Category: Dungeons & Dragons

Posts related to Dungeons and Dragons, including Pathfinder.

Monday Monster: Cthulid

This one’s not actually mine, so instead of just copying it wholesale, I’ll link it for you:

Errant d20 Designer: Cthulid

It’s a CR 9 large humanoid, something like a cross between an ogre and a mind flayer. Not as huge and epic as a star-spawn of Cthulhu, but definitely an “Oh #&^%@!!!” moment for most parties. Makes a great solo/final boss for a level 7-8 adventure with a Lovecraftian/Howardian vibe.

It’s currently written with psi-like abilities (c/o Psionics Unleashed, which is thought of by many as the “core” psionic rules for Pathfinder, even if it’s from a third party). The ability descriptions are in the d20PFSrd, but if you don’t want to use those, they could easily be swapped out for similar spell-like abilities instead.

Created by Tim Wallace. Nice job, Tim!

-The Gneech

PS: Yes, I know it’s not really Monday. ;P

Onward to Eberron

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As obvious a thing as it may be to say, gaming is a group activity. You have to have buy-in from everyone in the group in order for it to work. And while some of the players in my group are perfectly happy to play whatever game is put in front of them, I was receiving feedback from other members expressing preference for another direction. On the other hand, GMing is a boatload of work, and so you really have to be interested in what you’re doing to make it worth the effort. So choosing a game and managing a group is an exercise in finding common ground.

To that end, I decided to drop the Coventry campaign; my intention was to pick up and do more with Fortress of Tears, but for whatever reason, I’m finding myself blocked on it. So I decided to stop and think a minute about what I could run that would please the players (many of whom have stated a clear preference for some incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons) but would also please myself.

I was very surprised when Keith Baker’s Eberron setting stepped up and said, “‘ave a go, mate.” I was quite indifferent to Eberron when it first came out… I didn’t dislike it, and I certainly didn’t hate it for not being Forgotten Realms the way so many others in the RPG community seemed to, but it also wasn’t what I was looking for in D&D at the time.

Some of that was because it looked too much like a fusion of D&D and the Star Wars prequels (with Sharn standing in for Coruscant, warforged standing in for droids, etc.), and my feeling was, “There’s already a Star Wars RPG, what do we need this for?” That feeling was so strong that I actually nabbed bits from Eberron for the Star Wars campaign I was running, and sure enough, they felt right at home.

With the passage of time, I don’t think that was an inaccurate assessment, but it’s also less of an issue now than it was then. The Star Wars prequels have faded into the mists of pop culture history, and the other facets of Eberron can start to shine. When you can come back to Eberron on its own merits, there’s quite a lot to like there. It also has several “tweakable” settings that you can play up or down as you wish. Want steampunk? It can do steampunk. Want cosmic horror? It can do cosmic horror. Want jungle exploring? It can do jungle exploring. Want steampunk exploring of cosmic horror in the jungle? Yup, it can do that.

Still, the real surprise to me, was how well 4e treated Eberron– especially when you consider how it did its damnedest to destroy everything else. While Forgotten Realms got blown up (again) and Greyhawk got thrown under the nearest bus, Eberron got away with just having dragonborn and tieflings shoehorned into the corners, plus some easily-ignorable shuffling of its cosmology.

Mark of Prophecy, the introductory adventure in the 4e campaign guide, starts brilliantly. Seekers of the Ashen Crown, the largest of the 4e Eberron adventures, has as much intrigue and roleplaying material in it as any of the 3.x stuff for Eberron did, and considerably more than, say, Revenge of the Giants. It’s still in the “delve format,” alas, but once you get past that annoyance it’s a solid, well-written adventure.

So, I admit, I’m pretty excited about this new campaign. As always, I wish I was playing in it rather than running it, but that’s the story of my life as far as gaming is concerned. I have a rough campaign outline that should take the game from 3rd level to 8th, allowing for wiggle room as the PCs decide to turn left instead of right or what-have-you. Beyond that will just have to see what the future brings. Life changes are surely going to throw a spanner in the works by then, if not before!

