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.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Play Advice | 2 Comments

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!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Greyhawk | 1 Comment

Tales from the Yawning Portal – Adventure Retrospectives

Wizards of the Coast have announced their first product of 2017. It’s a compilation of seven previous-published adventures, updated and revised for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Its name? Tales from the Yawning Portal.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing or dungeon-mastering all seven of the adventures that will be released in this product, so it seems appropriate to do something extremely unusual: write a retrospective about the adventures contained in a product that hasn’t been released yet. This amuses me. So, these are retrospectives on my experiences with the adventures in their original printings.

Dungeons & Dragons owes a lot to the shared experiences of players playing adventures. Over the years it has been around, there have been a lot of adventures published, but only a few of them really approach classic status. Most of the adventures in this new product very easily meet the requirements to be considered classic, and they’ve all seen a lot of play.

It can be hard for new players to understand all the history of the game, so this product is a great introduction to it, helping people to discover the old adventures again, and to see some of the range of experiences that Dungeons & Dragons has to offer.

It should be noted that all of these adventures are very definitely dungeon adventures. As a result, it will be very easy to drop them into an ongoing game if you desire; although there’s nothing stopping you from playing through each adventure in order.

The Sunless Citadel

Designed by Bruce Cordell. Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Original Release 2000, character levels 1-2.

The Sunless Citadel was the first adventure released for the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The year 2000 was an exciting time to be a D&D fan. Over the past few years, we’d watched in horror as TSR (the original publisher of D&D) had lost its way and eventually go bankrupt. The second edition was feeling old and tired, and the sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast in 1997 promised exciting things. Finally, in 2000, we had it: a new edition of the game. And it was a major, major overhaul of the system – one that was far more amenable to expanding the system.

The Sunless Citadel is very much a dungeon adventure. After a couple of pages giving a brief description of the nearby town (and some rumours and quests to get players started), we’re into the dungeon: a fortress that sunk into the earth in a prior age, and now is inhabited by a number of dangerous inhabitants.

I didn’t run this as my first 3E session. A couple of weeks before the Player’s Handbook came out, I’d started up my homebrew Greyhawk campaign, and so I was inventing my own material for our first sessions. (Quite a lot of it, actually, as neither the Monster Manual nor Dungeon Master’s Guide were out, either!) However, I had a lot of friends interested in D&D, so it wasn’t long before I started up a new campaign that started with The Sunless Citadel.

For many people, the defining feature of The Sunless Citadel was the Keeper of the Dragons, named Meepo, a poor kobold who has lost his pet (a white dragon wyrmling), and was adopted by many groups as a mascot. We didn’t do so, and thus missed out on a lot of fun.

One of the aspects that makes The Sunless Citadel an interesting adventure is that the hooks and rumours all hint at different aspects of the citadel. There’s a feeling that you keep discovering secrets as you play the adventure. Three groups claim territory in sections of the dungeon, allowing the players a chance to see a more structured dungeon than just a collection of randomly-populated rooms.

The Forge of Fury

Designed by Richard Baker. Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Original Release 2000, character levels 3-4.

The Forge of Fury was the second adventure for Third Edition. Most people played it immediately after playing The Sunless Citadel, but, unlike today’s adventure paths, they weren’t related, except that there was a map in the first adventure that led to the second. It very much stood on its own. So, that means that if you just want to play this adventure, you can – you don’t need to play The Sunless Citadel first.

This adventure is very well-regarded. (It came in as the 12th-best adventure of all time in a 2004 poll). It’s another dungeon adventure, describing an abandoned stronghold made by the dwarven smith, Durgeddin. One of the main features of the dungeon is that it’s divided into five distinct sections, each section having its own character and set of encounters.

There’s one encounter in this adventure everyone talks about: a Roper down the bottom of the dungeon. In an adventure for 3rd-level characters, the Roper is rated as a challenge for 10th-level characters. It’s an intelligence test for players – are they smart enough to run or negotiate their way past the encounter? It should be noted that, in 3E, the Roper can talk. There’s a call-back to this encounter in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but the designers didn’t realise that the 5th-edition Ropers can’t talk! How this encounter will play out in this adventure is anyone’s guess…

When I ran the adventure, negotiation wasn’t what the characters wanted to do. They wanted to kill the roper! And, in 3rd edition, the roper’s tendrils drained the target of 2d8 points of Strength! This was a great shock to the party. The cleric captured by the roper suddenly was drained to only two points of Strength, and the other party members had to cut him free and flee as quickly as they could.

I’ll admit that this is the adventure that, of the seven, I like the least. It’s a perfectly competent dungeon, but I never really warmed to it. I’m probably missing something. It’ll will be interesting to revisit it.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

Designed by Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1980, character levels 3-7.

Many of the early D&D adventures were first used as tournament scenarios. A D&D tournament back then was much different from the game at conventions these days. You were competing against other groups, seeing how far you could get and how many of the encounters you could overcome. So, the encounters were a real test of your ingenuity and playing skill.

Tamoachan starts with the characters trapped in the bottom of a Mesoamerican-style ziggurat, with a poisonous atmosphere slowly choking them, and they have to get out through a number of very strange and inventive encounters. The logic behind the encounters tends to be “challenge the players” rather than what makes naturalistic sense, but what makes Tamoachan so memorable is all the references to Mesoamerican mythology. This gives the adventure a distinct style that feels very different to almost every other adventure published, before or after.

