Oct 10 2014

Experience Points and the Three Pillars of Adventure (D&D 5E)

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It’s going to be a few months before the DMG hits shelves, so until then the only real guidelines we have for experience points are the monster XP values provided in the Basic Rules.

However, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how XP was awarded in earlier editions (and in other “old school” games), and the ramifications thereof. In 1e, you got as much XP from treasure looted as monster kills, if not more– and you had to spend said treasure on “training” once you gained enough XP to level up, or you would stop receiving XP. Thus, if you had killed a horde of orcs without collecting a single copper, you were stuck. Alternatively, if you looted a dragon’s hoard, but never engaged a single monster, you were also stuck (but at least you were stuck and rich).

2e loosened this up, and honestly, I don’t know if I ever played in a game that actually required you to train to level up. We mostly just carried it around in bags of holding and wondered what we were supposed to spend it on. In 3.x and beyond, XP was all about the combat encounters, with a little bit of handwavy stuff about “yeah maybe you can give quest XP too.” 4E did try to expand this a bit with the skill challenge mechanic and a little more emphasis on quests, but it was still pretty much “fight, fight, fight, plus variations.”

On the principle that the actions that get rewarded are the actions that get repeated, that was one of the things that has led RPGs to their recent state of being all about the big set-piece combat encounter, which can be fun (I’ve certainly run my share of them), but is both exhausting and, honestly, monotonous when it becomes the main focus of the game.

5E, at least if you believe the introduction to the PHB, is instead built on the “three pillars of adventure,” which add Exploration and Social Interaction as major foci for the game. Of course, I heartily endorse this– even my most hack-and-slashy barbarian characters want to have someone to talk to or see something amazing from time to time. So how can we incorporate these pillars into the XP mechanic?


Tunnels and Trolls had a very simple formula for this: the first time a party explored a new level of the dungeon, they received 100 XP x the dungeon level. (Thus, 100 XP for first level, 200 XP for second level, etc.) To earn this, you had to actually poke around a bit– you couldn’t just wave your arm down the stairs and suddenly claim 200 XP. This required some judgement when out of the dungeon context, of course. Is the lizardfolk village a “2nd level dungeon,” for instance? But on the whole it was a pretty good model, and worth adopting.

So here’s my proposed rule: for each new “region” explored for the first time, the party will receive XP equal to a single creature encounter at the expected level of that region. A region can be a town hub, a dungeon level, or any point of interest on the map. The point is that it’s someplace new and interesting that the party has never seen before. As usual, this XP is divided among the PCs, with hirelings and the like receiving 1/2 shares.

Using the Lost Mines of Phandelver as an example, that might translate to something like:

  • Cragmaw Hideout (1st level/CR 1): 200 XP
  • Town of Phandalin (1st level/CR 1): 200 XP
  • Redbrand Hideout (2nd level/CR 2): 450 XP
  • Conyberry/Old Owl Well/Wyvern Tor (2nd level/CR 2): 450 XP
  • Thundertree/Cragmaw Castle (3rd level/CR 3): 700 XP
  • Wave Echo Cave (4th level/CR 4): 1,100 XP

This award assumes the characters spent a significant amount of time actually interacting with the denizens or features of a given location and is awarded when they leave it or take their first long rest within the region.

Social Interaction

This is much trickier. Some classes are all about social interaction (lookin’ at you, bards), while others are often better served by avoiding it (rogues), and it’s one of those things where many people feel that the play is its own reward– not to mention that the inspiration mechanic is already tied into it. (What are BIFTs, if not roleplaying hooks?) Furthermore, what constitutes a “social interaction encounter” is often much harder to identify. If the party attacks and captures a band of hobgoblins which they then interrogate, was that a combat encounter or a social interaction encounter? If you count it as both, is that double-dipping XP? (And if so, is that really a problem?)

I think the way I shall handle this is to award XP for social encounters based on the CR of the creature encountered, awarding 1/2 XP if there’s no real danger to the PCs. Again using Phandelver as an example, there are a couple of quests that may send the PCs to question a banshee. Normally banshees are CR 4, but the text specifically says she will not attack the PCs unless they attack her first. Thus, the encounter with the banshee is worth 1/2 the XP of a CR 4 encounter, or 550 XP. (This is skewed upwards a bit from the suggested XP in the module itself, which seems to treat it as a CR 1 encounter.)