-The Gneech

PS: For those curious, I’m running the game in Pathfinder, using fan conversions and/or custom data in Hero Lab.

Monday Monster: Mewlips

The cellars where the Mewlips sit
Are deep and dank and cold
With single sickly candle lit;
And there they count their gold.

Their walls are wet, their ceilings drip;
Their feet upon the floor
Go softly with a squish-flap-flip,
As they sidle to the door.

They peep out slyly; through a crack
Their feeling fingers creep,
And when they´ve finished, in a sack
Your bones they take to keep.

Mewlips are described by Tolkien in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, in which they are mentioned in a hobbit nursery rhyme. The poem sounds a bit like they’re a race of Gollums, or perhaps just a particularly damp race of goblins. In any case, in the Dawn Reaches, there exist creatures which the humans call “water babies” and the hauflin call “mewlips” which fit the same mold. Small, pasty, wretched amphibian humanoids wrapped in oily rags, mewlips lurk under the water’s surface, preferring to ambush their prey with surprise. They only venture forth at night (or in the sheltering dark of caves), and rise out of the water silently, looking disconcertingly like drowned children, wielding a spear in one hand and a net which they use to trip their prey in the other.

The Mewlips Count Their Gold by ~Loneanimator on deviantART

Mewlip (CR ½, XP 200)

CE Small humanoid (aquatic)
Init +2; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +4
AC 15, touch 13, flat-footed 13 (+2 Dex, +2 natural, +1 size)
hp 5 (1d8+1)
Fort +1, Ref +2, Will +2
Speed 15 ft., swim 30 ft.
Melee spear +2 (1d6+1/×3), bite -2 (1d3)
Ranged spear +3 (1d6+1/×3)
Special attack nets
Abilities Str 12/+1, Dex 14/+2, Con 13/+1, Int 9/-1, Wis 10/+0, Cha 9/-1
Base Atk +0; CMB +0 (+4 trip); CMD 12 (18 vs. trip)
Feats Weapon Finesse
Skills Perception +4, Stealth +14, Swim +13; Racial Modifiers +4 Stealth, +8 Swim
SQ amphibious
Nets (Ex) Although a mewlip can’t attack to cause damage with its net, it is very skilled at using the net to trip adjacent foes. During the mewlip’s turn, it can make a single trip attack against any adjacent foe as a swift action. It gains a +4 racial bonus on trip attacks made with its tangling tentacles, and if it fails to trip a foe, that creature can’t attempt to trip the mewlip in retaliation.

A greater and larger form of mewlip, the “mewlip lord,” stays in their cave lairs and does not venture out except under the most extreme duress. Within their lair, however, they will fight to the death. They sometimes keep giant frogs or slurks as pets.

Mewlip Lord (CR 2, XP 600)

NE Medium Humanoid (aquatic)
Init +6; Senses Low-Light Vision; Perception +5
AC 18, touch 16, flat-footed 12 (+6 Dex, +2 natural)
hp 22 (4d8+4)
Fort +5, Ref +7, Will +3
Speed 40 ft., Swimming (40 feet)
Melee Claw +5/+5 (1d4+2 plus grab/x2)
Ranged Javelin +7 (1d8+2/x2)
Special Attacks Grab
Abilities Str 15/+2, Dex 22/+6, Con 13/+1, Int 6-2, Wis 10/+0, Cha 7/-2
Base Atk +3; CMB +5 (+9 Grappling); CMD 21
Feats Iron Will, Power Attack -1/+2
Skills Acrobatics +6 (+10 jump), Perception +5, Stealth +8 (+12 in water), Swim +10 Modifiers +4 Stealth in water
SQ Amphibious
+4 Stealth in water (Ex) You gain a bonus to Stealth Checks under the listed conditions.
Amphibious (Ex) You can survive indefinitely on land.
Grab (Medium) (Ex) You can start a grapple as a free action if you hit with the designated weapon.
Low-Light Vision See twice as far as a human in low light, distinguishing color and detail.

