…Yeah, okay, that title doesn’t make much sense. >.> But we’ll roll with it!
My Storm King’s Thunder campaign is rolling along nicely, going on something like two years now. SKT was hailed in reviews as being a terrific sandboxey adventure, which it kinda-sorta is, and kinda-sorta isn’t , but we are now in the “post Eye-Of-the-All-Father” stage of the campaign, which very much isn’t a sandbox, as written. I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say that if you’re familiar with SKT, you will probably know what I mean when I say that from Chapter Five forward, it’s pretty much a railroady race to the end, with scripted cutscenes for NPCs to have big moments baked in and everything.
Which, y’know, makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t really write “a campaign in a book” like this and have the ending make any kind of sense, if you don’t collapse all the probability waveforms down into a single cohesive storyline. But running a railroad game is fundamentally opposed to my Gamemastering credo, specifically items #7 and #9. So how to resolve this?
Actually, the answer is also in the Credo, specifically item #11. I’m tossing in a bunch of potential side-quests of my own design, most if not all of which are optional. The most recent sessions involved the characters happening upon a derelict cloud giant skycastle that by the machinations of fate was tied in to one of the PCs’ backstories– none of which is in the adventure-as-written. This particular side-quest kinda floated in the liminal space between sandbox and railroad, in that I was pretty confident that when confronted with an unexpected floating island, the PCs would want to check it out… but they also had the option, and the story would not have been broken, if they just shrugged and said, “Meh, the Oracle told us to go to Ironslag, let’s keep going to Ironslag.”
The scenario ended with them in something of a quandary about what to do next: they’ve still got the task at Ironslag waiting for them, but I can see at least three other directions they might want to go from here, and none of them would be “wrong answers.” One of those is even still on the Storm King’s Thunder script! Another one involves stopping at a town where they’ve never been and– guess what– that town is also a mini-quest-hub that has at least three side-quests going on as well.
I don’t expect the players to do all these side-quests, and honestly I wouldn’t want them to– it would probably feel tediously grindy to go on every monster-hunt they happened across, and you could play an MMO for that. But having the quests there gives the players “breathing space” around the main plot, in order to pursue their own agendas, which is what sandbox play is really all about at the heart of it.
It’s entirely possible that the players will look at the side-quests, say “Screw that noise!” and carry on racing towards the end of Storm King’s Thunder instead. That’s fine, too! It’s entirely consistent with my GM credo to let the players buy their tickets and get on the plot railroad, if that’s what they have chosen to do.
 Actually, very few D&D games are actually “sandboxes.” What they may be is “open world,” but that’s another discussion all together. My experience is that most of the time, when people describe a D&D adventure as a sandbox, what they mean is “not a railroad.” ;P
It’s been a year and a half since the campaign started at the Keep on the Borderlands; the characters have reached 7th level and finally, after much meandering, gotten to the Eye of the All-Father in Storm King’s Thunder. If we assume that KotB was the prologue, and snuffing out (so to speak) the fire giants’ hopes of reviving the Vonindod was Act One, we are now at the beginning of Act Two.
Storm King’s Thunder is written in the weird meandery style for the first part, but then once you hit the Eye of the All-Father, it pretty much becomes a straightforward run to the end. There are some branching points, but they all lead to the same destination, somewhere around 10th or 11th level. So it’s still a bit away, but we are now at the point where I can see the end of Storm King’s Thunder looming on the horizon, and have been thinking about what the campaign would do next.
I had the idea of ending the campaign when we reached the end of SKT to start something new; I was particularly looking at doing a Spelljammer(-ish) campaign that brought in a lot of the flavor of the MCU cosmic stuff, inspired by Thor: Ragnarok. And I still like that idea, but as I was thinking about it, I had a very sudden and definite message from the subconscious:
No. I want this campaign to go to 20th level.
