Jul 22 2015

Worldbuilding Wednesday: Baselines

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Sometime a while back I happened upon some articles about worldbuilding with the Monster Manual, and I’ve been doing some thinking about it on my own since then, particularly in regards to the “normal people” of a D&D world.

Somewhere lost in the dim mists of the edition wars, there was an interesting article about the balance of 3.x, and how DCs, skill ranks, and ability scores all worked perfectly to simulate a realistic setting if you assumed that almost every person in the average D&D world is an NPC classed character of level 1-5 or so with ability scores ranging from 8-12. Even the paltry 1d4 damage of a dagger is deadly if you only have 4 hit points, and on that scale is the 5d6 damage of a fireball any more dangerous than the 2d6+3 battleaxe of an orc? Not really. To a low-level 3.x NPC, anything that has a positive attack bonus is likely to kill them with one or two shots.

With that discussion in mind, I started looking at the NPC stat blocks in the 5E Monster Manual to see what I could deduce about the “normal” population. Here’s what I found.

  • Still sucks to be the 99%. Commoners (CR 0) have 10s across the board, 4 hit points, and a +2 proficiency bonus (but no proficiencies). Racial bonuses and any training you wish to give them will make the biggest difference– a racial stat bump and proficiency in a given skill will get them all the way up to the dizzying heights of +3 at something.
  • Constabulary/soldiery quality varies widely. A Guard (CR 1/8) is almost three times as durable as a commoner, with 11 hit points and of course armor that makes them very difficult for the unwashed rabble to hit in the first place– but they are positively outclassed by the Thug (CR 1/2), whose 32 hit points and multiattack with their mace put the guard in big danger if the thug manages to win initiative. The guard still outclasses the Tribal Warrior (CR 1/8) by virtue solely of their better gear, but all three of them look like amateurs compared to the Veteran (CR 3) or the Knight (CR 3). The Gladiator (CR 5) is probably the scariest “normal” opponent, with a sturdy AC 16, 112(!) hit points, and three attacks.
  • As I am a gentleman, sirrah, I beg of you, “Not to the face.” The Noble (CR 1/8) is fragile, with a mere 9 hp and only his parry to protect him. Even surrounded by guards a noble is well-advised to surrender to the Bandit Captain (CR 2) solo, with his three attacks and 65 hit points, much less one who’s surrounded by, y’know, his Bandits (CR 1/8), who are akin to tribal warriors in ferocity. Knights by comparison are much more fearsome, being well protected (AC 18), durable (hp 52), and can probably take the Bandit Captain one-on-one plus is a better leader.
  • No, Mr. Bond, you are only CR 1. The Spy (CR 1) is roughly on par with a 2nd or 3rd level rogue, quite dangerous even to the Thug if they can get in a sneak attack or two, but not much danger to the Veteran in a straight-up fight. The Scout (CR 1/2) is tougher than a Guard or a Bandit but not by much.
  • Using magic is cheating! Spellcasters weird the CR system. The Mage (CR 6) is a 9th level wizard, with 12 AC, 40 hit points, and one cone of cold, making it a glass cannon. The Priest (CL 2) is a 5th level cleric, and the Druid (CR 2) is a 4th level druid. 5E calculates CR almost entirely as a factor of hit points and damage output assuming a solo encounter, so the fragile mage and the not-really-a-combat-specialist priest end up being fairly low on the CR totem pole for the amount of impact they can have as part of a well-crafted team. But then we look at the Archmage (CR 12), who is an 18th level wizard. These crazy-powerful reshapers-of-the-universe who can stop time or grant a wish still don’t rate as powerful as a single storm giant because they “only” have 99 hit points and can only fire off cone of cold three times.

So when you look at these figures for the “baseline” populace, you start to see some trends. First off, hit points are all over the map. An assassin going after the king might have to be able to kill someone with 9 hit points, 52 hit points, or more depending on if that king is a mighty warrior or a feeble aristocrat. Still, it would appear that most members of the “normal” populace have about 5-30 hit points, which means that they’d fare wildly differently against a goblin’s knife but roast equally in the breath weapon of an adult dragon. It’s only when you get to the most battle-hardened NPCs (the Bandit Captain, the Gladiator, the Knight, the Veteran) that facing that kind of threat becomes even feasible, much less having any chance of success.

