5E Supplement Review: Jungle Goodies – The Treasures of Chult

Jungle Goodies is a collection of descriptions of the odd, the bizarre and the wonderful items, characters and locations you might find in Chult. Designed by Chris Bissette and Matt Sanders, it provides the harried Dungeon Master with a selection of material to help inspire games set in the jungle land.

This is not a collection of magic items, despite the name. Instead, it just describes various things the players can find. A section on Art objects has the description “This rough crystal figurine depicts a naga. Its eyes are tiny uncut emeralds”. In the jungle, you might find a “huge leaf, [which] is tough yet flexible. [It could be] used for wrapping food or other provisions.”

Perhaps you might meet a stranger in the forest. “This relic hunter has a cavalier, only-live-once attitude. She doesn’t particularly care whether the sites she explores are reduced to rubble once she is done, no matter how historically or culturally significant they may be, as long as she comes out of them with something she can sell.”

The product consists of 16 tables, each with 12 entries. The tables are as follows:

  • Animal Bits
  • Art Objects
  • Found in the Tavern
  • Gifts from Nature
  • Primitive Tools
  • Recovered from the Library
  • Relics of a Lost Civilisation
  • Storage Solutions
  • Weapons and Armour
  • Adventure Hooks
  • Hazards
  • Locations
  • NPCS
  • Strange Creatures

There aren’t any rules in sight, as this product is simply for inspiration. And, at that task, it succeeds superbly. There’s a lot here to like, and if you don’t like something, there’s always the next entry. I’ve found it a truism that each Dungeon Master has his or her own familiar tropes that they return to again and again. (Mine? Purple rocks and priests of Chaos). Having sources like these, which allow the DM to change things up and be inspired from, is something I find very useful.

There are a few minor errors in the document, but it’s mostly well-writen. It’s formatted in landscape format, the better to read on a computer screen. I’m not quite sold on this format, but it’s a minor concern.

Overall, I very much enjoyed reading this supplement. Recommended.

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Decisions and Consequences

Why do you put a puzzle in a game of Dungeons & Dragons? The answer: To challenge the players.

I feel it is a great mistake to believe that it’s there to challenge the characters. They’re imaginary. They’re not playing the game. It’s the players sitting around the table with you who the puzzle is for. And, if your players don’t like puzzles, it’ll be a horrible encounter.

Imagine describing a logic puzzle scribed on a door. To solve it, at least one character must succeed on a DC 16 Intelligence check. Is that a puzzle? No, it’s an ability check. Is it interesting? Not very.

It is entirely possible to view D&D combat as one big puzzle. The reason? You’re making decisions and thinking about it all the time. And that’s at the heart of any good game: You need to be challenged. You need to make decisions. Games falter when there aren’t enough decisions or they’re boring or pointless ones. I’m looking at you, Candy Land and Monopoly!

Are you interacting with the King? What do you say to him? How do you persuade him that his daughter wants to run away with you and become a dragon hunter?

Different players have different levels of abstraction with such matters. You have people who want to act the entire scene out, and you have people who just want to let a single ability check determine the result. And you have people in-between. None of these approaches is wrong, but they prove very difficult for adventure designers. You’ve got to cover a lot of bases. However, because the entire situation depends on the players making decisions, it is interesting. The key decision? “We’re going to persuade the King his daughter should come with us, rather than just leave her behind.” That’s what makes it interesting. You have a decision, and it has a consequence. The delight about a RPG is that you aren’t sure of what the consequence will be. “Well, I’m actually a dragon,” says the King!

There was a mechanic in the 4th Edition of D&D called the Skill Challenge. The idea was that to succeed, you needed to make X successful skill checks before you failed 3 times. The choice of skill was mostly determined by the challenge itself. And, for the most part, they were deadly dull. The problem was that the mechanics by itself wasn’t interesting. It boiled down to the players choosing their best skills and making rolls. You could make a little puzzle out of it which was “which skill do you use?”, but even that was mostly unsatisfying. They were just too simple.

Consider a D&D combat. That is full of interesting decisions. Where do I move? What do I attack? What weapon do I use? Do I protect the wizard? Do I cast an attack spell or heal the fighter? Can I remember the secret weakness of this creature?

You don’t want every challenge in a D&D game to be that complicated, but you do need challenges to be complicated enough to engage the players.

An individual ability check works when it’s made in context and as part of a greater tapestry of decision-making. Requiring a Strength check to open a door isn’t interesting by itself, but when it might require the players to enter the dungeon by another method, or alert guards to their presence if they fail: that makes it interesting. The “logic puzzle” that is solved by an ability check? It’s interesting if it has context. If all the players chose to play low-intelligence characters? That makes it interesting – it provides a consequence for their decisions during character creation. Perhaps they can find a sage to give them the answer?

