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.

Posted in D&D, D&D Basic, Review | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in D&D, Elemental Evil, Session Report | Leave a comment

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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5E Adventure Review: In Dire Need

In Dire Need is the fourth adventure of the Storm King’s Thunder series of D&D Adventurers League adventures. It’s a two-hour adventure for level 5-10 characters. As such, it’s short and to the point: A group of dwarves is trapped by a group of ogres and giants, and the adventurers need to rescue them!

The adventure structure includes the briefing, the travel to the dwarves (which includes a few random encounters, both combat and environmental), and then that most difficult part: first reaching the dwarves – as there are more than a few ogres in the way – and then rescuing them.

The way the designer handles this last section is by describing the situation and then letting the players determine how to approach it. This allows inventive players their chance to shine. The drawbacks are twofold: the first is that if you have players who are less effective at coming up with solutions to complex problems, this can be very frustrating for them; you’ll likely have to prompt them with potential solutions. The second is that it requires you, as the DM, to properly explain the situation to them. When you’ve got a situation that has so many moving parts, this can be difficult. It is something that I have struggled with.

The adventure suggests three main ways of getting the dwarves out: sneaking out, climbing the cliff walls, or riding an avalanche in a giant sarcophagus lid. The third is undoubtedly the most exciting end to the adventure, although it may be too improbable for some tastes. Don’t try to think too hard about it. The other solutions? Realistic, but a little underwhelming, unless run well by the DM. If you can keep up the tension, then they’ll work better. When the party just needs to make skill checks, it functionally works, but not in an exciting way.

The trapped dwarves are given enough attention that the DM can roleplay each of them distinctly, if he or she chooses, although it’s likely you only need to concentrate on a few. And there are a few ancient giant artefacts to make the setting that bit more interesting.

I like In Dire Need, but the adventure wanders into areas that test the limits of what Dungeons & Dragons is good at. There will be groups who really enjoy the adventure, but players who want more guidance may find it challenging.

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Running Out of the Abyss: Gauntlgrym

Life has been a bit crazy recently, with work, more work, and even more work conspiring to take me away from blogging and reviewing. However, with a few projects now on pause for a few days, I’m getting the chance to return to the blog and have a few updates (and, with luck, more than a few reviews).

One of the odder circumstances that recently presented itself was what happened with my Saturday evening D&D group. Instead of saying, “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s play Storm King’s Thunder!“, they went “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s keep the same characters!” Now, running a group of 7th and 8th level characters through Storm King’s Thunder doesn’t allow that much play. It’s written for levels 1-10. You do the last two chapters and finish. So, instead, I gave them a choice: The Rise of Tiamat or midway through Out of the Abyss. They chose the latter. And so I’m now running Out of the Abyss, which is the adventure we skipped. We played Princes of the Apocalypse for a year, then went directly to Curse of Strahd. So this is all new to us.

So, let’s talk about my experiences with Out of the Abyss

We began with the events in Chapter 8: Gauntlgrym. If you’re playing the adventure from the beginning, this is the point where, after finally escaping the Underdark and all the Demon Lords, you take leave of your senses and go back down. For higher-level groups, such as my own, this is the hook for the characters to enter the adventure.

The PCs are summoned by King Bruenor Battlehammer, are asked to find a way of stopping the madness infecting the Underdark, and they also get a chance to recruit some allies from the factions.

King Bruenor should be extremely familiar to anyone who has read R.A. Salvatore’s novels – he’s first introduced in The Crystal Shard and is a main character for many of the sequels. At this point in the series, he’s been killed, reincarnated, and just led the dwarves to a great victory against the drow that had claimed Gauntlgrym (as related in Archmage). Although the definition of “just” is a little up to debate. Out of the Abyss states it was “in recent years”. The taking of Gauntlgrym occurs at the same time that the Demon Lords first get released, so this implies that the Demon Lords have now been around for a few years.

Bruenor is basically everything you want of a dwarf: brave, gruff, occasionally kind-hearted, and an exceptional leader. He knows of a lot of the things the characters have done, at least in major population centres, so he respects their heroism. And, because Gauntlgrym is a place where the forces of the Underdark are likely to attack, the madness down below is a real problem.