It also means that an NPC “adventuring party” consisting of a Veteran (fighter), Spy (rogue), Mage (wizard), and Priest (cleric) would be a “hard” encounter for a party of four 8th level PCs and “deadly” for anything lower. If we assume “hard” to be roughly where groups come into parity, that puts a generic group of adventurers solidly in the “heroes of the realm” tier.

If you look at skill levels as measured by proficiency, most skilled experts have about a +3 to +5 with their most tricked-out ability, and somewhere around +1 with everything else due to their ability scores. Few NPCs have saving throws to speak of, maybe a +2 or +3 with their best ability. A few outliers buck these trends, having +6 or up to +10 with one or two things.

Thus, an “average” person in 5E has something like AC 13, 20 hp, +5 with their best skill and +1 with any others, +3 to their best saving throw and +1 with the rest, and can do somewhere around 10 points of damage in a round of combat with their primary attack. In an average-person-vs-average-person fight, whichever one wins initiative and makes better use of situational advantages will probably defeat the other in 2-4 rounds, probably getting fairly beat up themselves in the process.

It also means that player characters start outclassing “average” people somewhere around 3rd level probably… which is just about right.

-The Gneech

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Jul 20 2015

Monster Monday: Tentamort for 5E

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One of my old Fiend Folio favorites, brought to the new edition. The flavor text is not mine, I just did the stat conversion. NOTES: Is it nuts that a CR 2 creature can have 55 hit points? That seems nuts to me. 5E, you have strange math.

Attack of the killer mustache!

Tentamort (CR 2; 450 XP)

Medium monstrosity, unaligned

Armor Class 12
Hit Points 55 (10d8+10)
Speed 10′, climb 10′

Str 15/+2, Dex 14/+2, Con 13/+2, Int 3/-4, Wis 14/+2, Cha 5/-3

Skills Stealth +4
Damage Resistances poison
Condition Immunities prone
Senses darkvision 60′, passive Perception 12

Retraction. The tentamort may compress itself and all of its tentacles into small crevasses in rocky, swampy, or otherwise suitable terrain. Doing this gives it AC 15 and advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks but renders it immoble.

Spider Climb. The tentamort can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.

Tentacle Sever. The tentamort’s tentacles may be targeted in combat. Each one is AC 12, 15 hit points. Damage done to a tentacle counts against the creature’s total hit points. A severed tentacle is destroyed and cannot attack. It regenerates severed tentacles over the course of three days.


Multiattack. The tentamort makes two attacks, one with each tentacle, or two with its poison tentacle against a grappled target.

Grasping Tentacle. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 15′, one creature. Hit: 11 (2d8+2) bludgeoning damage and the target is grappled (escape DC 12) if it is medium or smaller. While grappling the target, the tentamort has advantage on attack rolls against it and can’t use this attack on other targets. The tentamort may attempt to push or pull the target 5′ per turn as a bonus action if it defeats the target in a contested Strength check.

Poison Tentacle. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 15′, one target. Hit: 11 (2d8+2) piercing damage and the target must make a DC 12 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned for ten minutes. While poisoned, the target takes 9 (2d8) damage at the beginning of each of their turns and cannot recover hit points. The target may make a new saving throw to overcome the poison at the end of each of their turns.

(Text from the Pathfinder PRD.)