…Well okay then. O.o
There’s lots of reasons for this, not the least of which being we’ve never reached that kind of a level in any of our campaigns, and so it would be something completely new for us. Also, I just like this group of characters, and I’m not ready for their story to be over– and I suspect the players probably feel the same way. Finally, by all accounts (and our own experience so far), 5E is the system that, if you’re going to go to 20, you want to do it in.
(In Pathfinder we’d already be hearing creaks around the edges of the system by now. In 5E, at 7th level, the combats are taking a little longer than they did back in the KotB days just by virtue of having more complex characters and tougher opponents, but the action is still fast and furious. Out last session had a chase/combat against a behir in a cave maze (CR 11!) that was done 75% as “theater of the mind” and basically went like this:
For all the chasing around and getting in potshots at the monster (or FROM the monster) it all ran very smooth and quickly and led to a fingernail-biting climax where the barbarian NPC was one round away from being digested in the creature’s belly and saved by the players pulling out all the stops to save her. I can’t think of another system we’ve used that would have handled the situation half so well.
But having decided that I want the campaign to reach level 20, that leads to the question of what to do for the second half. There are some tweaks written into Storm King’s Thunder itself that provide ways it can be expanded on, and I’ll happily add those in, but even that isn’t likely to take the party past 12th or 13th.
So what I’ve decided to do was to pull out some of my still-unplayed higher level 3.x edition adventures, particularly from Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics line, and tie them together into an “adventure path.” Some of them involve giants and make for obvious “sequel” material, particularly if [SPOILER REDACTED] manage to escape rather than suffer Death By PC when their nefarious scheme to [SPOILER ALSO REDACTED] comes to light. I also found another one that could provide a kind of cool “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” side-trek as a change of pace from fighting giants all the dang time and that could possibly act as setup for Spelljammer later.
The ones I’ve found so far could take the game as far as 16th or 17th. Beyond that… I have no idea. That’s probably at least another year and a half away itself anyway, so I have time to work on it, and by then hopefully WotC will have gotten around to some of that “supporting higher-level play” they’ve been talking about. But it seems to me that once you get into that realm, where even the wizard has 80+ hit points, the barbarian becomes as strong as a giant and can rage indefinitely, and the cleric can literally resurrect people at will, the stories are going to have to look very different.
You don’t “dungeon crawl” at that kind of level. I don’t know what you do do… but you don’t dungeon crawl. Really that, more than anything, is going to be the challenge at that point.
Brother Drang summons lightning against the cave leaper. It’s SUPER EFFECTIVE.
An epic moment from last night’s D&D session. Wandering around the underdark because reasons, the party was attacked on a long and narrow span by “cave leapers” (a kind of bat-winged flying dire toad thing) and purple worm larvae, in an encounter literally named “The Gorge of Horrible Things.”
Hantamouse’s storm cleric (“Brother Drang”) was swallowed whole by a leaper, which then tried to fly off. The barbarian lassoed it, and SirFox’s rogue (an anthropomorphic flying squirrel) jumped on it, stabbing the thing with his rapier to make a handle. At this point Hanta, who had already cast summon lightning at the beginning of the fight, decided he had no fucks to give and blasted the thing from the inside out, failing the saving roll against his own spell and taking the full brunt of it as well.
Me: “The good news is, you killed the cave leaper! The bad news is, you’re now 20 feet in the air trapped inside a dead leaper. You take five more points of damage from the fall.”
My Storm King’s Thunder campaign has moved to the underdark for a bit, and as such I need a new random encounter table as the characters tromp miles and miles in the dark, instead of their usual tromping miles and miles over mountains or across the plains. 😉 But it seems to me this is as good a time as any to work up an encounter table “template” for making these tables easier to build in the future.
I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from Adventures in Middle-earth and including such things as world events, interesting terrain bits, and even just “mood swings” in my encounter tables to give the journey more character than just “you fight owlbears/you fight orcs” etc. That also means there are “empty spaces” on the encounter table so the party doesn’t automatically have a hostile encounter every time they enter a new overland hex.
