Author: The Gneech

Writer, cartoonist, occasional web programmer, and general neurotic. Friendly, tho.

Once the Storm King Has Thundered, Then What?

Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm
Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm

My Storm King’s Thunder game has been waiting in the queue for the past several weeks while one of the other DMs in the group runs his game; but we are due to get back to it soon, and I’m starting to look with serious intent at what comes after the big finish.

Assuming the characters solve the mystery of the Storm King’s court, rescue all the peeps who need rescuing, defeat all the baddies who need defeating, and restore the Ordning among giant-kind, they will probably be somewhere in the 12th level range. At that point, it becomes more difficult to realistically look at the Silver Coast in terms of a sandbox/hexcrawl environment– and I am trying to resolve that with the tenets of my DM’s Credo.

Random, everyday hazards of a fantasy setting are not going to be a problem for these guys… the way I put it in conversation recently was, “The Avengers don’t wander around New York taking down muggers.” Once you’ve defeated Thanos, what’s next? And more importantly, how do you integrate a threat on that kind of scale in a way that doesn’t just shove them down the players’ throats? Having Galactus show up and threaten to eat the world is pretty darn railroadey. >.>

Another challenge for me in this particular area is that I just don’t natively think in “high level” style. The majority of my campaign world is fairly mundane: think Middle-earth instead of Asgard. At one point, while they were hunting down Svartjaw, one of my players mocked the Thane of Acholt by asking “What kind of lord doesn’t even have a magic weapon?”

Given the assumptions of D&D, it was a legit question. The answer was twofold: first, he didn’t have a magic weapon because mechanically he was a Knight from the back of the Monster Manual with his greatsword swapped out for a longsword and shield; and second, because my conception of the world is that magic items of any kind are super-rare. Does Theoden of Rohan have a magic sword? I mean, yeah, he might, but the text never mentions it. The moment of Theoden taking up his sword and all his men losing their shit about it is supposed to be because Theoden King is Awesome, not because he has a longsword of leadership.

But even with magic items being scaled back the way they are in 5E, it is absolutely not the case that magic items are super-rare in D&D, nor in the way I’ve structured the campaign. Everyone in the party has at least one and probably two or three pretty wifty items at this point, either awarded as treasure, or because to accommodate one of the players’ desired campaign style I created a “vaguely 3.x” subsystem to allow them to spend treasure on items.

In short, I’m still bringing low-magic thinking into an intrinsically high-magic framework and that also applies to my adventure design. On some level, my idea of a “high level conflict” is the characters being at the head of armies taking on a million bazillion orcs; but D&D‘s idea of a “high level conflict” is more like “one of Demogorgon’s heads declares war on the other and as a result the cosmos is being torn in half.”

I… just don’t think that way. O.o To lean on the MCU metaphor, I love-love-love the “ground level” threats of Captain America: The First Avenger and Spiderman: Homecoming, and I can even enjoy Thor: Ragnarok for a romp or two, but Infinity War kinda makes me check out. Crazy-big cosmic adventure is a foreign language to me.

Going back to the matter of high-level adventures and the sandbox/railroad dichotomy, the hugeness of high-level threats is part of what makes it hard to relate to them in a sandbox context. CR 15+ things don’t just wander around the world waiting for your players to bump into them. They are things like Cagarax the Red, the ancient dragon who claims the Silver Coast as his terrority, or Iuz the Old, cambion emperor of the realm who bears his name, or the Cult of Elemental Evil spilling out of their temple and marching across Veluna. The world is only stable enough for low-level sandbox play because these major powers are content to lurk in their lairs for now. When it comes time for high level adventures, these are the sources that trouble is going to come from, but the moment I decide “Iuz is going to go on the march,” that is me deciding what the adventure will be.

Now, my players might be totally fine with that; years or decades of “the DM creates the adventure and we show up for it” style play have pretty much made that the norm. And as long as everyone’s having fun, that’s hardly “wrong.” But I have been striving to change my approach to gaming, and if I am serious about making “player empowerment” a priority, I have to examine that facet of things. I mean, I can just decide “Iuz is going to go on the march” and then ask the players, “What do you want to do?” It’s entirely possible they might reply, “We buy popcorn and watch.” In that sense they’re perfectly empowered. But I suspect if I tell them Iuz is marching, what they will hear is “The adventure is over there, go get it.”