Tentamorts are eerie ambush predators, preferring to let prey come to them rather than seeking food out, and relying on their excellent senses to warn them of approaching meals. A tentamort possesses several tentacles, most of which are used for locomotion but two of which have evolved for singular purposes in securing food. One of these longer tentacles is covered with tiny, sticky nodules and is capable of constricting prey, while the other ends in a long, thin stinger. The tentamort’s method of attack is to grab its prey with its constricting tentacle and sting the grappled target with the other. Tentamort poison is particularly horrific, as it swiftly liquefies the creature’s internal organs into a rancid slurry the monster can then drink with the same stinger, siphoning out the fluid with foul sucking sounds. Larger creatures often require multiple stings (and multiple failed saving throws against the venom) before they can be fully absorbed by a tentamort. Tentamorts are almost mindless, possessing just enough intellect to make crude animal judgments about peril and food. Once a tentamort has grabbed prey, it tends to focus entirely on that creature, ignoring attacks upon it from other sources as long as its current victim remains a source of nutrition. After a tentamort finishes consuming a creature, all that typically remains are the bones and skin.

A well-fed tentamort uses the hollow corpse of its meal as a sort of incubator for its eggs, injecting the body with a caviar-like mass of black eggs that mature in the rotting carcass for several weeks until a dozen or so hand-sized tentamorts hatch and crawl out of their host’s orifices. Depending upon the availability of other prey, anywhere from one to six of these may survive, feeding on rats and Tiny vermin, until they eventually grow to adulthood. Tentamort young look like dark blue starfish with a single red eye in the center—they do not possess their longer, specialized tentacles until they mature. A young tentamort often attaches itself to a larger predator, clinging to it much the same way a remora clings to a shark, dropping off to feed innocuously on its host’s kills while the creature sleeps.

Some tentamorts grow much larger than their human-sized kin. Known as greater tentamorts, these ogre-sized creatures have at least [18] Hit Dice and are Large sized. Their two specialized tentacles grow to 20 feet long, providing the creature with greater reach than a Large monster normally possesses. Greater tentamorts are never found in groups, for these creatures can only achieve such monstrous size through cannibalism, as if there were some key nutrient in another tentamort’s body that allows them to exceed their typical physical limitations. Some of these creatures have mutations giving them two tentacles and two stingers. Yet the most disturbing quality possessed by these monsters is their unexpected intellect—greater tentamorts are often as intelligent as humans, or more so. They cannot speak, but possess an eerie form of telepathy that works only upon creatures they are in physical contact with—a feature they often use to “chat” with their food as they eat.

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Jul 06 2015

Monster Monday– Goblin Mobbers for 5E

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When goblins go to war, they quickly learn that in a fair fight with, well, just about anyone, they are going to get their clocks cleaned. So obviously the answer is to never fight fair! To that end, goblins organize in small mobs (they’re too rowdy and undisciplined to be properly called a “squad”), with each mob going after a single combatant or group of combatants.

Within a mob, most members are pretty ordinary goblins, of the variety found on page 166 of the Monster Manual. However, there are some other specialized mobbers that also show up, especially once goblins are seriously on the march.

Goblin Trappers

These annoying pests hurl a bag of wet and sticky goo made from monstrous spider glands and web fibers that act similarly to tanglefoot bags at their foes, so that their allies can then attack at range with impunity.

Goblin Trapper (CR 1/4; 50 XP)

Small humanoid (goblinoid), neutral evil
Armor Class 13 (leather armor)
Hit Points 7 (2d6)
Speed 30′

Str 8/-1   Dex 14/+2   Con 10/+0
Int 10/+0   Wis 8/-1   Cha 8/-1

Skills Stealth +4
Senses darkvision 60′, passive Perception 9
Languages Common, Goblin

Nimble Escape. The goblin can take the Disengage or Hide action as a bonus action on each of its turns.

Sticky Goo (Recharge 5-6). Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 30’/60′., one creature. Hit: The target is restrained by the sticky goo. As an action, the restrained target can make a DC 12 Strength check, tearing free of the goo on a success. The goo can also be attacked and destroyed (AC 10; hp 5; vulnerability to fire damage, immunity to bludgeoning, poison, and psychic damage).
Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5′, one target. Hit: 7 (1d8+2) slashing damage, or 5 (1d6+2) slashing damage if used one-handed.
Shortbow. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 80’/320′, one target. Hit: 5 (1d6+2) piercing damage.

Fling the Goo! If the goblin trapper’s Sticky Goo ability is available, the goblin may use it as a reaction on any creature that moves within 30′ of it.