It’s when there’s only one solution to a challenge important to the story and the players fail at that challenge that you get real frustration. I like some puzzle challenges – the ones I can solve easily. If I’m sitting 30 minutes later with no solution and the DM is enjoying the fact we can’t reach the end of the adventure? That’s not fun. Likewise, I have a lot of problem role-playing when I don’t know enough about the world I’m in. I prefer to abstract those sorts of challenges out a bit – describe what I want to achieve, and allow the DM (perhaps aided with dice) to determine how I do.

I’m happy to have a secret door that the characters might not find if it just leads to a bonus encounter. If it leads to something that the adventure falls apart without? Not so good.

Ultimately, the DM should be guided by the desires of the players at his or her table. Don’t throw combat after combat at them if they don’t enjoy constant combat. Don’t set them a high-level logic puzzle when they don’t want to do one. They enjoy role-playing and making ethical decisions? Well, perhaps D&D isn’t the best game for them, but I’ll give it a shot – it’s a very flexible game!

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5E Adventure Review: Murder at the Stop

The Stop is a small town on the Trade Way as it nears Hillsfar. Life has been tough for the people of the Stop after the overthrow of the previous ruler of Hillsfar, and they haven’t been helped by the hold the Hillsfar Merchant Guild holds over their town. What happens when the representative of the Guild gets murdered? That’s the focus of Murder at the Stop, the first adventure in a new series of D&D Adventurers League-legal adventures set in that town. It is designed by Robert Alaniz.

This is an adventure that revolves around the search for the murderer. Convention scenarios for D&D in this current age are often investigation scenarios. I’m sure this is partly due to the fact that they allow role-playing and puzzle-solving in addition to combat. It makes them a different experience to many home games that don’t really leave the dungeon, and they pose a challenge to Dungeon Masters who aren’t used to their flow. Robert Alaniz is a good designer, so the adventure provides options for progressing the story when the players aren’t getting far with the investigation.

The early part of the adventure has a lot of role-playing, and – as I found – it’s quite possible for a party who don’t like questioning people to walk away from it. The Stop, in Alaniz’s hands, has several interesting characters and various storylines taking place, of which the players can catch a glimpse, or more than that if they talk to the right people.

This complexity of interactions does cause problems. A lot of leads point towards the Hillsfar Merchant Guild – which is properly named the Hillsfar Alliance of Merchant Representatives, a name I have trouble remembering – but they’re a nebulous faction that isn’t really present, and thus can prove a frustrating dead end. There are clues that point towards the real culprit, but they point more to the method rather than the person. The final revelation of the culprit leads to a fantastic final encounter, but is likely to be something forced by events rather than revealed by the actions of the player characters.

There’s a strong horror theme running throughout the adventure, which comes through strongly in the two main combat encounters. A DM can really play this up, exploiting the contrast between the normal life of the trading village and the darker forces that are now attempting to subvert it.

With a combination of interesting NPCs, memorable combats and a intriguing storyline, Murder at the Stop is a superior DDAL adventure. It’s not without flaw, as I believe the investigation could be more cleanly handled, but investigations are very tricky to write well. At least this adventure provides encounters that will entertain those who don’t like investigating. Recommended.

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Running Tomb of Annihilation – Session 1

The memory cheats. It had been a week since our Session 0 where we created the characters for this session, and I’d ended the creation session with the description of the characters arriving in Chult.

Except, now they weren’t. I described a new teleportation ritual started by their patron, and it went wrong, not sending them to Chult! Did anyone notice? No, not really.

Instead, the group ended up in the Feywild, where they arrived just in time to save a lamb from being killed by a Krenshar. Yes, we’d started playing the alternative beginning to Tomb of Annihilation found in Shawn Merwin’s Return of the Lizard King adventure on the DMs Guild, one of the initial Guild Adept products. And, thanks to a decision made during the last week, it was now DDAL-legal. So, a quick little change to what happened when their patron used the ritual… and they found themselves in the Feywild. The poor Krenshar didn’t stand a chance against the party, and soon they were rewarded for their kindness by being given a potion of revivify by Mother Doe, the fey creature whose wards they had saved.

The Feywild, it appeared, was not immune to the effect of the death curse; Mother Doe explained that something done in the world of men had made it darker. Perhaps more twisted (a dangerous thing to say about the Feywild!) Certainly, it was no place for living men (and elves, and dwarves, and whatever other strange races the players had chosen). She advised the party follow the stream until they found a way out. This, the party agreed to, and they set out to see what they could find.