And if I tell them “Iuz is on the march, and Cagarax has decided to take the city of Argent as his new lair, and Elemental Evil is spilling out of its temple, what do you want to do?” they may very well just go, “Uhhhh….?” and vapor-lock. In a low-level sandbox, choosing not to take on the lizardfolk lair because you’re going to the barrow downs is not the end of the world.

Choosing not to mess with Galactus because you want to focus on Thanos? Just might be. >.> Where’s the “choice” in that?

In Which My Players Have No Chill

There are no rooms to hole up in, here!
There are no rooms to hole up in, here!

In response to my last post, over on Dreamwidth Terrycloth asked, “Why would you stop your party from taking short rests? I thought short rests were assumed between each encounter.” And since I did mention it was a topic for another post, here it is! 😉

In 5E RAW, short rests take an hour, during which you can spend hit dice to regain HP, as well as any class features that recover on a short rest (such as arcane recovery, ki points, and the like). Terrycloth clarified in a later comment that he uses the “short rests are 5 minutes” variant from the Dungeon Masters Guide (which is closer to the 4E version), on the grounds that:

4e improved its play a lot when it shifted to monsters with fewer hit points and more damage — having to fall back on at-will powers instead of being able to use your encounters was tedious. To get interesting combat you need to have options.

Having people hoarding every resource in 5e was the same way. TEDIOUS.

One of the actual gameplay things that bugged me about 4E, especially in its early stages, was that every encounter was exquisitely balanced to perfectly challenge an on-level party at full strength– which was facilitated by the 5-minute rest after each one. The concept of the “encounter power” was what encounters were built around. I agree with Terrycloth that 4E was tedious, but I would actually say that easy resting was one of the things that made it so! It was a well-oiled game-mechanical machine but… it quickly became… monotonous.

  1. DM sets up room, everyone rolls initiative.
  2. Players use encounter powers.
  3. Monsters use encounter powers.
  4. If either side survives, whittle away with “at-wills” until encounter over.
  5. 5-minute rest, rinse, and repeat.

In my group– and mind you, we were veterans who’d been playing D&D for decades– all creative efforts just dried up. Everyone spent the encounter staring at their character sheet wondering which power to use next, or, if their powers were expended, going “Sigh, I guess I attack.”

It was, frankly, boring. Say what you will about the lack of interesting character options in 1E, having a character sheet the size of an index card definitely encouraged you to think outside the box in a tough situation (if only because the box had nothing in it).

I’m not advocating the elimination of encounter powers (or, in 5E parlance, “class features that recover on a short rest”) or the elimination of short rests by any stretch. My tabaxi monk would beat me up if I did. But I do believe that powers should be expended, and that the choice to stop and recover those powers should have a tactical cost to make it interesting. A 5-minute rest is trivial, and if you assume that there’s a rest after every encounter, then those powers are not “expended” beyond the couple of rounds that any given combat lasts.

5E combats are short, man.

Now, if the short rest is an hour, that makes a difference. From a narrative stance, an hour is a significant chunk of time and if you’re up against a ticking clock you’ll want to weigh the value of the rest versus the time lost. Add wandering monsters into the mix, and you’ve got an even bigger choice: do you gamble on having monsters appear, thus losing both the time and the benefits of the rest?

As my gamemastering credo and my GMing style generally have evolved, I have come more and more to love “emergent” play– that is, instead of me “creating a story” and “running the players through it,” I much prefer to put the pieces of the world in place, say, “Go!” and see what happens. I can (and do) make educated guesses as to the general way stuff might shake out, but I am not attached to that result. One of my players sometimes asks after a session “Were we supposed to [do some thing]?” or “Did you expect us to [do some other thing]?” and I understand why– I once ran my game that way. But I have found over the years, running that way is a lot of work, and doesn’t generally reward the effort put into it. My honest answer, these days, is “I was fine with whatever you did. You’re the stars of the show!”

