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

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.

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

Oct 05 2020

GeekQuery — 5E D&D is NOT Boring!

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What is it with people complaining about D&D 5E being boring? Is it really boring? Are we just not seeing it? Together we will go through our own experiences with 5th edition and tell you why we don’t think it’s the edition itself that’s boring, and what you can do to spice things up!

Mentioned Resources

The Monsters Know What They’re Doing: https://www.themonstersknow.com/

Tucker’s Kobolds: https://web.archive.org/web/20180331231455/http://www.tuckerskobolds.com:80/

Matt Colville: Using 4E to make 5E combat more fun! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoELQ7px9ws

Find us on Twitter!

Gneech: https://twitter.com/the_gneech

Inkblitz: https://twitter.com/inkblitzer

Gneech’s Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/the_gneech

Sep 08 2020

Being a Player or a DM in D&D

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GeekQuery! A new web channel featuring InkBlitz and myself, talking all things geeky. We jump right in this week, discussing what it’s like to switch to being a player in tabletop RPGs if you’re used to being the Gamemaster—or vice-versa. We’re just getting started and we’d love some feedback!

-The Gneech

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Aug 27 2020

Shady the Bard, Revisited

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The business end of Shade-Of-the-Candle
So I think I’ve talked myself into multiclassing Shady with bard instead of fighter. The question now becomes… when? My initial thought was that it would start at 11th level, because Reliable Talent is a broken class feature anyway, but I would miss the ability score bumps at 8 and 10, not to mention Evasion (which is amazing) and Panache (which is also amazing).

On the other hand… 11th level is really far away, if we even take it for granted that the game will get there. As players, we (admittedly, mostly me, but other players bought in to my reasoning) asked Inkblitz to slow levelling down when we hit sixth, and, well, it’s very rare for any D&D game to survive long past 10th. And since Bard Shady’s spells top out at 3rd level, if I wait for 11th to roll around, they’re going to be a lot more limited in application.

So I started thinking about what would happen if I made the switch immediately: what would I gain, and what would I lose? Since 9th level’s Panache and the 10th level ASI are sort of my benchmarks of pure rogue, I tried statting up Shady Rogue 10, and Shady Rogue 5/Bard 5, and this is what I got:

—–

SHADY: Rogue (Swashbuckler) 10
AC 17; hp 74
Speed: 30′, x2 w/ Feline Agility
Initiative: +8

Str 10, Dex 20, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 16
Saves: Dex +9, Int +4
Acrobatics +9, Animal Handling +1, Arcana +0, Athletics +8, Deception +3, History +0, Insight +1, Intimidation +7, Investigation +4, Medicine +1, Nature +0, Perception +9, Performance +3, Persuasion +11, Religion +0, Sleight of Hand +9, Stealth +13, Survival +1
Prof: Concertina, Dice Set, Thieves’ Tools

Cunning Action, Evasion, Fancy Footwork, Panache, Rakish Audacity, Sneak Attack +5d6, Uncanny Dodge

Crescent Moon: +10 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing (+5d6 sneak attack*)
Cutlass (off-hand): +9 to hit, 1d6 slashing
[average combined DPR 31.5]
Pistol: +9 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing (+5d6 sneak attack*) [average DPR 28]

*Sneak attack can only apply once per turn.

—–

SHADY: Rogue (Swashbuckler) 5/Bard (College of Swords) 5
AC 16 (+d8 Blade Flourish**); hp 74
Speed: 30′, 40′ w/ attack action (Blade Flourish), x2 w/ Feline Agility
Initiative: +9

Str 10, Dex 20, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 14
Saves: Dex +9, Int +4
Acrobatics +9, Animal Handling +3, Arcana +2, Athletics +8, Deception +6, History +2, Insight +3, Intimidation +6, Investigation +4, Medicine +3, Nature +2, Perception +9, Performance +4, Persuasion +10, Religion +2, Sleight of Hand +9, Stealth +13, Survival +3
Prof: Concertina, Dice Set, Navigator’s Tools, Thieves’ Tools

Bardic Inspiration d8 (2/short or long rest), Blade Flourish, Cunning Action, Fancy Footwork, Fighting Style (Two-Weapon Fighting), Jack of All Trades, Rakish Audacity, Sneak Attack +3d6, Song of Rest (d6), Uncanny Dodge

Spells: 0-level—Friendship, Mage Hand, Vicious Mockery; 1—level (4 slots)—Charm Person, Healing Word, Heroism, Longstrider, Sleep; 2-level (3 slots)—Blindness/Deafness, Enthrall; 3-level (2 slots)—Stinking Cloud

Crescent Moon: +10 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing (+3d6 sneak attack*, +d8 Blade Flourish**)
Cutlass (off-hand): +9 to hit, 1d6+5 slashing
[average combined DPR 34]
Pistol: +9 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing (+3d6 sneak attack*) [average DPR 21]

*Sneak attack can only apply once per turn.
**Blade Flourish cannot add to AC and weapon damage on the same turn, can only apply damage once per turn, and expends a use of Bardic Inspiration.

—–

CONCLUSIONS: Bard Shady’s swordsmanship suffers when not using blade flourishes, but is actually superior when she does use them. Unfortunately, she only has two per short rest. Her marksmanship drops noticeably, however. On the other hand, with Sleep, Stinking Cloud, and spammable Vicious Mockery, she has other options at range. She loses both Uncanny Dodge (ouch) and Panache (ouch), but gains a much more robust skill list, gets to plug a hole in her mariner skills w/ Navigator Tools, and becomes a better leader, with Bardic Inspiration, Healing Word, and Song of Rest available to bolster her crew.

If we assume that her “spells” are actually just items she’s carrying around in that utility belt, Mage Hand becomes her yoinking things from across the room with her grapple hook, Sleep can be sleeping powder or a sucker punch, and Blindness/Deafness and Stinking Cloud both become bags of stuff she lobs at her foes.

That running speed, tho. With Blade Flourish and Feline Agility, she can run 80′ on a turn and still attack someone—who then can’t hit her back when she’s running away thanks to Fancy Footwork. Add Longstrider to the mix and we’re looking at Sonic the Hedgehog. Bard Shady has a higher initiative than Rogue Shady despite having a lower Dex, but won’t be laughing off fireballs. She might just outrun them, tho. >.>

Ugh! It’s a tough choice! Bard Shady is better for the social pillar, Rogue Shady has more sustain in combat (at least against foes that don’t resist slashing and piercing), and the two of them bring different strengths to exploration.

At the end of the day, I think I need to pick the one that is most “in character” rather than being optimized. Given how much Shady loves to talk to people, pulls weird things out of her bag of tricks, wants to be a competent seafarer, and pokes her nose where it doesn’t belong, I suspect Bard Shady edges out Rogue Shady at the end of the day. But I’d love to hear opinions!

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