Feel free to use this template for your own games, if you like. I’m pretty pleased with the result in my own.
Major Benevolent Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Gandalf, a powerful metallic dragon, or something similar. This power may be traveling incognito– the party may entertain angels unawares. On Repeat: No encounter.
Easy Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No encounter.
Resources. Your party finds plentiful game, a grove of mushrooms, wild healing herbs, a valuable mineral deposit, or even a small buried treasure or cache of supplies left by previous wayfarers. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: Cloudy, windy conditions.
Fellow Travelers. Pilgrims, miners, friendly locals, wanderers. Will happily share news and maybe a meal. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
Help! Fellow travelers, as described above, being menaced by hostile creatures making up a medium or hard encounter. If rescued, the travelers will be grateful and provide aid or reward to the party. On Repeat: Medium Encounter.
Fair Roads and Favorable Conditions. Your party finds shortcuts, ample sources of clean and refreshing water or shade, and makes excellent time. Your travel speed is increased by 50% for four hours. On Repeat: Same encounter again once, “No Encounter” from then on.
Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
A Skill Test. Fallen trees, a collapsed bridge over a swift river, or other something similar have blocked the road and the party must devise a way past it, or perhaps the party’s mounts are spooked by something and must be calmed down. Have each player describe their intended action in turn and resolve with a skill check or simply narrate likely results. If there are more successes than failures, the party moves on. If there are more failures than successes, the party loses four hours of progress. If all checks are failures, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
A Moment. The party comes upon a gorgeous vista, a mysterious ring of standing stones, crumbling statues from a fallen kingdom of old, a spectacular sunset, or other inspiring moment. Everyone in the party makes a Wisdom saving throw (DC 10-15 depending on the surroundings). If successful, they are filled with hope and gain Inspiration. If they fail, they simply shrug and keep marching. If they fail by 5 or more, they see only the fleeting nature of life and become morose, gaining a level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues. Trails lead nowhere or dry up. Progress is hampered and rocks turn underfoot. The scout must succeed on a Survival check (DC 10-15 depending on terrain) or you lose 4 hours of progress. If this roll fails, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Rainy conditions.
Hard Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
(Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
(Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
The Very World Seems Against Us. Your intended route is blocked by flooding, rockslide, enemy action, or an overwhelming hostile force. Lose 4 hours of progress. Everyone in the party must make a DC 15 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
Deadly Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain.
(Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
(Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Hard Encounter.”)
Major Malignant Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Saruman, a powerful chromatic dragon, or something similar. This power probably has minions and is up to no good, but may regard the characters as beneath their notice and move on unless the party starts something. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
During Prep: Pre-populate encounters with appropriate creatures. Place regional-, campaign-, or adventure-specific encounters in the Undefined entries.
At the Table: Roll (or have the party scout roll) when characters enter a new overland hex, or once per 4-hour watch while camped. Travel speed is not a factor: difficult terrain slows down monsters just as much as it does player characters. Roll more often (at least once per four hours of travel) in dangerous or heavily-infested areas, such as cursed jungles teeming with monsters.
Variations: Roll 1d12+1 during daylight and 1d12+1d8 at night to create a “don’t travel in the dark” atmosphere.
I hope you find this useful! It’s the core engine I use for my overland travel adventures, and I find it works well.
In terms of round-by-round, 5E is great. It doesn’t have the grind-grind-grind problem of 3.x/PF, nor the “everybody is a sorcerer” problem of 4E (which, I’m told, also gets ridiculously grindy in short order).
But structurally, in terms of encounter building and monster design (and how that ties in with rest and advancement), I feel like it still has problems.
The Resource Management Game Nobody Plays
The “15-minute workday” is still a thing in 5E. The game is balanced around the notion that every two encounters (or so) the characters will take a short rest, and that after their sixth encounter of the day they’ll take a long rest.
