Sep 15 2016

What Do Manticores Do When There Are No Heroes Around?

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Dungeon of the BearSince I’m running a 5E adaptation of The Keep On the Borderlands, I was tempted to go EVEN MOAR OLDSCHOOL by following it up with a 5E adaptation of Dungeon of the Bear, the one really complete module (as opposed to solo adventure) released for Tunnels and Trolls. I’ve had this on my shelf for over 30 years, complete with my hand-scribbled notes in the margins from running Lee and Jamie through it in T&T a babillion years ago.

Like everything for Tunnels & Trolls, DotB not only embraces the abstract strangeness of dungeon delving, but revels in it. The dungeon is like an evil funhouse, where each room is its own strange thing that has little to do with the next room over– goblins here, vampires there, and a random trap that locks you in, floods the room, and fills it with piranha in the next.

But then, and this where it gets weird, DotB layers a backstory on top of that (written by Michael Stackpole back before he was the Michael Stackpole) and tries to pretend it makes sense. In days of yore, the backstory goes, in order to keep monsters from coming up out of the infamous Dungeon of the Bear and rampaging the countryside, a lord and his lady (who was a prodigious wizard) sealed it shut and built a castle over the entrance. But then, when they noticed that no more adventurers came down into the dungeon to get eaten, the monsters swarmed up and wiped out almost all the castle’s inhabitants. The only survivor was the wizard, who blasted them to bits and forced a retreat, then summoned demons to guard the various entrances, buried the dead (including her late lord), and left, never to return. So the first “level” of the dungeon is actually exploring the ruins of the castle and trying to figure out how to get into the Dungeon of the Bear proper.

Which, admittedly, sounds cool, and I wish I’d thought of that when running my original “Castle Strongstone” megadungeon back in the day. But when you then look at how the actual dungeon works… the story doesn’t make sense.

First of all, like I say, there’s no coherence to the monsters in the dungeon, especially on the upper levels. It’s a bunch of random traps and rooms that basically stand in stasis waiting for adventurers to arrive and be sprung. While there are larger and more organized groups of monsters in the lower levels who might go on the type of raid described in the backstory, there’s no way they could get to the dungeon entrance without setting off half the traps themselves!

Seriously, there is only one way to get up to the 1st level from the 2nd level, and it requires going through a room on a pivot that turns 90° when someone enters and releases a pack of hungry lions. (This might lead one to wonder, “How does a pack of lions survive in a 20′ x 30′ room for the hours/days/weeks/years between room pivotings?” The answer seems to be, “It’s just a dungeon, you should really just relax.”) So for the army of orcs down in the lower levels to swarm up into the keep, they have to pass through this damn swivel-room trap in small groups and deal with the lions, then work their way through the various catacombs without setting off any of the traps or getting attacked by vampires and so forth.

The only way it works as a narrative, short of assuming the entire dungeon is some mad god’s fever dream (which, admittedly, could be a good way to approach it), is to assume that the orcs are actually maintaining these traps… feeding the lions just enough to keep them alive, cleaning and oiling all the pivoting wall mechanisms and loaded crossbows hidden behind secret panels, and so on. But even that only just barely makes sense. If orcs only care about murder and plunder, what strange obsession is leading them to create these Rube Goldberg environments in the hopes that some adventurers will finally show up one day rather than, say, digging out another hole and raiding the countryside?

The answer, of course, is that Tunnels & Trolls is Heroic Fantasy by way of Saturday Morning Cartoon and trying to make sense of it is Doing It Wrong. But at the end of the day, this is another aspect of why the old school got old. If you’re going to expect players to use their wits to engage in the world in a way that makes sense, then the world itself has to make sense in return! The dungeon-as-a-boardgame model where each room is the next bit and the map of the location might as well be a flowchart of which puzzle comes next instead of depicting an actual place is fun for a while, but in my case at least leaves me wanting more.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Tunnels & Trolls when I was 14 and I do think compared to the wild flights of fancy it led to that there is a certain blandness (and lack of story innovation) to much of what’s floating around the RPG scene currently. But somewhere we’ve got to find a happy medium between “throw everything at the wall to see what schticks” and “repackaging TSR’s greatest hits– again.”

-The Gneech

Sep 13 2016

Why the Old School Got Old

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Powers & Perils by Avalon HillDuring my preparations to run The Keep On the Borderlands I happened to remember that in my early days of gaming there was a game I’d see advertised in Dragon magazine that always intrigued me, but that I never heard of anyone actually playing, but I couldn’t remember what it was called.

It turns out the game was Avalon Hill’s Powers & Perils, and the reason I never heard of anyone actually playing it was that it wasn’t a very good game. “Feels as if it was written at gunpoint” is the most entertaining comment I found about it.

