Nov 25 2014

In Which I Am Interviewed About Street Fighter

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I was recently interviewed by Matt Meade of about my work on White Wolf’s Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game. We talk about deadlines, the mechanics of the Rising Storm Crow maneuver, and the ideal date for Backhand Bonnie Brown.


-The Gneech

Nov 21 2014

Killing 4E and Taking Its Stuff

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Coming Home to D&D

It’s no secret that I like D&D 5E. I mean, I really, really like it. I had stated at the time 4E came out that I wanted the new edition to be basically a D&D version of Star Wars Saga Edition, and while I would have liked that, I actually like 5E better in almost every way. It’s not perfect, probably no system can be, but it is still mighty good. Had 5E been what was released in 2008, I am pretty certain there would not have been the Edition Wars, and probably no Pathfinder Roleplaying Game either, for better or worse.

It’s also no secret that I disliked D&D 4e. I mean, I really, really disliked it. All of that said, mechanically and conceptually, there is a fair amount of “the good bits” of 4E still lurking in 5E, maybe more than some people would like to admit. Just as the doom of 4E was foretold in the latter days of 3.5, the doom of 5E was foretold in the latter days of 4E. The only difference is that in the latter days of 4E, a lot fewer people were paying attention, myself included.

I freely admit that I completely ignored the playtest. I am one of those people who felt they’d been “fired as a fan” by WotC, and as such, I simply let them go their own way while I went mine. I was, if not entirely happy with Pathfinder, at least comfortable enough to be getting on, and that worked. (My attempts to move to other systems such as Savage Worlds notwithstanding.) So I missed the “Essentials” phase of 4E, which is where the shifts that led to 5E began, and more importantly I missed the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, which seems to be where the real sea-change had finally appeared.

NCG is thoroughly a 4E book, make no mistake, with all the random disassociated powers and dubstep-colored explodey art you would expect from such a thing. But it also includes campaign-specific Character Themes (which would become 5E‘s Backgrounds) and a strong emphasis on long-term story and away from a long string of perfectly-balanced set piece encounters. In the entire book, there is not a single battle-map to be found. Really, with just a few cosmetic changes in art design and tone (and, y’know, tossing out the 4E mechanical artifacts), NCG is practically a 5E book already.

(Also, if you intend to run the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the 5E Starter Set, it makes a great long-term campaign sourcebook. I’m not using it straight for my own campaign, preferring my own homebrew to the thrice-exploded Forgotten Realms, but I am liberally raiding it for good bits.)

Looting the Body

So, now that 4E is a smoking crater safely behind us, what exactly did 5E take from it, and what is there still worth the taking?

Well, as mentioned, Backgrounds are an implementation of 4E‘s Character Themes, providing a small mechanical benefit for a character’s origin. They call it a “feature” instead of a “power,” which is a welcome name change in my opinion– one of the worst things about 4E was the whole “ADEU” (At-Will/Daily/Encounter/Utility Power) framework, which led to the whole “I’ve used up all my powers, I guess I’ll just attack” malaise that made 4E combat such a tedious grind. [1]

Of course, if you really look at it, the ADEU model is still there. Spell slots are “Daily Powers,” always have been. Any class feature that is expended and recovered after “a short or long rest” is an “Encounter Power” by a different name, and so forth. But it’s heavily buried and disguised, to keep people from staring at their power cards and thinking of them as “These are the things I can do.”

What I like about these things being called “features” instead of being called “powers” is that they blend in. They become part of your character’s background, an attribute they have just like their class or race, something they can go to if desired, but not their defining thing. “Power” implies that it’s something you do– an action you would take, probably in combat. “Feature” is just something you have that other people might not. And as a “feature,” there’s no minimum power level it has to have in order to feel justified. Rogues and Bards get to double their proficiency bonus for certain things, due to their Expertise. Calling that a “power” seems pretty grandiose, doesn’t it? But yes, it’s certainly a “feature.”

Here There Be Monsters

The one thing I really liked in 4E as presented, was the way it handled monsters. The math was forever being reshuffled, alas, but in principle at least there was a basic template for what the approximate stats of a monster should be for a given role at a given threat level, which you could then customize with certain signature abilities. A CR 1 kobold archer and a CR 1 goblin archer had almost the same stat block, except that kobolds where “shifty” (which enabled them to have extra movement) while goblins… uh… did something goblinish that I forget off the top of my head.