Reliable short rests mean that the party is always at or close to full strength– which would put the relative ease or difficulty of any given encounter mostly in my control. That, in turn, means that building encounters is basically me deciding how it will go. “This fight will be a pushover. That one will be a terror.” While it’s true that players always zig when you expect them to zag, it still results in me largely ending up in a position of controlling the flow of the adventure during prep, instead of letting the game unfold at the table.

I want the players to be in charge of that. I want them to decide “Hmm, reserves are low, maybe we should back off…” or “Six goblins? We can take ’em!” But for that to even be on the table, reserves have to be able to run low! Thus, resting has to be limited.

The flip side of that is that encounters have to be diverse. Since I can’t depend on the party being full strength at the start of every encounter, my overall trend is for the difficulty of any given encounter to be lower than they would be in a 4E (or 3.x/PF) game. In old-school D&D, and in the game as I try to run it, it’s not the dragon that kills you– it’s the fact that you took on the dragon after fighting waves and waves of kobolds that does it. 😉

In Terrycloth’s case, it sounds like his players are super-cautious, and based on how he describes his encounter designs elsewhere in the thread, that’s understandable. My players, on the other hand? Have no chill whatsoever. XD The bigger and more dangerous the monster, the more eager they seem to be to go poke it. It has been a combination of luck and teamwork that has kept their characters from getting killed time and time again, which is exactly how it should be for heroes.

Keep in mind, this is all very theoretical. Unless you’re actually designing the archetypal “20′ x 30′ rooms connected by 10′ halls” old-school dungeon, you may not be able to even tell where one “encounter” ends and another one begins. In my most recent scenario, the party was confronted with a fortress on a floating island, with a big villain and his minions, some potential allies, a dungeon underneath, and portions that were hostile to all– and being the perverse lot they are, they split up and went off to poke different parts of it. Was the rogue and wizard up in the villain’s tower “an encounter”? What about the rest of the party fighting minions down in the fortress courtyard? I mean… yes? But neither of them fit into the “encounter-rest-encounter-rest” model. It’s just the story that emerged.

They’re Called Dungeon CRAWLS for a Reason

Source: http://paratime.ca/cartography/bw_dungeons.html

This weekend, my drow bard Obsidian and her associates went through a scenario that was clearly a riff/parody on the classic old-school dungeon crawl– to the point where it was lampshaded by a plaque over the door that said, “Welcome to the funhouse!” 90% of the action took place on a sheet of graph paper and it involved going from room to room, attempting to bypass traps and searching for secret doors, with the occasional monster fight tossed in as a hazard.

Now for some context here, our party is very beefy, but not much in the way of finesse. Between six characters, there is one level of rogue– on the orc fighter. So, he has expertise with thieves’ tools, while Obsidian has proficiency with Investigation. Between the two of us, we make a functional rogue. >.>

However, against one locked door, we just plain got stuck; we both rolled absolute crap trying to get it open. At this point, Jamie (the DM) said something that was both brilliant, and pointed out a quirk in the game as it was being played: “The two of you eventually manage to get it open, but you waste ten minutes bickering about it.”

That’s a totally in-character thing for Obsidian and her orc bodyguard to do and it was a funny moment, but it also leads to the question, “If we were eventually going to get past the door either way, why even roll for it?”

Now this is a solved problem in the classic dungeon crawl: every ten minutes in the dungeon is another roll for wandering monsters– who have no treasure or valuables, they’re just there to eat your hit points and waste your spells. But this particular dungeon had no wandering monsters, as part of the story background. From a gameplay POV, there was no consequence to passing for failing the skill check other than how the description played out.

Ever since the session I’ve been thinking about how I would have handled that situation. The current prevailing wisdom is that if there is no consequence for failure and the PCs have a reasonable chance of succeeding (especially if they can just keep trying over and over), that the DM shouldn’t bother calling for a roll at all and just say “You pick the lock. In the room beyond you find…”

Which is expedient, yes, but boring. How could that be spiced up a bit?

I found some inspiration in a recent article about the Mouse Guard RPG, in which instead of a dead stop, a failed skill check may create a “twist.” The twist could be a wandering monster check as in the days of old, or it could be a condition imposed on one or more members of the group. This calls for a bit more thought on the DM’s part, but can be worked into the adventure with a little brainstorming during prep. Some example twists that jump to my mind around the task of picking a lock on a door include:

  • Wandering monster check
  • The Mouse Guard example: you have to hide from passing guards to avoid giving yourself away; Wisdom save (DC equal to the door check) or you become frightened by their cruel jokes about executing prisoners
  • You spend so long on the task that you must make a Constitution save to avoid a level of exhaustion
  • You damaged your lockpicks. Make a Dexterity save or suffer disadvantage with all of your future checks with them until you can get a new set.

