Nov 23 2020

On Iko, and Why She Isn’t Working

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Shiny Chariot, one of Iko's Inspirations

So Plotline started a D&D game, running Dragon of Icespire Peak. Being a fool, I made a non-tabaxi character in the form of Iko, a half-elf (eladrin) draconic bloodline sorcerer, whose main gimmick is teleporting around blasting stuff. Her main inspiration was “Tracer from Overwatch meets Akko from Little Witch Academia,” a talented-but-troublesome would-be wizard who has a tendency to break stuff and make stupid mistakes, but manages to pull through in the end. In combat, the idea is that she would pop in, annoy baddies into tilting or chasing her around, and then pop out again, which is the Tracer angle.

In play, it has not worked. Like, even a little.

Roleplay wise, she’s a big snooze. Sirfox’s paladin dominates any social interaction scenes, to the point that even Iko’s draconic heritage doesn’t cut the mustard with dragons. In combat, she’s a damp squib, very rarely even landing a hit when she does finally manage to get into position, and even more rarely being a hit that the badguys notice. I end up spending the whole session in audience mode and frustrated.

It’s an odd place to be in. Obsidian had the whole freaking universe revolve around her, to the point that I finally had to stop playing her because I felt like it was hurting the group. Shade-Of-the-Candle is dynamic and moves scenes forward, is usually at least competent in a fight, and can be situationally devastating. To have a character just be a non-performer the way Iko has been has left me kinda nonplussed.

Some of the problem, I think, is that I just don’t enjoy wizards. My own personal power fantasy, fueled by a life of being clumsy and overweight since childhood, is to actually be able to run and jump and punch evil in the face with a body that doesn’t suck. Things like flying or shooting fire out of my hands, just don’t resonate with me. It’s also part of my general distaste for flashy magic and high-level superheroes. I can enjoy them in small doses, but they’re not where my heart is. But when you combine that with a build that also doesn’t work, and a character dynamic that ALSO also doesn’t work, and you’ve got a character that just isn’t pushing my buttons.

So as the group takes a break for December and we start looking at where things might go in the future, I’m thinking about what to do about Iko. I think she’s going to have to be retired and replaced with something else, but what? I don’t want to just clone Shady and drop her into Plots’s game, for several reasons. But I do want to get back to a character that I’ll find more interesting and will hopefully be more effective.

First, I think I need to just admit that non-tabaxi characters make me snooze and make it a tabaxi. Second, they need a personality that will make things happen. If this campaign has had one sticking point, it’s that we’ve spent a lot of time dithering and looking for the plot, instead of creating one. So the character needs an agenda. And finally, they need to be a martial type and a build that can actually be effective at the table. To keep them from just being a Shady clone, I’m looking at monk, ranger, or fighter. The personality is being a little harder to find, because I haven’t worked out an idea that speaks to me yet. My first idea was a Van Helsing-ish “monster slayer,” sort of “What if the assassins from Assassin’s Creed had the mission of killing dragons instead of authoritarians?” I’m not sure I could make that sustainably interesting, tho, and it’s not really a character that would work well in a group context.

Whoever it is, needs to be a mover and shaker and a coffee achiever, because Iko’s passivity is leaving me dejected.

-The Gneech

Nov 10 2020

Playing Shady Instead of Writing Her

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Shady, lookin' to gank some mooks.

It’s been a long time since I had a character just take over my brain the way Shade-Of-the-Candle has. Even Tiffany Tiger, who had a tendency to be doodled on any pizza box or napkin left lying within reach of me, didn’t just live in my head rent free 24/7 the way my piratey murdercat does. Certainly Tiffany never drove me to stay up until 4 a.m. trying to mod the hell out of Skyrim to create some semblance of her, just for starters.

But while I have written stories about Shady, and intend to do so again (with some big-name collaborators, if I can finally get to a stable place in my life again in order to take on a large project), that’s not really the experience I want. What I want, is to PLAY Shady. I want to vicariously experience her life in real time, reacting to her challenges the way she would, processing her triumphs and her heartbreaks as she does.

Shady’s lived a rich and full life in (modded) Skyrim, with a whole found family (she calls Inigo “Mr. Khajiit” and Ma’kara “Mrs. Khajiit,” even if legally she’s only married to one of them) and an impressive career as a renowned treasure hunter and a leader in the Empire’s war against the Thalmor.

Shady drove me to play the heck out of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, all the while doing my best to pretend that the stubbly blonde human male on the screen was actually my scrawny alley cat—because the story and gameplay of AC4 fit very well with both Shady’s motivations and her M.O.

Best of all, of course, is playing Shady in InkBlitz’s D&D campaign, and in many ways that’s what I think of as the “real” Shady. But Blitzy can’t spend his whole life running D&D just for me (and I wouldn’t want him to), which leads me to spend a lot of time staring at Shady’s character sheet and wanting to mess with it just to feel like I’m playing, somehow.