Designer’s Note: On Reskinning

These critters are actually reskins of existing creatures. The base mewlip was created from the stats of a grindylow, just changing the tentacle attack to a carried net, and the type from aberration to humanoid. The mewlip lord, on the other hand, is a merrow with the “young” template. Reskinning! It’s the GM’s second-best friend. 😉

-The Gneech

The stat blocks in this post are open content; mewlips and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil are the property of J.R.R. Tolkien and his heirs. Artwork by LoneAnimator.

Story First, Then Numbers

Well, my attempt to put aside GMing doesn’t seem to be going so well; for the past few weeks I’ve been grinding away on a campaign idea that won’t leave me alone. It’s nothing new under the sun– essentially a Lord of the Rings clone, with the main item of note being that it really is a Lord of the Rings clone, right down to singing (well, chanting) goblins and all sorts of detailed fiddly world notes and linguistic flourishes (like as an elvish dictionary that I use for creating consistent, meaningful place names and such). Assuming I can pull it off, it’d be very much a literary campaign, rather than a gamey one.

One of the issues with it, however, is finding the balance between making the world distinct from the Generic D&Dland of every other game, and making so much work that I might as well be running some other game. For instance, I don’t want there to be bags of holding, fireballs, and magic missiles flying around, so I banned arcane casting classes for PCs (except for bards). But I also made that important thematically: arcane magic is the arrogant imposition of the caster’s will over the natural order of the universe, and as any good Tolkien scholar knows, that’s bad juju. Divine magic, by contrast, is allowing yourself to be the conduit of a higher power and is essentially a humble thing. The exception to this is loremasters (i.e., bards), whose study of the world has taught them how to skillfully work within the natural order, rather than to just override it, so to speak.

Admittedly, it’s kind of a kludge. But again, it’s striking a balance between the needs of the story (i.e., flashy, blasty magic should be rare and mostly in the hands of badguys) and the need for an easily playable game (I don’t really want to spend a month editing the spell list for every class in the universe).

The biggest place where this is going to be an issue, in the long run, is going to be in scenario design– because D&D (and by D&D here I mean Pathfinder, but you get the drift) has an established progression of standard foes by level, e.g., kobolds, then goblins, then orcs, then gnolls, then hill giants, blah-blah-blah. But I don’t want to use that standard progression. In fact, in this setting, large swaths of the usual Monster Manual menagerie just don’t exist or are very different from the usual canon. (Chromatic vs. metallic dragons? What does that even mean? And what is this “astral plane” of which you speak?)

This means I can’t just call up call up the bestiary and start picking random critters to toss in and build a scenario around that, nor would I want to. I’m building the skeleton of a story here (with the players providing the flesh and soul), so I need to come up with what will be there and then make numbers to suit.

For instance, in one of the very early scenarios for the campaign I have in mind for the players to be confronted by an ettin as a dangerous “boss encounter.” (Why an ettin? Because they’re cool, strange, frightening monsters that fit the folklore/fairy tale/epic fantasy feel that I’m going for while still being unusual and exotic.) Unfortunately, a by the numbers ettin is CR 6, way way over the heads of any starting party.

For a regular campaign, as a sacrifice to ease of prep, I’d just say “screw it” and go with an ogre instead. But like I said above, this campaign is different. This campaign is a story first, and for the encounter I want, it pretty much has to be an ettin. What to do? One possible answer is something I’ve talked about many times before: reskinning the monsters.

I mean, I could just take the stats for an ogre, swap out its Iron Will feat for Two-Weapon Fighting, give it an arbitrary +4 to Perception checks, describe it to the players as having two heads, and call it an ettin.

Alternatively, I could craft a workable “Lesser Ettin” monster that hits the CR spot I want by stripping hit dice and stats off of the standard ettin. That would probably take 30-60 minutes all told and give me a new critter I could use indefinitely.