But the quest to remember the title led me to an online cache of PDFs of the first 15+ years of Dragon magazine, starting before I had really connected to the gaming community, and lasting well into the years in which I was a HERO System snob and would sniff disdainfully at the notion of playing so “mindless” a game as D&D.

Ugh. There are so many things I would like to slap Young Gneech for. 😛 But that’s not what this post is about.

The neat thing of it was, for me, watching the history of gaming unfold like time-lapse photography. Reading the early issues for the first time provided a lot of context I wish I’d had in the early days– but I never even saw an issue of Dragon until 1983 or so. Seeing defensive rants by Gary Gygax about what is “really” D&D or whether or not Tolkien should actually be considered an influence for the game was entertaining, but also helped me understand why gaming in general had the reputation it did. The letters in the magazine had the exact same psychology as your average internet comments section today, if at least with a profanity filter on, just in slow motion as arguments played out over months instead of hours.

And the game mechanics. Oh lord, the game mechanics. For all the OSR grognards praise “simplicity” and “light” rulesets? The actual old school had no such thing. There are articles with tables for rolling to see how many inches of rain your setting got that day. There are articles spanning two issues with very-slightly-different game stats for 25 different breeds of dogs.

Of course, gaming in those days was a boys’ club, and pretty much a white boys’ club at that. It wasn’t deliberately exclusionary, so much as just existing in a bubble formed by pop culture and socioeconomic circumstances. To be in the circles where RPGs were a thing you pretty much had to have a lot of free time, a certain amount of disposable wealth, and a particular type of eduction. Like the writer in Hollywood Shuffle who “learned about blacks from TV,” your average ’70s and ’80s gamer nerd wasn’t hostile to women, people of color, etc., so much as living in a world where anyone who wasn’t also a nerdy white male was viewed as a creature from another planet, strange and curious beings to be cataloged and categorized.

This led to things like the recurring proposals that “females” in any game should have reduced physical characteristics but enhanced social or appearance stats; or Oriental Adventures, an entire sub-line of D&D products that mashed together all of Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan history and culture into one tiny space and reduced them into “Shogun Meets Kung Fu Action Theater.” Again, usually not done with malice, just… myopia. [1]

There were things to love about the era, don’t get me wrong. I found myself repeatedly grinning in nostalgic glee when I ran into something I remembered fondly, such as the first advertisement for the Ghostbusters RPG, or a review of Sam and Max Hit the Road complaining about the fact that it couldn’t use the native speakers in a PC to at least make beeps and buzzes.

But I could clearly see, as time went on, the “Gygaxian” aesthetic (for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-mental-puzzle fading and the “Greenwoodian/Hickmanian” aesthetic (again for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-storytelling-vehicle rising in its place, and it was also clear to see why this was happening. If you didn’t share that very specific slide-rule-and-sneer mindset, the “old school” got old. How many times can you fight the same orcs before you’re sick of it? How many thieves can be disintegrated by pulling the wrong lever before the novelty wears off? The late ’80s and the ’90s brought the proliferation of the Universal RPG (GURPs, HERO), the storytelling game (Vampire: The Masquerade) and new campaign worlds to the slow-moving juggernaut of the industry, D&D, precisely because gamers were looking to take the hobby in new directions.

  • Ravenloft– “D&D meets Universal Horror!”
  • DragonlanceD&D as literary simulator!”
  • Darksun– “D&D goes post-apocalypse!”
  • Spelljammer– “D&D… in spaaaaaace!”

Honestly, I don’t think any but the cultiest of the OSR cult actually want the return of the “old school” days, so much as going through life with nostalgia-colored glasses and/or reacting to specific issues that have hit the hobby over the past decade or so. Because there’s a reason the old school got old! But that doesn’t mean we can’t pull out what was best about it and bring that forward. There wouldn’t be the awesomely fun hobby we have now, if there hadn’t been those table-cross-referencing ubernerds back then.

-The Gneech

[1] When you consider that women had roughly equal chances of showing up as “witch,” “coquettish damsel,” “vampy sex demon,” “nude tied to a pole,” or “competent adventurer,” it can be hard to tell where myopia ends and malice begins. Certainly only having a one-in-six chance of not sucking is not a great place for female characters to be, but consider that most villains and just about every monster or dumb thug was male. The real problem wasn’t so much that women were badly portrayed, as just plain rare, and especially rare in a way that didn’t treat women as basically vehicles for their own breasts.

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Sep 08 2016

Baby’s First Total Party Kill

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ME: “You open the door and see– 200 orcs!”
JAMIE: “I shut the door!”

D&D session, c. 1983-1984


Working on my 5E Keep On the Borderlands conversion last night, I put in a room that’s CR 13. That is to say, it’s “a good fight” for a party of 13th level characters. Just, y’know, sitting there, where a first level party could easily just waltz into it. And this is an introductory module! Y’know, for people who’ve never played the game before.