Tactics: A goblin mob that has trappers will let them act first (using a Delay action if necessary), preferably throwing their pots of goo from ambush. This in turn sets up the lobbers (see below) to fling their own pots, and then the regular goblin soldiers to rush in and finish the job. The goblin trapper avoids melee if at all possible, hanging back and plinking away with its bow while scrambling to get another pot of goo ready to fling.

Goblin Lobber

This annoying little grub has a backpack full of alchemist fire bombs and flings them as fast as it can prime and light them. However, not being the brightest of creatures, they have more than once been known to accidentally blow themselves up.

Goblin Lobber (CR 1/4; 50 XP)

Small humanoid (goblinoid), neutral evil
Armor Class 13 (leather armor)
Hit Points 7 (2d6)
Speed 30′

Str 8/-1   Dex 14/+2   Con 10/+0
Int 10/+0   Wis 8/-1   Cha 8/-1

Skills Stealth +4
Senses darkvision 60′, passive Perception 9
Languages Common, Goblin

Nimble Escape. The goblin can take the Disengage or Hide action as a bonus action on each of its turns.
Oops. If a goblin lobber is blinded, frightened, incapacitated, or knocked prone, it accidentally immolates itself, doing 7 (2d6) fire damage to itself and every creature in its space, and doing 3 (1d6) fire damage to every creature within 5′ of it.

Fire Bomb (Recharge 5-6). The lobber flings a fire bomb at a designated spot within 60′ of itself. All creatures in a 5′ sphere centered on that spot must make a DC 12 Dexterity saving throw, taking 7 (2d6) fire damage on a failure, or half that amount on a success. All creatures within an additional 5′ radius of that spot take 3 (1d6) damage (no saving throw). The fire spreads around corners and ignites flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried. If a character is restrained by a goblin trapper’s goo, that goo takes the fire damage as well.
Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5′, one target. Hit: 7 (1d8+2) slashing damage, or 5 (1d6+2) slashing damage if used one-handed.
Shortbow. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 80’/320′, one target. Hit: 5 (1d6+2) piercing damage.

Out With a Bang! When the lobber is reduced to 0 hit points, it may choose to set off a fire bomb with its dying breath as a reaction, doing 7 (2d6) damage to itself and every creature in its space, and doing 3 (1d6) fire damage to every creature within 5′ of it.

Tactics: The lobber will wait for a trapper to successfully trap someone, then throw its fire bomb at that creature, hoping to catch as many targets in its blast as possible. Like the trapper, the lobber will avoid melee, hiding behind cover if it can in order to prepare its next bomb. Lobbers don’t always have the best fire discipline, and may happily catch their own allies in the blast if it means hitting more enemies in the process.

Goblin Mob Encounter Templates

Attack Mob (875 XP encounter budget, 350 XP award)
This is a fairly typical hit squad, often sent with orders to take out a specific target (such as the party cleric or spellcaster). Once the objective is complete, the mob will scatter.

  • 2 Goblin Trappers (CR 1/2; 50 XP each): Attack first, immobilizing objective, then retreat with Nimble Escape
  • 1 Goblin Lobber (CR 1/2; 50 XP): Fling their bombs at the target, then retreat with Nimble Escape
  • 4 Goblins (CR 1/2; 50 XP each): Surround and attack the target.

Harassment’R’Us (600 XP encounter budget, 300 XP award)
These jerks don’t necessarily want to kill their foes (although they probably wouldn’t mind), so much as to slow them up and waste their time, or soften them up for a bigger fight to come.

  • 3 Goblin Trappers (CR 1/2; 50 XP each): Attempt to immobilize any foes who appear to be melee specialists
  • 3 Goblins (CR 1/2; 50 XP each): Attack with bows, preferably from cover to snipe with Nimble Escape, targeting any spellcasters or ranged specialists

Grappers’s Slappers (2,650 XP encounter budget, 1,060 XP award)
Grapper is a notorious bugbear mercenary, hiring himself and his squad of obnoxious little brutes to thieves’ guilds, orc armies, drow spies, or anyone else willing to pay the price. Although perfectly capable of stand-up fighting, their inclination is more towards commando-style missions to assassinate enemy leaders, destroying fortifications, or even just wanton mayhem. Their tactics depend on their goals, but generally Grapper prefers to sneak around and come at the target from the back in order to gain a surprise attack, while sending his Slappers to make a frontal assault or attack from ambush. Grapper also makes a great recurring villain, so feel free to assume that with time and cash he can recruit any other support he might need.