Note that the assumption here is that, success or failure, the party does open the door. That part is assumed, similar to the way Gumshoe assumes that players always find the clues. The skill check isn’t “Do you succeed?” so much as “How tough is it to succeed?” You’d also have to figure out for each twist, what would be required to overcome the condition imposed, such as replacing damaged lockpicks, or possibly “until your next short rest.”

Of course, that leads to the question, “How do you keep the players from constantly taking short rests in a dungeon with no wandering monsters?” And I do have thoughts on that too, but that’s for another post. 😉

-The Gneech

Fictionlet

Greg sat at the dining room table, tapping away on the lappie as Alex lounged on the couch messing with his phone. Quietly, and without fuss, Ozymandias hopped up onto the table, regarded Greg’s Moleskine with a vague air of contempt, and knocked it off the table before settling down into a loaf.

Greg paused, raised an eyebrow, and said, “Cats are nature’s perfect entropic engine.” He then continued typing.

Alex crinkled up his forehead. “Man, you are like peak 2007,” he said.

-The Gneech

<-- previous B&G

D&D Weather

Angband, by Angus Mcbride, or, A Million Gazillion Orcs

Sunny days and crisp weather have arrived here, and that always puts Dungeons and Dragons on my brain– because way back in 1983 a bunch of us would hang out behind our high school on days like this and play through a very freeform megadungeon game of my own creation. I particularly remember a moment I’ve written about before, where one of my players (who always wanted to run ahead on his own) opened a door, only to be informed that behind it was a massive chamber with 200 orcs… to which his response is “I slam the door and run away!” Fun times. XD

At the time, I didn’t use the D&D rules, partially because I had all of a Holmes Basic Set and an AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide to work from (making for an incomplete and often contradictory ruleset to begin with), but mostly because I didn’t have the patience to sit down and puzzle it all out.

What I did have the patience for, for whatever reason, was to create my own ridiculously kloodgey homebrew system that took bits of D&D and blended it with bits of Heritage’s Dungeon Dwellers series and then, at the table, was mostly ignored. This game system was called “Mid-Evil,” which I was very proud of at the time. >.>

Did I mention I was 13?

A year later, I tried to leverage this same mostly-nonsensical system into an espionage/modern action game called “I Spy,” which was just as nonsensical and took the inspiration for its one usable scenario from a segment of “The Bloodhound Gang” from 3-2-1 Contact.

So, yeah, “ambitious, but not sophisticated,” about sums me up in those days.

But as dorky and sophomoric as all these things were, they had fire and a pure love of the game that still makes me grin to remember. As I began to develop more sophistication I moved on to MERP and from there to the HERO System, becoming ever more enamored of “realism” and “maturity”– mostly because I was still young and insecure about such things.

A lot of my games from this second period were very sophisticated by comparison– I had a “street-level superheroes” campaign that delved into dark topics and psychology and presaged things like The Killing Joke by a matter of years. But at the same time, a lot of my gaming sessions felt like work– we were trying so hard to Make Art out of the game, that we would lose sight of the fact that we were a bunch of nerds sitting around a table rolling dice to control the fate of fictional characters.

These days, I’d like to think I can have the best of both worlds. I have primarily returned to D&D (using the actual rules, even), but I work with the players to integrate their characters’ personalities and background into the campaign. There are random encounter tables, but they are built with an eye toward reinforcing the theme or environment of the adventure instead of being a giant kitchen sink of weirdness. There are serious NPC allies, enemies, or wildcards, but there are also moments of pure goofiness.

But most importantly, I remember these days why I fell in love with the game in the first place– those crazy moments of shared story that we were all creating together, where the stuff on the paper was there if we wanted it, but also didn’t matter if it didn’t actually make things more fun. And I’m always grateful for D&D weather, because that’s what it reminds me of.

-The Gneech