Now I see why this module has so many tales of TPKs associated with it! If you blunder into the Caves of Chaos “room by room” style, you’re gonna get killed. But of course, that’s how ol’ Gary liked it. Master Gygax had very exacting standards of what constituted “good play” or “bad play,” and his view was that player characters, especially at low levels, were disposable, like lives in a video game. Bob the First (level one fighter) gets killed? You roll up the next one and try again. The fact that Bob the Second instinctively knows that the bugbears have placed a deadfall trap behind the door to their cave doesn’t matter. Besides, Bob was smart enough to hire NPCs (doubtless wearing red shirts) to bring along and go first, right?

So yeah, there’s a CR 13 room just sitting in the Caves of Chaos, minding its own business. The thing of it is, you’re not intended to wade into the room, any more than Bilbo pulled out his sword and assaulted Goblin Town. The Caves are not a series of set piece encounters to be “beaten,” they’re a dangerous environment in which the PCs become wild cards in the ongoing situation.

Basically, Keep On the Borderlands is Yojimbo, with orcs. A lot of Gary Gygax’s adventures particularly are like this, the most famous example being The Temple of Elemental Evil, where the monsters are powerful and numerous but broken into factions, and crafty players can use that to their advantage.

But the adventure doesn’t tell you this other than a throwaway paragraph buried in some establishing text, and certainly doesn’t tell the newbie players who have just strapped on their swords and learned their first magic missile and are eager to smite the badguys. There are no guardrails, and nothing like the modern concepts of “encounter balance” to provide a safety net. The Caves of Chaos are dangerous, and it is assumed that not everyone will be coming home.

I wonder how many modern gamers, reared on strings of perfectly-balanced-encounters, walk into this module and just get creamed. “The DM wouldn’t put something down here we weren’t intended to fight” definitely does not apply to 1E modules. Which honestly? I kinda like– but it’s a dangerous way to run the game. Lots of players don’t want to take “no” for an answer, and lots of players don’t seem to be able to sense when they’re in over their heads… and lots of players get really bummed when their character dies. And honestly, as the DM I get bummed too. I’ve killed my share of player characters over the years and I’m usually very reluctant to do so, but you just can’t always pull their fat out of the fire. (I’m looking at you, Jamie.)

The thing of it is, within the context of Keep On the Borderlands, this CR 13 room is there for a perfectly good reason, balance be damned. I’m not an OSR grognard who wants those damn ’90s kids to get off my lawn, but I will say that the 1E mindset was a lot more flexible in this regard. “Why are there 40 orcs in this cave?” “Because communal living makes sense for cave-based nomads.” “But an encounter like that will slaughter six PCs!” “So be it. Maybe the PCs shouldn’t go in there.”

A more modern adventure might still have those 40 orcs, but they’d be in eight rooms with five orcs each instead of all in one giant pit. (Well, no, now I think of it, modern design would consider that monotonous. There’d be 16 orcs in four rooms with four orcs each plus a boss with a fire drake. But I digress.) That one relatively minor shift in scenario design philosophy makes a big difference, tho! Small clusters of enemies, you can take on in bunches at your own pace, are easy pickings for players with a modicum of tactical sense. 40 orcs, all on alert that surface invaders are in their caves? You might want to run. Or at least wait until you can come back with a fireball or two at your disposal.

I can’t honestly say how I would have run this adventure “back in the day,” I never tried. I was nine when I first read Keep On the Borderlands and its subtexts and design ramifications were lost on me, but it did inform my own “Castle Strongstone” dungeon design, including Jamie’s infamous 200 orcs encounter. Running this as an adult with more sophisticated sensibilities, the dungeon looks like a very different place to me. But in a strangely Campbellian way, it’s kind of neat to have come back around to it.

-The Gneech

Sep 03 2016

Keep On the Borderlands: 40 Years and Still Kicking

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The quickie teach-newbies-D&D game I was planning to start this weekend got bumped to next weekend, which actually helps because there’s a bit more work in converting The Keep on the Borderlands to (what I consider) a playable 5E adventure than you might think. Just going through and giving the NPCs names rather than THE CASTELLAN and THE CURATE is a fair amount of work. On the other hand, last night I had a sudden inspiration as to what the “Caves of Chaos” were actually all about (and why there is effectively an apartment complex with six different types of humanoids all living together), and suddenly the adventure goes from THE MOST GENERIC D&D CRAWL EVER[1] to actually having a theme and potential for cool stories.

Milk Run Or Meat Grinder?

I’m a little concerned about the difficulty scale. KotB was designed to take characters from roughly 1-3 in the original “basic” D&D, in which thieves levelled up fairly fast and wizards levelled up glacially slow etc. You could expect the overall level of the party to remain stable at a given level through several sessions. Modern games pretty much have everyone progress at the same pace, and that pace is mighty fast at low level. If I put in encounters that are balanced for 1st level characters, they’ll be like tissue paper just a few sessions in when the characters have all jumped to 3rd.