I used this to great effect in my one actual attempt to run 4E by having 1st level PCs attacked by a swarm of sea-devils (which were mechanically re-skinned kobolds with the blood frenzy racial feature) supported by harpies (the same kobolds with flight and luring song).

Does 5E share this flexibility? Well, the official verdict is still out until the DMG is released and its chapter on monster creation devoured by the masses. However, based just on what’s in the Monster Manual, I’m going to say “Yes.” For my Silver Coast game I have already created a goblin shaman by taking the Acolyte on p. 342, making him size Small and giving him the Nimble Escape racial feature, and created an undead barbarian king (spoiler, my players, there’s one of those floating around!) by adding some barbarian class features to a wight.

5E doesn’t have Minion rules per se, but it doesn’t really need them, either. To change the danger level of a given creature, the easiest way is to tweak its hit points. A grovelly swarm of kobold bootlickers might have only 2 hit points each, but their boss is a big (reptile) dog, having a whole 10. He’s still CR 1/8 just like the rest of them, but he’s a lot less likely to be one-punched, even by a PC. If you want a really tough kobold? Take the CR 5 Gladiator on p. 346, make him size Small, give him Sunlight Sensitivity and Pack Tactics. Even the party fighter will notice when a kobold spears him for 2d8+4 damage.

Certainly, any game system can do re-skinning and most of them do to at least some extent. But 5E, like 4E before it, has it “baked in” to the monster design ethos in a way that 3.x/Pathfinder didn’t, and it really does make the DM’s life much, much easier. There aren’t different types of hit dice based on what genus your monster comes from (undead get d12, fey get d6, or whatever the numbers were, I forget now), you don’t have to do a lot of agonizing about whether swapping a power will shoot the CR way out of your encounter budget, etc. [2]

What Say Ye?

What do you think? What was good about 4E that’s worth salvaging in 5E? How are the systems similar? Different? I’m very curious to hear with other gamers have to say on the topic.

-The Gneech

[1] It’s ironic, 4E actually had a brilliant set of mechanics for off-the-cuff stunts, in the form of the famous “Page 42,” but in practice it seems most people rarely used it, instead spending the whole combat trying to figure out which power to use this turn. But it’s all about presentation: players’ activities are molded by what the rules tell them. Thus, for maximum player creativity, you need to have minimum rules.

[2] With bounded accuracy, the impact of CR is greatly diminished anyway. Depending on the skill of the players and the whims of the dice, lower-level baddies can still be a problem, while higher-level baddies can unexpectedly be a pushover. A surprise round, a good initiative roll, and the number of foes you’re facing are much bigger factors in how any given fight will play out than the individual CR and stats of a single opponent, generally speaking.

Nov 12 2014

Neverwinter: Being Reliably As Good As It Needs to Be (But No Better)

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It’s hardly a secret that I’m bearish on MMOs generally. I like the concept of them, but I don’t like the execution of the MMO genre as it’s come down through the years. The one MMO that I really got deeply into for a long time was Lord of the Rings Online, and that was mainly because I am such a Tolkien nerd, and for many years they really did a good job of embodying the lore. Also, for a brief shining moment, there was a really strong social aspect between the Turbine forums, the player blogs, and a group of folks within the in-game kinship that I really clicked with, which led to the whole “Life of a Bounder” series. And LotRO has a really, really awesome “cosmetic” system, which I have never seen matched in any other game. Assuming you can find an outfit you like (and there are babillions to choose from), you simply put that into your character’s cosmetic tab and you’re done forever.

But that was literally years ago now, which somehow seems strange to say. The group fell apart, the gameplay got scrambled and scrambled again by rules changes, the quality of the storyline faltered, and eventually I just had enough. My highest level character is mired in Rohan, needing to get through “epic battle” story quests in order to progress, and I just can’t bring myself to continue. As for the alts… I don’t think they’ll ever see the light of day again. Not if it means having to go through Rohan… again.

So it was that I started casting around for something else to play in my off-hours. I remembered that I’d flirted with Neverwinter a bit, basically getting as far as “making a character and getting out of the tutorial,” and inspired by the fun I’d been having with D&D 5E decided what the heck, give it a shot. In the intervening weeks I’ve managed to get Akikki, my tiny little half-elf Great Weapon Fighter, up to 52nd? 53rd? level, out of 60. (Yes, Akikki is basically Elsa from my 5E game; what can I say, it’s a character I’ve been wanting to play for a while.)