I ran it for my players last year as part of my D&D 5E Greyhawk campaign. (I was converting it on-the-fly). They found it a memorable experience, although there’s a lot of the encounter designs that didn’t make sense to them. Modern design is often very different to what you find here.

The publishing of Tamoachan as a normal scenario allows you to enter the ziggurat from the top, rather than having it as an escape scenario. That’s how I used it, and it’s likely such will be retained in the reprint.

One unusual fact about the original adventure: It was written for a group of exactly three characters. For a time when six to nine characters was more standard, this makes it very unusual.

Dead in Thay

Designed by Scott Fitzgerald Gray. Dungeons & Dragons Next. Original Release 2014, character levels 6-8.

The current edition of Dungeons & Dragons didn’t happen overnight. Wizards of the Coast spent two years playtesting it before release. And it was a public playtest, with groups all around the world participating. In stores, the D&D Encounters program provided a large number of those people. As a cap-stone to the adventures, we got Dead in Thay, a multi-table dungeon where up to four groups could adventure through the dungeon at the same time.

That’s what happened at my local gaming store. We had three groups for most of the campaign, and ended with four. All who were exploring the dungeon, seeking the items required to defeat the Red Wizards and protect the Sword Coast from their invasion plans.

I wrote up a set of reports of the play here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

The multitable aspect of the adventure made it very memorable. I had monsters that fled from one group running into another. We kept track on a big board of where everyone was and which encounters had been overcome.

It’s hard to say how it will be released in this product, as it was a really big product. I expect we’ll only see one quarter of the map, and the multitable aspect removed. The original is one of my two favourite adventures in this product.

White Plume Mountain

Designed by Lawrence Schick. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1979, character levels 5-10.

When Lawrence Schick applied to be hired as a designer at TSR, he sent them a sample adventure – the best bits of his home adventures, all put into the same adventure – to show what he could do. He was quite surprised when they published the adventure without changing a word! (Thus giving the D&D world Blackrazor, an intelligent sword which is just a little like Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer).

White Plume Mountain has never been known as making a lot of sense. The plot is that a wizard who lives within White Plume Mountain has stolen three magic weapons and the players are hired to recover them. The dungeon is of a style known as a “funhouse dungeon” – it’s got a lot of encounters that don’t relate to each other that much, nor really to the fantasy world where they exist.

It is, however, an awful lot of fun to play. Not if you’re looking for a serious adventure, but if you just want to have fun, White Plume Mountain has it in spades. It’s also exceptionally deadly. I ran it a decade ago using the original rules, and we had a fantastic time. I also killed a lot of characters – or they killed themselves. Hard to say. Fireball in AD&D can really take out a party…

This is one of my two favourite adventures in this package. Yes, I really love the wacky encounters. Sometimes, you just want to have fun!

Against the Giants

Designed by Gary Gygax. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1978, character levels 8-12.

The very first adventures released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by TSR were the three modules of Against the Giants. They were slender adventures by later standards – 8 pages, 8 pages and 16 pages – but they were tremendously influential and well-regarded, especially once the succeeding trilogy of “D” adventures were released. Alas, Vault of the Drow is not part of this package, but the adventures in Against the Giants are a lot of fun.

One aspect of their design that is quite important is that the threat and complexity grows throughout the adventures. The first adventure, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, is a simple design which has a set piece of the characters attacking a large number of hill giants (and their guests) who are attending a feast. Giants were weaker then compared to how they would become in later editions, though still being dangerous, so the magic-users would get to use fireball spells very effectively!

However, the environment of Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl is as much a threat as the monsters, and by the final adventure, the adventurers need to overcome the fiendishly intelligent (and powerful) Fire Giants. What began as a simple hack’n’slash adventure is anything but by the end, and the revelations as to who is behind everything would provide the game with its first iconic monster.

Against the Giants was the first adventure I tried to run, back in 1982. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and because the maps of the compilation adventure weren’t labelled, I had great trouble at working out which map corresponded to the Steading. It wasn’t the most memorable session, but it was the first I attempted to DM. Later on, I’d run the adventure again, and it was fascinating to see how more experienced players dealt with the giants.

Tomb of Horrors

Designed by Gary Gygax. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1978, character levels 5-14.

How new players will find Tomb of Horrors is probably not that much different to how the original players who played it found it: Stunned disbelief is my guess.

Gary Gygax designed this adventure to show players who had high-level characters but little play experience that there was more to D&D than just good statistics. As a result, it has become famed as the iconic Killer Dungeon. Many characters have entered the Tomb, few have returned.

Gygax’s original players – his son Ernie, and his friend Rob Kuntz – both were able to overcome the Tomb in their own ways, but it’s certain that most players weren’t familiar with Gygax’s style, and found it much more difficult. I first played the adventure in the 80s, and I was definitely not an expert player. I was playing a kender thief my DM gave me, and I soon found myself trapped without any possessions at all (and no clothes!) in an empty cell…

There’s not many monsters in Tomb of Horrors, but the tension is high throughout. There’s a lot of treasure in the end – if you claim it – and back in the day, this was very important, as you gained far more XP for treasure gained than monsters overcome.

Tomb of Horrors is an iconic adventure, although it is in no way what you normally want in a D&D adventure. Once designed, you didn’t need another adventure like it. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it’s an adventure that is an important part of D&D lore, and one that will be fascinating to see used by new players – all of whom are likely to have new stories about how their characters died!

