D&D Accessory Review: D&D Character Sheets

A product that feels like a visitor from the past in this digital world are the D&D Character Sheets. This folder of loose-leaf sheets contains the following:

  • 4 Character Sheets with skills listed with ability scores
  • 4 Character Sheets with Personality Traits listed on the front page
  • 4 Character Sheets with no Personalty Trait boxes
  • 8 Introductory Character Sheets (single-sided)
  • 4 Spellcasting Sheets

Most of these sheets are available on the Wizards webpage, the only two which are not are the ones without Personality Traits (which are otherwise identical to the regular character sheet) and the Introductory character sheets. The paper they’re printed on is of medium weight, and not quite as sturdy as I might wish, but should hold up well to most usual wear and tear.

The introductory character sheet is particularly interesting, as it possesses very prominent boxes for recording ability score bonuses and combat statistics, and smaller boxes for recording saving throws and skills. Unlike the standard sheets, every skill is not listed; only skills the character is proficient in are displayed, and the names of the skills must be recorded. Two boxes marked “Things you should do” and “Things you shouldn’t do” provide interesting areas to record tips for play; I’ve been experimenting with similar ideas on my own pregenerated character sheets for PAX Australia.

The sheet also is only single-sided. All other character sheets are double-sided, with spaces given for various notes, portraits, and other details.

The cardboard folder they come in have pockets (flaps?) so the sheets don’t slide out, and the pockets are adorned with helpful notes a list of Actions in Combat, Things you can do on Your Turn, and a very helpful list of Interacting With Objects – the interaction that can be done for “free” each turn, but people forget about. I found the folder sufficiently sturdy, although I prefer the UltraPro Character Folio for superior storage.

So, what do I think of the sheets? I think they’re fine, if not particularly exciting. The introductory sheet is the most interesting to me, but all the sheets are useable and fairly clean in design. My own preference remains to design my own sheets – perhaps less pretty graphically (although these aren’t great masterpieces of graphic design), but more tailored to my needs.

The target market is interesting. Players without easy access to a photocopier, printer or the internet would be the most likely candidates, but players pressed for time or just wanting to have the utility of having a sheet without going through the hassle of searching online for one are also potential customers. (People like me, who just have to own every official D&D product, are likely a small part of the market). If you’re happy to download a character sheet from online and print it, you’re not the market for these sheets, but the ability of a store to have these in stock just in case is a pretty useful one.

The sheets are fine. It’s not the most exciting product, although I’m happy to see the introductory sheet, but there are people who will find it useful.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Review | Comments Off on D&D Accessory Review: D&D Character Sheets

Player Choices: Into the Land of Iuz

In the World of Greyhawk, there’s a kingdom ruled by an evil demigod. The kingdom and the demigod have the same name: Iuz.

In the past 20 years, I’ve run a lot of campaigns set in Greyhawk, and we’ve often flirted with the idea of dealing with the threat of Iuz. His priests and orcs have popped up every so often, but they’ve never been the full focus of a campaign. That’s about to change.

Running a game set in an existing campaign world is a different matter to running one in a world you create; however, there are more similarities than you might first think. Even if an existing world gives you a wealth of campaign material to draw on, it’s not going to give you everything. You’re going to have to make up the material that’s missing.

Why do I run games in existing campaign worlds rather than make up my own? Primarily because I use the material as inspiration, and it takes me in directions that I wouldn’t have thought of by myself. Even if I were running a homebrew, it’s likely that I’d be incorporating published adventures and material from other settings into it rather than creating everything myself. That’s just the way I run games.

Although I’d planned for this campaign to revolve around Iuz, it wasn’t my intention to move it there so quickly. This is just the effects of the players on the storyline. The characters were meant to be travelling to Veluna from the City of Greyhawk, but, as the journey was going to take about a month, I put in a couple of side treks along the way. (They were exiled from the city after an enemy bribed the city council!)

The first was an encounter with gnoll raiders, based on an idea that Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak described in their Down with D&D podcast a couple of months ago. I was testing out some new mechanics for gnolls, but I couldn’t find a form I liked. The story was interesting though, so I used that.

The second involved a quest to find the Tomb of Thrommel. This is me extrapolating greatly from what originally appeared in the World of Greyhawk boxed set and the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure. In those sources, Thrommel is captured by the Cult of Elemental Evil. Our play of the adventure didn’t rescue him, so – some years after the event – someone must have found his body and built a tomb. And in that tomb, the players found his legendary sword, Fragarach.

I don’t include many magic items in my game, but those that do get included are often really powerful. Giving 5th level characters Fragarach isn’t quite the same as the time I gave a vorpal sword to 4th-level fighter (that was fun!), but it does allow a really interesting item to be included; one that will make the game memorable. What I didn’t expect was that no-one wanted to keep the sword. Instead, they decided to give it back to the royal house of Furyondy.