  • Grapper (Bugbear Chief, MM p. 33, CR 3; 700 XP):
  • 2 Goblin Lobbers OR 2 Goblin Trappers (CR 1/2; 50 XP each)
  • 4 Goblins (CR 1/2; 50 XP each)
  • -The Gneech

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Jun 29 2015

Monster Monday– Burning Skeleton for 5E

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We Are Legion by zilla774
We Are Legion by zilla774

An animated skeleton wreathed in hellfire and pungent black smoke, this horrific monster seeks to feed all living things to the eternal flames which consume it.

Burning Skeleton (CR 1; 200 XP)

Medium undead, neutral evil
Armor Class 15 (natural armor)
Hit Points 22 (5d8)
Speed 30′

Str 12/+1   Dex 16/+3   Con 11/+0
Int 3/-4   Wis 10/+0   Cha 4/-3

Damage Vulnerabilities cold, bludgeoning
Damage Resistances piercing and slashing from nonmagical weapons
Damage Immunities fire, poison
Condition Immunities poisoned, exhaustion
Senses darkvision 60′, passive Perception 10
Languages understands Common but can’t speak

Heated Body. A creature that touches the skeleton or hits it with a melee attack while within 5′ of it takes 3 (1d6) fire damage.
Death Blast. When a flaming skeleton is reduced to 0 hp, it explodes in a fiery blast, doing 3 (1d6) fire damage to every creature within 5′ of it.

Multiattack. The skeleton makes two attacks with its flaming scimitar or its flame orb, or one attack with each.
Flaming Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5′, one target. Hit: 3 (1d4+1) slashing damage plus 3 (1d6) fire damage.
Flame Orb. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 30’/100′, one target. Hit: 7 (2d6) fire damage.

Designer Notes

It’s no secret that I love, love, love Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, but like everything it’s not without its flaws– mostly in the encounter and monster variety area, which in my opinion has needlessly abandoned some of the few really good ideas from 4E. Fortunately, these are easily fixable without messing around with the rules, it’s just a matter of building the content to fill the gaps.

One notable thing that’s missing in a big way is ranged threats to mix in to encounters. Most monsters are melee, melee, melee, with maybe a crossbow added at the bottom as an afterthought, and low-level corporeal undead are particularly egregious in this regard. So here’s something to correct that: meant to be primarily a support monster for a larger group, the burning skeleton hangs back and lobs fire orbs into the fray, only engaging in melee when forced to, and then likely to go out with a bang.

Mechanically, it’s mostly a reskinned fire snake with skeleton traits added.

I have more to say on the subject of encounter and monster design in 5E, which is for another post.

-The Gneech

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Nov 21 2014

Killing 4E and Taking Its Stuff

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Coming Home to D&D

It’s no secret that I like D&D 5E. I mean, I really, really like it. I had stated at the time 4E came out that I wanted the new edition to be basically a D&D version of Star Wars Saga Edition, and while I would have liked that, I actually like 5E better in almost every way. It’s not perfect, probably no system can be, but it is still mighty good. Had 5E been what was released in 2008, I am pretty certain there would not have been the Edition Wars, and probably no Pathfinder Roleplaying Game either, for better or worse.

It’s also no secret that I disliked D&D 4e. I mean, I really, really disliked it. All of that said, mechanically and conceptually, there is a fair amount of “the good bits” of 4E still lurking in 5E, maybe more than some people would like to admit. Just as the doom of 4E was foretold in the latter days of 3.5, the doom of 5E was foretold in the latter days of 4E. The only difference is that in the latter days of 4E, a lot fewer people were paying attention, myself included.