Either approach will satisfy the needs of this particular campaign and I haven’t yet decided which one I will use. But the crux of the problem is that either one takes more time than simply taking an existing critter and running with it– and prep time is what killed gaming for me before.

I’m not sure what to do about that problem. It’s every clear that my brain wants to do this game and isn’t going to leave me alone until I at least give it a shot. But I barely have time to do the things I’ve already committed to, much less add a time-consuming delve into Deep Fantasy Geekery that will only be enjoyed by a handful of people.

On the other hand, I could always use the variant statblocks I come up with for blog content. 😉 Maybe I’ll start doing Monster Monday posts where I put up the critters I’ve come up with… after the players fight them. 😉

-The Gneech

Encounter Building in Pathfinder


A couple of my friends have mentioned being a little shaky on the process of building encounters in Pathfinder, which is probably a residual effect of the “WTF?” model of EL/CR in D&D 3.x. So I figured I’d write up some quickie notes for it here.

The good news is, you don’t need wonky calculators or bizarre algorithms to build encounters in Pathfinder. It’s an easy-peasy three-step process and can be done with a pocket calculator or even just a rough eyeballing. There’s a nice summary right here on the d20pfsrd site, but I’ll go ahead and write it up here anyhow.

Step One: Average Party Level

This is just what it sounds like, the average level of every member of the party, rounded to the nearest whole number. (So, for example: Ftr 3, Clr 2, Rog 3, Wiz 3 = 11/4 = 2.75 = 3.) There is one wrinkle to this:

  • If the party is 3 or fewer characters: APL = APL-1.
  • If the party is 6 or more characters: APL = APL+1.

For the purposes of building an encounter, the “party” consists of any characters who are going to help the PCs. So if the local constabulary is going to come running to the PCs’ aid (say, four level 3 warriors), they should be factored in. Thus, using the sample party above, the final APL would be (Ftr 3, Clr 2, Rog 3, Wiz 3, 4*{War 3} = 23/8 = 2.9 = 3, +1 for being 6+ characters =) 4.

“Well hold on,” you might say. “All those disposable NPCs only add an effective +1 to the APL? But I want a big fight that will tear them up!” Well that’s easy enough to deal with. If you’ve got a party full of redshirts that you don’t mind obliterating in order to make the encounter big and dramatic, you simply up the challenge rating (CR) in the next step.

Step Two: Challenge Rating (CR) and XP Budget

Encounters are rated as “Easy,” “Average,” “Challenging,” “Hard,” or “Epic.” In any given adventure, most (but not all) encounters should be either Average or Challenging, with a few Easy ones thrown in for variety, then trending towards Hard as you build up to a climactic finish. You should only use Epic encounters very sparingly, because they will almost certainly kill PCs.

Once you’ve determined the APL in Step One, determining the encounter CR is easy:

Encounter Difficulty CR
Easy APL-1
Average APL
Challenging APL+1
Hard APL+2
Epic APL+3
CR is expressed as a whole number for 1 or higher. CR 0 = “1/2”; CR -1 = “1/3”; CR -2 = “1/4”.

Thus, for our example APL 3 party, an Average encounter would be CR 3, while a Challenging encounter would be CR 4. An Epic encounter would be CR 6 and might very well be a TPK.

Once you know the CR, you then use that to figure out your XP budget. You’ll use the XP budget to “buy” critters or hazards to put into your encounter.

CR XP Budget CR XP Budget CR XP Budget
1/8 50 6 2,400 16 76,800
1/6 65 7 3,200 17 102,400
1/4 100 8 4,800 18 153,600
1/3 135 9 6,400 19 208,400
1/2 200 10 9,600 20 307,200
1 400 11 12,800 21 409,600
2 600 12 19,200 22 614,400
3 800 13 25,600 23 819,200
4 1,200 14 38,400 24 1,228,800
5 1,600 15 51,200 25 1,638,400

So for our sample party, a Challenging encounter (CR 4) would have a budget of 1,200 XP.

