Sep 08 2020

Being a Player or a DM in D&D

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

-The Gneech

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Aug 27 2020

Shady the Bard, Revisited

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

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

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

—–

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

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

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

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

*Sneak attack can only apply once per turn.

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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Aug 11 2020

Creating Five Star Adventures

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I’ve been running a somewhat-modified Tomb of Annihilation lately, and while my players seem to be having a good time, I must admit that I’m not quite feeling the connection with it that I would like. Perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the group has had some seriously bad luck with navigation rolls and so keeps getting lost in the jungle, the game largely feels to me like a string of random fights, with little or no through-line of story or character development, which are famously the parts of any game that I’m the most interested in.

While I was looking for ways to address this for my next session, I happened across this video from Runesmith, in which he enumerates “five things an adventure should have.” What immediately struck me is that I’ve seen this concept before: the first time was in West End Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, way back in 1987, but it’s also a core conceit of the Five Room Dungeon concept. Some of the specific bullet points of the five items vary, however, and if we map them to Dungeons & Dragons‘s “Three Pillars of Adventure” (Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat), we get…

Star Wars RPG Five Room Dungeon Runesmith
  1. Firefight (C)
  2. Ship Combat (C)
  3. Chase (E/C)
  4. NPC Interaction (S)
  5. Problem-Solving (E)
  1. Entrance/Guardian (E/S/C)
  2. Puzzle/RP Challenge (E or S)
  3. Trick/Setback (E or S)
  4. Climax/Big Battle (S or C)
  5. Reward/Revelation/Twist (E/S)
  1. Go Somewhere Cool (E)
  2. Talk to Someone Interesting (S)
  3. Learn Something New (E/S)
  4. Fight Something (C)
  5. Get a Reward (E)

Why five? First, it’s complex enough to be meaty without being so complex that it bogs down in detail or analysis paralysis. Second, it nicely maps to the familiar five-act story structure of setup > rising action > complication > climax > denouement. Finally, it’s a handy pocket size. The Star Wars example doesn’t quite map to the other two—”firefight,” “ship combat,” and “chase” are all more-or-less specific flavors of “fight something”—but the Star Wars setting, with its alien creatures and exotic worlds, has “go somewhere cool” baked into it universe design assumptions (and the inherent reward of any adventure assumed to be “victory for the Alliance”).

Looking at my Tomb of Annihilation game, I actually think that most of the individual sessions have hit the five points fairly consistently: the Burning Coast is an exciting region with dangers and wonders galore, there have been plenty of colorful NPCs, and so on. It has leaned a little heavily on the combat and exploration, but I think the point that may be falling down is rewards. Not just in terms of treasure (because there hasn’t been much, but in this setting gold and such is largely irrelevant), but in terms of the inherent reward of “moving the story forward.” The party came to the Burning Coast to find (and hopefully end) the Wasting Curse, and so far they’ve gone dino racing, rowed up the Amazon Soshenstar River, and now they’ve gotten entangled with the troubles of a lizardfolk village that may or may not have anything to do with the Big Problem. The barbarian, of all people, is wondering “Are we getting anywhere?” and maybe he has a point.

With this in mind, I think I’m going to remix a few of the elements of the next session to tie them more closely to the Big Problem, but more importantly, to show the players that it’s tied to the Big Problem. In an adventure where “loot” is not a metric, “plot coupons” are the actual reward, and I think maybe I’ve been too stingy with those. So I will address that.

-The Gneech

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Oct 18 2018

D&D Weather

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Angband, by Angus Mcbride, or, A Million Gazillion Orcs

Sunny days and crisp weather have arrived here, and that always puts Dungeons and Dragons on my brain– because way back in 1983 a bunch of us would hang out behind our high school on days like this and play through a very freeform megadungeon game of my own creation. I particularly remember a moment I’ve written about before, where one of my players (who always wanted to run ahead on his own) opened a door, only to be informed that behind it was a massive chamber with 200 orcs… to which his response is “I slam the door and run away!” Fun times. XD

At the time, I didn’t use the D&D rules, partially because I had all of a Holmes Basic Set and an AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide to work from (making for an incomplete and often contradictory ruleset to begin with), but mostly because I didn’t have the patience to sit down and puzzle it all out.

What I did have the patience for, for whatever reason, was to create my own ridiculously kloodgey homebrew system that took bits of D&D and blended it with bits of Heritage’s Dungeon Dwellers series and then, at the table, was mostly ignored. This game system was called “Mid-Evil,” which I was very proud of at the time. >.>

Did I mention I was 13?

A year later, I tried to leverage this same mostly-nonsensical system into an espionage/modern action game called “I Spy,” which was just as nonsensical and took the inspiration for its one usable scenario from a segment of “The Bloodhound Gang” from 3-2-1 Contact.

