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In 5E, the “Summon X” spells have all been replaced by “Conjure X” spells instead, and have all had their levels severely bumped.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

Sep 22 2014

Digging In the Old School Sandbox

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There’s a lot of talk in the gamer blogosphere about the new edition of D&D‘s compatibility with OSR (“Old-School Renaissance” or “Old School Roleplaying,” depending on who you ask). And while there’s not always consensus on exactly what OSR consists of, there is no question in my mind that that 5e has been strongly influenced by the OSR movement, from mapless encounters to wandering monsters.

Hand-in-hand with OSR comes the concept of “sandbox play,” a style in which the DM does not create scenes or story beats, but rather maps out locations and creatures/NPCs, gives them goals, and starts them rolling, then turns to the players and says, “What do you do?” There is no story until the players bring one to the table; what scenes or exciting things happen are purely emergent based on what the players do.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver in the Starter Set has been largely praised by reviewers for its “sandbox” nature, especially the portions that take place in and around the main town. There are multiple potential patrons with sometimes conflicting goals, and there are multiple ways to get involved with and approach most of the adventure locales. There’s only one real “railroad” moment, and that’s right at the start of the game: you will be ambushed by goblins as the first encounter. From there, even though there are adventure hooks, you don’t have to follow any of them and it isn’t assumed that you necessarily will.

Some of the hooks are obvious: your patron has been carried off by goblins and if you want to get paid (or are simply loyal to him), you’ll probably want to go track him down. But the adventure doesn’t break if you don’t. Once you get to the town, there are plenty of other factions to get involved with or adventure leads to follow up on. For that matter, there are trails leading out into the wilderness, so you don’t even need to go looking for adventure hooks if you don’t want to. You can just head out on the road and see where it leads you. Of course, if your initial patron dies, you’ll lose the benefits of having him around and any further leads he might have had for you, so it’s not without consequences– but it’s also not a “game over” screen, so to speak.

Prior to Dragonlance, this was actually the norm in D&D adventure design, and in some ways it’s very liberating, for both the players and the DM. In a story-based game, the DM has to make sure there are no major plot holes, or the players will immediately and inevitably find them and break your story. And you have to be sending the players through a story they’re interested in, or else the whole thing will fall flat at best, or create friction at worst. As a player, I’ve spent sessions grinding my teeth because I felt forced into a scenario that I didn’t want to participate in and had no control over, because there was a plot I was supposed to follow whether I wanted to or not. As a DM I have certainly been guilty of forcing that on my players in the past as well, and I always regret it afterwards.

But it’s not like it’s all “story-based bad, sandbox good.” One main pitfall of a sandbox game is the chance that when you ask the players, “What do you want to do?” they’ll shrug and say, “I dunno, what do you want us to do?” I recently encountered an extreme version of this with my Eberron game when I presented the players with a list of jobs available at the adventurer’s guild, asked them to pick one, and they simply stared at me. It was not unlike trying to run a campaign based on Bartleby the Scrivener, and I’m still trying to figure out what I did wrong there.

The other major pitfall, from what I’ve read, is that the players will feel like there’s “nothing to do.” They might hear a rumor of a dungeon across the mountains or a shipwreck on an island, or perhaps they’re even wandering from wilderness hex to wilderness hex having a long string of random encounters, but none of it feels like it matters. “When do we get to the story?” seems to be the chief complaint of players in this kind of situation, to which the standard sandbox answer is, “There isn’t a story, until you make one.”

Right now at least, as a DM I’m leaning towards the sandbox model. It requires a lot of mapping out locations and writing up encounters that may or may not be used, but on the other hand, I don’t have to keep coming up with a never-ending stream of plot twists and compelling narratives. I once had a player flat out tell me, “I don’t want to make a story, that’s your job.” At the time I didn’t know what to say to that; these days my answer would be, “Why should I have to do all the work?”

…Which bring me back to 5E, and the bounded accuracy model. 3.x/Pathfinder, with its extreme power scaling, could be run sandbox style, but wasn’t great at it. An encounter that would be a TPK at one level, would be a pushover two levels later, and the whole narrative flow of the game, as well as advancement and treasure acquisition, was based on the model of “mostly normal encounters, plus one or two challenging ones and one or two easy ones.” That meant that you had to constantly scale the world up to match your group, or at the very least make sure everything was in a fairly narrow range.

For sandbox play, that pretty much sucked, because it meant constantly retooling the world around the PCs. This was usually done by moving them from zone to zone like an MMO, so characters didn’t start to wonder why, when they wiped out that cave full of goblins, it was replaced with a cave full of trolls.

Theoretically at least, with 5e’s flatter power curve, the basic ecology of a region can stay the same and still have interesting or challenging encounters over the course of several levels. The wilderness encounter table in Phandelver, for instance, has something as piddly as three stirges (75 XP) all the way up to something as fearsome as five ghouls (1000 XP), and is intended to cover levels 1-5. I pity the group of 1st level characters who get set upon by five ghouls in the middle of the night– but the possibility of that kind of thing happening is a hallmark of both sandbox play, and OSR. It’s also something that you probably wouldn’t see in 3.x/Pathfinder[1].

-The Gneech

[1] Or 4E either, I’d imagine, but that’s because 4E would want to set it all up on a map with a giant magic boulder rolling around in circles doing necrotic damage every other round for no good reason…

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