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Rules Spotlight: Surprise and the Assassin

The rules for the Assassin (a Roguish archetype) in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons include an extremely powerful ability: Assassinate. It’s the signature ability of the class, and it can be very effective. A reminder of what it does:

You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.

However, as it uses the Surprise rules – and those rules were different in earlier versions of the game – I’ve seen many people be confused about how it works. This article discusses the rules and their interpretation.

The starting point is Jeremy Crawford’s explanation of surprise, from Sage Advice November 2015:

The first step of any combat is this: the DM determines whether anyone in the combat is surprised (reread “Combat Step by Step” on page 189 of the Player’s Handbook). This determination happens only once during a fight and only at the beginning. In other words, once a fight starts, you can’t be surprised again, although a hidden foe can still gain the normal benefits from being unseen (see “Unseen Attackers and Targets” on page 194 of the Player’s Handbook).

To be surprised, you must be caught off guard, usually because you failed to notice foes being stealthy or you were startled by an enemy with a special ability, such as the gelatinous cube’s Transparent trait, that makes it exceptionally surprising. You can be surprised even if your companions aren’t, and you aren’t surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.

If anyone is surprised, no actions are taken yet. First, initiative is rolled as normal. Then, the first round of combat starts, and the unsurprised combatants act in initiative order. A surprised creature can’t move or take an action or a reaction until its first turn ends (remember that being unable to take an action also means you can’t take a bonus action). In effect, a surprised creature skips its first turn in a fight. Once that turn ends, the creature is no longer surprised.

In short, activity in a combat is always ordered by initiative, whether or not someone is surprised, and after the first round of combat has passed, surprise is no longer a factor. You can still try to hide from your foes and gain the benefits conferred by being hidden, but you don’t deprive your foes of their turns when you do so.

One of the notable things to take away from the explanation of surprise is this: You can’t surprise a creature if it has spotted (or heard) any foe. Not just you. If you’re hidden, but your dwarven fighter friend is clanking away and rolled a 0 for their Dexterity (Stealth) check, you’ll still be hidden (and can gain advantage against targets that haven’t spotted you), but because the foe spotted your friend, it isn’t surprised. Surprise is a state that individual creatures can be in; it’s no longer the case that the entire opposition is surprised or not.

The next thing is that surprise ends once a creature’s first turn in the initiative order has finished. This has some unfortunate implications to the assassin who rolls low for initiative. Those high-Dexterity creatures who rolled better initiative than you? They’re not surprised any more by the time you act. Although the weapon of warning (can’t be surprised, advantage on initiative rolls) is very good at frustrating assassins, it’s also the assassin’s friend. Advantage on initiative checks? Yes, please!

Given all of this, the Assassin has one major problem using Assassinate – the other members of the party. Those dwarven fighters just keep causing you to lose surprise, don’t they!

Back in AD&D, the entry for elves and halflings read like this:

If alone and not in metal armor (or if well in advance – 90′ or more – of a party which does not consist entirely of elves and/or halflings) an elven character moves so silently that he or she will surprise monsters 66 2/3% (d6, 1 through 4) of the time

That suggests the solution. All you need to do is adventure alone! Or adventure by scouting ahead – 90 feet or more – in front of the party. (Talk to your DM about how far you need to be ahead of the party to be considered “on your own”). Of course, the trouble with doing so is that your friends can’t help you when you get into trouble…

A related issue that often comes up in play is the player who announces “I attack” and expects to surprise the opponents (and thus get to attack before anyone else). The transition from negotiation to combat (or exploration to combat) is not explicitly handled as an exception the rules. Thus, if a player wishes to attack first before anyone can react, this is not possible. Upon a player indicating their intention to attack, move into the combat sequence – determine surprise, and determine initiative. Yes, the player might end up attacking last; the initiative roll indicates that he’s not as fast as he thinks, and everyone else has reacted.

If you’re feeling kind, you might allow a character who attacks whilst in the middle of a negotiation to make a Charisma (Deception) check against the passive Wisdom (Insight) scores of everyone else; creatures that don’t perceive the character’s attentions could potentially be considered surprised. However, this is a non-standard ruling and should be used only if you feel it enhances your game.

Although rare, it can happen that a creature is unaware of the existence of enemies, yet is not surprised and gets to act before its foes. In this case, I would have the creature acts on its initiative count as normal, doing whatever it was doing before the combat sequence started.

Posted in D&D 5E, Play Advice, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mike Mearls – A summary of the interview on Tabletop Babble

Tabletop Babble is a new podcast from James Introcaso, once the host of the Round Table on The Tome Show. In his first podcast, he interviewed Mike Mearls. It’s a fascinating interview, where Mike discusses the state of D&D and its future. James kindly gave me permission to post a summary of the interview. Note that this is a summary, not a transcript; it is likely to be very much worth your while to listen to the entire podcast, as Mike and James go into more depth than I do here.