Right. Didn’t expect that. Who’s king of Furyondy these days? No idea. This campaign is set in about 625 CY, or about 50 years after the original boxed set – I’ve run many games there, and so the timeline has progressed. Belvor is dead, so some other line must have taken the kingship. Let’s call him Tobias III. Unfortunately for Tobias, I’d just watched Richard II on the previous night, so that’s where his personality came from – a foolish king. As Richard decided to invade Wales, so Tobias took the return of Fragarach to be a sign from the gods, and this was the very chance he wanted to take down Iuz once and for all. The characters, now heroes of Furyondy, have been volunteered to perform a scouting expedition into the land of Iuz!

This is the way of Dungeons & Dragons when you’re not using a prewritten adventure. In fact, even when you’re running a prewritten adventure you can always make things up when the players walk right off the page. Don’t get me wrong: I love running the hardcover campaigns, but it’s also fun to let the players have free rein. The trick is to give them enough information that they can make interesting decisions. I’ve dropped enough history about the sword and Thrommel so that they knew about Furyondy; otherwise, they’d have no idea who might want it. But, now that they know, I’ll have to make up a royal court of Furyondy, encounters in the borderlands, and, finally, an idea of how the war between Iuz and Furyondy might play out.

It’s certainly going to be interesting!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design | 6 Comments

Hit Points Through the Editions, part 2

One aspect I didn’t touch on in my first article about hit points was the rate of natural healing. For those of you who began with the current edition, it didn’t work the same way. It was slower.

In Original Dungeons & Dragons the rate of healing was one hit point per day, except for the first day when no hit points were restored. This required complete rest – so no going adventuring during that period!

One of the effects of this was that a fighter who had taken 40 points of damage would take 41 days to recover. Being of a higher level? No help here!

The Basic Dungeons & Dragons of 1977 increased this rate: it was 1-3 points of healing per day of recuperation. On average this was twice as fast.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978), characters regained hit points at the rate of 1 hit point per day for the first 30 days, and then at the rate of 5 hit points per day thereafter.

Or, if you checked the Dungeon Masters Guide, you regained 1 hit point per day, with the weekly total adjusted by their constitution modifier; a character with a -2 penalty would heal a maximum of 5 hit points per week, a character with a +2 bonus would regain an additional 2 hit points for each week of rest. Four weeks of continuous rest would heal a character to maximum, regardless of the number of hit points lost.

The Basic Dungeons & Dragons of 1981 kept the rate of the previous Basic game: 1-3 points of healing per day.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition (1989) had yet another system: 1 hit point per day of rest, or 3 hit points per day of complete bed rest, with an additional bonus equal to his Consitution modifier being accrued after each week of complete rest.

All of these methods kept one thing in common: it would take longer for a high-level character to fully heal than a low-level character. Was this ever explained? Not really, although the definition of hit points tended to emphasize that it wasn’t purely physical punishment – a great portion of the hit points of higher-level characters were representing the grace of the gods, luck, or sheer bloody-mindedness that would eventually give out over the course of a combat – all the near misses (represented by hit point loss) before the final, fatal blow.

I guess it represented a world where you needed a cleric to properly intervene with the gods to restore your luck. Cure light wounds could be reinterpreted as Regain Divine Favour!

For all of these editions, clerical healing was limited. It existed, certainly, and was extremely important to regain hit points between encounters and adventuring sessions. However, the use of healing magic in the middle of combat was difficult and of limited utility. Healing 1d8 hit points when the next set of blows would deal 2d8 damage? It wasn’t worthwhile, especially in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons where the slow casting time of cure light wounds in relationship to other spells meant it would normally be cast towards the end of the round – and was often spoilt by a hit on the cleric. (In those days, any attack that hit a spellcaster before the spell was cast caused the spell to be spoilt and lost).

The way hit points worked would change markedly in the next edition, due to a combination of factors that were probably not anticipated by the designers.

Posted in D&D, Design | 8 Comments

Hit Points Through the Editions, part 1

In the beginning, there was Chainmail. And, in Chainmail, characters were either alive or dead. A single hit was enough to kill most characters. However, this was a miniature game, and a single player controlled many characters. Well, figures or models. The more powerful characters, such as the Hero or the Superhero required several simultaneous hits to kill. A Hero required four regular men to hit him in the same turn to be killed. If only three landed blows, he was fit and ready for the next round. The game didn’t track “wounds” or anything like this.

This combat system was the basis for the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and it was immediately apparent that the game would play better if a character could be wounded and not dead. Thus, hit points!

Original Dungeons & Dragons had an interesting method of dealing with them. Every weapon did 1d6 damage. The hit points of a character were based on a dice roll (of several d6s). The dice used to create this total were known as “Hit Dice”. How many did a character roll? It depended on the character’s class and level. At first level, the fighter had 1d6+1 hit points, the cleric and magic-user had 1d6 hit points only. By fifth level, the fighter had 5d6+1 hit points, the magic-user 3d6, and the cleric 4d6+1. A high Constitution score might grant a +1 hit point per hit die rolled, but that was it. In this early form of the game, you died when your hit points reached 0 or below.