What they discovered was a wooden bridge over the river, with a large bundle of twigs and branches lying on it. This was suspicious. Suspicious enough that August and Jonathan approached ahead of the party to investigate the pile; unfortunately, what they failed to spot were the three darkling fey hidden under the bridge. I made my attack rolls, and both August and Jonathan were the recipients of critical hits. Jonathan, being a paladin, survived, though he was unconscious and dying. August was not so lucky, and was killed outright. In the ensuing battle, one of the darklings was killed, a second was captured, and the third fled. The tears of Mother Doe were applied to August, and he was revived –

The “bundle of twigs and branches” turned out to be a fey creature; a pine wilden named Byre, who had been captured by the darklings by the behest of the Queen of Creeping Vines, a great power of the Fey. His people had detected a darkening of the Feywild, and the pine wilden were seeking to escape it – back to a great forest in Faerûn. He invited the group to travel with him, which they readily agreed to. After destroying the wooden bridge – made of the kin of Byre, it seemed – they headed off through the forest, in search of the portal.

The portal was located on an island in the middle of a stunning lake, but no lake in the Feywild is without its dangers. Great giant toads attacked the party as they attempted to cross by raft, leaping out of the water and causing the adventurers to mind their footing. August, the pyromancer, started setting fire to the toads – and the raft! – causing the toads to abandon it, where Argian the Archer was able to pick them off in the water with his longbow. Meanwhile, Ardon Cleaverhand called down the wrath of his god through the spell sacred flame, which had the advantage of not setting the raft on fire! Byre was none to impressed by the flames, and the remainder of the party quickly extinguished them.

It became apparent upon setting foot on the vine-covered isle that the Queen of Creeping Vines was definitely out to get them. The vines came alive, causing the group to lead a merry dance trying to stay free, while fish-people servants of the Queen attacked from the water. Pieron the Bard realised the vines were hurt badly by fire, and screamed at August to burn them. The bonfire he created with his magic took a while to get going, but eventually the vines fell dormant and released them, as the fish-people were defeated in battle.

It was then that the Queen of Creeping Vines decided to attend these irritating mortals in person, rising from the centre of the island, a ten-foot-tall woman resembling a elf. Pieron stepped forward to bargain with her, and yes, he was able to secure the party’s release and access to the portal, but the price was heavy: his soul! That the Queen took. Pieron would live, for now, but upon his death his soul would belong to the Queen of Creeping Vines, for whatever purpose she saw fit.

The adventurers made their way through the portal; its magic refreshing them as they travelled. However, upon stepping through they discovered themselves not in the High Forest, as described, but in a jungle land, with lizardfolk running past them. And, without a further word, August fell dead to the ground, his body rotting before them – a victim of the Death Curse.

Welcome to Chult, adventurers!

DM Notes

The first section of Return of the Lizard King, by Shawn Merwin, was used in place of the beginning of Tomb of Annihilation. It made for a memorable start for the campaign. Most memorable of all, for me, was the fate of August. This was a really good character created by Josh, and one that I was really looking forward to running in the campaign ahead, but his death in the second combat made me have to make a decision: would the potion of revivify that Mother Doe gave him work, or would it fail due to the Death Curse? My initial ruling was that it would work, and that he’d remain alive once he returned to Chult; the Feywild somewhat protecting him from the Curse, but the more I thought about it as the session went on and afterwards, it would cause a lot of problems. His life would be draining away every day, and I might be breaking the way the Death Curse worked. It occurred to me that it’d be much stronger if he did die, and properly show the effects of the Death Curse of the party. So, he died.

I have a great affinity for the fey, which made the early section of this adventure sing for me. I’ve used great powers of the fey in my home Greyhawk campaign – I may have mentioned the Queen of Winter before – but this was the first time I got to use them as part of a legal DDAL campaign! Sadly, further exploration of the fey’s influence will have to wait. I don’t know at present if Shawn’s potential sequel will involve the fey, and their involvement with the adventure ends here. Mostly. Jesse’s character, Pieron, now has an additional flaw of “fear of vines”. Just as well none of them exist in Chult… oh, wait!

This session ran in two hours. It could have easily gone for more, as neither my group nor me spend overlong on role-playing interactions. The negotiation with the Queen, the discussion with Byre, the interrogation of the darkling? They could have gone for a long time, with a lot of interesting interactions and world-building thereby enabled. Instead, we kept the pace up, moving quickly from one encounter to the next. Without the opportunity for much rest, the party were challenged greatly – they were very close to dead when they finally made their way through the portal.