Gentle reader, I have spent SO much time staring at that character sheet. You can’t even know. -.- I’ve come up with different projected character builds, adjusted various stats up and down, even subjected poor Blitzy to multiple drafts of proposed house rules that would make her mechanically closer to my vision of how she operates.

This past weekend, as I was poking away at this build for the umpty-billionth time, I found myself wondering why I was spending my time doing that, instead of actually creating something. Why AREN’T I writing stories about Shady? Why aren’t I drawing her, instead of obsessing AGAIN over whether she should have INT 10 or 8 so that she can afford CHA 14 or 16?

The answer I finally came up with, is discovery. I want to “discover” Shady’s life, not create it. If I write the story, I know how it’s going to go by definition, because I’m the one who made it up. When I play Shady in a game, I don’t know what’s coming any more than Shady does, so when a dragon comes and blasts her boat to oblivion, I’m just as “oh shit oh shit” about it as she is. When Shady finds a wounded khajiit by the side of the road and ends up falling in love, I’m just as verklempt as Shady is.

But it’s not getting me anywhere. All that time I’ve spent noodling around with stat blocks could have been spent finishing a dozen WIPs, or writing new stories of my own that don’t require me to get “close enough” to what I want. So I’m going to try to do that. How I find the discovery element, I’m not sure. Use some kind of random generator as a story prompt? Grab the synopsis of some book I’ve never read and toss it at Shady? Dunno. But I do need to do SOMETHING more productive, I think.

Nov 02 2020

GeekQuery – Reskinning in D&D

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Reskinning in D&D is the fine art of taking something that acts the way you want, and making it look the way you want. It’s good for DMs, it’s good for players, and it opens up whole new worlds of possibility!

The only thing it can’t do is fix sound issues. ¬.¬

TULOK THE BARBARIAN: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5EfKWar21WkaYUSOwPWakg

CR ON A BUSINESS CARD: http://blogofholding.com/?p=7338

TEMPO FURSUIT made by SpiritPanda Costumes: https://twitter.com/spiritpandasuit

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Oct 20 2020

Massive Damage in D&D

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Conan Double Header, art by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson

A player in my Tomb of Annihilation game has a bugbear barbarian (bugbearian?), who has one purpose: kill stuff. He’s tricked out to attack as many times as possible for as much damage as possible and be useless for anything else other than foraging and carrying stuff. Every fight he just turns on frenzy and reckless attack and flings himself at the monsters, then seems a little deflated when they all die too fast.

Which, y’know, is fine. They’re crawling around a jungle full of zombies, dinosaurs, and zombie dinosaurs. This is somebody you definitely want around in a situation like that.

Meanwhile, a player in my Storm King’s Thunder game has an elf paladin who leaps out of airships onto the backs of cloud giants, pouring multiple smites onto each attack, while another player’s rogue has nearly single-shotted more boss fights than I can keep track of.

Long story short, these characters do a TON of damage, and other than the rogue, can take as good as they give. Other characters in the group certainly participate, but these are the ones who blow up badguys, and these are the ones, when I’m choosing monsters for encounters, I have to take into account. Something that can make the bugbearian actually stop yawning and pay attention, will one-punch the halfling wizard. If I want something to have at least one round and preferably two, it needs to have hit points to spare.

I don’t begrudge these characters their victories, but I do worry about their domination of the spotlight. Other players at the table who are not so tricked out may begin to wonder “Why am I here?” Especially if they either don’t have the system mastery to take full advantage of their character’s abilities, have opted for flavorful-but-suboptimal abilities, or in the case of one player, just keep having bad dice nights. (I feel your pain, Blitzy!)

My general solution for this is to go for multiple monsters rather than single bosses, and to vary my environments as much as possible. Usually I’ll try to include one or two big bruisers as the baseline, a wildcard spellcaster or terrain effect, and then throw in as many smaller support troops as needed to keep things exciting. The Usual Suspects almost always make a beeline for the big scary things, but the rest of the party still has something to do dealing with either the wildcard or the troops. I don’t generally fudge die rolls at the table—especially in Roll20, where I have the monster attack rolls and damage visible to the group chat—but I may alter monster tactics on the fly, on the grounds that fog of war may cause confusion or distraction in battle. Very rarely, I will decide a monster has “one more hit point” so they can live one more round—the DM equivalent of spending a point of inspiration. ;)

But more often than that, I just pre-buff the monsters from their stats in the book, especially named foes. Since the book defaults to monsters having “exactly average” hp, for a baddie I want to be a little more durable I’ll give them 75% of their maximum or so. One fun thing I’ve taken to doing is “rolling monster hit points with advantage.” For instance, if a creature has 10d8 hit dice, I’ll roll 20d8 and drop the ten lowest.