Mike Mearls is the head of the Story Team for D&D. He does long-term creative planning for D&D, which consists of looking at what games they want to do, the storylines they want to explore, and what settings they want to bring back. Chris Perkins may come up with the concept for an individual story, but Mike weaves those stories together with an eye on the bigger picture of D&D, especially in relation to other branded products, such as video games, board games, t-shirts and miniatures. He’s trying to make sure that there’s always something interesting happening. (James Introcaso compares Mike to Kevin Feige…)

Mike believes that the slow release schedule has been a big part of the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D can be big and intimidating, and in earlier editions, the breadth of options allowed for many broken (over-powered) combinations, as well as characters that were (mechanically) quite difficult to understand. Similarly, with settings, the amount of detail published for (say) the Forgotten Realms, would intimidate Dungeon Masters, as they didn’t feel that they could get enough of a handle on them to properly run and design adventures in the setting. The wall of information presented by previous editions so daunted potential players and Dungeon Masters that they wouldn’t even try the game.

The new edition has given an opportunity to all these people a chance to do so, without as many of the barriers that were there. The big “shelf of books” was a big part of the barrier to new people picking up the game. There weren’t clear starting points, and there weren’t clear lines of conversation about the game.

That last is interesting. Mike thinks that, in previous editions, because the release schedule was so cluttered, everyone was talking about different things (and the latest book might not get any attention at all). For a new player, it wasn’t clear what to get after the Player’s Handbook, because people were talking about many different products. Now, with the “event” release schedule, conversations are much more focused on the new product. So, new players might get directed to Storm King’s Thunder, because it’s the new product that everyone is talking about.

Another aspect of this is how the digital culture and D&D culture have melded together. Mike compares the D&D experience to one of his current favourite games, Overwatch. In Overwatch’s case, its publishers built the community for the game before the game was released, through a beta release, through announcements and teaser trailers. Thus when the game was actually released, new players discovered there was an active community around the game, making it easier to approach, with streaming and discussions active.

In D&D, the adventures now have blog-posts, podcasts and youtube videos giving tips and people actually playing them, allowing new players a much easier time of understanding how they work and how to play them. If you buy the starter set, you can find lots of advice and videos and other help you play the game. There’s now a convergence around this which makes for much more of a community feel: “You aren’t playing the game alone anymore.” It’s very easy to step into Storm King’s Thunder because that’s what everyone is talking about.

The release schedule thus focuses everything. You don’t have fifty different products to worry about; only a very small number of them. It’s easier for new players to connect.

Mike admits the D&D team didn’t foresee all of this. The decision to have a slow release schedule comes from surveys that indicated people didn’t want to buy lots of products. Mike, himself, never owned that many D&D books. In 2nd edition, he had the Complete Fighter (a gift), and the core rulebooks, but he didn’t have the urge to buy all the other books. Setting boxed sets? Yes, and Dragon and Dungeon magazines. It was only with 3rd Edition, when he had a full-time job, that he started getting everything, but looking back he thinks his 2E collection was closer to the typical player’s than the much more complete set of 3E. The kicker is that he was using barely any of the 3E material he collected.

Greg Leeds, the former President of Wizards of the Coast, challenged the D&D team to think about why they were producing a book (or more) every month. Was this the best business model? Were they sure this is what people wanted? And so, after a lot of discussion, they came up with the three products a year model. It felt like a reasonable pace, where players had enough time to read the products and use it, and so, by the time the next product came out, you’d be excited for it.

Mike is particularly happy with one rule that isn’t in the Player’s Handbook, but is used in the D&D Adventurers League, that characters can only use the Player’s Handbook plus one other source to create their characters. Players don’t need twenty books to create their characters: at most, they only need two. It sets a more realistic expectation of the typical player, the type of player that were excluded by the “you must have it all” philosophy. So, a new player can join the D&D Adventurers League without needing 20 books first.

Mike tells the story of a player who started trying to play D&D 4E using Player’s Handbook 3, because they treated it like a video game, where you always get the most recent core version of the game. The assumption they made was that the first PHB was outdated – and that everyone would be using the PHB3 instead.

So, the accessibility, the community, the slower product release, and the rise of fantasy in pop-culture have combined to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition a success.

The rise of fantasy in popular culture is quite important. Back in the 80s, if you mentioned you were playing a dwarf, the default assumption would be the dwarfs from Snow White. With the Lord of the Rings films (and many other fantasy products), dwarf now gets equated with Gimli.

Of course, there’s also the upcoming D&D movie (James attempts to get Mike to tell us the plot, but no luck there). The D&D team are involved in a similar manner as with their other licensees – the team acts as experts on D&D lore, making suggestions on locations, creatures and the like. Thus, their partners might need a big scary monster that isn’t a dragon, and the D&D team give suggestions on what it could be. Likewise, for locations in settings.

In some cases, the team makes suggestion on scenes as to what might be more iconic to the audience; for instance, what spells would be used by a wizard in battle. So, what the D&D team do is try to make sure the show (and products) conform to what people expect from D&D. Mike feels that in the 80s and 90s, studios were pretty casual about existing fans, and didn’t try to make sure the lore was right. Now, the studios understand a lot more the importance of the fans, and that getting them on your side to become advocates for the film or show is very important.

Mike thinks the early 2000s, with the release of Lord of the Rings, the Spiderman films and the negative reaction to the Star Wars prequels woke up people to the importance of all of this.

The Unearthed Arcana column is currently producing a lot of playtest material. The D&D team is approaching this from the viewpoint of story first. The story is not easier to create than the mechanics (it’s very easy to say something does 5 extra damage!) The upcoming mystic (psionic) class is a case in point; Mike thinks they’ve spent more time trying to work out what psionics is in the D&D world. How do psionics work in a fantasy world, when there’s already magic in it, and how do you distinguish the mystic from the spell-casting classes?