If the PCs are in real danger– engaging in a riddle contest with a sphinx who will eat them if they guess wrong, for instance– then they are awarded full XP for the CR of the creature as if they had “defeated” it. (This is, among other things, to keep people from saying “Eh, the sphinx wasn’t worth any XP alive anyway, and riddles are stupid.”)

Not just any chatting up of NPCs counts as a “social encounter,” there has to be some kind of victory condition. In the case of the banshee, “victory” consists of getting her to answer your question. In the case of negotiating with the bugbear king for the release of a prisoner, you have to actually secure the prisoner’s release (and not get killed in the process), etc.

Quest XP, XP for Treasure and Other Oddities

I am still on the fence about these. I am reluctant to engage in “Quest XP” because that puts me back in the position of “pre-scripting the story” that I have been trying to get away from. There are already patrons in the setting who are willing to pay the PCs to accomplish certain things, and there are the XP and treasure awards in place for overcoming the challenges involved, so I’m inclined to let those take care of themselves. If I put a quest XP system in place, that rather feels like I’m giving the players an “assignment,” which is great for something like Ghostbusters but not what I want from D&D.

XP for treasure is a slightly different beast. Advocates of such a system say it promotes clever and interesting play, when sneaking in to steal the rat god’s gemstone eyes is worth more than slaughtering all the wererats and being done with it. It also makes it clear what players are expected to do: Find treasure! Which is down in mysterious dungeons (requiring exploration) and guarded by monsters (requiring combat).

Critics of such a system say it’s nonsensical at best (“I stole a diamond! Now I can swing my sword better.”) and creates perverse incentives at worst (“Why explore dungeons when I can gain a level every month by opening a Rat-On-A-Stick stand at the dungeon entrance?”). I can see what they’re getting at, but everything in D&D is so abstracted anyway that I’m not sure it’s a real problem. Modern OSR games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess get around this by defining “treasure” as “loot removed from a dangerous place,” as opposed from money you earn via crafting or rewards given to you by NPC patrons.

Awarding XP for treasure implies that there’ll be treasure to find. Unfortunately, with the 3.x “magic item economy” officially gone the way of the dodo there’s precious little out there for adventurers to spend their ill-gotten gains on, other than their downtime lifestyle. Granted, this is not an insignificant expense: 2 gp/day for “comfortable” racks up quickly if your characters lounge around for weeks, and any crafting/research you may want to do cranks up the cost. But it also runs the danger of making the game feel like Papers & Paychecks, and I wonder how many groups will actually use it.

Treating an extravagant lifestyle as one method of 1e-style “training,” on the other hand, has a certain appeal… the wizard “trains” by pouring all their treasure into old tomes and reagents, the cleric tithes and supports good works, the fighter works on establishing a keep or going with the rogue to seek out ale and wenches, and the bard lives like a rockstar. It also simplifies accounting: instead of picking a lifestyle and paying the daily cost, you simply roll that into the cost of levelling up and calling it done.

A simple way to handle it might be to require the expenditure of the same amount of gold to level up as the XP required to go up a level: 300 gp to become second level, 900 gp to become third level, etc., but that seems rather high. (300 gp is a lot of money for a 1st level character!) But this could be tweaked. Maybe 1/3 as many gp as XP? Putting that much treasure out there for players to loot in order to level up suggests that they should not also get XP for treasure, however, or will inflate rapidly.

What do you think, gamerati? I’m very curious as to folks’ opinions on this.

-The Gneech

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Oct 09 2014

Abel Du Sable– Coffee Promotion

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Abel Du Sable– Coffee Promotion by the-gneech on deviantART

Post-AnthroCon commish from Abel Du Sable. Dude! Don’t bogart the java, man!

Thanks, bud. :)

-The Gneech

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Oct 06 2014

Phandelver as Plot Point Campaign

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I may be projecting, but I’m fairly sure I see some Savage Worlds influence in 5E, particularly around inspiration (which acts something like SW bennies) and around the organization of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure in the Starter Set, which has an uncanny resemblance to a smallish Plot Point Campaign.