That’s not a problem per se– with a good mix of encounters it’s not a problem if the party blows through some of them– but it is something I have to be aware of. In a sandbox environment (which KotB mostly is, albeit a small one), there’s a real danger of the players getting in way over their heads. Play reports from KotB across all editions are rife with stories of TPKs or near-TPKs, because the party killed a couple of goblins, got cocky, and suddenly found themselves facing 20 more when the alarm went up.

(Yeah, pretty sure everyone in the party was at least 3rd level by that point.)

I recently read a blog post in which the author opined that D&D can basically be played two ways: first is a group of stalwart adventurers slaughtering monsters and reaping great rewards, while the second is a black comedy in which a bunch of ne’er do wells throw themselves into deathtraps, get slaughtered in horrifying ways, and occasionally escape with a few bits of gold to show for it. Modern D&D, the theory goes, aims more for the former, while old-school D&D was more of the latter.

I don’t entirely buy this– I played old-school D&D when it was still pretty young school and while we did have some entertainingly horrific character deaths (“eaten alive by mutant cannibal smurfs” is one that made a lasting impression), it wasn’t quite the meat grinder it’s sometimes made out to be. Maybe it was just our group, but I remember the general consensus was that if you were in a game where the DM was eager to kill the characters, it meant the DM was an ass and you just didn’t play in that game again. [2]

Finding Traps: Pick a Skill Already! And Other Concerns

I love 5E. Like, really love it. It plays fast, furious, and fun in a way I haven’t really seen since Tunnels and Trolls, but is rigorous enough that it has meat to latch onto for building unique and interesting characters, scenarios, and challenges.

However, as with all new editions, it has its rough spots. It still doesn’t quite know what to do with rogues, for instance. I’ve talked before about the rogue problem, and while 5E does bring back Thieves’ Cant, it has decoupled burglary from the rogue class entirely, putting that stuff mostly in the realm of “thieves’ tools proficiency,” and keeping the rogue class as a situational damage dealer. (What that means is that anyone who wants to learn the tool proficiency can be the party trap-disarmer and chest-unlocker, which is part of 5E’s “party role not required class” philosophy, and that part is actually fine, thumbs up!)

In their apparent rush to put something in for thieves to do, without really having much in the way of a solution to the rogue problem, they have left a lot of the whole traps and locked doors bit with very sketchy implementation at best. Random dungeon hazards have a Perception DC that compares not to the characters’ check, but to their passive Perception check. So… the characters either always pass or always fail? What’s the point of that? As a DM, creating adventures for your own party, you know what the characters’ passive Perception is. If you assign a DC, you already know if the characters will pass or fail. It’s silly.

Then there’s the Perception vs. Investigation thing. On p. 178 of the Players Handbook, under Investigation, it says “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check. You might deduce the location of a hidden object, discern from the appearance of a wound what kind of weapon dealt it, or determine the weakest point in a tunnel that could cause it to collapse.” That, combined with the fact that the Starter Set pregen rogue had proficiency with Investigation and not Perception, suggests that Investigation is the intended skill for searching for traps, right?

Except right next to that is a sidebar called “Finding a Hidden Object,” in which it clearly says, “When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or a trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check. Such a check can be used to find hidden details or other information and clues that you might otherwise overlook.”

So… you make a Perception check to spot details, and then an Investigation check to interpret them? I can see that being worth the effort for some “the entire room is a giant deathtrap” puzzle, but for every locked door and chest?

In my games I tend to split the difference– if there is a spottable trap (e.g., a trapdoor or a pressure plate), I set the DC and tell the players “You’ve walked into a trap. Make a Perception check to see if you spotted it in time!” If the trap is hidden in a mechanism (such as a locked chest) or if the characters are actively on the lookout for it rather than “passively perceiving,” so to speak, I call for an Investigation check. It annoys me that a system that was famously publicly playtested for two years still requires house-ruling like that, but nothing’s perfect.

Magic Item Construction Rules– As In, There Aren’t Any

This is an interesting divide. One of my players has been very disappointed in the way 5E not only “doesn’t really have” magic item construction guidelines, but at how it was deliberately removed from the game as a going concern.

What interests me most about this is that when 5E came out, this was something that a lot of people in the discussions I followed stood up and cheered about. “Goodbye to the Magic Shop Economy, and good riddance!” about summed it up. Reasons for this varied from “It sucks all the mystery out of magic items!” to “Conan never went to a magic shop!” to “Hooray, I don’t have to math-check another twinked out game-breaking magic item again!”