I freely admit that I completely ignored the playtest. I am one of those people who felt they’d been “fired as a fan” by WotC, and as such, I simply let them go their own way while I went mine. I was, if not entirely happy with Pathfinder, at least comfortable enough to be getting on, and that worked. (My attempts to move to other systems such as Savage Worlds notwithstanding.) So I missed the “Essentials” phase of 4E, which is where the shifts that led to 5E began, and more importantly I missed the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, which seems to be where the real sea-change had finally appeared.

NCG is thoroughly a 4E book, make no mistake, with all the random disassociated powers and dubstep-colored explodey art you would expect from such a thing. But it also includes campaign-specific Character Themes (which would become 5E‘s Backgrounds) and a strong emphasis on long-term story and away from a long string of perfectly-balanced set piece encounters. In the entire book, there is not a single battle-map to be found. Really, with just a few cosmetic changes in art design and tone (and, y’know, tossing out the 4E mechanical artifacts), NCG is practically a 5E book already.

(Also, if you intend to run the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the 5E Starter Set, it makes a great long-term campaign sourcebook. I’m not using it straight for my own campaign, preferring my own homebrew to the thrice-exploded Forgotten Realms, but I am liberally raiding it for good bits.)

Looting the Body

So, now that 4E is a smoking crater safely behind us, what exactly did 5E take from it, and what is there still worth the taking?

Well, as mentioned, Backgrounds are an implementation of 4E‘s Character Themes, providing a small mechanical benefit for a character’s origin. They call it a “feature” instead of a “power,” which is a welcome name change in my opinion– one of the worst things about 4E was the whole “ADEU” (At-Will/Daily/Encounter/Utility Power) framework, which led to the whole “I’ve used up all my powers, I guess I’ll just attack” malaise that made 4E combat such a tedious grind. [1]

Of course, if you really look at it, the ADEU model is still there. Spell slots are “Daily Powers,” always have been. Any class feature that is expended and recovered after “a short or long rest” is an “Encounter Power” by a different name, and so forth. But it’s heavily buried and disguised, to keep people from staring at their power cards and thinking of them as “These are the things I can do.”

What I like about these things being called “features” instead of being called “powers” is that they blend in. They become part of your character’s background, an attribute they have just like their class or race, something they can go to if desired, but not their defining thing. “Power” implies that it’s something you do– an action you would take, probably in combat. “Feature” is just something you have that other people might not. And as a “feature,” there’s no minimum power level it has to have in order to feel justified. Rogues and Bards get to double their proficiency bonus for certain things, due to their Expertise. Calling that a “power” seems pretty grandiose, doesn’t it? But yes, it’s certainly a “feature.”

Here There Be Monsters

The one thing I really liked in 4E as presented, was the way it handled monsters. The math was forever being reshuffled, alas, but in principle at least there was a basic template for what the approximate stats of a monster should be for a given role at a given threat level, which you could then customize with certain signature abilities. A CR 1 kobold archer and a CR 1 goblin archer had almost the same stat block, except that kobolds where “shifty” (which enabled them to have extra movement) while goblins… uh… did something goblinish that I forget off the top of my head.

I used this to great effect in my one actual attempt to run 4E by having 1st level PCs attacked by a swarm of sea-devils (which were mechanically re-skinned kobolds with the blood frenzy racial feature) supported by harpies (the same kobolds with flight and luring song).

Does 5E share this flexibility? Well, the official verdict is still out until the DMG is released and its chapter on monster creation devoured by the masses. However, based just on what’s in the Monster Manual, I’m going to say “Yes.” For my Silver Coast game I have already created a goblin shaman by taking the Acolyte on p. 342, making him size Small and giving him the Nimble Escape racial feature, and created an undead barbarian king (spoiler, my players, there’s one of those floating around!) by adding some barbarian class features to a wight.