At this point, the characters gain a very definite quest: get to a repository of knowledge known as Gravenhollow, and use it to discover the cause of the madness in the Underdark. This is an A-B quest, where the characters must first go to a Zhentarim trading post, and learn how to get to Gravenhollow. (Of course, the trading post has its own challenges, but more on those later).

The characters also need to interact with the factions, who can offer them aid in the Underdark. At least, the factions call them aid. I, as the DM, call them “more annoying NPCs to keep track of!” Here’s the thing: when you have five-foot wide corridors (as much of the Underdark is), a group of 21 characters entering combat is going to lead to a lot of frustration from the characters at the back who can’t participate. It just calls for some strategically placed rockfalls. Lots of NPCs really means two things. One, you can kill them to demonstrate how dangerous it is. Two, you can split the party, perhaps leaving some behind to fortify areas, or deal with two locations at once. If you choose the latter option, give the NPCs to those players who aren’t taking their PCs along.

It’s nice to see the factions taking an active interest in events. After they play a large part of Rise of Tiamat, the factions slip away in Princes of the Apocalypse and the early part of Out of the Abyss. They’re not going to play a big part in this adventure, but they will make some difference.

I chose, very deliberately, not to have the big dinner with all the faction representatives. It sounds great, and it could be, but for me to run it properly it’d rely on gaining about six more co-DMs to run all the faction representatives and Bruenor. Running multiple conversations at once is not my idea as fun as a DM. I prefer to keep my interactions more on the one-to-one level; it’s much easier to provide characterisation that way without being distracted by having to run other NPCs. (That said, if you can recruit some people to do a proper dinner and act in-character as the representatives, you’ll have a very memorable session).

Throughout all the negotiation, the less roleplaying-orientated players in your group may be getting bored. Thankfully, Gauntlgrym is a place where monsters can turn up at any time. Not only that, but there are suggestions in the adventure for a little intrigue using doppelgangers and assassins if you so desire.

My own choice was to have external forces attack the dwarves, rather than adding more intrigue. I like to think of Gauntlgrym being like Moria when Balin was there: the dwarves controlling a small part of it, but the deeper parts still under control of dark things. If you play this right, you can show the players what a precarious situation Bruenor and the dwarves are actually in; the threat of the madness in the Underdark overwhelming them is very, very real.

I rushed through this section a little faster than I could have. It’s quite easy to spend three or four sessions exploring the relationships here, and fighting Bad Things as they appear. If you’re running this as part of the D&D Adventurers League, you probably want to do this, because being unable to use milestones means you’re often lacking in ways to give experience points to the characters; Gauntlgrym gives you a few interesting monsters and situations with which to challenge the characters.

In the end, we spent a little over one session (about 2-1/2 hours) in Gauntlgrym. The Harper character, a Wizard, was able to gain the aid of a Shield Guardian. The two Zhentarim gained a bunch of rogues to aid them. The Order of the Gauntlet sent a few soldiers. And the Lords’ Alliance representative met the Lords’ Alliance character. Neither was that convinced there was a problem down below – so the Alliance didn’t send anyone with them. The Emerald Enclave didn’t feature.

Two attacks occurred during their stay: fire elementals and a wraith. The wraith was really interesting, as it had already killed a lot of dwarves and twisted their spirits into spectres. So, the spectres attacked first and then, when the characters engaged, the wraith attacked from behind. The characters were victorious in both instances, but the battle against the wraith had some scary moments.

And then, they left for the Zhentarim trading post. More on that later!

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Print-on-Demand versions of classic Dungeons & Dragons titles

Well, this is interesting!

Wizards of the Coast and OneBookShelf have enabled print-on-demand for a initial range of titles on the DMs Guild.

This is fantastic news for people who want hard copies of those older products. However, it does come with a few caveats…

The main thing to consider is that those products won’t be printed exactly like the original printing. A single softcover or hardcover book? That’s easy. Poster maps? Urgh. Not so good. Detachable cover? Well, only if the glue isn’t that good…

I’d be surprised if the maps for old adventures (like Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure) were printed on the inside of the cover rather than on separate pages in the book as well.

The notes for the Hollow World Campaign Setting indicate that instead of 3 books and four maps, “this print edition combines the Dungeon Master’s Sourcebook, Player’s Book, and Adventure Book, plus the maps, into a single softcover tome.”

So, if you want the books in their original format, you’re probably still better off trying to find second-hand copies. However, if the format doesn’t matter so much to you – especially for the original hardcovers and adventures – this is going to be pretty good.