For myself, I didn’t have such strong feelings on the matter. I did think the whole magic item economy contributed to the ever-increasing rules overhead of the 3.x/PF era, but I also understood the reasoning that went into it. If your campaign didn’t assume “build a keep and retire” as the characters’ endgame, and didn’t have built-in money sinks like paying for training to raise levels (both of which were pretty much gone by the end of 2E), well you had to have something to spend all that gold on, and effectively having magic items as their own progression/character customization track would seem to kill two birds with one stone.

On the other hand, once upon a time DMs stocked dungeons with magic fountains that made weapons do double damage, or randomly turned characters into bugbears, and “game balance” wasn’t even an issue. When did we all get so obsessed with finely-tuned math within a game that’s theoretically all about letting your imagination run wild?

In any case, Josh (the player in question) not only did not stand up and cheer, he considers the lack of a robust magic item creation system to be a major failing on the part of 5E, and his reasoning is sound. Having a system spelled out in black-and-white removes a lot of the vagaries of system mastery. “Is ‘vorpal’ a game-breaking property at 3rd level? Well it adds +10,000 gp to the price, and that’s more money than the entire party has put together at the moment, so yeah, it must be. On the other hand, ‘shock’ only adds +3,000, so it must be legit.”

It also means the player has more control over how their character develops. If your whole character concept is based around having a Captain America-style shield that you can throw around and bang off mooks’ heads, you don’t have to hope you get lucky and the DM stocks one in the dungeon somewhere, you just save up your gold until you can afford to buy the thing.

And finally, as already alluded to, it gives the characters something to do with all that treasure they cart home from the dungeon! Josh particularly spoke in glowing terms of that moment of striding into town with bags full of gold itching to be spent and seeing what could be done with it, something I refer to as the Candy Store moment. And honestly, I can totally see that, although it also has the darker side of the “high level item tease,” where vorpal swords are there on the theoretical shelf, but you’ll never be able to afford one.

I don’t think this is an issue with a “right” or “wrong” answer, just preferences. MMOs and similar games particularly have made the gear-as-progression model a style that people are used to and expect, whereas someone coming from an era in which finding a +1 sword was notable, but you could also randomly become immune to all poisons because you kissed the statue of a goddess, is going to be a lot more comfortable with (or at least resigned to) DM fiat.

I’m working on ways to split the difference– I want to give Josh his Candy Store moments, but I also don’t want to have to retro-fit the magic item economy back into the game. I’ve set up a potential “magic shop” situation in my Keep On the Borderlands adaptation, but it’s hidden and will take some digging to find it, even assuming the characters manage to amass enough loot to make buying magic items a feasible concern.

In any case, hoping for some fun. If the game takes off, maybe I’ll pull out The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and let the players argue over how that’s supposed to be pronounced. 😉

-The Gneech

[1] This is not a criticism, it was written in 1978? 79? to be an introductory module teaching would-be DMs the basics of adventure structure, and giving would-be players a taste of how the game was supposed to go. Its very existence pushed the envelope of D&D, the design within didn’t have to. Today’s equivalent is the Lost Mine of Phandelver, from the 5E Starter Set. But half the group just went through that in my game, I can’t just run that one again!

[2] Unless the adventure in question was The Tomb of Horrors, but even back in the day that was pretty clearly its own distinct experience compared to regular campaign gaming. I met a few DMs who seemed to think ToH was what every adventure should be all the time. I didn’t stay in their games.

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Aug 29 2016

A Character’s “Kit” in RPGs

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I’ve working on a little filler game of D&D, and I’ve run into an interesting little wrinkle this time around, in which a couple of the players want outside-the-box options, like moreso than usual. And while I’m happy to oblige, even if it makes more work for me, it has led me to some interesting thoughts on the role a character’s “kit” (or the abilities provided by their race/class combination) plays in the broader metagame considerations.

One of the players wants a 3rd-party race whose signature bit is wings. The ability to fly, especially at low levels, is one that tends to generate a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in D&D, because so much of what happens on a tactical level is dependent on your interactions with the map. A character who can fly bypasses pits, ignores difficult terrain, can go right over climbing/jumping obstacles, etc. This is expected behavior for 5th+ level heroes, but completely negates a lot of the initial “just learning to survive” challenges that 1st level heroes are expected to face. This is a powerful signature bit– but at the same time, 5E has an underlying philosophy of “let the players do the cool thing,” and so do I, so we bashed around the ability a bit until we got to a state where it was useful and cool but not game-breaking.

Another player, basically wants MMO-style crafting (which is an issue the same player was having in my regular campaign). Magic item creation rules are something that existed in 3.x/PF, but are conspicuously absent in 5E, and I think the real reason for that is that it creates a lot of “rules overhead” for the DM compared to the actual amount of use it’s likely to see at the table. Crafting of any kind (including the spaceship building rules from Traveller, the Summoner class from Pathfinder, or all the everything of Champions) is a fun game-within-the-game for a non-trivial segment of the gaming population, made of up mathy engineery geeks who love having systems to stress and break– but it’s something of a headache for everyone who isn’t among their number.