If a character wasn’t slain, then they could turn to the cleric for healing. Eventually. A first level cleric possessed no spells. They were basically a fighter with the minor ability to Turn Undead. At second level, the cleric gained their first spell. More often than not, it would be cure light wounds, which would heal 1d6+1 hit points! Clerics very slowly gained additional curative magics, and spending time healing between expeditions was important. A sixth level cleric could have a maximum of two cure light wounds and one cure serious wounds (2d6+2) spells. Interestingly, they received the raise dead spell at 7th level.

Poison? It killed you. If you managed to make the saving throw, it instead removed half your hit points. Beware snakes!

This original version of D&D used what I like to term the “D6 Standard”. That is, the entire hit point and damage system revolved around d6s.

The first supplement, Greyhawk, introduced varying dice for damage and hit dice. It also simplified the determination of how many hit dice a character possessed by changing it to one per level, but varying the sides used depending on class. Thus, magic-users were now using d4s, clerics d6s, and fighters d8s. Monster dice grew to be the same as the fighter, in all but a very few cases. Weapon damage varied from 1d4 for the dagger, up to 1d10 for the two-handed sword. Interestingly, weapon damage dice had two codes, with weapons used against monsters larger than men dealing differing amounts of damage. The dagger dropped to 1d3 damage against an ogre; the two-handed sword reached 3d6 damage against the same!

Meanwhile, the effects of Constitution on hit points also increased; the bonus reaching as high as +3 per die for an 18 Constitution score, while the poor character with a Constitution score of 3 through 6 had a -1 penalty per die (though only to a minimum of 1 on each die rolled). Strength scores increased the damage of character weapons – albeit, for fighters only. A +6 bonus to damage was possible through lucky rolls.

Although nothing appeared in the books otherwise at this time, I’m pretty sure that groups were now playing with house rules indicating that a character reaching 0 hit points wasn’t automatically dead. Perhaps they fell unconscious instead?

This appeared as an official rule in the next major release of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As described in its Dungeon Masters Guide, a character brought to exactly 0 hit points wasn’t slain but instead fell unconscious. Each round thereafter, they’d lose 1 hit point, and would die upon reaching -10 hit points. A character on 5 hit points who suffered 6 hit points damage? He was dead, as before. An optional rule allowed the unconscious state to kick in if they were reduced up to -3 hit points.

Throughout my days playing AD&D, I always ignored the exact rule – everyone I played with always said “if you are dropped to between 0 and -9 hit points, you fall unconscious. You die when you reach -10”. I’m curious to how many people played in this way. My suspicion is that it was many people.

The hit dice for characters got a boost again. Fighters were now 1d10, Clerics 1d8, Thieves 1d6 and Magic-Users 1d4. And such was the pattern of the game set for the next 20 years. Monster hit dice were now set at 1d8, and I tend to think of this as the 1d8 Standard, which is also the damage dealt by a longsword, although there wasn’t really much of a standard about it by this stage. The hit point alterations for high constitution now became a +4 in the case of an 18 Constitution, but only members of the fighter classes could reach the +3 or +4 bonuses; everyone else was capped at +2. Fighters were still the only ones to gain a potential +6 damage bonus, but now other characters could get up to a +2 bonus to melee damage, though this was rare.

It’s worth mentioning that monsters didn’t get Constitution bonuses. Creatures didn’t have ability scores! The closest they got was an Intelligence rating, which was needed for determining the effects of the charm and maze spells. (In one of the most hilarious bits of clunky design, in the Master expansion for the BECMI line, every creature was given an intelligence rating, just so the newly introduced maze spell could work. Right…) Instead, certain monsters gained a hit point bonus. The Ogre was 4+1 hit dice (4d8+1). The Troll was 6+6 (6d8+6). Having a static hit point bonus instead of adding additional hit points was a design technique to take advantage of the fact that monster attack bonuses and saving throws were derived from the hit dice, not total hit points.

However, monsters could have incredible damage codes. A troll dealing 5-8/5-8/2-12 damage in a single claw/claw/bite routine could seriously damage the poor character who ended up in melee with the DM’s dice running hot!

Clerical healing was improved in this edition. They gained spells from first level; cure light wounds now healed 1-8 hit points and a first level cleric could have three of them prepared. However, the gaining of curative magic was slow thereafter. Cure Serious Wounds (2d8+1) was a 4th-level spell, gained at 7th level, and Cure Critical Wounds (4d8+3) was a 5th-level spell.

Poison? If you saved, you took no damage. Probably.

By the time of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition in 1989, the house rule of being unconscious from -1 to -9 (and dying) and dead at -10 was the standard rule. Well, to be exact: it was an optional rule that everyone I knew used. The default rule for this edition was that you died at 0 hit points (which was not the defauly rule in AD&D, interestingly. Though, given the wild status of the AD&D DMG, might not have meant much).