The reaction of the players to this? Very favourable. They enjoyed the storyline and the challenge of the encounters. We’ll continue running through Return for the moment, as it gives a more structured introduction to Tomb of Annihilation than the “let’s explore Chult” beginning. The meat of Tomb will definitely be used; it’ll just be a few weeks.

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5E Adventure Review – Bleeding Gate: Amalgamation

In the Forgotten Realms, there exists a secret society known as the Peacesmiths, with 47,417 members scattered over Faerun, which is run out of a small underground settlement no-one has heard of called Emudomier. What do they do? I don’t know. They’re apparently Emudomier’s champions and master negotiators, and they’re going missing.

The characters are hired to investigate. Or rather, they’re hired to visit Raan, question her, and investigate the suspicious noises she’s heard in the sewers.

Who’s Raan? She’s a friendly basilisk, but the person hiring the party doesn’t bother informing them of this fact. So, when they discover her fighting a gibbering mouther, there’s the possibility of confusion and hilarity!!! (And the party might kill the only lead they have).

Raan asks you to find where Takwen has run off to. Takwen is a child who is also a were-yeti, not that Raan will tell you that (are you seeing a theme here?). Her friend Kirshi (a real yeti) is in danger. Not that the party get told that. But there’s a helpful image for the DM (see right).

Following Raan through a tunnel brings you inside a giant Gibbering Mouther which has absorbed all the animals in a nearby forest, and brings you face-to-face with an evil dwarf. In fact, he’s the twin of the Paragon. Once you get outside the mouther, you get to meet the Paragon, a pregnant tiefling, a talking snake, and a grocery-store owner and get utterly confused with who they are, what they’re doing here, and what this adventure is about. And thus ends the adventure.

The adventure? Bleeding Gate: Amalgamation, the second part of a trilogy that is a D&D Adventurers League-legal adventure released as part of the Con-Created Content program.

It is a disaster of an adventure. It’s playable – just – but its author, Ma’at Crook, has no idea about presentation, story logic, how to explain what the hell is going on, or make anything comprehensible for the DM or players. The final encounter sees the level 1-4 characters fighting a 11th-level spellcaster with access to harm and blight. For a laugh, I had the NPC cast harm on a PC. It’s fine – harm will leave the PC with 1 hit point. Admittedly, it might have also reduced their maximum hit point score to 1, but luckily the character made his saving throw and didn’t have to spend the last couple of rounds hiding under a rock. Putting that encounter in a Tier 1 adventure? Ridiculous.

The less said about the artwork, the better. Actually, some of the interior artwork is cute, but the style is misjudged. The cover art is a train wreck.

Here’s a few things this adventure could do to make it better:

  • Have a proper introduction so the players know what they’re doing.
  • Have a synopsis of the adventure, so the DM knows what he or she is doing.
  • Introduce each of the non-player characters properly.
  • Explain how the characters relate to each other so the players could understand the story.
  • Have the person hiring them turn up at the meeting rather than make it into an intelligence (stupidity?) check about whether the PCs will pick a lock for no apparent reason or not.
  • A sense of pacing

Here’s a few things this adventure could exclude to make it better:

  • The art
  • The super-secret organization no-one has ever heard of before
  • Stupidly impossible encounters.

And it could be hoped for better formatting and dialogue. But I don’t expect it.

You can see within it a few ideas that would make a coherent story, but the author had no idea of how to put it together.

I had two tables running this adventure. None of us could believe what we were seeing. Amusement came from the utter awfulness and randomness of it all.

Life is too short for adventures like this. Unless you’re making MST3K: Roleplaying Edition. Avoid.

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Running Tomb of Annihilation – Session 0

We’ve started running Tomb of Annihilation! Well, sort of! The first session of the campaign was what is occasionally referred to as a “Session 0”. It’s a session where the players create their characters, and everyone works out how they know each other, why they’re on the adventure, and the DM gets to discover what plot hooks will work best with the party.

With Tomb of Annihilation, that information will be very valuable. The beginning of Tomb is wide open. “Here’s a blank map! Try and fill it in”. Knowing the personalities, factions and goals of the player characters before the adventure gets underway will allow me to tailor the adventure hooks to them.

We can also avoid those little mistakes like “every character is a rogue”. Yes, it sounds fun, but lacking front-line fighters is a bit of a problem when you’re facing a dinosaur. One of my pet peeves about 5E is how you end up with groups which are all Dex-based. I want to put a rock in a dungeon for those groups – where no-one can move it and they can’t get the vorpal sword on the other side.