For this player, I suggested the Artificer class. This adds the crafting subsystem that they want, and makes it their “cool thing.” In my e-mail discussions with the player, I explained my thinking thus:

[5E is] written primarily to make life easier for the GM after decades of rules-heavy systems. (And really, the entirety of the OSR is kind of a reaction to the same issues.) GMs spend so much time coming up with NPCs, scenarios, neat images, etc., that they often don’t have the mental bandwidth to spend lots of time on system mastery beyond what’s absolutely necessary for the immediate task in front of them. Detailed magic item creation rules in that context only exist to keep the players from running amok and spamming the world with vorpal swords. The GM doesn’t need any such stuff.

I think we’ve talked before about how the real currency in any tabletop game is “face time”– i.e., who gets to do the cool thing when, and how often? To that end, I’d say, if you want crafting and fiddling around with the ins and outs of your items be what time in the game is spent on, that’s fine, but that should be where your character’s mechanics are (hence pointing at the artificer class). Somebody who doesn’t care about crafting and just wants to punch badguys, makes a fighter. Someone who wants to engage in all the social stuff, makes a bard. Their class choice defines how and where their face time will be spent. Adding on a whole subsystem to a game that only one player really gets into, while they also get the face time benefits of another class, is where the real “imbalance” would start to come in.

This led me to thinking in broader terms of a character’s kit, and how the choices a player makes when creating their character really inform the game that you will actually be playing once the group comes together. The character’s kit is where the concept (“a heroic warrior” or “a wily rogue” or whatever) interface with the game construct (the numbers you have to roll on the dice to achieve your desired story goals), and point to the sort of things the player wants to be spending their time in the game doing. The problem comes when your player’s mechanical choices don’t synch with what they actually seem to want to do.

In a game I had some time ago, I had a player who had a tendency to want their character to be able to fill every role all the time. Said player made a rogue who would immediately run up to the biggest monster in the fight and try to tank it; the same player made an archery-based ranger who was forever wading into melee, and a mad scientist in Deadlands who kept getting into one-on-one gunfights. In short, he wanted to be the one Doing The Cool Thing all the time, regardless of what his character’s abilities actually were.

This just doesn’t work in a group game, and in fact will pretty much always backfire. I kept trying to throw “Here’s your chance to do the Cool Thing!” moments at the player, but their character was either engaged elsewhere in a losing battle that didn’t match their kit… or dead, because they’d brought a rapier to a greataxe fight. When you build a character, you have to commit to putting that character into situations where they’ll be playing to their strengths! You also have to be able to sit back and applaud when some other player is doing Their Cool Thing. If you’re a rogue, and the group is being swarmed by zombies? That means it’s the cleric’s turn to do the Cool Thing. You’ll get your chance in the Chamber of Deathtraps.

Similarly, when building a character, think about what you want to be doing in the game and build a character to suit. If you know you want to be up front cleaving your foes and sucking up damage, then you should probably play a barbarian, not a bard. If you want to dynamically mess around with your character’s kit and have a something in your pocket for every challenge, you should probably play a wizard so you can tweak your spell selection. If you want to be Indiana Jones/Lara Croft, play a rogue, not a cleric. Think about what your character’s Cool Thing is, and build your character’s kit around that. (And let the other members of the group have their own Cool Thing. It’s not always your moment to shine!)

-The Gneech

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Jun 07 2016

Ghostbusters 5E: The Boys In Gray (First Pass)

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So here we have some actually built PC Ghostbusters, representing Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston as of the Sedgewick Hotel job (i.e., catching Slimer). The first thing I notice is that AC is very low across the board; I may give all the GB classes the “Add your Proficiency Bonus to AC” ability to compensate for this.

The Boys in Gray (First Pass)

Egon Spengler (Sedgewick Job) (CR ½; 100 XP)
Medium humanoid (human) Brains 3, neutral
AC 12 (padded jumpsuit); hp 13 (3d6)
Speed 30’
Str 11/+0; Dex 13/+1; Con 11/+0; Int 16/+3; Wis 15/+2; Cha 9/-1
Saving Throws Intelligence +5, Wisdom +4
Skills Electronics +5, Investigation +5, Medicine +5, Occult +5, Parapsychology +7, Science +7
Proficiencies chemistry tools, electronics tools
Senses passive Perception 12
Languages English, Latin
Discovery. Dr. Spengler invented the ghost containment technology that makes proton packs and ghost traps possible.
Expertise. Dr. Spengler adds double his proficiency bonus to Intelligence (Parapsychology) and Intelligence (Science) checks.
Inventor. Dr. Spengler has three prodigy-level gadget slots.
Know-It-All. Dr. Spengler adds ½ his proficiency bonus to any Intelligence check he makes that doesn’t already include his proficiency bonus (+1 at 3rd level).
Proton Pack. Ranged Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, range 100/300, one target. Hit: 14 (3d8+1) radiant damage, capture.
Plan. Dr. Spengler can take an action to formulate a plan. He chooses up to six creatures (including himself) who can hear and understand him to include in the plan. In the next minute, each creature who is part of the plan may choose to roll a Ghost Die with their choice of any one attack roll or ability check per turn. He must complete a short or long rest before he can use this ability again.