“Everyone I knew”. It’s hard to explain, in these days of global connectivity, how small a portion of the world that was. Especially for me, living in Melbourne, Australia. It included the people in my local group, the people at my school, the people in the gaming club in university, and the few people I met, twice a year, at the role-playing conventions held locally. However, I can’t remember it ever not being the rule we used.

The way hit points were granted to classes stayed the same in 2nd Edition, for the most part. Poison diversified into types, with most dealing varying amounts of damage instead of just killing you (and doing nothing on a successful save, for the most part). The most deadly type of poison was Death or damage on save, though. Sometime later in the edition’s life, the designers filled out the clerical spell lists with and additional healing spell: cure moderate wounds at 2nd level (1d10+1).

Of course, AD&D was something of a branch from the original rule, even if it was the preferred system and far more popular. In 1977, the original game had gotten an introductory game edited by Eric Holmes, the first D&D Basic Game. This version of the game had a few interesting deviations from the original rules, one being that halflings had only 1d6 hit points, despite being fighters, due to their smaller size. The rules mostly followed the original set with a few additions from Greyhawk. For instance, character hit dice were d4, d6 or d8 and the thief was included. However, the ability score bonuses were per the original game. You died when you reached 0 hit points, all character weapons did 1d6 damage, and poison had no effect if you made the saving throw.

Interestingly, the size of monster hit dice is never directly stated, but as kobolds have ½ hit dice (1-4 hit points), it can be assumed that hit dice are 1d8 in this edition. With weapons retaining the 1d6 score but monsters gaining hit points, it’s a subtly more dangerous edition than before!

Far more radical was the 1980 revision by Tom Moldvay, which we occasionally know as the B/X Basic Game. It completely changed how ability scores worked, with a +3 bonus associated with an 18 score, a +2 with 16-17, and a +1 at 13-15. The modifiers reversed for low numbers. This applied to damage (based on Strength) for all characters, and to hit points (Constitution) for all characters. Magic-User and Thief remained 1d4 hit points, Cleric was 1d6 and Fighter was 1d8. Moldvay solidified the use of “race as class” so that dwarves were 1d8, elves 1d6, and halflings – keeping the version begun with Holmes – kept 1d6 hit dice.

Monsters remained without ability scores, of course, but had d8 hit dice. And damage could be all d6, or an advanced variant that varied the dice could be used. I don’t know if anyone ever used the basic system more than a few sessions!

Both these versions of the Basic game kept the cleric from learning curing spells until 2nd level. The Red Box version, which came in 1983, edited by Frank Mentzer, basically followed Moldvay, although later supplements allowed progression to 36th level, and the levels at which clerics gained access to their most powerful spells were much higher than in AD&D – although the XP required was less. It evened out.

Here’s a quick table to show the differences:

 

Original

Greyhawk

AD&D

AD&D 2E

Basic

Basic B/X

Cleric (5th)

4d6+1

5d6

5d8

5d8

5d6

5d6

Fighter (5th)

5d6+1

5d8

5d10

5d10

5d8

5d8

Mage (5th)

3d6

5d4

5d4

5d4

5d4

5d4

Thief (5th)

n/a

5d4

5d6

5d6

5d4

5d4

Constitution

max +1

max +3

max +4

max +4

max +1

max +3

Strength

max +0

max +6

max +6

max +6

max +0

max +3

Poison

save half hp

save half hp

save neg.

save neg.

save neg.

save neg.

Monsters

1d6

1d8

1d8

1d8

1d8

1d8

Death

0 hp

0 hp

-3 hp

-10 hp

0 hp

0 hp

Dying?

no

no

yes

yes

no

no

Cleric heal

2nd level

2nd level

1st level

1st level

2nd level

2nd level

Cure Light Wounds

1d6+1

1d6+1

1d8

1d8

1d6+1

1d6+1

Longsword

1d6

1d8

1d8/1d12

1d8/1d12

1d6

1d8

Fire Giant damage

2d6+2

5d6

5d6

2d10+10

2d6+2

5d6

Fire Giant HP

11d6+3

11d8+3

11d8+2-5

15d8+2-5

11d8+3

11d8+2

 

Why did I include fire giants? Mainly because giants got a change upwards in potency in 2nd edition, as noted by their hit dice. Most categories should be fairly obvious, and summarise details in the text above.

Of course, the way hit points worked was about to undergo a huge upheaval in 3rd Edition, and I’ll get to that in a later article.

Posted in AD&D, AD&D 2E, D&D, D&D Basic, Design | 1 Comment

The Incomplete Adventure

There’s one feature of Dungeons & Dragons adventures that anyone who runs the game quickly comes to learn: Adventures are incomplete.