In order for that to work, most of the individual encounters need to not be that tough. The party uses a big spell in one, the fighter loses some hit points in the next, and so on, but they can soldier on through. Because no one encounter is likely to wreck the party, they can keep on going until they’re out of Adventure Fuel (i.e., hit points and spells), and then recharge with a long rest.
The problem there is that, narrative wise, this can get real boring. If the stakes are that low for almost every encounter, and you have limited game time, there is a strong desire to “skip to the encounter that actually matters.”
So there is a strong inclination to beef up individual encounters, so that each one feels more significant. Instead of six rooms with six orcs each, the party finds three rooms with twelve orcs each. (Of course, in a well-built dungeon, there’ll be more variety than that. But you get the idea.)
But! When confronted with tougher encounters, players inevitably go nuclear on them– the wizard opens every fight with a fireball, the fighter uses their action surges, etc.– and it makes perfect sense for them to do so. The players don’t know how tough the encounter is or isn’t, or what the GM might have up their sleeve. Better to blast the hell out of everything and be reasonably sure you got it all, than to get one-punched by something without ever getting a spell off.
And what do players do after they’ve gone nuclear? They want a long rest to recharge! If that means backing out of the entire dungeon and coming back the next day to take it one room at a time? That’s what they’ll do.
Fighters get the shaft in a situation like this– their strength relative to magic-users is they can keep fighting all day without expending resources. But if the wizard gets recharged every time, the endurance of martial classes is irrelevant. (This is why everyone was a sorcerer in 4E.) Action surges and stuff like that make fighters a little more bursty to compensate, and of course 5E rogues are OP no matter how you slice it, so it’s not as bad as it was in 3.x/PF, but it’s still a thing.
The NERF™ Monster Manual
My campaign currently has a very large party. Six PCs, plus 1-3 NPCs of varying power levels depending on the scenario. This utterly breaks the action economy as it is, but even moreso once Bounded Accuracy comes into play.
Far from making it so that “even goblins can stay viable threats,” with a party this size B.A. makes it so that “even dragons are never a viable threat.” ;P In my last session, the 5th level party went into a fight with three wights and six zombies, and didn’t break a sweat. They were a little annoyed at the way the zombies kept standing back up again… but it wasn’t scary, so much as a nuisance.
Dammit, I want wights to be scary. -.-
When you have an edition in which levels 1-2 are pretty much intended to be skipped, but 60% of the monsters are CR 3 or lower, you end up with things like this. When you then combine NERF™ monsters with beefed up encounters, you suddenly have 5th level parties facing beholders. Combat then becomes very, very swingy, a game of rocket tag in which the only roll that matters is “initiative.”
Not great for “heroic fantasy” style gameplay. Also not great when the players have six chances to roll higher initiative than the monsters. ;P (Savage Worlds, a game that deliberately has rocket tag combat, also makes you check initiative fresh at the beginning of each round to at least add a little more uncertainty to this.)
Encounter Inflation and XP
The other danger of beefed up encounters, using the default assumptions of XP and level advancement, is that characters get beefed up XP, which in turn makes them advance faster, and the whole thing just explodes geometrically.
This can be avoided by decoupling XP from monster CR (or at least minimizing it), which a lot of my favorite RPGs of the past did by default. The HERO System for instance gave a pretty flat “3 XP per session, +/- 1-2 points for dull/easy or awesome/tough sessions.” You could (and our group often did) go through whole sessions without anyone so much as throwing a punch– and as long as everyone had a good time, you didn’t feel like you’d been shafted in the XP department for it.
The most recent Unearthed Arcana column has an interesting take on this, proposing a “100 XP per level” model in which exploration, interaction, and combat all have 1-4 tiers of difficulty, and any given encounter would give (10 x tier) XP.
I think this is a neat idea, although the first thing I notice is that it flattens XP progression back out. 5E is famously designed so that you fast-forward through levels 1-2, slow down for 3-10, and then pick up a little from 11+. The XP for monsters might still need work tho– it basically boils down to “5 XP per normal monster, 2 XP per minion, 15 XP for something way out of your league.” In the case of my party vs. the not-terribly-scary wights, that would have been 22 base XP, halved for having more than 6 characters, or 11 XP. Was that encounter really worth 1/10 of a level?
