Oct 17 2014

I Like the OSR, but It’s Full of Nitwits

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A while back I made some observations about the “Old School Renaissance” (OSR)’s impact on D&D 5E, and I have been continuing to examine the topic. On the whole, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the OSR, but it’s full of nitwits.

A little context may be in order here: I got into D&D early. Like, real early. 1979 early. That was the year (if my memory serves correctly) I was given a secondhand D&D Basic Set (2nd Printing), edited by J. Holmes (sometimes known as “the blue box”), for Christmas. And like other famous blue boxes, it was much bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. I didn’t actually ever get to play that, but I did read and absorb it for years.

I’m not being a hipster when I say you’ve probably never heard of the first game I actually ran– it’s just a literal fact. It was an obscure “buy ten miniatures and paint, plus here’s a dungeon game included” kit from Heritage USA called Dungeon Dwellers: Crypt of the Sorcerer. I then moved on to 1E AD&D and played that for many years, mostly skipping 2E all together.

So, y’know, I get what the old school is about. I was there, man. 😉 And I also get (and mostly agree with) the principles that the current OSR is built on: player choice, setting immersion, emphasis on impartial GMs and clever, emergent play over mindless grindy combats and predestined storylines, etc. So naturally, I’m drawn to look at OSR gaming resources and discussion.

But wow, some of the dumb shit OSR bloggers say. XD Like any movement that’s half (or more) defined by what they dislike rather than what they like, they get into purity wars about who’s More OSR Than Thou, divide the world into badwrongfun “new school” and goodrightfun “old school,” and go through all sorts of weird gyrations to negate any actual, valid criticism of older games (or newer games that cleave to OSR aesthetics).

When you’ve got Arnesians claiming “more cred” than Gygaxians, people arguing that a moody cover of a hapless adventurer being carried off by a tentacle is too “new school” because it was created in Photoshop by some person other than Erol Otus, or (here’s a weird one that really exists) bloggers asserting that contemporary RPGs are all about “exploring your character’s sexual preferences,” it quickly becomes clear that what you’ve really got going on is a cult, just as myopic and talking-to-itself as any other.

So, honestly, I’m glad 5E was influenced by the OSR, because 4E really was awful in so many ways, but I’m also glad that the OSR is not the only influence on it. And while I’m sympathetic to what actual philosophical underpinnings the OSR has, I am not hitching my star to that wagon!

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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?

Exploration

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 04 2014

The Grand Unified Theory of Gneech’s Campaign Worlds

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I have run a lot of fantasy games over the years. Many of them have only had a few sessions before the group changed or something turned me off about them, while others have lasted for years. This has left a long string of half-realized settings, abandoned PCs and potentially interesting scenarios, cluttering up my hard drive (and my creative subconscious).

I have discovered, with the arrival of 5E, a strange urge to reclaim the pieces of this patchwork, and try to weave them together into something resembling a persistent and connected setting, which I can use going forward as background for diverse games without having to throw away everything and start from scratch over and over. This is part of a larger rekindled love for the game, which I have to admit had been struggling, and I am very happy to see returned. I imagine I’ll explore the why and how of that aspect later, but for now, I’m looking at the campaign worlds and how they can work as a unified world.

The Ones Still Left Behind

Not all of my games can be united this way. Eberron is too distinctively itself to be put into another setting, and the fate of that particular campaign is still TBD. Fortress of Tears, likewise, cannot be simply transplanted. The cosmology and structure of that game was designed to be a cohesive whole with a very specific feel, and while I doubt I’ll do anything with it any time soon, I think it deserves its own space on the shelf, so to speak. The tongue-in-cheek setting of “Mid-Evil” is not itself going to be integrated into the world, although bits of it that I liked might be imported. Finally, my Fantasy Hero setting was too far removed from the premises of a “D&D-land” style setting to really integrate, so it also remains its own thing.

Orbis Leonis

This is the setting as it currently stands. Racial/cultural notes are broad strokes and not intended as a straightjacket: it’s a wide, colorful world and there are enclaves of different cultural groups in every major city. Demihumans and monstrous humanoids have been largely left out of the discussion because for the most part I don’t have a whole lot of different cultures for them worked out and I don’t want to put in any limits I don’t have to. Assume the usual baseline for Dungeons & Dragons for such folk unless you have a reason to do otherwise. Campaign-specific races (such as the nephilim from Zan-Xadar or Sirfox’s gnoll cleric in Red Hand of Doom) exist, but are local populations rather than world-defining ones.

The Silver Coast
Bringing the world together begins with The Silver Coast. Argent is on the northwest edge of a large continent which is bordered by several seas and island continents to the south. Not too far north of Argent the climate quickly becomes cold, and there is a large glacial “land mass” that expands and contracts with the seasons, connecting the main continent with an arctic continent for half the year (being a cold and stormy sea for the other half). Legends tell of a zone of permanent warm paradise in the center of this arctic zone, but you know what legends are.

