Nov 16 2016

Fantasy Novel vs. D&D Campaign

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When I started trying to brainstorm for NaNoWriMo this year, I had nothing to go on. Months of shopping Sky Pirates of Calypsitania around to agents had received mostly chirping crickets, with the occasional “You’re a good writer, but… nah.” On the advice of J.M. Frey, I decided to write a more “mainstream fantasy” novel that would help me get my foot in the door, figuring that once I had a body of work, it would be easier to get people to buy in to other stuff.

But again, what to write? I can craft prose all day, but creating a compelling story is much tougher. Finally, with nothing else to work with, I said, “Fine! I’m taking some of my unplayed RPG characters, tossing them into a scenario, and writing it as a book!”

On the good side, it definitely got me rolling. I have some protagonists and a broad story arc, and that’s all good. However, there is one big problem with this framework, which is: most RPG campaigns, even good ones, tend to be a never-ending string of fights. Whether it’s orcs or stormtroopers, the “filler” of an RPG campaign is generally going to be battles with monsters… which can make for dull reading.

Yes, the blow-by-blow of a tense action scene can be exciting. Bilbo’s encounters with trolls, goblins, spiders and dragon (and later Frodo’s encounters with ringwraiths, orcs, trolls, more orcs, more ringwraiths, more orcs, easterlings on oliphaunts, more orcs, a giant spider, still more orcs, and a giant pit of lava) are iconic. But what really makes a battle interesting is not who slashed what or cleft the other in twain– it’s what changes as a result of the battle.

And that’s where the neverending string of fights in a D&D game fall down as fodder for a novel. As a rule, they don’t change anything, other than to nibble away at resources. In a novel, the “five rooms full of orcs” at the front of the level that lead up to the “boss” at the end would lose readers after the second fight. “We’ve seen this already!” would be the cry of the frustrated reader. “Get on with it!” (And they’d be perfectly right to do so.) The first fight with orcs is interesting, because it’s new, which means it changes things. The fight with the boss at the end is interesting, for the same reason. (And presumably the boss has some kind of plot coupon or other thing to make them worth fighting in the first place on top of that.) The stuff in the middle? Gets mercilessly summarized unless and until it makes an impact.

So this is where my NaNoWriMo project actually hits an uphill climb: I have more or less completed act one, with the hero about to set off on her journey with her new companions. While I have the next big change– the “boss” of the next section so to speak– worked out, I need to figure out interesting and relevant things that will take the character from here to there. In a D&D game, this would be an overland journey with some random encounters, ending in a dungeon complex, easy peasy. For a book? It has to matter, or be cut. And that’s the tough part.

-The Gneech

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Sep 29 2016

Whither the Warlord?

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Faramir and Boromir wonder WTF is that?

For all I bag on 4E, it did have some cool stuff in it, and one of the coolest things was the Warlord class… which is conspicuously absent from 5E. I mean, it’s kinda-sorta there, in the Battlemaster Fighter, or possibly in a Valor Bard, but neither of those are really as robust as the Warlord was. Some of that may be intentional as part of the “We’re not with that guy!” treatment of 4E generally, but I think a big chunk of it is just a matter of focus. The Warlord class was really tied into the “miniatures skirmishing with a roleplaying game grafted on” nature of 4E, and with 5E‘s push to return to “theater of the mind” style gaming, they have a tougher time finding a place.

In short, Warlords as presented in 4E made combat crunchier, which is anathema to the 5E style. The question of whether there is a 5E-friendly way to make a Warlord is one that’s been discussed at length in the community. I think it could be done, and I think that the Battlemaster Fighter probably fills a good 65-75% of the gap, but I’d really like to see it fleshed out.

So what is a Warlord, exactly? Well, they’re a support class, who buff, heal, and provide tactical options for the rest of their team, but without using spells to do it (and without the religious baggage of the Cleric or Paladin, or the fantasyland rockstar thing that Bards have going on). Frankly, I always thought “Captain” would be a better name; in various incarnations across other games they’ve also been called “Nobles,” “Leaders,” “Standard Bearers,” etc.