That isn’t the case with this group! I was delighted to discover that the final Strength scores read 16, 16, 16, 14, 8, 8. Yes, the wizard and the bard have poor Strength scores, but that’s fine. This group will be able to overcome any rocks they come up against!

The first part of the session involved deciding what classes everyone would play. You want a balanced group. A couple of healers are great. A couple of front-line warriors. At least one person who can cast Area of Effect spells. And someone who can open locks and disable traps. We almost got that. The selections were fighter, paladin, cleric, ranger, bard and wizard. Did you know the original printing of White Plume Mountain called for a party that was 40% Fighters, 30% Wizards, 20% Clerics and 10% Rogues? This was also back in the day when parties of 9 characters weren’t unusual. These days, it’s unlikely I’ll have to run parties that big, unless NPCs fill out a group (like they did in the old days, to be fair).

We then started discussing character backgrounds, bonds and flaws. While creating personality traits and ideals are important for your character, bonds and flaws indicate more about how you’ll work with the rest of the group, and need to be looked at with some care. Factions were also decided upon now; in DDAL play, Factions are often the way you get hooked into individual adventures, and provide a lot of guidance as to how to play your character.

Stephen’s character went through a number of changes in this conception process. He decided on playing a Half-Elf Paladin with the Oath of the Ancients path, and went for the default “Order of the Gauntlet” faction. After we started reviewing the characters, we realised that making him belong to the Emerald Enclave, which another PC also belonged to, would be much better.

Nathan’s character – the dwarf cleric – took the Archaeologist background, but I think it’s likely we’ll end up changing it to the Soldier background. As we worked on a backstory for the character, we linked him to Ulder Ravensgard and the Flaming Fist (as the introduction to ToA begins in Baldur’s Gate). Matt mentioned that Ulder had likely been raised and was suffering the Death Curse, so that brought another link in.

Matt is playing a half-orc fighter, whose human noble father had an affair with a half-orc servant. We’re still pinning down details of the character. Our original bond was the character having father issues. The second version, which Matt sent me afterwards, is that he hates being called human. We’ll see where that goes. One of the points to bonds and flaws is that they’ve got to come up in play.

So, the characters we’ve created are as follows:

Baldric Adrianson (Matt) – half-orc fighter (noble). Lawful Good follower of Tyr. Lords Alliance. Str 16, Dex 8, Con 16, Int 8, Wis 12, Cha 14. Baldric is helping Uther Ravensgard.

Ardon Cleaverhand (Nathan) – dwarf cleric (archaeologist -> soldier?). Neutral follower of Gorm Gauthyl. Lords Alliance. Str 16, Dex 12, Con 16, Int 10, Wis 14, Cha 8. His family has a long association with the Flaming Fist; he believes that Family and Clan come before everything else and that violence is the best solution. (That last may give us problems).

Pieron Agosto (Jesse) – human bard (acolyte). Chaotic Good follower of Sune. Harpers. Str 8, Dex 12, Con 12, Int 12, Wis 14, Cha 16. Pieron has been keeping an eye on things in Baldur’s Gate as an agent of the Harpers.

August Fuego (Josh) – fire genasi wizard (sage). Chaotic Neutral follower of Kossuth. Harpers. Str 8, Dex 14, Con 16, Int 16, Wis 10, Cha 10. August is from Calimport, where he got into trouble because he’s an alcoholic – when he got drunk, he burnt down a tavern. His mentor was a member of the Harpers, and helped him escape. He’s been paying off his debt to them and has been aiding Pieron.

Jonathan Amakiir (Stephen) – half-elf paladin (acolyte). Chaotic Good follower of Labelas Enorath. Emerald Enclave. Str 16, Dex 10, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 16. He has a mission to investigate Chult and discover what is corrupting the natural order.

Argian Sinodel (Rich) – wood elf ranger (outlander). Chaotic Good. Emerald Enclave. Str 14, Dex 16, Con 10, Int 12, Wis 15, Cha 8. Argian is Jonathan’s partner. He feels strongly that his mission is to restore and maintain the natural order, but he’s slow to trust others. I’ll need to look up a place Argian can come from – there are some wild elves mentioned in Silver Shadows, so I’ll use those.

We’ll continue to change and modify these characters as the game progresses. The basic choices are good, but as we discover how to make them work better together, we’ll change stuff.

With all of that done, we were ready to begin running Tomb of Annihilation. I started looking through the book to find the best guides and side-quests to begin the characters with… and then came the announcement that the Guild Adept adventures could be used in the D&D Adventurers League.