5E doesn’t have Minion rules per se, but it doesn’t really need them, either. To change the danger level of a given creature, the easiest way is to tweak its hit points. A grovelly swarm of kobold bootlickers might have only 2 hit points each, but their boss is a big (reptile) dog, having a whole 10. He’s still CR 1/8 just like the rest of them, but he’s a lot less likely to be one-punched, even by a PC. If you want a really tough kobold? Take the CR 5 Gladiator on p. 346, make him size Small, give him Sunlight Sensitivity and Pack Tactics. Even the party fighter will notice when a kobold spears him for 2d8+4 damage.

Certainly, any game system can do re-skinning and most of them do to at least some extent. But 5E, like 4E before it, has it “baked in” to the monster design ethos in a way that 3.x/Pathfinder didn’t, and it really does make the DM’s life much, much easier. There aren’t different types of hit dice based on what genus your monster comes from (undead get d12, fey get d6, or whatever the numbers were, I forget now), you don’t have to do a lot of agonizing about whether swapping a power will shoot the CR way out of your encounter budget, etc. [2]

What Say Ye?

What do you think? What was good about 4E that’s worth salvaging in 5E? How are the systems similar? Different? I’m very curious to hear with other gamers have to say on the topic.

-The Gneech

[1] It’s ironic, 4E actually had a brilliant set of mechanics for off-the-cuff stunts, in the form of the famous “Page 42,” but in practice it seems most people rarely used it, instead spending the whole combat trying to figure out which power to use this turn. But it’s all about presentation: players’ activities are molded by what the rules tell them. Thus, for maximum player creativity, you need to have minimum rules.

[2] With bounded accuracy, the impact of CR is greatly diminished anyway. Depending on the skill of the players and the whims of the dice, lower-level baddies can still be a problem, while higher-level baddies can unexpectedly be a pushover. A surprise round, a good initiative roll, and the number of foes you’re facing are much bigger factors in how any given fight will play out than the individual CR and stats of a single opponent, generally speaking.

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Nov 12 2014

Neverwinter: Being Reliably As Good As It Needs to Be (But No Better)

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It’s hardly a secret that I’m bearish on MMOs generally. I like the concept of them, but I don’t like the execution of the MMO genre as it’s come down through the years. The one MMO that I really got deeply into for a long time was Lord of the Rings Online, and that was mainly because I am such a Tolkien nerd, and for many years they really did a good job of embodying the lore. Also, for a brief shining moment, there was a really strong social aspect between the Turbine forums, the player blogs, and a group of folks within the in-game kinship that I really clicked with, which led to the whole “Life of a Bounder” series. And LotRO has a really, really awesome “cosmetic” system, which I have never seen matched in any other game. Assuming you can find an outfit you like (and there are babillions to choose from), you simply put that into your character’s cosmetic tab and you’re done forever.

But that was literally years ago now, which somehow seems strange to say. The group fell apart, the gameplay got scrambled and scrambled again by rules changes, the quality of the storyline faltered, and eventually I just had enough. My highest level character is mired in Rohan, needing to get through “epic battle” story quests in order to progress, and I just can’t bring myself to continue. As for the alts… I don’t think they’ll ever see the light of day again. Not if it means having to go through Rohan… again.

So it was that I started casting around for something else to play in my off-hours. I remembered that I’d flirted with Neverwinter a bit, basically getting as far as “making a character and getting out of the tutorial,” and inspired by the fun I’d been having with D&D 5E decided what the heck, give it a shot. In the intervening weeks I’ve managed to get Akikki, my tiny little half-elf Great Weapon Fighter, up to 52nd? 53rd? level, out of 60. (Yes, Akikki is basically Elsa from my 5E game; what can I say, it’s a character I’ve been wanting to play for a while.)

My thoughts? Well to put it bluntly, Neverwinter is just exactly as good as it needs to be… but unfortunately, no better than that. Gameplay-wise, it’s barely distinguishable from Everquest 2, Age of Conan, or a gajillion others. The quests are always incredibly linear and straightforward: “Follow an S-shaped path through the cave/swamp/forest/castle, fight three monsters, fight four monsters, fight three monsters, fight three monsters with a ringer, fight three monsters, fight the boss who keeps generating adds unless you can lure the boss out of his room.” Every once in a while you might find a little jumping puzzle, or an extra non-plot encounter tucked into a corner… once in a rare blue moon you’ll even find a way to approach the boss from an unexpected direction, but that usually seems to be an oversight on the map-designers’ part.