In D&D the first thing that looks kinda like a Warlord– assuming you don’t just take it as read that every fighter above 9th level is one thanks to old-school level titles– is AD&D‘s Cavalier class, which was kind of a poor man’s Paladin. (Ironically, Paladin was revised to be a subclass of Cavalier when it came out) The Cavalier was intended to be a mounted warrior first and foremost (hence the name) and had all kinds of mount-related stuff going on, but they also provided a few team buffs, such as immunity to fear.

The real antecedent to the Warlord, however, came out in the Miniatures Handbook under the name Marshal. That class had auras (an extraordinary ability in 3.x/PF terms, and therefore explicitly not magical) that added various bonuses to allies within a small radius and could grant actions to other members of the party. They couldn’t do any healing, but by buffing party AC and hit points, they effectively “pre-healed” their allies. This was followed by the Noble in Star Wars Saga Edition, who combined some of the Marshal’s buffs with the Bard’s debuffs, basically rolling all the “leader” abilities into a single (again, non-magical) class.

Why is the emphasis on not being magical important? Well, that’s pretty much the appeal of the Warlord class when you get down to it. The Warlord is an inspiring leader, a masterful tactician, or even just the grumpy drill sergeant who tells you to rub some dirt on it and get back into the fight. Basically, it’s the Captain America class for D&D. This is both its appeal and its drawback, unfortunately. D&D already has a class for that role, to wit, the Paladin.

But the Paladin has baggage. Oh so much baggage. From idiot players who gave Paladins the reputation of being Lawful Stupid, to asshole DMs who create their whole campaigns around putting Paladins into no-win situations and then gleefully stripping their powers because they couldn’t find a lawful good way to prevent the demon-possessed king from slaughtering children in the first round of combat (or whatever), Paladins have a long history of being a problem class. On top of which, they have a “knights templar” semi-religious overlay which just doesn’t suit every heroic leader. Just like Robin Hood never cast a spell, Boromir never went searching for the Holy Grail.

So yeah, as far as I’m concerned the Warlord absolutely has a place in D&D as an archetype and as a class (or sub-class), although as I say I still prefer the name “Captain.” 😉 And it needs to be a little more interesting than the “+1d6 to do a not-attack thing” model of the Battlemaster. What that might be, while still fitting in the 5E mold, I’m not sure. I’m still working on that idea.

-The Gneech

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Sep 21 2016

Whither the Ranger?

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Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas wonder WTF is this.

Once upon a time, I wondered Whither the Rogue? [1] Today I’d like to talk about the rogue’s more fighterey-wildernessey brother, the ranger. [2]

Like the rogue, the ranger has been around since before D&D was D&D (first appearing in Strategic Review, which in gaming terms is like saying it appeared in the Upanishads). My own experience with the ranger didn’t come until AD&D, in which they were a slightly-more-interesting fighter with 2d8 hp at first level for no apparent reason, got bonuses to fight all “giant class” humanoids (which, for some peculiar reason, basically meant all humanoids including kobolds), and had vague talk of an animal companion who would wander around somewhere in the general vicinity of the party and maybe kill some monsters for you by accident.

But from the beginning, rangers have had a strange place in the game. Are they Aragorn? Are they Robin Hood? Grizzly Adams? What the heck is a bear doing wandering around the Tomb of Horrors, anyway???

For rangers to work thematically, you have to have a campaign in which tromping around the wilderness is a thing. For them to work mechanically, you have to have a campaign in which whatever the ranger’s enemy-of-choice is a thing. And that opens a whole other can of worms. D&D has always had a very uncomfortable “racial enemies” thing going on, where dwarves are better at killing orcs because reasons, that kind of thing. The ranger makes that into a whole feature of a person’s profession. Originally it was simply a matter of experience: if you’re defending the frontiers of human civilization, the reasoning goes, you will fight a lot of goblins/orcs/kobolds/giants, and thus know how it’s done. Later, in an effort to deal with the “your campaign might be at sea or underground instead of the forest” problem, your choices were expanded. These days, rangers are just randomly better at killing… something. You pick.