The team has worked through a lot of concepts as they try to get the visuals and the story right. Their view of the mystic has become that it’s a lonely vocation. Mysticism is about the self, with the psionic power coming from within, and trying to perfect yourself, and unlocking your inner potential. When the team looked at the visuals of this – how does a mystic look? – they came up with the idea of sculpting an inner astral form with your power. When a mystic evokes a discipline, the mystic is using their perfect self to impose their personality reality on the world. This leads to both looking at the personality of the mystic and its visual appearance.

Another effect of the story-first approach is that, when discussions aren’t all mechanics-based, but rather about the story of the characters and the game, it has proved easier for new players to join in those discussions. Talking about a dragon living in the tunnels beneath a sky-castle is much more engaging than just mechanics. Mike compares with the stories that get told about Skyrim – the stories are about the narrative rather than just “I have a powerful magic dagger!”

James asked Mike about his excitement level for the next storyline… a question made harder for Mike by the fact he’s working up to 5 years ahead, and so has a lot of storylines to be excited about! His answer was fun: He’s so excited about the 2017 storylines, that now he’s flipped into worrying that the 2018 storylines won’t match them! There’s one piece of art he’s been using in presentations that all the licensing partners have become very excited about. Mike never wants to be in the position of saying “We’re experts, we’ve done it”. He always wants to be learning and going forward… but the 2017 storylines are going to be hard to top.

Mike’s been happy with all their products, but he always sees things he wants to improve.

Mike asked on twitter a while back about what products Wizards could produce to help people get off the fence and start being Dungeon Masters. One of the things that has come out of that is that Wizards are now looking at the D&D Adventurers League and what role it plays. Not only in its traditional sense of a campaign where you can take the same character from table to table, but as a way of helping people to become Dungeon Masters and becoming better DMs. Mike suggested that over the next year you’ll see a lot of changes to the way Wizards approaches the D&D Adventurers League – not so much on the play side, but on support side, providing articles, podcasts and videos that help DMs prepare the games, breaking down the preparation step-by-step and producing Actual Play videos to help DMs. So, Wizards will be taking more of an active role on the social and teaching side of things.

So, while there has been a rise in videos showing the art of Dungeon Mastering, Mike hopes to shine more light on preparing to run adventures, and showing that it’s not as hard as some might fear.

It’s imperative that D&D keeps growing; Mike thinks it important that they find the barriers to people starting to play the game and remove them.

Posted in D&D 5E, Design | 1 Comment

Adventure Review – B8: Journey to The Rock

The 1984 Basic Game adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons system, Journey to The Rock, is an oddity. Written by Michael Malone, who only has one other design credit (an adventure in Dungeon Magazine #57), the adventure is surprisingly slight, and manages to avoid using dungeons; for the most part, it’s a wilderness adventure.

It should be noted that the original plan for the Basic D&D line was that the Basic adventures would be dungeon-based, with the Expert set introducing the Wilderness rules. This wasn’t always followed, for instance, Keep on the Borderlands has wilderness and town sections, but the focus is on the dungeon. Journey to The Rock is the outlier.

However, once you examine the adventure, you realise that the wilderness is written in a dungeon style. Players are discouraged from leaving the paths, and all the encounters take place along the paths. Thus, the play is kept simple for beginning Dungeon Masters and players. The relevant wilderness rules from the Expert set are reprinted in this adventure.

The adventure feels curiously incomplete. It’s the set-up for a major ongoing campaign, but that campaign is only glimpsed through this adventure. The backstory is fantastic: a city and its people banished to another plane, with only two survivors seeking to bring it back. However, only one of the survivors appears, and the quest is only the first part of what he needs to do to recover the city. There’s so much that never came to fruition. What a strange nonesuch!

Not all of the backstory makes that much sense. The city was banished thousands of years ago, yet why has the survivor who hires the characters not found someone to recover the magical amulet? It’s not like it’s that difficult (the adventure is for a group of level 1-3 characters, after all!) And the very fact of how the amulet is hidden from the person who must recover it is somewhat bizarre. Did the people of Tuma want their city saved or not?

The adventure feels very much like a tournament scenario, which it likely originally was. After the players are recruited, they have three paths to the final encounter, each having fewer than half-a-dozen main encounters, although a set of optional encounters, briefly described, add an additional eight encounters onto each path. Puzzlingly, the optional encounters look like random encounters with a die-roll to determine which to use, but the adventure suggests to run them in order. Use of these optional encounters is likely recommended, as they add much needed-bulk to the adventure.

The final encounter gives the DM the option of prefacing it with a combat encounter if the party isn’t too damaged. This is an interesting move. It shows a shift towards “story-first”, where the players should get to finish the story even if their characters would otherwise be unable to. The final encounter is a role-playing/puzzle scene, where the players can use clues from earlier encounters to help them make the correct choice. (The map is one of the oddest I’ve ever seen… it’s a huge, empty room with a few randomly-placed areas of interest).

Despite the holes in the plot and the lack of encounters, those encounters that do exist are described in some detail and present more interest than just “kill another monster”. I’m very fond of the mad-man who accosts the party with tales of a ship travelling on the land; something that proves to be true a short time later. (The explanation? Gnomes. It all makes sense). The players have a chance to pass through the ruined city of Tuma, which only occasionally exists on this plane, where they can meet some its eldritch defenders. Not every encounter is great, but there are enough good ones to show that the adventure offers something of interest. Above all, the adventure does value players who can think and don’t always meet every danger with sword drawn.