So, yeah, “ambitious, but not sophisticated,” about sums me up in those days.

But as dorky and sophomoric as all these things were, they had fire and a pure love of the game that still makes me grin to remember. As I began to develop more sophistication I moved on to MERP and from there to the HERO System, becoming ever more enamored of “realism” and “maturity”– mostly because I was still young and insecure about such things.

A lot of my games from this second period were very sophisticated by comparison– I had a “street-level superheroes” campaign that delved into dark topics and psychology and presaged things like The Killing Joke by a matter of years. But at the same time, a lot of my gaming sessions felt like work– we were trying so hard to Make Art out of the game, that we would lose sight of the fact that we were a bunch of nerds sitting around a table rolling dice to control the fate of fictional characters.

These days, I’d like to think I can have the best of both worlds. I have primarily returned to D&D (using the actual rules, even), but I work with the players to integrate their characters’ personalities and background into the campaign. There are random encounter tables, but they are built with an eye toward reinforcing the theme or environment of the adventure instead of being a giant kitchen sink of weirdness. There are serious NPC allies, enemies, or wildcards, but there are also moments of pure goofiness.

But most importantly, I remember these days why I fell in love with the game in the first place– those crazy moments of shared story that we were all creating together, where the stuff on the paper was there if we wanted it, but also didn’t matter if it didn’t actually make things more fun. And I’m always grateful for D&D weather, because that’s what it reminds me of.

-The Gneech

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Oct 17 2018

Uncanny Midnight Tales

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Uncanny Midnight Tales, by John

Madison Beacon-Examiner handout for UMT Back in 2008, I was a huge fan of Star Wars Saga Edition, and in some ways it’s still my favorite iteration of the d20 engine. For this game, I created a Call of Cthulhu tribute game, Uncanny Midnight Tales. With Halloween a mere two weeks away, I thought now might be a good time to once again share it with the world!

Watch out, Not Howard Carter!What’s presented is not a complete game– it requires the Star Wars Saga Edition rulebook to play (and of course, SWSE was not OGL, so there isn’t any SRD for it), but for the most part it could be played in 5E with little alteration. But it does include character creation, equipment, and a Gamemaster Guide with a ready-to-go adventure and a collection of creature and monster stats.

Really, the entire project was more an excuse for me to create “my vision” of what a d20-based CoC might look like, but I had a lot of fun with it and creating all the handouts, and I don’t want it to be lost to the world. So go forth! Click on any of the images and have some spoopy fun this Halloween, on me!

-The Gneech

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Mar 28 2018

Gamers of the Galaxy

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WHAT ARE YOU DOING

DM: Ronan comes striding out of the wrecked ship. Like before, he appears to have taken no damage from the crash. He sneers at you and bellows to the crowd, “Behold! Your ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’!”

GAMORA: Gaah, that damn infinity stone! He’s basically casting globe of invulnerability on himself.

DM: He also steps in Groot.

ROCKET: Son of a bitch!

DM: Rocket, your turn.

ROCKET: The infinity stone is mounted in his hammer, right? Could I maybe shoot the hammer out of his hand?

DM: With a regular gun? Not likely.

STARLORD: Unfortunately, you used your hadron enforcer already. That recharges on a short rest, right?

ROCKET: Yeah. …But, hey! Can I spend my inspiration point from protecting all those civilians to get the hadron enforcer‘s charge back?

DM (thinking): Okay, sure, but it got kinda smashed up in the crash. Make a DC 15 tool proficiency check to get it working.

ROCKET (rolls): Aw, shit! What a time to roll a freakin’ nine.

GAMORA: Geeze, and you blew an inspiration point on it.

DM: Well, you can keep trying on your next turn– if you get a next turn. Ronan’s on the ground, now.

ROCKET: Crap.

DM: Drax? Your turn.

DRAX: I assist Rocket on his next roll.

DM: Okay. Gamora?

GAMORA: Um… crap, I dunno, I’m a fighter. Can I just… I dunno, keep my eyes open and be ready to jump in?

DM: Delay requires an action and a trigger.

GAMORA: Okay, I guess if I see an opportunity to grab the hammer, I’ll do that.

DM: Good enough. Starlord?

STARLORD: What’s Ronan doing?

DM: He’s getting ready to smash the hammer down and destroy all life on the planet. Y’know, like one does.

ROCKET: Craaaaaaap.

STARLORD: I challenge him to a dance-off.

GAMORA: What???

DRAX: Pffft!

ROCKET: Oh God.

STARLORD: You said my tape player was going, somewhere off in the wreckage, right? Well, it says right here: my bond is “I treasure my mixtape from home more than life itself.” If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die dancing to my mixtape!