Right. Off to prep Return of the Lizard King!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League, Session Report, Tomb of Annihilation | 1 Comment

Tales of the Screen

I used the new Dungeon Master’s Screen (Reincarnated!) the other day. I referred to it about as much as I usually do – I looked at it once to find the distance a group of monsters started away from the party. But that was it.

It wasn’t always that way. Back when I was playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition), I referred to my DM screen constantly. There was a reason for that: All the monster attack bonuses and saving throws were on the screen. The monster had one number – its Hit Dice – from which most of its other important statistics were derived. So, the DM screen was something you used constantly.

Referring to the screen started slipping out of the game as new editions of D&D were produced. The AD&D 2E introduced a THAC0 score (the precursor of our attack bonus), so the combat tables were no longer needed, just the saving throws. D&D 3E gave much more complete stat-blocks, with attack bonuses and saving throws, but the screen remained helpful for reminders of the plethora of bonuses and special cases that could affect the game.

It was the fourth edition that made the DM Screen almost irrelevant. In my days of running 4E (two campaigns to level 30!), the one part of the screen I used was the section explaining what the conditions were. The rest? Not that much. Interestingly, 4E also premiered the first of the new-model screens – ones which were set up in “landscape” mode rather than “portrait” mode. These new screens were wider but shorter, allowing DMs a better view of the tabletop and their players. After using this version, I don’t want to go back to the taller screens.

The 4E model also informs the fifth edition screen – and its “reincarnated” version. For me, the most useful part of it is the reminder of what the conditions do, which take up most of the centre panels, although I also use the random distance tables from time to time. The left-hand panel has a summary of the actions combatants can take, along with reminders of the rules for jumping, suffocating, spell effect areas and concentration. The summary of actions is really, really good for new DMs. The other reminders save you looking up rules in the book when those occasions arise. In the last version of the screen, there was information on creating NPCs, so some of the role-players who used that for inspiration will find this not as good.

The right-hand side of the screen has a bunch of nifty quick reference charts, which likely will come in handy at some point. Things like Object AC and HP, Random Encounter Distances, and other miscellaneous tables. Upon showing it to my friends, they were taken by how it listed the costs of Food, Drink and Lodging, things that they assume have meaning. Well, they do, but adventurers tend to be rich enough to ignore that after the first few levels – it just becomes busywork. As opposed to Travel Pace and Encounter Distance, tables that contain information I sometimes need to know.

For a new DM, this is an excellent screen. For an experienced DM, it has its moments. So why did I gleefully buy it?

Mainly for the two other functions a screen has: Hiding my notes and hiding my dice rolls.

I don’t like players being able to see the adventure – and especially the map – when they’re doing a dungeon exploration. If I’m using a laptop to run the game from, something I do from time to time, I can dispense with the screen for that purpose. However, typically the adventure lies behind the screen, and the players can’t see it, except for those nosy ones who sit beside me and peek over the top.

The other matter, that of hiding dice rolls, is one that can provoke some controversy. I’m a fudger of dice. If I see a result that will work against the story of the game, I’ll change it. The dice are not the boss of me! However, there’s something to be said for the open game where you make every die roll in the open, and the players have no filter against the result of their poor decisions. (Like choosing to sit down at the table of a known Killer DM. That’s a big mistake for those who love their characters! Seriously, did anyone playing Tomb of Horrors with Gary Gygax think they could survive it?) I don’t change many die roll results in the game, but there are a few that I will, and I don’t think I’ll be changing anytime soon.

Of course, for my players, it gives them a new image to look at. The painting on the players’ side is a marvel of restraint. One red dragon in the foreground, a burning island dwelling in the background, and a few clouds over the sea. They may be clouds of smoke, thinking about it. It’s a brilliant, elegant painting. Many, many kudos to Tyler Jacobson for painting it. It was originally used as part of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign, and it looks wonderful on the screen. (The full picture is even bigger and more amazing).

I can run games without a screen, but I don’t like doing so. Although not everything on this screen will be useful in every session, I do think it an excellent design, and one I’m happy to possess.

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

Dungeon Master Tips: The Power of a Second Wave

As your players get more experienced, they get very good at destroying the monsters you set in front of them. Unless it’s a surprise attack, players are great at identifying the main targets and using their swords and spells to take them out with brutal efficiency. Had you an ettin as the main monster of the combat? Unfortunately, it didn’t get even one chance to attack after the wizards and warriors were through with it! Even when you have that one round of surprising your players with an attack, it’s likely they’ll regroup and defeat the monsters in pretty quick time.