The tiers for treasure and interactions are also sorta arbitrary. Tier 4 exploration (worth 40 XP) is the discovery/wresting from monsters a “location of cosmic importance,” for instance. If a campaign starts doing the whole plane-hopping thing later, you’ll be discovering cosmic locations all the time, won’t you?
But the key thing is, with this system, combat is no longer the benchmark for character growth. Like the original “1 GP = 1 XP” model, characters who like to talk, sneak, or otherwise do things besides fight all the things have an alternate progression track, and that makes for a more varied and potentially-interesting game.
So What Does It All Mean?
Based on all this, I think I would prefer:
Beef up monsters a bit. When 1st level lasts a while, a CR 3 monster (like a wight) is scary longer. When the game starts at 3rd level and goes up from there, a CR 3 monster becomes the new baseline. By that reckoning, a lowly goblin should be at least CR 1, while a wight should be something like CR 5. Almost everything in the Monster Manual needs at least +10 hit points and +2 to their attack rolls. 😛
Tweak rests. This post is hella long already, so I will have to save the “rest” issues for another day. Something that will allow for tougher individual encounters, without screwing over the fighter types and/or creating 15 minute workdays is a big challenge.
Non-Combat XP is Best XP. A tier-based system in which each encounter (whether it is a puzzle, a roleplaying moment, a fight, a treasure looted, whatever) gains about the same XP makes for a much more interesting game. Is talking to the shop-owner as much of a learning experience as fighting for your life? Well… maybe not. But if it’s a great moment in the game, it should be more rewarding than just tossing a fireball at 2d6 orcs.
Storm King’s Thunder involves a lot of overland travel. I mean, a lot of overland travel. One reason I created a ginormous continental map for the campaign was to keep track of all the tromping all over everywhere that the adventure calls for (and to have an everywhere to tromp over).
The question then becomes, how best to handle these long hikes in-game. There are a few possibilities:
Travel By Montage
This is the mode I practiced for many years, and it’s not a bad one per se. Essentially I just decide what happens between point A and point B and tell the players. If it’s interesting enough, the journey pauses and a session or two is spent dealing with the narrative pitstop, then off they go again.
There are some downsides to this. First of all, because they’re glossed over, long journeys feel cheap. Telling the players “You leave Argent, ride a boat for six weeks and now you’re in Zan-Xadar, what do you want to do?” makes it seem like Argent and Zan-Xadar might as well be right next to each other. The world “feels” smaller because there is no real marker of time or distance.
(See also the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Gandalf leaves Bag End, travels by montage to Gondor, then travels by montage back to Bag End, all in the course of three minutes. Did that trip take a day? A year? No context.)
Second, it takes away from the organic nature of the world and puts me back in the place of being the one who decides what the characters do on their trip, both of which are against the spirit of My Gamemastering Credo.
Overland Travel: The Mini-Game
The One Ring RPG (or its 5E variant, Adventures in Middle-earth) has a whole subset of rules for overland travel, because let’s face it, “walking” is the primary activity of any character in a book by Tolkien.
Brief summary: using the player map, the group picks a destination and a planned route and each character is assigned a task (Guide, Scout, Hunter, or Lookout). The GM then determines the overall “peril rating” of the journey based on their own map, which will then be used as a modifier for the rest of the trip. The Guide makes an “embarkation roll” which determines the general mood of the trip, which has results ranging from “The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues” to “Paths Both Swift and True.” The higher the peril rating of the journey, the more likely it is to be a rough slog.
Once all this is worked out, you turn to actual encounters along the way. There is a generic table of journey events, but the GM is encouraged to customize it for specific regions or a particular campaign. This part is a fairly standard random encounter table, but built around themes instead of specific events: “Agents of the Enemy” or “The Wonders of Middle-earth” or “A Fine Spot to Camp”, etc. Combat and skill checks within the encounters are often modified by the Embarkation Result or the Peril Rating, and so forth.