Peter Venkman (Sedgewick Job) (CR ½; 100 XP)
Medium humanoid (human) Wits 3, chaotic good
AC 11 (padded jumpsuit); hp 20 (3d8+3)
Speed 30’
Str 10/+0; Dex 11/+0; Con 12/+1; Int 14/+2; Wis 8/-1; Cha 16/+3
Saving Throws Dexterity +2, Charisma +5
Skills Athletics +2, Deception +7, Occult +4, Parapsychology +4, Persuasion +7, Stealth +2
Tool Proficiencies electronic toolset, cars
Senses passive Perception 9
Languages English, New York pidgin
Fast Talk. Dr. Venkman can suggest a wildly improbable or even outrageous course of action (limited to a sentence or two) to someone within 30’ who can hear and understand him, they must succeed a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw or they will pursue it to the best of their ability for up to 8 hours (or until they complete the action). Creatures that can’t be charmed are immune to this effect. Asking a creature to actively harm themselves or do something completely contrary to their basic nature immediately ends the effect. Once Dr. Venkman has used this ability, he must complete a short or long rest before he can use it again.
Jack of All Trades. Dr. Venkman can add half of his proficiency bonus to any ability check that does not already include his proficiency bonus.
Nobody’s Fool (Feat). Dr. Venkman has advantage on ability checks or saving throws to see through deception or resist intimidation or persuasion that is not supernatural.
No Job Is Too Big, No Fee Is Too Big. When negotiating to mitigate damage or increase his team’s fee for a bust, he has advantage on his Charisma (Persuasion) check.
Slick Operator. When Dr. Venkman makes ability checks to use Deception and Persuasion, his proficiency bonus is doubled.
Streetwise. Dr. Venkman has advantage on all Intelligence (Investigation) checks to find illicit goods, criminal activity, or people hiding out in urban environments, as well as Charisma (Persuasion) checks made to convince criminals or other shady types that he is safe to interact with.
Proton Pack. Ranged Weapon Attack: +2 to hit, range 100/300. Hit: 13 (3d8) radiant damage, capture.
Bonus Actions
Make a Remark (3 uses). As a bonus action on his turn, Dr. Venkman may choose a creature within 60’ who can hear and understand him. If making a cheering remark, that creature may add a Ghost Die to one attack roll, saving throw, or ability check they make in the next minute, or roll a Ghost Die and regain that many hit points. If they Roll a Ghost when restoring hit points, they regain a number of hit points equal to their Constitution score (or 6, whichever is higher). If making a cutting remark, Dr. Venkman rolls a Ghost Die and that creature must subtract that from their next d20 roll, or he may roll a Ghost Die and subtract that number from the creature’s hit points. If he Rolls a Ghost, the creature must subtract 14. Once he has used this ability three times, Dr. Venkman must have a short or long rest to use it again.

Ray Stantz (Sedgewick Job) (CR ½; 100 XP)
Medium humanoid (human) Guts 3, lawful good
AC 13 (padded jumpsuit); hp 31 (3d12+6)
Speed 30’
Str 12/+1; Dex 10/+0; Con 15/+2; Int 14/+2; Wis 8/-1; Cha 10/+0
Saving Throws Constitution +4, Charisma +2
Skills Driving +2, Investigation +4, Occult +4, Parapsychology +4, Religion +4, Science +4
Proficiencies computers, electronics tools, mechanical tools
Senses passive Perception 9
Languages English, Latin
Durable. Dr. Stantz adds his Constitution bonus to his AC, as well as his Dexterity bonus.
Fools Rush In. When Dr. Stantz is surprised on the first round of combat, he may still choose to act on his initiative. If he does, all attacks made against him have advantage, and he has disadvantage on all saving throws until the beginning of his next turn.
Lucky. Whenever Dr. Stantz rolls a 1 on a d20 roll, he may immediately re-roll it and take the better result.
Research Savant. Dr. Stantz has advantage on Intelligence (Investigation) checks made to look up information. When he attempts to recall a piece of lore, if he doesn’t know the information, he at least has a pretty good idea where and from whom he can obtain it, if it’s available.
Proton Pack. Ranged Weapon Attack: +2 to hit, range 100/300. Hit: 13 (3d8) radiant damage, capture.
Bonus Actions
Adrenaline Rush. Dr. Stantz enters an adrenaline rush, gaining the following benefits: he has advantage on all Strength checks and Strength saving throws, he adds a Ghost Die of damage to all successful attacks in combat, and he has resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage. The rush lasts for one minute, but ends early if he is knocked unconscious or his turn ends and he hasn’t attacked a hostile creature, taken damage, or expended a hit die since his last turn. He may enter an adrenaline rush twice. After that he must finish a long rest before he can go into a rush again.
Got Your Back. By expending one or more of his own hit dice, Dr. Stantz may choose to aid a friendly creature he can touch, giving the creature a free saving throw plus a Ghost Die to end any one condition it is suffering, or the creature can immediately regain hit points equal to 1d12 + their Constitution modifier for every hit die expended, plus a Ghost Die.