This isn’t that much of a problem. You want the players working together well, and having a Total Party Kill (TPK) every other combat is a bit problematic when you’re trying to run an ongoing campaign.

The challenge is to make the important combats more interesting. A typical way of doing this is to change the terrain so the players can’t manoeuvre into the right positions, or are in danger from fiery pits of lava. However, terrain tends to not work quite as well in Theatre of the Mind games, which is how most I run most of my games these days. A patch of difficult terrain doesn’t have quite the same impact when you’re handling everything abstractly. Objects that the players can choose to interact with? Sure. But hindrances don’t work as well.

I’m finding that, in this edition, an easy way of making combat more interesting and challenging is to have a second wave of enemies attack in the middle of the combat. They throw off all the calculations the players have made. All of a sudden, the wizard wishes he or she had kept that fireball one more round or the fighter is caught out-of-position and can’t return to protect the magic-users who are being attacked from behind. And it throws a real threat into the battle.

There’s a battle in The Rise of Tiamat which works that way, with a pair of commoner guards suddenly being reinforced by a mage, a knight, several dragon cultists, and eventually an adult green dragon! You can run a lot of battles in Princes of the Apocalypse the same way, with reinforcements coming as the first battle is far from over. One of the most relentless examples of waves of enemies comes in the old Gary Gygax adventure, The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, where wave after wave of humanoids spill from the temple until finally a giant arrives and the players need to work out if they retreat or just keep fighting.

Every so often, having the reinforcing monsters not necessarily be on the first group’s side can be fun; and they attack both sides with glee. I’ve seen this happen where the players are the third side from time to time; not that often where your fight with goblins is broken up by chain devils who just want to kill everything!

Having the monsters approach from a different direction (or from behind the party) can throw a spanner in your players’ plans. This tends to work better when everyone has a good idea of the terrain. There’s a maze in Mike Mearls’s 3E adventure The Three Faces of Evil, which I drew out on a battle grid. Once the players had placed their miniatures, kenku attacked from everywhere – running back and forward through the maze, and attacking the party from all directions. This was one of those battles where Theatre of the Mind wouldn’t have worked so well; the battle grid improved it significantly.

There are also times when the players will cause additional monsters to enter the fight themselves. The party got attacked and then split up as they pursued the foes. The pursuit continued through multiple rooms, in different directions. This continued until they’d alerted an entire complex of separate rooms, which normally wouldn’t have known that battle was occurring nearby. The party found themselves fighting everything at once – and not all together! That’s rare though: most parties aren’t that stupid!

Probably the biggest challenge when determining when extra monsters enter the fight is determining when exactly they enter. I’m sure you’ve seen adventures that state, “On the fifth round of combat, the dragon arrives” or some such wording, only for the party to eliminate the original monsters in the third round! There are two ways of handling this. The first is the narrative way where you adjust how long it takes for more monsters to get there based on how the first combat is going. If the players are having a lot of trouble, delay the dragon attack. If the players are winning easily, move it up. The second method just keeps to the values stated in the adventure (is that more realistic?) and let the dice fall where they will. Being an impartial DM can lead to interesting situations, although, these days, I tend to be more interested in keeping the story functioning than being ruled by the dice.

One trick I have used on occasion is to surprise the party with the second wave if they finish the first early. How does this happen? Well, the combat is over, and various cries come from my players: “I loot the room!”, “I cast cure wounds on my friends!” and “I drink five healing potions!” Right, if they’re so busy doing that, they’re distracted and don’t get to see the monsters coming. Surprise!

How difficult is an encounter where the monsters come in waves compared to just all being in the same room together? Is it more or less difficult? I’m not sure of the answer. I think it depends on the situation. If the initial force isn’t that strong, it’s an easier battle than if they players face everything at the start, as they’re not overwhelmed with numbers. However, if the party are already struggling and have expended a lot of resources in the initial fight, then the resulting battle gets more difficult. I guess the only way to be sure is to throw a lot of monsters at the player characters and see how they cope!

In any case, using multiple waves of enemies has become one of my favourite DM tricks in D&D; you can’t use it all the time, because the players expect it, but it can prove a wonderful change to the standard flow of combat.

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

Preparing for Tomb of Annihilation

Tomb of Annihilation is a big book, isn’t it?

It feels really heavy. I mean, it should weigh about the same as Storm King’s Thunder, but for some reason it feels heavier to me.

Guess what I start running this Saturday?