My experience with the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion is that the printing is going to be good, though not to the level of the standard line of non-POD books from Wizards.

The initial list of offerings:

  • Den of Thieves (2E adventure)
  • WG5: Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (1E adventure)
  • Hollow World Campaign Setting (D&D Basic)
  • I10: Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill (1E adventure)
  • SJS1: Goblin’s Return (2E adventure)
  • AC1: The Shady Dragon Inn (D&D Basic accessory)
  • Beyond the Prism Pentad (2E adventure)
  • Dragonlance Adventures (1E hardcover supplement)
  • Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast (D&D Next adventure)
  • X2: Castle Amber (D&D Basic adventure)
  • L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (1E adventure)
  • Draconomicon (3E hardcover accessory)
  • Uncaged: Faces of Sigil (2E accessory)
Posted in AD&D, AD&D 2E, D&D, D&D 3E, D&D 5E, D&D Basic | 2 Comments

Thoughts on Unearthed Arcana: Bardic Colleges

111416_0713_Thoughtsont1.pngThe second of the Unearthed Arcana series on expanding options available to characters is now out. Its topic? Bards!

The two colleges included in the Player’s Handbook are both excellent and providing interesting variations on the basic topic. For me, it’s hard to top them – both represent character types that I enjoy playing. So, how do the new colleges stand up?

College of Glamour

The College of Glamour has as its concept bards that are imbued with the power of the Fae. This is an excellent concept; one that ties in strongly to current fantasy literature and older tales.

The “Mantle of Inspiration” allows your friends to fight for longer by imbuing them with temporary hit points, which is a nice ability, although it’s paired with a strange ability: your allies can also move closer to you when you invoke the Mantle. Just closer to you? There must be some literary source there that I’m not aware of. (In the Dresden Files, the fae can grant the ability to ignore pain, thus you fight stronger but don’t realise when you’re about to die…)

“Enthralling Performance” is the latest take on a mass charm ability for the bard; we’ve seen similar in previous editions. This one is the best version of the power I’ve seen; its effect is excellently described. The rules for how and when it breaks are a bit wordy, but line up well with similar charm abilities in the 5E spells.

“Mantle of Majesty” runs into problems. It’s a bonus action to activate, and allows you a bonus action to command creatures; thus, you have to wait a round after activating it before you can command someone. Hmm. I’d prefer it if the initial activation also allowed a command effect, as I’m sure that’s how many players will assume it works. The ability also seems to imply that all your charm spells now can’t be saved against; I hope that’s an error, and it applies only to the commands you give.

“Unbreakable Majesty” also has significant rules problems. One of the interesting points about the sanctuary spell is that monsters and NPCs don’t actually make a saving throw against the spell unless they try to attack you! So, in a diplomatic situation where there are no attacks, “Unbreakable Majesty” actually does nothing!

I like the idea of these later powers, but the rules issues cause to many problems for them at this point. So, this college needs more work!

College of Whispers

The College of Whispers presents a version of the assassin-bard or master manipulator.

Its first ability, “Venomous Blades” allows you to deal extra poison damage by expending a use of bardic inspiration. This is a power that, while not quite as versatile as the “Combat Inspiration” power of the College of Valor, can deal significantly more damage, but without the additional armour and weapon proficiencies granted by the College of Valor, it’s likely closer to balanced than you might first think.

Also gained at third level is “Venomous Words”, a fantastically evocative power that will likely only see use in very role-playing orientated games or by non-player characters. For a standard, adventuring bard, you’re rarely going to use it. In the right campaign? It’s gold.

“Mantle of Whispers” is another tremendously evocative power, and again one that requires a certain sort of campaign to be run to be of use: one full of intrigue and role-playing.

“Shadow Lore” keeps up this evocative theme; it’s a dangerous effect, but one that, at fourteenth level, isn’t overpowered. Once again, not a combat power, but one for intrigue campaigns.

There are fewer rules problems with the College of Whispers than the College of Glamour, but it is a far more niche college. I approve of this: yes, you want meat-and-potatoes colleges that any adventuring bard could take, but the two colleges in the Player’s Handbook are already of this sort.

So, at present I give the College of Whispers a thumbs-up; not for every campaign, but fantastic and much-needed in some games.

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