South of Argent is the kingdom of Ertikan. North and northeast of Argent are various “barbarous” (by Argentile standards) peoples, the friendliest of which are the blonde- and red-haired Calladgangers, but most people of the northwestern part of the continent tend towards fair or ruddy skin and hair colors and curly or wavy locks. The religion of this area resembles the core religion of Faerun, unless specified otherwise, although the gods of Oerth are also known here.

Fellhollow/Rise of the Argent Lord
That game (all two sessions of it) took place 600 years ago; Argenti, “The Silver City,” was later rebuilt as Avileigne… only to have Mt. Thunderdelve erupt and destroy it. That place can’t catch a break. (The modern city of Argent takes its name from the older one, even though it is actually some thirty miles to the northwest. Sort of a “New Argent,” as it were.) The town of Fellhollow was destroyed during the orcish invasion known as the Rise of the Argent Lord; the later town of Pelann was built near its ruins (and, like Avileigne, destroyed again by the eruption of Thunderdelve).

Red Hand of Doom/Revenge of the Giants
A wide, grassy plain on the eastern side of the Silver Ridge Mountains eventually connects to “The Endless Plain” in the northwest corner of the Elsir Vale map. Most of the plain is sparsely populated, but there are nomadic horse tribes related to the Calladganger peoples (think Rohirrim) and at least one large civilized city-state (as yet undefined) lies by a large freshwater lake or inland sea on the one major road between Argent and Elsir Vale. The events in the Silver Coast game are concurrent with the indefinitely-hiatused Revenge of the Giants game (thus, Elsir Vale is currently in the midst of a deep and unnatural winter), and it is conceivable that the two games could connect in the future, allowing characters to overlap. The people of Elsir Vale tend to be of fair complexion, with thick, dark hair, although much variation is common. The religion of this region resembles the core religion of Oerth.

The Greyhawk Campaign/Shadows of Thessalaine
The country of Thessalaine, which bears a remarkable resemblance to a similar country on the world of Oerth named ‘Bissel’, lies to the northeast of Elsir Vale, beyond the Giantshield Mountains (referred to in Thessalaine as The Barrier Peaks). Some years ago now, the infamous necromancer Evard the Black attempted to conquer Thessalaine, but was eventually defeated by “The Watchful Seven” (a group whose variable roster most reliably included Kyriela of Kithria, Jaer, Dragor, Angelina, and Verdhaven). Thessalaine has a very diverse population, being a sort of “crossroads of the world”. The religion of this region generally also resembles the core religion of Oerth. To the east of Thessalaine is terra incognita for the moment.

Zan-Xadar, Jewel of the South, City of the Wicked
Zan-Xadar is on the southernmost tip of the continent, far southeast of the kingdom of Ertikan and south of Thessalaine across the Desert of Xadar, as is its neighbor/rival city-state of Khaldun. The island city-states of Kithria and Nellevar are in the warm Opal Sea, south of the continent, and the near-mythical (to the Silver Coast, anyway) nations of Alcairam and Setranophis are on the northern lip of a vast continent far to the south populated by nations largely unknown to the north. The one adventure we actually ran in Zan-Xadar (“The Fallen Fortress”) can be assumed to have “just happened” if and when a future game takes us back there. The peoples of this region tend towards darker skin and hair colors, with dark brown or black skin dominating Alcairam particularly. The people of Setranophis are a distinct racial group with reddish-brown skin and very fine black hair. The religion of this area is a crazy hodge-podge of cults from around the world, although the worship of Bahamut, Tiamat, Methis/Erathis/Titania, Nergal/Garagos, Baaltis/Ioun, Fortuna, and Kelaeno (a.k.a. Mother Hydra, a.k.a. Umberlee) are prominent in the great glittering cities. Setranophis and Khaldun have sanctioned state religions, an ancestor cult and the Goddess of the Black Flame respectively, and the worship of other deities is strictly illegal in both places. The people of Zan-Xadar and its neighbors are cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and regard the people of the northern realms (with the possible exception of Thesselaine) largely as bumpkins. (Thessalaine replaces Beltharain from the original Zan-Xadar setting; heck, they even sound similar.)

Castle Strongstone, the “Tower of Power”, and the Tomb of the Zodiac
These are places of myth and legend, associated with the tales of the great human wizard Mystic the Strange, the wily elf-rogue Fgyarbt, and the gnomish trickster Zarfbardafardwards. It is generally believed that their adventures took place in a lost country somewhere north of Thessalaine or Elsir Vale, although many lands claim to be “where it really happened.” The objective truth of the matter has long been lost to the ravages of eons; who or what a “Slick Rick” might be, no man may say.

The Empty Spaces Between…

Assume that unless it is explicitly states otherwise, there are other nations in between the ones listed here which have simply “not become important yet,” but will be added in around these as needed. These realms, though connected, are all distant lands, and travel between them is done via map montage. 😉

Thoughts/comments/suggestions, players…?

-The Gneech

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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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