Not just incomplete in the sense of “add players and a Dungeon Master”, but incomplete in the sense of “this adventure is missing important things I need to run it!”

Sadly, it’s our lot in life to have incomplete adventures. The fact is that there are three major things that stop adventures from being complete: space, time and imagination.

For professionally printed adventures, space is a huge consideration. There’s only so far you can shrink the font. At some point, you run out of words. So, you need to concentrate on what’s important. And thus, stuff you consider unimportant doesn’t make it. Even in electronic-only publications, you don’t want to include everything. Do you want to include the entire life history of every NPC? Likely not. It creates clutter and makes it harder for a Dungeon Master to find important information.

Likewise, did you want to release the adventure this year? Surely you can spend another year writing more material and polishing what’s there? Sadly, for most adventure writers, we’d rather like to see the adventure released in our lifetime. Adventure writing is a lot more time-consuming than you might expect – just ask Alphastream.

However, the primary problem is the imagination. A lot of times, the adventure’s writer didn’t imagine you’d need that information. The writer didn’t foresee the steps a group would take that would require that information to be relevant. This is one reason playtesting – and having good and numerous playtesters! – is so important. You discover the things you left out and the things you didn’t foresee.

Should the adventure designer try to foresee everything? Probably not. One of the reasons the game is so unique is that it allows the play to move beyond the written page. If you play a computer game or, showing my age, one of the old Fighting Fantasy game books, then you’re constrained by the decisions of the designer. You don’t have flexibility. The Dungeon Master can create new material to move beyond the printed adventure and react to the decisions of the players.

For me, the most problematic aspect of an adventure to write is the Non-Player Characters (NPCs). The Dungeon Master needs, in succinct form, a description of how to play the character and how they’ll react to the players. To do this well? It takes time and space. There isn’t one format that covers every use of NPCs, as they get used for many different roles in adventures. You have the quest-givers, the information sources, the henchmen, the villains, the bystanders, the merchants… The list goes on and on. I like to think that the core of an NPC is twofold: a set of goals and information they know. The first allows the DM to determine how they act; the second typically underlies their importance in the structure of the adventure: of providing a way for players to get to another encounter.

It’s when the structure of the adventure is incomplete or badly thought out that I run into the most problems. If I can’t see the linkages that take you from one encounter to another, how do I run it? Investigations are particularly prone to this, with the one vital bit of information being made so obscure that the players can’t see it! Oops!

The unusual thing about role-playing game adventures is that most, even if incomplete and missing vital portions, can still be used. You can use encounters, NPCs, traps, descriptions, and histories from one adventure in another, perhaps one you’ve designed yourself. Or you could run the incomplete adventure by filling in the missing bits with your inventions. We tend to call this “being a Good DM”.

I think we can all agree that, by the very nature of role-playing games, that every adventure must be incomplete and that the DM is going to have to fill in the blanks. However, there’s a difference between inventing extra details for an NPC because the players have taken more interest in them than expected and having to invent crucial details because they’re missing. Even between those two options, there is a wide range of circumstances. I get annoyed at Hoard of the Dragon Queen because it doesn’t name the cultists travelling with the caravan to Waterdeep or give them any personalities, but I’ve been able to run the adventure three times very successfully despite that – and I included a lot of interactions with said cultists.

As you get more experienced as a Dungeon Master, you’ll get better at covering for the “missing” bits of adventures. That’s part of the skills of the Compleat DM.

Unfortunately, most adventures don’t have a label on the outside indicating for what skill-level of Dungeon Master they’re designed. There are significant drawbacks in designing all adventures for brand-new DMs – just see the 4E HPE series of adventures. But Dungeon Mastering is such a complex art, with each DM having their own strengths and weaknesses, so how does the adventure designer know what missing information will cause problems? Playtest, see what the DMs say, and adjust. And keep listening after it’s released to learn from what people say.

Adventure design is an evolving art. It’s not an exact science, and different adventures require different styles of presentation. As a Dungeon Master, you get better by running games. As a writer, you get better by writing. And both writers and Dungeon Masters get better by paying attention to feedback: seeing what works and what doesn’t. Adventures may be incomplete, but that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoyable!

Posted in D&D, Design | 2 Comments

5E Adventure Review: Parnast Under Siege

Parnast Under Siege is the final part of the Tier 1 storyline of Storm King’s Thunder for the D&D Adventurers League. After several previous adventures leading up to this part, the adventurers must defend Parnast against the Bad Fruul’s attack on the town.

It does this with a spectacular conclusion, where the party are set against wave after wave of fearsome opponents. If you’re playing this with level 1 characters, you’re likely making a mistake. Go back and start the adventure with The Black Road and run each adventure in the series in turn until you reach this one – you want fourth level characters. The alliances and decisions you made in previous instalments pay off in this one. Did you fail to make alliances with the fey and the ettin? Then you’re likely to find this one difficult.