I tend not to overprepare published adventures; giving them an examination to understand the underlying structure and then examine various encounters with more detail as time permits. My first examination of ToA gave me this insight: This is going to be a tricky adventure to start. The task the player characters are given is very simple: Find and stop the Soulmonger. Unfortunately, there isn’t any strong lead from there. It’s just “explore Chult until you find the Soulmonger”. This is going to be challenging for many parties, who prefer more direction in their quests.

As my fellow blogger, DM David, explains, sandbox-style adventures can overwhelm the players with choice. And the first half of ToA is one big sandbox. My job as a DM is going to be to survey the options available to the players, and present them with a limited selection so they can still feel like they have choice, but to point them in the right direction.

Honestly, this is really an adventure for levels 5-11, with a sandbox in front. And the player characters need to wander around that sandbox until they find where the Soulmonger is. This can be very frustrating, so I’ll have to use the Guides, Rumours, Side Quests and various NPCs to craft a structure that makes the players feel like they’re accomplishing something.

This is made more tricky by the fact that I’m running this as part of the D&D Adventurers League. An adventure like Shawn Merwin’s Return of the Lizard King would be great to replace the first half of the adventure and provide a more structured opening, but I can only use DDAL-legal material, and the accompanying DDAL adventures aren’t out yet. So, instead, I’ll just have to sculpt things that appear in the book into an attractive form.

One of the techniques I’m using with this adventure is to have a Session 0, where the players will create their characters as a group and we can discuss their backgrounds and motivations for being part of the adventure. It’s likely that we’ll be making a lot of use of the factions in the characters’ backgrounds, as they provide ready-made connections to power groups in Chult. The suggested hooks in ToA that tie to various backgrounds are pretty anodyne; we should all be able to do better. Giving the characters a personal stake in the adventure is better than just “you’ve been hired to do a job”.

What happens to the game if one of the characters has a history with one of the commanders of the Order of the Gauntlet’s expeditions in Chult? Is it a good relationship, and they want to save them? Or is it a bad one, and thus you get all this tense role-playing when they discover each other in the jungle?

What secret orders might the Zhentarim have for their agents? Might they say, “Yes, look for the Soulmonger, but while you’re here, there’s a little job we’d like you to do”? Those Side Quests in the first chapter are all seeds to begin expeditions into Chult, and you can use some of the details to inform the choices made during character creation.

If a PC is fleeing to Chult to avoid people back home, which NPCs in Port Nyanzaru might be affiliated with his pursuers? He’ll have to avoid them, or possibly, buy them off!

There is a limit to how useful these background details can be with a published adventure. At some point, the backgrounds of the characters become irrelevant to the main action, as everything focuses on the main questline, but for the opening of the adventure, they could be very useful.

Three days to go before we start. I can hardly wait!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League, Play Advice, Tomb of Annihilation | 7 Comments

5E Adventure Review – Ruins of Matolo: Discovery

Ruins of Matolo: Discovery is a short adventure by Cindy Moore for 5th-level characters. It is one of the initial Guild Adept releases on the DMs Guild.

The adventure sends the characters into the jungle of Chult to discover the fate of a recent expedition of Order of the Gauntlet troops. As one might expect, undead are involved, and the characters will need to track them down to complete the adventure successfully.

The adventure is good at introducing the troubles the Order of the Gauntlet are having in the jungle, and in providing some entertaining encounters. There’s one encounter that gives full XP if the players avoid it rather than provoking an attack; that’s design I support. Giving XP for the players being smart rather than just killing everything they see? Yes, more of that, please!

The quest eventually leads to the Ruins of Matolo, where the characters must deal with the villain who ordered the attack on the Order of the Gauntlet. More on the ruined city can be found in other Guild Adept products; this adventure only uses it fleetingly, and primarily in a way that allows the characters to discover it and then explore more of it later.

Despite the good ideas behind the adventure, it is let down badly by a lack of editing. There are many errors that even a cursory proofing run would have found, and the choice of wording is often clumsy. The adventure presumes you have a copy of both Tomb of Annihilation and Tales from the Yawning Portal as it doesn’t provide monster statistics for monsters from those books. Discovery includes one new monster, an aarakocra necromancer, which has the interesting stat line of “Hit Points: 100 (3d8)”. At least, with that level of hit points, it might stay around long enough to threaten the party!

The adventure is quite linear in form, and the final encounter is underwhelming. It’s just a simple combat, which doesn’t make use of the background given for the necromancer. Some of the other encounters also feel quite perfunctory; all-in-all, it is a mixed bag of good ideas and poor execution.

With further development, you could grow the seeds in this adventure into something memorable, but as it stands, I found it a disappointing release.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Review | Comments Off on 5E Adventure Review – Ruins of Matolo: Discovery