DM (laughs): Sure, why not? Go ahead and make a Deception check, with advantage for tying into your traits.

STARLORD (rolls): Aww, yeah! Twenty-frickin’-SEVEN! (sings) Oooo-ooh child, things are gonna get bet-ter!

DM (still laughing): Okay! Ronan tries a DC 27 Wisdom save (rolls) and blows it bigtime. He’s effectively stunned for a round at Starlord’s pelvic sorcery.

TABLE: (laughter)

STARLORD: Gamora! Take it!

GAMORA: I am so not taking it.

STARLORD: I meant take the hammer.

GAMORA: Can I use my readied action to grab the hammer while Ronan is stunned?

DM: Call it a disarm check. Make an unarmed attack roll against Ronan’s Athletics check. (rolls)

GAMORA (rolling): Uh… man! Another nine.

DM: Yeah, no. Ronan’s got a vice grip on that thing.

GAMORA: Yeah, I’m just gonna stand there and stare at Starlord like he’s nuts.

DM: Okay, new round! Ronan is stunned and just stares at Starlord. “What are you doing?”

STARLORD: I’m distracting you, ya big turd blossom!

DM (laughs): Rocket, roll on your tool check again. You have advantage this time, thanks to Drax’s aid.

ROCKET (rolls): Nineteen! Hadron enforcer online, baby! I shoot the motherfucker! I mean, I shoot the hammer out of his hand.

DM: Unfortunately, it took your turn to make the skill check.

DRAX: So it’s my turn? I shoot the motherfucker.

DM: That works! You grab the hadron enforcer from Rocket and basically use it to make a ranged 5d10 disarm! Go ahead and total it up, the damage will be the difficulty for his Athletics check. (rolls)

DRAX (rolls, with no small amount of satisfaction): Thirty four!

DM: Ahahahaha, no. Not only does Ronan not make his Athletics check, the hammer explodes into a bazillion pieces, sending the infinity stone flying into the air!

ROCKET: Oh crap oh crap oh crap!

STARLORD: I’m basically standing next to Ronan, right? ’cause we were having a dance-off? Can I grab the infinity stone before it hits the ground?

DM: You can try! Give me a Dexterity save.

GAMORA: That thing does 100 necrotic damage per round and then you have to make Charisma saves to not explode!

STARLORD: Yeah, but while I’m lying there making death saves you can slap a container onto it. The Charisma save I’m not worried about.

GAMORA: But we don’t have a healer!

STARLORD: Well maybe there’s a paramedic in the crowd. (rolls) Anyway! I roll a sixteen.

DM: You nab it out of the air! You take 100 points of necrotic damage!

STARLORD: Ow.

DM: Fortunately, your Mystery Boon kicks in– turns out you are resistant to necrotic damage! So you only take 50.

STARLORD: Yay? I have fifteen hit points. (rolls) Twenty-two Charisma save.

DM: You are not killed outright on this round, but you are stunned and unable to act. A massive ball of purple-black necrotic energy swells around you, engulfing you and Ronan both. Ronan looks more than a little offended that you aren’t dead.

STARLORD: I bet he does!

DM: He also takes 100 points of damage, and is offended by that, too! It’s not enough to kill him, but it clearly hurts. He shouts, “Who are you???”

STARLORD: So all I gotta do is stand here dying at him to take him out?

DM: Pretty much!

STARLORD: Winning! When he shouts “Who are you?” I just give him my most smug, “You said it yourself, we’re the Guardians of the Galaxy, bitch!”

DM: Starlord taunts the badguy! It doesn’t do anything, but points for going out in style.

GAMORA: You said the damage happens every round, right? So he’s going to keep taking it?

DM: Yes. It spreads out through everyone in contact with whoever’s touching the stone.

GAMORA: Okay, I grab Starlord’s hand to absorb some of the damage and ready an action to shove a container onto the stone when Ronan drops.

DRAX: I’ll grab on too.

ROCKET: Ditto.

DM: Okay, new round! Ronan takes 100 points of damage, which is forty-odd more than he had. He explodes with a look of deep resentment on his face.

TABLE: (cheers, high-fives)

DM: You all take 100 points of damage split four ways, so 25 each, except for Starlord, who resists it and takes 12.

STARLORD: Two! I have two friggin’ hit points! Eat that, Ronan the Dickhead!

ROCKET: Ronan-the-A-Loser, more like!

GAMORA: I shove the infinity stone into the container!

DM: The purple-black cloud of necrotic energy immediately dissipates! Revealing Yondu and a dozen Ravagers. “Well, well, that was quite a light show!”

DRAX: Seriously?

STARLORD: Geeze, if it isn’t one damn thing, it’s another around here.

-The Gneech