This tends to result in encounters that, on paper, seem crazy, but at the table, work out. In my last session, the party of six 4th-level characters faced off against a pair of girallons (CR 4 each) and six “girallon whelps” (CR 1/2 apes reskinned) on a bridge over a waterfall—which should have been a “deadly” encounter going by the math. They got a bit chewed up, and had to use some of their resources, but it was eminently survivable. The actual girallons didn’t last very long against the bugbearian. Again, the monsters weren’t necessarily following the most optimized tactics—I tried to play them as instinctive feral beasts. If I’d been metagaming “to win” I would have had them mostly ignore the bugbearian and swarm the wizard and pummel her, then swarm the rogue and pummel him, then fling the warlock and the druid off the bridge, and so on.

Does this make me a softie? I don’t think so. I’ve run fights where the monsters were both smart and intent on killing the characters. What I’d like to think is this makes me impartial: I played the monsters according to their mindset. Unfortunately, the CR system just looks at the math and doesn’t account for roleplaying the monsters or having a crazy party comp. (Really, how could it?) This has meant that I have to stop thinking of CR 4 as “a balanced fight for a 4th level party” and start thinking of it as “this is about the ceiling for how tough any single monster in the fight should be.”

-The Gneech

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Oct 19 2020

GeekQuery: D&D Races — Old and Busted vs. the New Hotness

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What happened to humans, elves, and dwarves? Why are so many parties made up of tabaxi, kenku, and tieflings? And WHAT is the deal with adorable kobolds?

InkBlitz and The Gneech take on the perennial topic of classic races versus oddballs in Dungeons and Dragons, what works and what doesn’t and why.

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Oct 08 2020

Wrapping My Head Around Mid-Level D&D

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You couldn't do this at 1st level.

You couldn’t do this at 1st level.

So a while ago now (two years, actually, but it feels like WAY WAY LONGER), I speculated on where my campaign would go when we finished Storm King’s Thunder. Earlier this year, we did in fact finish it, with shocking revelations, a titanic battle against an ancient blue dragon, and the restoration of the Storm King to his throne. It was huge, and epic, and everybody reached 11th level.

As a palate cleanser, and because I honestly had no idea where to go next, I started a side-campaign adapting Tomb of Annihilation. To make it flow more naturally, I introduced the Wasting Curse at the end of SKT by having Iymryth’s death come as a nasty shock to her—she thought she had a clone all ready to go, only to get sucked away into the Soul Monger instead. (Oops…!)

So for the time being, my players have a new group of jolly 3rd-6th level adventurers tromping around the jungles of the Burning Coast trying to end the Wasting Curse or die trying—either of which will set up to return to the SKT “main campaign” when it’s done. If the Burning Coast crew succeed, life carries on. If they fail, well, the SKT team can come and take up the task.

But again… then what?

At the end of Storm King’s Thunder, the party found themselves unexpectedly pronounced thanes of the storm giant king, and in fact one was named the first ever High Priest of Stronmaus. Hekaton has decided that the storm giants’ isolationism is half of what left them vulnerable to Iymryth’s machinations and wants to re-join the world as a going concern (kinda like huge blue Wakandans); therefore he is claiming the vast desert realm of Kadath with the intent of re-civilizing it, and I’m sure he’d love to have the players’ assistance with that. But what would that look like in actual play? They can only fight so many behirs before it gets pretty dull.

Some potential directions it could go:

  • Ambassadorial missions to Gyrenstone, Xul-Jarak, Hestelland, and Argent to set up friendly relations with the neighboring realms
  • Deeper delves into the horrors of Iymryth’s lair… what exactly is down in that hole besides purple worm larvae?
  • The continuing saga of the Unmaking, whatever was going on in the Garden of Graves, and how it connects to the Wasting Curse
  • Cagarax and the Council of Wyrms
    • Who is going to take Iymryth’s place?
    • How will they respond to her death?
  • Player backstory delving?

At 11th level, the characters have a lot of autonomy, and so the players will need to be setting some agendas. They’ve reached the point where an “adventuring day of random encounters,” besides being highly unlikely, is not going to be much of a challenge for them. Even monster-hunting in the wastes of Kadath, while hazardous, are not really a problem if they can teleport home at the end of the day.

So when the time comes to go back to the main group, I’m thinking we’re going to have to treat it like a harder reboot than I was initially thinking, with a whole new Session Zero and some in-depth discussions of where the players want it to go. But the main thing is, I have got to come to grips with this intimidation by higher-level play if we’re ever going to get anywhere. “Somewhere around 5th” is super-comfortable for me, because the characters are durable enough for some interesting challenges without having world-breaking magic and abilities, but it’s not fair to the players to keep forcing a new game every time they get past that stage. And plus, I just miss the Storm King’s Thunder gang, and I don’t want their adventures to be over just because I’m floundering behind the screen.

-The Gneech

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