There are seven new monsters described in the adventure. These are used to make the players think, and to provide challenges that can’t be solved just by memorising the rulebook. Although, at this stage, we probably don’t need even more humanoid-type races, they fit much better into the ancient world of lost cities and unknown races that the adventure evokes. It’s not really a Conan adventure, but there are echoes of that setting in its writing.

Is it a neglected gem? Not really. The adventure has enough issues with its writing and construction that, even at my most generous, I can’t quite recommend it that highly. However, neither is it hopeless. This is an adventure that manages to have some inventive encounters and provides some opportunities for the players to use their minds instead of their dice. For that, I commend it: it has managed to engage my interest.

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Musings on Adventure Path Structure

When 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons was released, it also gained a series of eight adventures that took a group of adventurers from levels 1 to 20. Starting with the Sunless Citadel and continuing through to Bastion of Broken Souls, it demonstrated something that previous editions hadn’t provided: a complete “Adventure Path” series that went the full range of levels. However, players only familiar with the Paizo Adventure Paths would likely not recognise the structure of this original series.

The adventures were mostly stand-alone, to begin with, with only a couple of links between them. Yes, you got a (very) few references to Ashardalon and Gulthias, names that would become important in later adventures, but this wasn’t like – say – Tyranny of Dragons or Kingmaker where everything is part of one connected story. It was very easy to take one of the adventures and just play it; you didn’t need to play those that came before or after, because each adventure was self-contained. At $9.95 each for 32-pages of adventure, they were pretty neat.

The structure of the Sunless Citadel path reminds me most of the structure of many late-1E and 2E campaigns: one where the DM would throw together a bunch of unrelated published adventures because they looked fun. Certainly, this is a style that I’ve played in and employed (many times), with a few adventures hinting it at a later threat, because the DM has looked ahead and seen what the later adventures will hold. The design is “standalone first, connections later”.

So, when I ran my original 3E campaign, we started with The Sunless Citadel, moved through the next couple of adventures, and then wandered off into adventures of my own design – only coming back for a dip into Deep Horizon. And I’m not even sure it was the same campaign… for most of the last 16 years, I’ve been running 2 (or 3) campaigns, sometimes on a weekly basis. And Deep Horizon happily didn’t reference anything else in the other adventures.

Towards the end of 3E, Paizo started publishing Adventure Paths. These covered levels 1-20 to begin with (later fewer levels, due to the poor experiences people had at the highest levels). They’ve continued doing so, using their Pathfinder system. At present, I can see over one-hundred volumes on my shelf of their AP releases – it’s something like 20 Adventure Paths, including their initial releases in Dungeon Magazine.

These are ongoing stories. You start at the beginning, each adventure directly leads into the next, and by the end you’ve played an entire campaign that is (mainly) one story. However, they have a major problem to deal with. The problem isn’t that they’re bad or repetitive (although both could be true), but rather that the periodical release of the adventures – plus the underlying system – causes them to be relatively linear in form. One of the features I encountered when running 3E (over many, many sessions) is that two or three levels gained makes the monsters that were a challenge at the original level now utterly under-powered at the new levels. This is quite unlike how most of 5E plays – it takes a lot longer for monsters to become nonthreatening.

So this has a particular effect on adventure design: each section of an adventure must be set for a particular narrow set of levels. Once you exceed those levels, you need to proceed to the next section lest things get dull. When you add that these adventure paths are published as six chunks, the adventure thus has a straight line pointing in the way to proceed. Players can have a little freedom in each section, but the arrow inevitably points on to the next volume.

Now consider the new Wizards adventures for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. There’s only one of them that could be published as a Paizo Adventure Path – and that’s the Tyranny of Dragons duology. (Even that does interesting things with the form, but it is the most linear and could be broken into more chunks if necessary).

Every other adventure presents an adventure environment. Storm King’s Thunder comes closest to the Paizo form – but could you imagine Paizo printing an AP instalment where you only use 1/5th of the adventure and ignore the other parts? That’s the structure of the Giant Strongholds in SKT. Curse of Strahd and Princes of the Apocalypse are primarily sandboxes, allowing the players to encounter threats in any order (though there are hints as to the best way to encounter things). These are only presentable in a single-book format. Out of the Abyss spends the first half as a sandbox, before wandering into a more traditional quest structure (while still allowing the DM and players the ability to use it as a sandbox if they really feel like it…)

The “bounded accuracy” of 5E makes these sandbox/environment adventures far more interesting than in 3E; the various locations stay relevant for a larger range of levels. Ogres? Yes, you could encounter those from levels 1-10, and they’re likely to still be relevant at all levels, though the nature of the encounter still changes. They could hurt you even when you’re high level – a far cry from the power curve in 3E.

One of the reasons I’ve been so excited about the 5E adventures is because they’re trying new things in their form, something aided by their presentation as single hardcover adventures. They don’t all appeal to everyone, but there are new things being tried, and we’re seeing a lot of exploration of the possibilities of adventure design and presentation. It’s a very exciting time to be reading and running Dungeons & Dragons adventures!

Oh, and Happy New Year! I hope you have a fantastic 2017!