My thoughts? Well to put it bluntly, Neverwinter is just exactly as good as it needs to be… but unfortunately, no better than that. Gameplay-wise, it’s barely distinguishable from Everquest 2, Age of Conan, or a gajillion others. The quests are always incredibly linear and straightforward: “Follow an S-shaped path through the cave/swamp/forest/castle, fight three monsters, fight four monsters, fight three monsters, fight three monsters with a ringer, fight three monsters, fight the boss who keeps generating adds unless you can lure the boss out of his room.” Every once in a while you might find a little jumping puzzle, or an extra non-plot encounter tucked into a corner… once in a rare blue moon you’ll even find a way to approach the boss from an unexpected direction, but that usually seems to be an oversight on the map-designers’ part.

I will say about Neverwinter that it is a very good representation of the 4E Forgotten Realms setting… for better or worse. If you think the spellplague was cool, think floating islands everywhere is what D&D always needed, and you like tieflings and dragonborn all over the place, you’ll feel right at home. For myself I have no real attachment to FR, being more of a Greyhawk fan, but I wasn’t keen on 4E generally and so that aspect of the game took some getting over. It’s not really accurate to say that it’s not D&D, so much as it feels like there’s a lot of junk between me and the D&D that I have to get through. Everyone who said that 4E felt like a MMO was absolutely right: specifically, it felt like this MMO, for better or worse.

There are nuggets of joy to be found in the game, for all that. At the player auction house, one of the random bits of NPC dialogue is the auctioneer expressing doubt that an item being put up for auction really is “the Head of Vecna,” for example. There are bits of deep D&D geekery and that occasional touch of trippy dorkiness scattered across the landscape, and those are worth their weight in gold.

Speaking of gold, currency is a strange beast in this game. Although you’re constantly collecting gold pieces, there’s almost nothing to spend them on, particularly once you’ve bought a horse and hired a companion. Anything and everything worth buying (including stuff at the auction house) is bought with “astral diamonds,” an in-game currency that you collect by doing daily quests. And the prices are nuts. I have, now that I’m 52nd level, something like 16,000 astral diamonds. A single piece of cosmetic clothing often sells for something like 300,000. To alter the appearance of your current armor to look like that favorite piece sitting in your vault (the closest thing the game has to a proper cosmetic system) usually costs 20,000+.

What the heck.

I’d think this was a FTP-grab for cash, except that you can’t buy astral diamonds for real world cash. Really more than anything it feels like devs saying “We don’t want you to have nice things.” It may be that I’m missing something somewhere– this game has tons and tons of subsystems and no meaningful help dialog anywhere– but if so I have no idea what it might be.

Still, after all that, Neverwinter does have one really neat thing, and that’s the Foundry.

Intended to be a spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights, with its DM’s Toolkit and tons of readily-downloadable user-generated content, Neverwinter‘s Foundry enables you to create your own dungeons, including quest goals, dialogue trees, and all sorts of game assets for locations and foes. Foundry-created quests are shared within the game at “Adventurers’ Job Boards” and the like, and since these are the quests that provide astral diamonds, there is plenty of incentive to go on them. They scale automatically with level, so if you wanted, you could go all the way from the game start to the level cap playing just Foundry quests and skip the solo campaign all together.

Given the linear nature of the solo campaign, that might not be such a bad choice, either. Being user-generated content, the Foundry quests are very hit-and-miss, often amateurish or filled with a junior-high aesthetic of what would be a cool dungeon (I can’t tell you the number of times Akikki has been hit on by other women because the quest designer just assumed that all player characters were male). On the other hand, many of them are very creative and entertaining, such as the quest in which my character sat down for a game of Call of Cthulhu with a gnome, an elf, and an ogre as the other players. If you play a lot of Forge quests (as I have), you’ll find yourself out-leveling the solo campaign pretty quickly. That’s not really a problem, as the Forge quests scale to your level on-the-fly, so you can always find a challenge. It just means that when you go back to the solo campaign, you might find yourself yawning as you wade through the requisite four-monsters-then-three-monsters-then-four dungeons.

I have not really done much group stuff in Neverwinter yet, so I can’t really say how well that works. There is an easy-to-use dungeon queue, and there are “open tap” landscape events (such as the current massive dragon encounters all over the map) where you can just jump in and go to town if you happen to be there at the right time, and those have been fun. Each zone of the game also has a capstone dungeon, of which I’ve done exactly none, but might like to go back and do once I’ve finished the current solo campaign. I don’t know if those scale or not, but they recommend 4-6 players for all of them, regardless of level. I’ll have to see what they have to offer.

-The Gneech

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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?


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 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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