The opposition is, in fact, greater than even a fourth-level party can handle. However, the adventure begins with the characters preparing for the attack and the designer, Robert Adducci, makes an excellent choice to have their preparations directly impact the play: they can gather “siege” points depending on their success in training the militia, scouting and setting traps and defensive fortifications. When each wave comes in, the players can decide exactly how effective their preparations were by spending siege points to reduce the number of opponents. Prudent use of these points – as well as good tactics in combat – are required to triumph.

It’s a well-written, exciting conclusion to the series.

But wait! There’s more!

Parnast Under Siege can also be run as a multi-table event, with two or three tables combining to face the forces of Bad Fruul together. It’s a mini-epic! The tables each do different areas of preparing for the attack: one group preparing the defences as before, a second group protecting the village’s cleric, who has been targeted by Bad Fruul, and the third group trying to gain the support of the allies. (In a one-table game, that table can choose to do various parts of these missions). Then, the results of all three of their preparations are combined to determine how effective the defences are.

Unfortunately, it’s in the execution of the multiple group event that Parnast Under Siege falters. There’s one basic problem: All three storylines don’t contribute equally to the final defence. There are lots of siege points in the preparing the town storyline; there’s a small number in the finding of allies (and the allies have minor beneficial effects on the siege). And there’s the possibility in the cleric storyline of the players being clever and hiding the cleric with the fey – and thus lose her contribution to the final fight.

It’s a misfire, which makes some groups feel like they wasted their time. The individual storylines are good ones, but each of the storylines needs to have an equal impact on the siege. The cleric storyline, although giving a lot of depth to Bad Fruul’s motivations, comes out of left field and doesn’t tie into previous events well.

The siege also doesn’t care whether there’s one group playing or three. Each group gets to fight their own version of Bad Fruul at the end and face the same enemies. There’s no single dragon flying from group to group (like in Confrontation at Candlekeep) making each table feel like they’re contributing to a final fight against the final boss. It’s every table for itself, and it hurts the finale.

My advice? Run Parnast Under Siege as a single-table adventure, or do some work improving the distribution of siege points and how the final battle runs.

The fact is that, as a single table adventure, Parnast Under Siege is fantastic. It’s got a lot of great material and it is, overall, a difficult challenge for Tier 1 characters, as it should be. You come out of it feeling like you’ve accomplished something. Although I found the multi-table aspect disappointing, you’re probably going to play it at a single table in any case. Go and get it – and enjoy! Highly recommended!

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5E Adventure Review – Mirrored Thrones

Mirrored Thrones is an adventure set in the city of Neverwinter, where a group of brave rebels attempt to overthrow the tyrannous Lord Neverember. Or perhaps they’re just supporting a pretender to the throne. In any case, the adventurers soon find themselves in the midst of a revolution, probably little the wiser as to why they’re involved.

This is a tremendously innovative adventure, which uses an interesting structure that skips over the boring bits and only runs the important parts of the adventure. (Strangely enough, I have an unreleased adventure, also set in Neverwinter, which has a similar structure – though a completely dissimilar plot.) Of course, whether the players consider what is left important is another matter entirely. The adventure is divided into four acts, each of which is designed for a different level of characters: 1st, 3rd, 7th, and 11th. I estimate each act should take about a four-hour session to play through.

The first act finds the characters escaping from a dungeon. Why were they imprisoned? They don’t know. Mind-altering magic has left the characters (and likely the players) confused as to what they’re doing. However, kobolds, traps and tricks lie between them and escape. For the Dungeon Master, he or she must interpret an adventure layout that could be better. It’s not terrible, but it could do with some work. Monsters – even unintelligent ones – are referred to as NPCs. The traps are all listed in a session at the beginning of the dungeon, which would be fine if they were reused and had better iconography on the map, but they’re not. With traps like these, you should include them in the areas’ descriptions.

The dungeon doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why is it linear? Why is there a riddle room to get out? In an adventure that has a modern plot, these old-school elements feel dreadfully out of place. However, the actual encounters show promise, and the descriptions are interesting.

The second act has the characters escaping from Lord Neverember’s men shortly after arriving in the city of Neverwinter. The way this is handled is fascinating: the map of Neverwinter is divided into areas (about 60 or so, I think) and when each is entered, the DM determines a new encounter from one of the eight encounter tables. Again, we have great ideas here: the characters will have an easier time of it if they keep to the back alleys and poorer parts of the city, although they may be detained by a corrupt patrol more interested in extorting money rather than apprehending criminals. However, with an encounter happening in every new area the party enters (with only a few exceptions), this may become tedious. You’ll need to use your judgement as a DM to avoid overwhelming the players.

The adventure can fork here, with the party choosing to serve Lord Neverember or the pretender. Unfortunately, not much attention is given to what happens if the party goes with Neverember, and it may cause issues with the conclusion.

