D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League, Review | Leave a comment

Are the D&D Adventurers League Rules About to Change?

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is now available at WPN stores around the world, and on dndbeyond.com, and probably Fantasy Grounds. In a week or so, it’ll become available through other outlets. It’s a superb book, well worth purchasing regardless whether you’re a player or a Dungeon Master. There are a lot of new player options, although it’s the Dungeon Master material that makes me very happy.

What really caught my eye was Appendix A, Shared Campaigns, which describes parameters for running campaigns which have many players and many DMs, where players can take their characters from DM to DM. In other words, the structure of the D&D Adventurers League.

The appendix suggests a number of rules for running such a campaign, many of which that aren’t currently used in the DDAL.

The wonderful Mike “SlyFlourish” Shea, asked on twitter about this. The official DDAL twitter account replied:

So, are we going to get some major changes to the D&D Adventurers League next season? I suspect we may be, though nothing has yet been confirmed. These rules might also be for a complementary campaign that could start up… but my gut says they’re for the main programme.

Let’s have a look at what these changes might be, based on the content of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

No More Experience Points

Appendix A describes a system where, instead of XP, characters achieve “checkpoints” for every one hour the adventure is meant to last. (If an adventure is rated at 4 hours and they only take 3, they still get 4 checkpoints. I expect that it’s only for the longer-form hardcover adventures that the actual time taken applies).

For level 1-4 characters, every 4 checkpoints attained allow one level to be gained. For level 5+, it’s every 8 checkpoints.

The original design of D&D 5E was that each of 1st and 2nd level took one 4-hour session to complete, while later levels took two sessions. This system extends this to levels 3 and 4, and maintains the original intent for later levels.

The real benefit of this is that it allows groups that enjoy roleplaying to not feel left out after they spend hours having a very enjoyable and productive time talking to NPCs, only to be told they got 0 XP for the session. Or, if a group is encountering a lot of environmental challenges rather than monsters (such as in Tomb of Annihilation), they still are progressing as a result.

Drawbacks? Well, it doesn’t reward actually achieving things. If you spend time drinking in a bar instead of going on the adventure to slay a dragon (and the dragon burns down the bar?), do you still get the checkpoints? I suspect you do.

On balance, and thinking of some sessions where the players have complained to me about the low XP rewards, I really like this system and I hope it’s implemented.

No More Gold in Adventures?

This is an interesting one. Adventurers get gold every time they gain a level, representing the gold they’d get in the adventures they’ve been on, but not in the adventures themselves.

It’s obvious why having a standardised amount of rewards is useful, especially once you consider the Convention Created Content and the larger array of adventures that will be created.

As an ancillary to this, the lifestyle of the character is determined by their level – from Modest (at first level) to Aristocratic (at 17th level).

No More Magic Items in Adventures?

No gold in an adventure isn’t a big change – gold tends to just pile up after the first few levels. However, the way magic items are rewarded? That’d be a big change.

At present, each DDAL adventure gives out one specific magic item. It’s set by the adventure designer (with the consent of the administrators). Want a whip of warning? There’s one adventure with that item in it. Play the adventure, and have the other players agree to give you the item, and you can have it.

The drawback here is that some players have characters that just get every item on offer; although there are rules for spreading them around, it’s rarely a good idea for a monk to pick up a magical two-handed sword. And, if you’re very unlucky, you never get an item you need.

The proposed system in XGE gives you “treasure points” after each adventure. You get more treasure points for playing higher-level adventures. As with checkpoints, it’s determined from the expected duration of the adventure.

Those treasure points can then be exchanged for the magic item of your choice. There are a set of campaign specific tables that list the items available, how many treasure points they cost, and the character level you need to be. I think that treasure points can’t be saved up – they must be spent immediately that an adventure ends.

The advantage of this system is pretty clear: it gives everyone a fair opportunity to get magic items that are useful to them. The disadvantage? Characters take the best magic items, and we get a lot of broken characters.

think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, especially if the DDAL is careful with the lists. This is one we’ll have to wait and see.

Purchasing Potions and Scrolls

The last section actually calls out that the D&D Adventurers League allows adventurers to purchase magical potions and scrolls. Really? I didn’t know that! I guess that when this goes live, it will apply.

A 5th level scroll (the highest level) costs 1,000 gp. A potion of invisibility costs 5,000 gp.

Do I like the players being able to spend their money to purchase consumables? Absolutely. Scrolls can only be bought by characters that can cast the spell in question, so that removes one of the major issues with it.

Conclusions? What does this all mean?

Those are the major things I spotted in the Appendix. There are other good bits of information there – like guidelines for designing a shared campaign adventure – but these are the changes that would have the greatest impact on the campaign.

How might the changes be made? My suggestion would be that existing characters keep their current level, magic items and treasure, and just start gaining new levels, items and treasure by the new rules. I would not like everything to become retrospective and characters having to redo all their magic items. Too messy; too complicated!

How to deal with someone who has gained half the XP to reach the next level? Perhaps they begin with checkpoints, or perhaps everyone just is set to 0 checkpoints at the level they’re at. The latter would be simpler, although frustrating for those who are almost at the next level.

I know that there will be many people who don’t like the new system. The Pathfinder Society uses a variant of the checkpoint system for gaining levels; the magic item system is – as far as I know – not used elsewhere, but my knowledge of other Shared Campaign systems is sketchy at best. There are definite drawbacks to the new system, but I think it’s very clear from the text in XGE that Wizards feel strongly about making the game cater to more gaming styles.

As it says in the book:

Playing time might seem like an odd way to measure experience awards, but the concept is in keeping with how a shared campaign is meant to work. A character played for 10 hours reaches the same number of checkpoints, whether the character went up against a dragon or spent all that time lurking in a pub. This approach ensures that a player’s preferred style is neither penalized nor rewarded. Whether someone focuses on roleplaying and social interaction, defeating monsters in combat, or finding clever ways to avoid battles, this system gives credit where credit is due.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Appendix A

Those are strong words. I expect in the near future, we’ll discover that the D&D Adventurers League is changing – and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything shows what it may be changing to.

This isn’t confirmed yet. I may be jumping at shadows. I just suspect this will come to pass.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League | 6 Comments