Posted in D&D, D&D 3E, D&D 5E, Design, Pathfinder, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Princes of the Apocalypse, sessions 28-31

The adventurers had, by this stage, basically cleared the Air, Earth and Water temples. The Air Prophet was dead, and the Earth and Water Prophets were somewhere else – current locations unknown. Not that the players were paying that much attention to the location of the prophets.

Their current location was the Fane of the Eye, the twisting caverns that linked the four temples – and which make little sense when you try to line up the maps of the adventure. (There’s now errata to the overland map scale. It still doesn’t make that much sense). Some of the passages were blocked by a black mist that made the adventurers particularly paranoid. When the DM isn’t telling the players what the mist does, then the players are free to work out the worst possibilities and act as if they were true.

The most significant encounter in this area – at least according to Thumbelina, our dwarven (sorry, giant) barbarian, was the discovery of the dwarven (giant) thrower, a magic item of great power that the spirit of a dwarven hero guarded. This item, in the hands of a high-strength dwarf, is extremely powerful, and Thumbelina loved it.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned Thumbelina before, but it’s been a while since I discussed this campaign, so here’s a reminder: Thumbelina is a dwarf who was raised by giants. She considers herself to be a giant, and she is very, very sensitive about her height. The best way to start a fight with her was to call her short. As I (and everyone else) considered her wonderful, I took care to have her foes call her short at every opportunity. Her standard response was to growl, “Who are you calling short?” and, unless restrained to then go berserk and attack them. Once she got the dwarven thrower, the damage the party was inflicting on the opposition grew substantially. A raging dwarven barbarian with a dwarven thrower? That’s scary!

Magic weapons are important in the later stages of this adventure; fighters without such weapons were having trouble. Thankfully, weapons were being acquired, especially the artefacts held by the prophets. My players finally decided to brave the black mist, and discovered it wasn’t a disintegration field after all! It just felt a little weird and hadn’t turned their food into green slime at all.

What they did find was the centre of the Fane, where Marlos Unrayle, the Earth Prophet, guarded the Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye. Fighting a medusa always gives the possibility of petrification, but Marlos – even with Ironfang – isn’t otherwise that dangerous, and he didn’t have enough other guards with him to properly challenge the party, especially not an enraged giant (dwarf). With his defeat, the party took possession of his magical weapon (although no-one wanted to use it), and then proceeded to ignore the great altar in the cavern. Rescue the prisoner, yes (a poor commoner abducted from Womford), but they didn’t spend any time investigating the altar.

I bring this up because investigating the altar doesn’t get them anywhere. It allows them to see all four elements brought together, but that’s about it. It’s just an unknowable thing. Ultimately, the “Elder Elemental Eye” is mostly irrelevant to the adventure, and its ultimate plans are unrealised – it’s likely the players never find out about it.

One thing the players did do is interrogate the prisoner to discover if he knew anything about the Womford Bat. It was an ongoing point of curiosity in our game. No, he knew nothing.

The next area the adventurers wanted to investigate was the Fire Temple. They first attempted to get to it from below – there’s a platform that magically can raise creatures and objects into the Temple. Unfortunately, it requires a magic command word, and the adventurers didn’t have it. They considered going up to the surface and then trying to find the outpost of Elemental Fire on the surface, before they realised they could just return to the Earth Temple and take the tunnel to the Fire Temple. (The remaining denizens of the Earth Temple just let them go. They weren’t going to get involved!)

One thing about the Fire Temple: the denizens there know fire magic, which the players became extremely aware of, after I fireballed them three times in one combat. Somewhat blackened, the group retreated to lick their wounds, leaving behind the bodies of a couple of dead fire mages.

Their next expedition was more successful, and the group happily made their way through ogre, magmin and cultists as a great battle developed around the forge area. Quite a lot of magic was expended on each side, and the fighters were very happy with how much damage they were dealing.

Then they came upon a fire cultist who didn’t attack them, and, in addition, revealed himself to be a member of the Zhentarim who had infiltrated the cult. He gave them the passwords to use the platform to return to the Fane level, as well as alerting them to the presence of the Nodes beneath the Fane, where the final prophets has gone – to perform some ritual or another. He also offered to take Ironfang from them – and allow the Zhentarim to deal with it. The group were happy to do this, and handed it over.

It’s worth noting that the group as it currently stood was very much lacking healing magic. Player changes (and character changes) had left the group without a dedicated cleric. druid or bard. Jesse decided after the assault on the Fire Temple that he’d switch characters to the bard he’d used in Tyranny of Dragons. For the bulk of this campaign, his character had represented the Zhentarim, and began each negotiation with the words “Hello, we’re the Zhentarim. We’re here to help!” He always managed to get that out before any other player – something that rather frustrated our Harpers, but that everyone found incredibly amusing. His new character was a Harper.

And so, shortly after his new character joined, it was revealed that the “Zhentarim” cultist was in fact lying – and they’d given one of the main artefacts to the leaders of the Fire Cult. Jesse was not amused by this. “Why did you trust the Zhentarim?” he asked. I was greatly amused.

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Running Princes of the Apocalypse: Temple of Black Earth

Over the course of running Princes of the Apocalypse, the characters spent a lot of time in the Temple of Black Earth and its connected outpost, the Sacred Stone Monastery. When my group first encountered the Monastery, they weren’t powerful enough. They could defeat the gate guards, but that fight left them hurt and needing to rest. So, they would retreat and come back the next day. Meanwhile, the monastery replaced the gate guards – with tougher and tougher foes. And sent some scouts to find the party (the adventurers killed the scouts).