The third act leaps the characters level up to 7, and they are sent to explore a dungeon to recover a magic weapon. There’s a little wilderness travel (handled by random encounter tables), and then they must explore a dungeon hidden by an illusion. The illusion shouldn’t confuse the players much, but it does fit in with the feel of this dungeon, which is wonderfully described and allows the players to learn a lot of the history that led up to the events of the adventure.

The fourth and final act is for level 11 characters (a “few weeks” after the third act), and has the characters infiltrating Castle Never to assassinate Lord Neverember – if they’re working with him, this part of the adventure becomes an assault on the fortress of the pretender! This is a tremendously complicated scenario to run. The adventure lists several encounter areas in the castle, and the characters can attempt to bluff or fight their way through.

There’s a lot of interesting mechanics here. Areas that the characters can easily enter without being challenged depend on the disguise they use, with more effective disguises being harder to use successfully. If the characters want to gather information first, they can; likewise, they can attempt to send additional bands of rebels into the castle to aid them. It’s complicated, not always well-presented, but the sheer breadth of detail is going to give most groups a really interesting experience.

Mirrored Thrones is not a polished product. It has problems presenting information in a clear manner, and it doesn’t fit into an ongoing campaign well. I don’t think you’d even try filling in the level gaps; you’d just run this a mini-campaign with the characters gaining super-milestone advancements at the end of each act. Most of the maps aren’t good.

However, despite all of the issues I have with it, the adventure shows ambition and inventiveness. It isn’t a standard D&D dungeon. It is a campaign-affecting storyline that casts the player characters in important roles. You’ll need to do some work to run it, but – even if you don’t play it as written – there’s material here that inspires. It’s got a great plot, interesting characters, and can be made into something special. Also, at US$1, this is underpriced. Go and check it out. Highly recommended!

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Dungeon Mastering Tips: Hey! That wasn’t in the adventure!

I run a lot of published adventures. I’ve run most of the official D&D adventures, most of the D&D Adventurers League adventures, and a few adventures I’ve acquired from other publishers. And one thing happens to me again and again: A player asks a question, and although I know it’s somewhere in the adventure, I don’t know the answer.

This is incredibly common. D&D adventures have a lot of information in them, and when you get down to it, quite a bit of this information won’t apply to your table. There may have been a time when I’d memorise every word of an adventure, but these days I get familiar with the basic themes, get an understanding of its structure and encounters and wing it from there. If a question comes up about a point of lore (when did the Redbrands move into town?), if I can’t find the answer immediately, I’ll make something up.

And then I’ll deal with the consequences later.

One of the challenges with Dungeon Mastering is keeping the game moving. There are lots of things that can slow or stop a game. Pausing to look up rules and adventure notes happens to all of us. There are times when it’s unavoidable or when the delay is worth it. There have been times when everyone at my table has dived into their rule books to discover how something works because it’s an important situation and the answer is interesting. We’ve discovered lots of fascinating interactions that way. Doing this once every few sessions is fine. Doing it every ten minutes? Not so much.

So, when a player asks me a reasonable question about the adventure, and I can’t give them an answer quickly, I use my judgement to give them an answer. Is it going to be the correct answer? Well, if I say it is, it is!

When I get home afterwards, I will then look up what the answer should have been. Sometimes, I luck out. My answer was the correct one! Then there are the times when I’m wrong.

If my incorrect answer causes problems with the adventure going forward, I’ll let the players know at the beginning of the next session that I made a mistake, and we can proceed from there. “You know how I said the castle was hundreds of years old? Well, it actually appeared overnight a week ago…” I hope not to make too many of those errors, but they happen. Events that occurred as a result of the wrong answer still occurred (unless something really bad happened, when we’ll likely roll back the action to that point and assumed the really bad thing didn’t happen).

Those times when the answer changes the adventure but doesn’t mean it can’t proceed, then we live with the new information. I’ll adapt the adventure to fit. I’m adapting adventures all the time based on what the players do in any case, so adapting them based on mistakes I’ve made isn’t much of a stretch.

The trick is to remember what I did wrong so that I don’t suddenly contradict myself later. Making notes and reading those notes? Fantastic!

You want to keep the players engaged and making decisions. I take advantage of those times they’re discussing something amongst themselves to review the adventure or the rules. However, when they’re waiting for me to say something, I want to give them information quickly and succinctly and get back to the game.

You’re doing it right when everyone’s enjoying themselves, even if you’ve described something at odds at what the adventure says!

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Dungeon Master Tips: Funny Voices and Roleplaying NPCs

There are people in this world who are great at role-playing NPCs. They imbue the characters they assume with passion, vitality and bring forth the true essence of their personalities.

That’s not me. I do funny voices and occasionally remember the voice I should be using two sessions in a row, so players can get familiar with the character’s portrayal.

The fact is that most NPCs don’t need much attention to detail. Work out one distinguishing feature – typically vocal, as that’s the most direct way to be memorable, although sometimes facial ticks or gestures can work – and stick to it. They’re only going to be there for a session or two, then forever forgotten.