Step Three: Build the Encounter

From here, you simply “buy” critters, hazards, skill challenges, etc. with your allotted XP budget, starting with the most expensive item first. Everything than can be an encounter element should have an XP value (listed right in the stat block for things that have a stat block). For instance, say you wanted our sample party to have a Challenging encounter with an ogre and his goblin cronies. Your XP budget is 1,200, so you might then build the encounter like so:

Encounter Element XP Budget
Ogre (CR 3) 800
Goblin Adept 2 (CR 1/2) 200
Two Goblins (CR 1/3) 270 (135 ea.)
Total XP Value of Encounter 1,270 XP

Yes, it sneaks over budget, but not by much, and you can always mitigate that with environmental conditions (perhaps the goblin cronies run away at 1/2 or fewer hit points or as soon as one is killed, for instance).

Encounter Design Philosophy: More Bang for Your XP Buck

The way the d20 system in general works (and to some extent, the way all tabletop RPGs work), you’re almost always worse off outmanned than outgunned. So don’t use a single CR 4 opponent to build a CR 4 encounter, because the PCs will quickly swarm over it and stomp it to jelly unless you’ve really beefed it up. Instead, think in terms of encounters with multiple foes, such as the ogre and goblins example above. Granted, the goblins in the example are mostly speed bumps that will probably die in the first round or two– but that gives the ogre another round more than he would have had to be interesting on his own.

Remember also, that Average and Challenging encounters aren’t there to actually defeat your players. They’re there to whittle ’em down. “Resource management” is a big part of the D&D/Pathfinder game system. It’s not the ogre that finally defeats a PC… it’s the cure spells the party ran out of in the last room.

More Encounter Design Philosophy: Making the Most of Minions

One downside of XP budgets is that you always run out of XP way before you have what you feel like are enough critters. Especially after you’ve noticed that critters that are a CR of 2 or more levels below the APL tend to have a really hard time hitting PCs with much of anything. What to do? We need some “minion” rules for this!

…Well, no, not really. It actually works fairly well with just a bit of tweaking.

First, if you have 9 kobolds swarming over a PC, for the love of Mike, don’t roll nine d20s hoping one of them will get the 20 they need to hit that PC. Have six kobolds use Aid Another instead of attacking directly: suddenly you have three kobolds each with +6 to hit, which is much more dangerous!

Second, use your minions where they’re most effective, i.e., going after the squishy party members. Nine kobolds swarming a fighter = nine soon-to-be-dead kobolds. Nine kobolds swarming a wizard = a wizard who’s in trouble. Three kobolds grappling a wizard with +6 = a wizard who is completely shut down.

That said… don’t bother adding elements that are CR-5 or lower to an encounter. Or if you do, treat them like flavor text and don’t actually bother with the math involved.

Rewards (Experience, Treasure, etc.)

This depends on your campaign model. The default is to divide the XP value of the encounter equally among those who participated in it. To keep characters in the general vicinity of the expected wealth per level, you should also either place treasure in the encounter (“Loot the bodies, yay!”) or arrange for the party to receive the appropriate amount of treasure as a quest reward (“The ogre and his goblin cronies didn’t have anything but fleas, but the duke had a price on their heads of 1,000 gp!”). The amount of treasure each encounter earns varies depending on the Slow/Normal/Fast XP option chosen for your campaign, and that info can be found here.

And There You Have It!

Really, that’s it in a nutshell. Very simple– much simpler to do than it actually was to write down. There’s more nuances and all sorts of add-on topics, particularly on the topic of ad-hoc APL or CR adjustments for terrain, gear, etc., but most of those boil down to judgement calls anyway. If you’re fighting ice giants in a lava pit, guess what: their CR is actually much lower than it would be if you were fighting them in a blizzard, and you should adjust accordingly. Similarly, if that ogre is armed with a +4 vorpal humanslayer… he’s probably higher than CR 3.