Winston Zeddemore (When Hired) (CR 2; 450 XP)
Medium humanoid (human) Brawn 3, lawful good
AC 14 (padded jumpsuit); hp 24 (3d10+3)
Speed 30’
Str 15/+2; Dex 16/+3; Con 13/+1; Int 11/+0; Wis 11/+0; Cha 9/-1
Saving Throws Strength +4, Constitution +3
Skills Athletics +4, Driving +5, Insight +2, Perception +2
Proficiencies cars, demolitions, heavy machinery, mechanical tools, simple weapons
Senses passive Perception 12
Languages English
Action Surge. Winston can take one additional action on top of his regular action and a possible bonus action. He must finish a short or long rest before he can use this ability again.
Nice Shootin’, Tex! Winston adds +2 to all ranged attack and damage rolls (reflected in his statistics), including rolls made to capture ghosts (or adds +2 to the DC a ghost must beat to avoid capture, as applicable). Also, when he makes a ranged attack, he may add a Ghost Die to the attack roll or damage roll. He must take a short or long rest before he can do this again.
Sane. When Winston is subject to confusion effects, he rolls twice and takes the preferred result. In situations where having a “voice of reason” would be beneficial, Winston or an ally within 30’ that can hear him has advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks.
Strong Back. Winston’s carrying capacity is doubled and he may always add a Ghost Die to Strength checks made to push, pull, lift, or break objects.
Proton Pack.
Ranged Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, range 100/300. Hit: 18 (3d8+5) radiant damage, capture.
Bonus Actions
Second Wind.
Winston can use a bonus action to regain hit points equal to 1d10+3. He must finish a short or long rest before he can use this ability again.

Slimer (CR 2; 450 XP)
Medium undead (trappable), chaotic neutral
AC 12; hp 22 (5d8)
Speed 0’, fly 50’ (hover)
Str 1/-5; Dex 14/+2; Con 11/+0; Int 10/+0; Wis 10/+0; Cha 11/+0
Damage Resistances acid, cold, fire, lightning, thunder; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons
Damage Immunities necrotic, poison
Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained, unconscious
Senses darkvision 60’, passive Perception 10
Languages understands English but can’t speak
Ethereal Sight. Slimer can see 60’ into the ethereal plane when he is on the material plane, and vice versa.
Incorporeal Movement. Slimer can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. He takes 5 (1d10) force damage if he ends his turn inside an object.
Sunlight Sensitivity. While in sunlight, Slimer has disadvantage on attack rolls, as well as on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.
Charge (Recharge 5-6). Slimer flies up to 30’ and attacks with either his Forceful Slam or his Slime, ending his movement adjacent to the target. If the attack hits, it does an extra 5 (1d10) points of damage.
Etherealness. Slimer enters the Ethereal Plane from the Material plane, or vice versa.
Forceful Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5’, one creature. Hit: 10 (3d6) force damage.
Slime. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5’, one creature. Hit: 5 (1d10) damage and the target is slimed. The target must immediately attempt a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw or fall prone.
Telekinetic Fling. Slimer either telekinetically grabs a nearby unattended object up to 150 lbs, or manifests an ectoplasmic pseudo-object appropriate to his nature (generally spoiled food in Slimer’s case) and flings them at a creature within 30’. This acts as a ranged weapon (+4 to hit) dealing 5 (2d4) bludgeoning damage. Two or more phantasms working in tandem can move objects up to 450 lbs, doing 16 (3d10) bludgeoning damage.
Telekinetic Thrust. Slimer targets a Medium or smaller creature within 30’ of him and makes a Charisma check contested by the target’s Strength check. If Slimer wins the contest, he flings the target up to 30’ in any direction, including upward. If the target then comes into contact with a hard surface or heavy object, the target takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage per 10’ moved.

Whattya think? The first draft of the document is done and I’m beginning revisions now, so now’s the time for feedback!

-The Gneech

Other Ghostbusters posts.

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