Finally, assuming the party survives the encounters, they get to their destination and roll on the “Arrival Table” to see what kind of shape they’re in at the end, ranging from “Weary to the Bones” to “Inspired and Filled with Hope.”
Essentially, the whole journey becomes “a dungeon,” with characters only able to take short rests after each encounter, with something like “A Fine Spot to Camp” providing a rare long rest opportunity. It’s a neat system, somewhere between the Hex Crawls of old-school yore and the Travel By Montage method. But it is… crunchy. A long journey with a lot of encounters will certainly take several sessions, and you’ll have to keep track of the Peril Rating, Embarkation Result, and rest resources along the way. It’s probably not that much more overhead than a dungeon map is, but for some reason, it feels like a lot of work. It might just be a matter of what you’re used to.
What I Have Done So Far
When the campaign transitioned from Keep On the Borderlands to Storm King’s Thunder, that was definite Travel By Montage moment, because the whole nature of the game shifted (and I didn’t have a map ready for travel then anyway). But now that the game is up and running, I have largely been treating Orbis Leonis as a giant hexcrawl.
In order to not have to rigorously define every bloody hex on the map, I make liberal use of random encounter tables, with a core assumption of one random encounter check every four hours during actual game play, and one check per day between sessions, unless the players are somewhere that is already a keyed encounter.
This doesn’t mean there’s going to be a fight every four hours! “Encounters” in this context aren’t necessarily wandering monsters: my tables are also full of things like random terrain bits (“a wooded bog,” “an ancient burial mound,” “an orphaned castle wall of old”), changes in the weather, or other travelers on the road (which get re-rolled when the characters are in the wild, obviously). There are also “no encounter” slots, which is typically what goes into a slot after that encounter has happened once and becomes the norm when I keep rolling an 8 over and over again. XD
Although I was once very sneery about them, I’ve come to love random encounter tables because they make the world feel alive– there’s stuff going on in it and if the players ask for Survival checks to see what sort of things they might run into, I can look at the random encounter table and tell them. I sometimes go as far as to put a whole five-room dungeon on the table, but that’s usually more work than it’s worth because that will naturally be the roll that never comes up.
They’re also great for making places feel different from each other. Argent is mostly wooded hills and has things like cleric-eating owlbears running around in it. Hestelland is a grassy plain and so it has herds of wild horses and packs of worgs. The Silver Spires Mountains are lousy with harpies, gargoyles, giant spiders, and the kobold minions of Cagarax the Red. Add to this the overlay of giants, with their frequency based on where the various giant holdings are, and you get a nicely-varied, very organic-feeling world.
I’m thinking of adding some of the elements of The One Ring‘s Journeys system to my game, without going quite so crunchy– maybe adding “Journey Mood” items to the encounter table for instance, something like “This leg of the journey has been plagued with bad luck. You got mired in a bog, losing an hour, and [random character] slipped on a rock and turned their ankle. Make a Dexterity saving throw to avoid having your movement halved for the next 24 hours.”
Giant Eagles, Pls
Eventually, Storm King’s Thunder has some story items built in to enable characters to travel faster. I’m not going to enumerate them here (because spoilers), but the latter parts of the campaign do require a lot of going from one end of the map to the other, possibly multiple times, and having to play all of those trips out, whether Hex Crawl or Journey Mini-Game style, would get real old after a while. Sorta like the teleporting chain from the original Against the Giants series back in the day, these are plot devices mostly and relatively limited in applicability, so they don’t break the rest of the campaign by making long journeys trivial forever.
The main challenge with these is deciding when to introduce them, and figuring out just how limited they actually are– because once they’re in place, we’re back to Traveling By Montage as a plot element. And after putting so much work into building a large, well-populated world, I don’t want to apply the fast-forward button just yet.