Eventually, getting sick of this, one of the priests in the temple, Qarbo, invited the characters in and explained to them that they were attacking the wrong people. Did they really want to find the delegation? Go bother the cultists in Feathergale Spire. Qarbo even demonstrated a couple of brainwashed delegates to them who told the adventurers that everything was fine.

My group, being extremely easy to lead around, followed Qarbo’s suggestion. Unfortunately for Qarbo, my group was extremely easy to lead around, and so were sent right back to the monastery by the Feathergale Knights. And then they slaughtered Qarbo, freed the prisoners, and took their first view of the temple below – and discovered that it was very dangerous. Thankfully, they retreated and used information from the rescued prisoners to go back to the Feathergale Knights and start bothering them again, eventually leading to their sacking of the Air Temple.

The entrance to the Temple of Black Earth is one of the most dangerous in the adventure. The cult has it very well-defended. In theory, a group of characters who are too low-level will go away and try to find some other way in (as my group did), but the danger comes from the players being stubborn and just trying again and again and again (see above for how my group handled the monastery). One of the biggest challenges in Princes of the Apocalypse is giving the players enough leads and quests so that when they reach a place that is too difficult, they can attempt something different – and letting them know that this is an option. There’s enough material in the adventure so you can do it, but actually conveying that information to the players isn’t always easy.

When my players returned to the Temple of Black Earth, it was from below – from the connecting passages through the Fane of the Eye. This time, they were higher level, but the opposition was still dangerous. There’s a lot of opportunity for the Earth Cultists to attack them from multiple directions. When you’re running Princes of the Apocalypse, it’s a good idea to make a copy of the map, then write on it where each of the groups of enemies are… and then move them in relation to the adventurers as the game progresses. Opponents fleeing from a combat can alert further groups, until the entire complex is alerted and defending against the adventurers. It requires some smart play to overcome the massed opposition.

The most dangerous thing for a group of adventurers to do is to follow retreating cultists. If you check the map of the Temple, there’s a lot of connecting passages and loops. So, it’s very easy for the party to be attacked from both sides at once. It’s definitely entertaining for the DM – and likely the players as well. You want to give the players a feeling of accomplishment, and that works best when they feel like they’re fighting something dangerous. The Temple of Black Earth gives plenty of opportunity for that to occur. In my game, while the adventurers were fighting in area 23, I had reinforcements coming along the corridors from the north and east. The group got the idea in a hurry and fled, though they were able to slay their target.

The other aspect of the Temple that makes it interesting to run is Yarsha (in area B6), who would like nothing more for the characters to murder the second in command, Miraj, for her, so she can become the new deputy, and then to go away. This occurred in my game: she allied with the characters, told them where the “prophet” was – actually Miraj, rather than the prophet – and then laughed maniacally to herself once the characters left.

As it happened, because the characters had already killed the Air Prophet, the real Earth Prophet was down below in the Fane. They encountered and slew him later. However, as I never really told the players that each prophet had his own special weapon (they worked it out later), they weren’t aware of the deception. Yarsha is still down there, but given the characters were eventually successful at closing the nodes, I don’t she’s living the life of power she expected.

Posted in D&D 5E, Elemental Evil, Play Advice | Leave a comment

5E Adventure Review: Banquet of the Damned

The town of Womford was made (somewhat) famous to my players by its tales of the “Womford Bat” in Princes of the Apocalypse. The bat, unfortunately, does not make an appearance in Banquet of the Damned, a new adventure by Benoit de Bernady, save in an appendix, but you do get two feuding bakers, a mysterious fire, and a demonic corruptor.

The early stages of this adventure are an investigation; the adventurers are hired by the local baron to find out who set the fire. The way this is handled is interesting: the actual perpetrator isn’t the villain of the piece (or one of their agents), but the heroes’ investigations lead to the perpetrator being uncovered! It’s an unusual technique that pays off. If the players fail to find the clues, there’s a rather nasty consequence for Womford, which then propels the heroes back onto the main storyline. Again, this is good design.

The adventure ends with potentially a pair of combats (and possibly an exorcism). In all, it should likely take one or two sessions to play through. There’s a good selection of encounters, and some excellent ideas within.

That said, it’s not all smooth sailing. The writing, while mostly good, has a few clumsy constructions or repetitions of phrases. One of the main characters, Mortimer Wormstooth, gets a set of contradictory motivations. (He’s bitter, a well-respected philanthropist, and a good man who let a bully define him).

My main problem with the adventure, which I recognise as primarily a stylistic one, is that that it’s a bit too easy to discover exactly what the adventurers are up against. These days, I prefer, when possible, to not tell the players the exact name of what they’re fighting, instead letting it define itself through its appearance and actions. The demonic antagonist is not one I’m familiar with. It’s a really spectacular design and the effects of its plots are really creepy. I’d rather the players reached the final encounter thinking they were up against a witch, and then discover the true nature of the threat. However, as I said, this is a stylistic preference; the adventure works as written.

Overall, Banquet of the Damned is a strong adventure, well worth investigating. I do suggest you ignore the advice about when to play the adventure. “You can play the adventure any time the PCs travel through the village of Womford during the autumn.” Place it anywhere you like; there’s nothing really stopping you. Waiting for the characters to visit Womford during the autumn? You may have to wait a while!

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