Plot Point Campaigns (or PPCs), for those not familiar, are essentially “campaign-in-a-book” supplements for Savage Worlds in which there is a major story arc (the “plot points,” so to speak), but there are also tons and tons of smaller adventure hooks. Generally speaking no single scenario (including the “big finish”) is longer than a page or two, and everything is very sketchy and loosely-connected. The main thrust of the campaign is usually scattered across the map and delves deeply into the setting’s backstory: in 50 Fathoms, the archetypal PPC, the main campaign is all about discovering the story of the three witches who are drowning the world, and thwarting their apocalyptic plans. But there are so many side stories that it could take years for the players to get there, if ever. The PPC gives you an opening scenario that immediately puts your players into the middle of the action, but where they go from there is pretty much up to them.

Usually in a PPC, later scenarios have “prerequisites” before they can happen: “none of the Colonize Monster Island quests can happen until the players have completed the Discover Monster Island quest,” that kind of thing. But beyond that, there’s very little structure. Don’t give a damn about Monster Island? That’s fine, there’s plenty to do over in Adventurelandia. Some quests are stand-alones, some come in chains, some of them are cross-referencing, and so on. But all are short and usually only developed in the sketchiest way, allowing lots of room for GM interpretation and fleshing out.

The best PPCs also include a method for procedurally-generating content, when the GM needs a “filler adventure” or the players decide to wander off the map. It can be as simple as a handful of “insert here” encounters, or it can be as complex as a matrix of rolling on columns A, B, C, and D to get “The Prince wants you to kidnap/steal the sacred gem of Ul from the tomb of a cursed priest.” 50 Fathoms also has a Traveller-esque trading system, designed to get your characters schlepping stuff from place to place so you can find the interesting patrons in each location. [1]

It occurred to me, as I was going through Phandelver, that it appears to have been written in a similar way. As a PPC, the Rockseeker Brothers, their attempts to excavate Wave Echo Cave, and the machinations of The Black Spider would be the main plot points, with the Redbrands, Thundertree, Old Owl Well, Wyvern Tor, and Conyberry all being side-stories, and the wandering monster table being the filler “adventure generator.” The main difference is scale. In a PPC, you have a large-scale campaign presented in tiny, sketchy chunks; in Phandelver, you have a small-scale campaign presented in big, detailed pieces.

This, I think, is pretty nifty, and I’d really like to see WotC continue this approach in the future. How cool would a 5E Eberron Plot Point Campaign be, for instance? Not a single mega-adventure like Seekers of Ashen Crown, which only works if your players are willing to follow a single spoon-fed storyline, but a tapestry of scenario hooks so that if your players hop on an airship to Karrnath on short notice, you could just turn to the Karrnath section of the book and have five paragraphs of potential things ready to go when they got there? With bounded accuracy and the flatter power curve, I can imagine a supplement like this really working in a way that it couldn’t have done in 3.x/PF or 4E, and I would actually very much love to see it.

-The Gneech

[1] There’s probably a very interesting blog post to be written about how 50 Fathoms is basically a Traveller campaign with a fantasy skin… but that’s for another time. Or perhaps another blogger.

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Oct 02 2014

Monsters! RAR!

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I received my 5E Monster Manual yesterday and spent the evening and part of this morning devouring it. (Mmm, wood pulp! :d) It’s a seriously impressive book, giving almost every monster a page which includes lovingly-rendered art, several flavorful bits of monster lore which the DM can use or ignore freely, and a stat block. This book, like the Players Handbook before it, has just that touch of whimsy (from the “delicious squishy brains” disclaimer buried on the facia page to the outhouse mimic sketch in the index) that both 3E and 4E lacked and I have missed. (Go back and look at the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and you’ll notice that at least half the illustrations were single panel cartoons nicked from Dragon magazine!)

It’s not without its quirks, of course. Many of the creatures I find the most interesting have been shunted off into “Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures,” by which they basically mean “beasts.” But since the category includes such staples as blink dogs, giant spiders, worgs, and all of the swarms, you’d think they’d merit a little more respect.

Also, much has been made of the lack of an index by CR. Personally, I find this a non-issue, since the DMG is probably going to have all kinds of encounter tables and the like, but WotC has since published said index on their website, and Blog of Holding has done one that’s probably more useful if you’d like such a thing.