So get on out there and build some encounters! 😉

-The Gneech

Old-Schoolifying the Pathfinder RPG

Well, the “sandbox” bug is going around the gaming community and it’s bitten me as well. I’ve decided to see if I can run and enjoy a sandbox game for a while. [1] And, as sandbox games are a very “old-school gaming” idea (like “1978 blue box old-school”), I have implemented some house rules to underscore this aspect of it.

First and most obvious, is to use the “slow progression” XP chart. Leveling back in the old days took forever, and a new level was a big deal when it finally hit.

Second, and related to the first, is to institute Class Training. Once upon a time, you didn’t hoard gold in order to purchase magic items, you had to spend it in order to go up a level. As I recall, none of the games I was ever involved in actually used that rule, because you had to earn the XP and spend the money for training, which seemed like paying for the same ground twice. But from a game-design point of view it does have some interesting wrinkles, not the least of which is that giant gems behind obvious deathtraps suddenly become enticing, instead of something that the players shrug at and move on as not being worth the time expenditure. (“Let’s go find some monsters to crack open for XP, shall we?”)

In order to avoid the “paying for the same ground twice” feeling, my house rule is very simple: between adventures the players can “trade in” treasure, at the rate of 1 GP = 1 XP, on “training.” Whether that training was actual drilling at the martial arts academy, studying tomes in the library, or blowing it all on ale and wenches, doesn’t really matter. The point is that treasure is now actually useful for something besides just buying another +1 for your battleaxe.

Third, and this one is a little more out there, is that a character may not progress past 10th level in any single class. At 11th level, should the game reach that point, they can multiclass, or they can take prestige classes as desired, but 10 is the cap for every class. This means that a lot of upper-end class abilities are just not available, and unless you are in a prestige class that gives the “+1 spellcasting level” there is no way to ever get a 6th-level or higher spell. It also mucks around with spell penetration at higher levels, so if that becomes a problem I’ll probably either nerf critter SR or provide some other way around it, but we’ll get to that later.

The next step, for me, is to create a bunch of hooks and/or adventure sites ranging from levels 1-5. Back when the model was “the DM has a signature dungeon,” you’d pretty much create a single dungeon where the first level had critters with 1-2 hit dice, the second level had critters with 2-4 hit dice, and so on downward, and the players would either fight, sneak, or negotiate their way through going up or down … and the GM would repopulate the place periodically to account for the new vacancies in dungeon population created by rampaging PCs. I have in mind to get around this by having a small handful of thematic “dungeons” where most of the action will take place, and the PCs can bounce around from one to another as they see fit. As they “get to know” these dungeons I’ll add new locations and probably toss in the occasional “big event” adventure for variety.

The key to it all, however, and something I’ll need to make sure to impress on the players, is that they’ll be the ones driving the campaign plot, in as much as there is one. As such, I may institute something similar to the “goal” mechanic from Ghostbusters: each character has a self-defined but explicit and measurable goal, and when they achieve something related to that goal, they get a bonus reward (probably in the form of XP). For example, a wizard might have the goal of “study magic phenomena,” and whenever they encounter something weird (like a magic fountain randomly tucked into a dungeon room for no apparent reason) they get an XP bonus for figuring it out. A fighter might have “defeat notable foes” and get bonus XP for fighting bosses, that kind of thing. Knowing the players’ specific goals can also give me ideas for encounters to throw at them. If the paladin has “slay demons” as their goal, I know I need to put demons into the game; if the rogue has “pick pockets” as their goal, I need to put them into situations where pocket-picking is feasible. That kind of thing.

I’m hoping this will be fun and a bit different. I’m also hoping that this will get me back in my GMing groove again for a while, ’cause I always miss gaming when I don’t get enough.

-The Gneech

[1] As for exactly what that entails, the definition is pretty vague. But my interpretation is mainly that instead of coming up with plotted adventures, I simply create a setting and a handful of “adventure locations” and let the players figure out where they want to go and what they want to do there.)