I will say about Neverwinter that it is a very good representation of the 4E Forgotten Realms setting… for better or worse. If you think the spellplague was cool, think floating islands everywhere is what D&D always needed, and you like tieflings and dragonborn all over the place, you’ll feel right at home. For myself I have no real attachment to FR, being more of a Greyhawk fan, but I wasn’t keen on 4E generally and so that aspect of the game took some getting over. It’s not really accurate to say that it’s not D&D, so much as it feels like there’s a lot of junk between me and the D&D that I have to get through. Everyone who said that 4E felt like a MMO was absolutely right: specifically, it felt like this MMO, for better or worse.

There are nuggets of joy to be found in the game, for all that. At the player auction house, one of the random bits of NPC dialogue is the auctioneer expressing doubt that an item being put up for auction really is “the Head of Vecna,” for example. There are bits of deep D&D geekery and that occasional touch of trippy dorkiness scattered across the landscape, and those are worth their weight in gold.

Speaking of gold, currency is a strange beast in this game. Although you’re constantly collecting gold pieces, there’s almost nothing to spend them on, particularly once you’ve bought a horse and hired a companion. Anything and everything worth buying (including stuff at the auction house) is bought with “astral diamonds,” an in-game currency that you collect by doing daily quests. And the prices are nuts. I have, now that I’m 52nd level, something like 16,000 astral diamonds. A single piece of cosmetic clothing often sells for something like 300,000. To alter the appearance of your current armor to look like that favorite piece sitting in your vault (the closest thing the game has to a proper cosmetic system) usually costs 20,000+.

What the heck.

I’d think this was a FTP-grab for cash, except that you can’t buy astral diamonds for real world cash. Really more than anything it feels like devs saying “We don’t want you to have nice things.” It may be that I’m missing something somewhere– this game has tons and tons of subsystems and no meaningful help dialog anywhere– but if so I have no idea what it might be.

Still, after all that, Neverwinter does have one really neat thing, and that’s the Foundry.

Intended to be a spiritual successor to Neverwinter Nights, with its DM’s Toolkit and tons of readily-downloadable user-generated content, Neverwinter‘s Foundry enables you to create your own dungeons, including quest goals, dialogue trees, and all sorts of game assets for locations and foes. Foundry-created quests are shared within the game at “Adventurers’ Job Boards” and the like, and since these are the quests that provide astral diamonds, there is plenty of incentive to go on them. They scale automatically with level, so if you wanted, you could go all the way from the game start to the level cap playing just Foundry quests and skip the solo campaign all together.

Given the linear nature of the solo campaign, that might not be such a bad choice, either. Being user-generated content, the Foundry quests are very hit-and-miss, often amateurish or filled with a junior-high aesthetic of what would be a cool dungeon (I can’t tell you the number of times Akikki has been hit on by other women because the quest designer just assumed that all player characters were male). On the other hand, many of them are very creative and entertaining, such as the quest in which my character sat down for a game of Call of Cthulhu with a gnome, an elf, and an ogre as the other players. If you play a lot of Forge quests (as I have), you’ll find yourself out-leveling the solo campaign pretty quickly. That’s not really a problem, as the Forge quests scale to your level on-the-fly, so you can always find a challenge. It just means that when you go back to the solo campaign, you might find yourself yawning as you wade through the requisite four-monsters-then-three-monsters-then-four dungeons.

I have not really done much group stuff in Neverwinter yet, so I can’t really say how well that works. There is an easy-to-use dungeon queue, and there are “open tap” landscape events (such as the current massive dragon encounters all over the map) where you can just jump in and go to town if you happen to be there at the right time, and those have been fun. Each zone of the game also has a capstone dungeon, of which I’ve done exactly none, but might like to go back and do once I’ve finished the current solo campaign. I don’t know if those scale or not, but they recommend 4-6 players for all of them, regardless of level. I’ll have to see what they have to offer.

-The Gneech

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