But on the topic of CR, wow did CRs trend down in 5E! Creatures that have traditionally been unholy terrors at the “heroic” tier [1] such as manticores or wights, tend to top out around CR 3. [2] CR 5 is home of the “big league” monsters such as trolls or gorgons, and then the eldritch nasties such as mind flayers or hags start appearing in the CR 7-8 range. This is clearly a deliberate design decision, which I have a few theories about.

First of all, the encounter budget models that WotC have released so far all indicate that the number of monsters shoot the difficulty up quickly, which means that while a single CR 2 ogre would be a “hard” encounter for a 2nd level party, a pair of them would be considered a “ludicrous” encounter. [3] Since many DMs love to throw groups of monsters at the party, keeping individual monster CR down keeps the difficulty from going through the roof too fast.

Second, D&D has always had a certain “When do we get to the good stuff?” problem. The game’s iconic monsters, things like adult dragons and beholders and mind flayers, don’t tend to appear until 5th level or higher, while many campaigns struggle to get past 3rd due to player attrition, DM burnout, or whatever. Skewing the CRs down makes it more likely that the average group will advance to a level where the bigger, badder, “cooler” things can start showing up, hopefully sustaining interest in the game and opening the campaign to more varied scenarios than another March of the Goblins. [4]

Finally, bounded accuracy rears its head again: low level baddies can still hurt higher level PCs. One on one, a lower level critter will certainly run out of hit points long before a higher level PC will, but when you get a room full of them, that’s another story. Lower CR monsters fill the niche that minions were intended to in 4E, without the “meta” aspects (“Why does this goblin have 33 hp, and that one only have 1? They look exactly the same…”) So a creature’s CR is not really as important a factor in encounter building as it was in previous editions, it’s just a general indicator of a creature’s toughness.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in play. And after this weekend, there’ll be a two week break in my gaming schedule, so I’m also looking forward to retooling my Silver Coast game with a full range of monsters, rather than just what was available in the Starter Set. Now then, where on this map could I put the Tarrasque…?

-The Gneech

[1] I’ll rant about tiers some other time. When codified as they were in 4E, I find them horrible metagamey constructs; fortunately, 5E just uses them as handy labels for the DM, which is fine.

[2] This means that my Summoner Conversion will need a serious retooling, probably topping out the eidolon’s form at CR 4 or so.

[3] I’m not sure I agree with their assessment of encounter difficulty: my players have so far waltzed through multiple “hard” encounters without breaking a sweat. But then again, my players all have years of gaming experience, so it might just be a testament to their playing skill.

[4] Mind you, I love me some goblin invasions. But you can’t do that every time. Nor can you make every campaign about Tiamat trying to break out of her extra-dimensional prison. Tyranny of Dragons, I’m looking at you. Didn’t Red Hand of Doom kinda sew up that idea for a while?

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Sep 30 2014

Summoner Subclass for D&D 5E, First Pass

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I don’t know if my Eberron game is savable, given how much resistance I felt to running it the past few times I tried, even with an adventure already prepped. However, Hantamouse and Sirfox have both expressed interest in it, so if I can figure out just what it is that was bugging me and fix it, there might be hope for it yet. I have pretty much decided to jump from Pathfinder to 5E, tho, which means conversions would be required.

The game had a very offbeat mish-mash of races and classes. The races are not a problem, I can do those easily. The classes are more of an issue, as PF operates on a whole different scale and set of assumptions about class complexity, spell availability, and so on. So today I’m looking at Summoners.

In 5E, the “Summon X” spells have all been replaced by “Conjure X” spells instead, and have all had their levels severely bumped. Conjure Animals, the lowest level summoning spell, is 3rd level, and allows you to summon critters of CR 2 or lower (as a 5th level caster).

Given 5E‘s “bounded accuracy” model, this is understandable: being outnumbered is much worse than being outgunned, and every creature summoned effectively doubles the summoner’s ability to impact the fight. The “action economy” was already important in 3.x/PF, but in 5E it’s a major deciding factor. This is why, for instance, beastmaster rangers effectively have the choice of taking an action themselves, or having their animal companion take one instead. 5E wizards are conjuring critters at around the levels where fighters are attacking two or three times in a round. Wizards can cast find familiar at 1st level, but familiars are specifically forbidden from attacking in combat.