It’s the NPCs who stick around for session after session after session that need more attention. I’m terrible at this, but I have one advantage: If I can’t remember every aspect of their portrayal from session to session, then neither will the players. This is like the early days of TV: you’re not being recorded, so people won’t rewatch your performances and realise that you had a completely different accent the first time the character appeared. (There are huge errors in Doctor Who continuity because it was originally though of as only being broadcast and watched once!) I don’t have to be Matt Mercer.

My starting point for characters tends to be acting performances I really like. I’m very happy to do a Marvin the Paranoid Android impression, or an Alan Rickman impression, or both at the same time. I’m sure there are people out there using Sean Connery as the basis of numerous characters. Me? I really enjoy doing a Londo Mollari impersonation when they meet travellers from distant lands.

I have stock characters that I’ve worked out over decades of doing this stuff. There aren’t as many as I’d hope. A few years back, one of my players identified that I had three characterisations I used all the time. I’d like to think that I have more now, but I probably only think I do. I likely have three *different* characterisations these days, having forgotten the original ones. Although I think I can still do the doddery old priest if I set my mind to it.

I was running Suits of the Mist last night, the beginning of the D&D Adventurers League series of adventures set in Barovia. It’s a really challenging one as it has a LOT of characters. Doddery old man – check. Wicked witch – check. Annoying raven – check. Huh: I think I’ve got the three portrayals I do over and over again.

The thing is, the more you role-play a character, the better you get at it. When you have one character you role-play for a year, getting into the “voice” of the character is much easier. The DM’s challenge is doing that and coming up with mannerisms for all the other characters that appear.

It doesn’t have to be a funny voice. Perhaps it’s a turn of phrase, or a way of pausing at unusual moments.

I had a troll once who shouted a lot, and failed to understand that the world was made up of other humanoid races apart from humans. As all the player characters were non-human (Dragonborn, elves and dwarves), they got really annoyed at him. It was funny. It also helped him stick in their heads. You don’t need a complete portrayal to start with: just one or two things to make them memorable.

Strangely, the best role-playing experience of my life was because I couldn’t do a Russian accent. Yeah, I’m really terrible at accents. I can do fake-Irish and fake-Scottish, and that’s about it. So one of my friends took over the NPC (his PC wasn’t a major focus of the adventure). And he hit it out of the park. Took the story in incredible directions, shocking and surprising the other players. Sometimes, giving a key NPC to another player really works.

How much your players get into this sort of acting also affects the game. If you’re the only one doing it, it’s hard. If everyone is doing it, it becomes much easier. You don’t need to force this sort of role-playing if you don’t enjoy it: every group is different. There is a very wide range of play styles.

Try stuff. Experiment. See if your group likes it. Those are the people you have to please: Not me, not Mike Mearls, not Matt Mercer. You just have to entertain your players. And you’ll be entertained by them in turn.

DMing D&D? Wouldn’t miss it for the world!

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5E Adventure Review: The Scroll Thief

The Scroll Thief, the sixth adventure of the first season of the D&D Adventurers League, is a curiosity: an investigative adventure that fails to have an investigation!

It’s probably fairer to say that The Scroll Thief is a dungeon crawl that happens to have an investigation attached, but, in either case, the investigation feels odd. The adventurers are sent to interview three people from whom books (not scrolls!) have been stolen, but at the end of that investigation, they are likely little the wiser as to what is occurring. The most likely result is that the adventurers return to their patron with no clue as to who stole the books. The link to the next part of the adventure, which relies on the appearance of a book rather than the subject when trying to find similar books in a library is something I find weak.

Thankfully, the dungeon section of the adventure is far more entertaining. It’s presented as a set of linear encounters, but they are varied enough to be interesting, and they do evoke the depths of Mantor’s Library and the sewers beyond nicely. It’s at this point that skilled characters can start working out the thief’s movements and objectives, and feel some accomplishment thereby.

It would be wrong to characterise this as an adventure where the players can’t have an effect. Although the adventure progresses in a linear fashion, the decisions made by the players can make their progress easier, and the final encounter gives a good opportunity to change the odds by gaining an unexpected ally. I’m not opposed to linear adventures in Organised Play; they’re often much easier for the DM and players to understand. This adventure is just undermined with an underwhelming start.

Within the campaign arc, The Scroll Thief introduces a few NPCs who will be seen again, and it continues the theme of the Cult of the Dragon searching Phlan for information on powerful artefacts and allies. The Welcomers, the thieves’ guild of Phlan, can make a minor appearance here, but it is an aspect of the town of Phlan that was never developed all that much in this series.

Groups that enjoy role-playing can find some nicely described NPCs here to interact with, and the combats are enjoyable and challenging.

Is it a great adventure? No, but it’s got some good encounters and a plot that reveals itself during play. This isn’t one of the strongest D&D Adventurers League adventures, but it’s one that can be enjoyed.

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