(This is one of those rare occasions where 4E actually did something better than other editions. 4E rangers mark a target, and everyone in the fight has a chance to “cash in” on that. In other words, your “favored enemy” is whichever one you’re focusing on right now– usually the biggest and baddest thing in the room. Not that 4E rangers didn’t have other problems. Everything in 4E had problems. :P)

But this weird space that rangers inhabit in the context of D&D has made them suffer a never-ending stream of tweaks, revisions, and re-imaginings, because while everyone has a vague idea of what rangers should be like (Crocodile Dundee is totally a ranger, for instance), nailing down the specifics gets really tricky.

Do rangers have spells? Aragorn was famously a healer, but that was because Middle-earth has a divine-right monarchy thing going on. None of the other Dunedain could do that, so it hardly seems a “class feature,” and Robin Hood never so much as said “bippity boppity boo.” Crocodile Dundee can hypnotize kangaroos and has preternatural senses, does that count?

Oh, and what about fighting methods? Aragorn used a greatsword and eventually rode into battle in heavy armor. Robin was the greatest archer in England. Where did the two weapons thing come from? Legolas wielded a pair of long knives in melee, but was he a ranger, a fighter, or a rogue? Is two-weapon fighting just there to make Drizzt work?

Oh yeah, Drizzt. There’s another another can of worms. For those who don’t know (and I’m only barely aware of him myself), Drizzt is a rare (for sufficient values of rare) good drow ranger, who appeared in Forgotten Realms novels in the late ’80s and became a breakout character in the ’90s when Gothy Angst was at its height. Mechanically he was a 2E ranger who wielded two scimitars thanks to a fighter splatbook ability. Which was fine, except that with his crazy popularity, suddenly the Drizzt tail began to wag the ranger dog. In every edition since, the first thing that devs seemed to look at when making the ranger was “Does it look like Drizzt?”

Finally, we come to 5E, in which ranger wins the award for “Most Dysfunctional Right Out the Gate” from the start hands down. And really the 5E ranger is not that bad, it’s just… lackluster. And stuck in the past, in that it doesn’t model “what rangers should do,” so much as “what rangers looked like in earlier editions of D&D.” You get a smattering of fighter stuff, a smaller smattering of rogue stuff, and you’re back to trying to guess what is the right “favored terrain” and “favored enemy” for the campaign (or alternatively, forcing the DM to put whatever you’ve favored in). If you take on an animal companion, you have to use your own bonus action to make it do anything as part of the “action economy” (i.e., so that you don’t effectively get two turns per round for everyone else’s one turn). If you forego the animal companion and choose the “hunter” archetype, you essentially get to choose from a random set of combat feats.

Honestly, for almost everything that rangers are supposed to do? In 5E there’s probably a better way of doing it. Do you want to be a mobile archer, running around the field peppering your foes with arrows? Take two levels of rogue (for Cunning Action) with Survival as one of your expertise choices, and then Champion fighter with the archery style forever. Do you want to be a mystical protector of the wild? A Totem Warrior barbarian, Oath of the Ancient paladin, or any flavor of druid is probably closer to the mark. The only thing the 5E ranger can do that the other classes can’t, really, is have a pet, and they’re not real good at that.

This situation has led to WotC floating multiple fixes via its Unearthed Arcana articles, and they are better…ish, but they’re mostly patches to buff math holes rather than the serious rethink that the class really needs, and worse they still are focused on “How do we keep the companion from breaking the action economy?” and “Does it look like Drizzt?” more than “Does this look, feel, and act like a ranger should, while sticking to the ease of play and flexibility that 5E excels at?” (To which I would say the answer is “Not really.”)

So, yeah. Sorry rangers, back to the wilds for you.

-The Gneech

[1] In the time since then, Tribality has posted an in-depth series tracking the rogue’s development from proto-D&D days (Supplement I: Greyhawk, baby!) through 5E, which you can read here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

[2] You guessed it, Tribality did a series of articles about them too, and its a doozy. Vis.:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

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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

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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

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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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