So, how to build a 5E summoner class? It depends on if we want to match the Pathfinder class or just build something off the summoner archetype. Most of the summoners that have appeared in games I’ve seen seem to be tapping their own innate magic rather than studied wizards, so “Summoner” becomes a Sorcerous Origin (basically sorcerer subclass). At 1st level, they automatically know the conjure eidolon spell (1st level, ritual), which can be cast at various levels for various effects:

  • First Level: Essentially as find familiar. Although obviously an otherworldly creature, the eidolon has the stats of a Tiny beast of CR 0 (such as a bat or weasel). The eidolon has either the celestial, fiendish, or fey subtype. The eidolon has all of the characteristics of a familiar, including the ability to be temporarily dismissed, the telepathic link with the summoner, and the ability to deliver touch spells.
  • Second Level: The eidolon acts as a ranger’s animal companion. It has the stats of a Medium or smaller beast of CR 1/4 or lower, but adds your proficiency bonus to its AC, attack rolls, damage rolls, and any skills and saving throws it is proficient in. Its hp maximum equals its normal hp maximum or four times your sorcerer level, whichever is higher. It can attack foes as directed by the summoner, as a ranger’s companion.
  • Third Level: As second level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Large or smaller beast or monstrosity of CR 2 or lower.
  • Fourth Level: As third level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Large or smaller beast or monstrosity of CR 3 or lower.
  • Fifth Level: As fourth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast or monstrosity of CR 4 or lower.
  • Sixth Level: As fifth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 4 or lower.
  • Seventh Level: As sixth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 5 or lower.
  • Eighth Level: As seventh level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 6 or lower.
  • Ninth Level: As eighth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 7 or lower.

Conjure eidolon does not count against the sorcerer’s limit of spells known, and in all other ways acts as find familiar. All of the “Conjure [creature]” spells are considered to be on the Sorcerer Spell List for summoners, even though they are not normally on the Sorcerer Spell List. These spells cannot be cast while the summoner’s eidolon is present, but they may be cast if the summoner temporarily dismisses the eidolon (as the find familiar spell).

At 6th level summoners gain Summoner’s Call, the ability to instantly summon their eidolon to their side or swap places with their eidolon as if they had cast dimension door. (They cannot move themselves to their eidolon’s side, they must either summon it, or switch places.) This can be done as a bonus action. Once this ability is used, it cannot be used again until the summoner completes a short or long rest.

At 14th level summoners gain a Life Bond with their eidolon. As long as the eidolon has at least 1 hit point, damage in excess of that which would reduce the summoner to fewer than 0 hit points is instead transferred to the eidolon. This damage is transferred 1 point at a time, meaning that as soon as the eidolon is reduced to 0 hp, all excess damage remains with the summoner.

At 18th level summoners gain the ability to Merge with their eidolon. This transformation includes all of the summoner’s gear. While merged in this way, the summoner is protected from harm and cannot be the target of spells or effects. All effects and spells currently targeting the summoner are suspended until the summoner emerges from the eidolon (although durations continue to expire).

The summoner can cast spells while inside the eidolon by taking control of the eidolon for the duration of the casting. Any material components used for these spells are taken from the summoner’s gear, even though they are otherwise inaccessible. The summoner can direct all of the eidolon’s actions while merged, can perceive through its senses, and can speak through its voice.

Once the summoner uses this ability, it is expended until they complete a short or long rest. The can end this effect at will, emerging adjacent to the eidolon if able. If the eidolon is returned to its home plane while the summoner is merged with it, the summoner is immediately ejected, taking 4d6 points of damage, and is stunned for 1 round.

…Whattya think, sirs?

-The Gneech

Aug 08 2014

KarmaKat Commission 2/4

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Karmakat Commish 2/4 by the-gneech on deviantART

So apparently these take place sometime in the 1-4 year period after the end of the original SJ comic, as it’s after Tiffany and Leonard get married, but before the actual birth of their son Louis.

(Trivia: Louis Liger is known as “Little Louis” to distinguish him from Tiffany’s brother Louis Tiger, who is known as “Big Louis,” even though Little Louis eventually grows to be something like twice Big Louis’s height.)

-The Gneech

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