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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Jun 23 2015

Come Find Me at AnthroCon!

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Gneech and SirFox at table N14

AC 2015 is just a few weeks away! As usual, I’ll be sharing a table with my old pal Sirfox. And, as usual, I’ll be doing clean, family-friendly fare, and he’ll be smutting it up. 😉

As always, I’ll be doing badges, sketchbooks, and so forth, as well as premiering issue three of “Suburban Jungle: Rough Housing.” So come on over! Buy my stuff, I’ll be your friend!

-The Gneech

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Nov 25 2014

In Which I Am Interviewed About Street Fighter

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I was recently interviewed by Matt Meade of SFRPG.com about my work on White Wolf’s Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game. We talk about deadlines, the mechanics of the Rising Storm Crow maneuver, and the ideal date for Backhand Bonnie Brown.

Enjoy!

-The Gneech

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Oct 06 2014

Phandelver as Plot Point Campaign

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I may be projecting, but I’m fairly sure I see some Savage Worlds influence in 5E, particularly around inspiration (which acts something like SW bennies) and around the organization of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure in the Starter Set, which has an uncanny resemblance to a smallish Plot Point Campaign.

Plot Point Campaigns (or PPCs), for those not familiar, are essentially “campaign-in-a-book” supplements for Savage Worlds in which there is a major story arc (the “plot points,” so to speak), but there are also tons and tons of smaller adventure hooks. Generally speaking no single scenario (including the “big finish”) is longer than a page or two, and everything is very sketchy and loosely-connected. The main thrust of the campaign is usually scattered across the map and delves deeply into the setting’s backstory: in 50 Fathoms, the archetypal PPC, the main campaign is all about discovering the story of the three witches who are drowning the world, and thwarting their apocalyptic plans. But there are so many side stories that it could take years for the players to get there, if ever. The PPC gives you an opening scenario that immediately puts your players into the middle of the action, but where they go from there is pretty much up to them.

Usually in a PPC, later scenarios have “prerequisites” before they can happen: “none of the Colonize Monster Island quests can happen until the players have completed the Discover Monster Island quest,” that kind of thing. But beyond that, there’s very little structure. Don’t give a damn about Monster Island? That’s fine, there’s plenty to do over in Adventurelandia. Some quests are stand-alones, some come in chains, some of them are cross-referencing, and so on. But all are short and usually only developed in the sketchiest way, allowing lots of room for GM interpretation and fleshing out.

The best PPCs also include a method for procedurally-generating content, when the GM needs a “filler adventure” or the players decide to wander off the map. It can be as simple as a handful of “insert here” encounters, or it can be as complex as a matrix of rolling on columns A, B, C, and D to get “The Prince wants you to kidnap/steal the sacred gem of Ul from the tomb of a cursed priest.” 50 Fathoms also has a Traveller-esque trading system, designed to get your characters schlepping stuff from place to place so you can find the interesting patrons in each location. [1]

It occurred to me, as I was going through Phandelver, that it appears to have been written in a similar way. As a PPC, the Rockseeker Brothers, their attempts to excavate Wave Echo Cave, and the machinations of The Black Spider would be the main plot points, with the Redbrands, Thundertree, Old Owl Well, Wyvern Tor, and Conyberry all being side-stories, and the wandering monster table being the filler “adventure generator.” The main difference is scale. In a PPC, you have a large-scale campaign presented in tiny, sketchy chunks; in Phandelver, you have a small-scale campaign presented in big, detailed pieces.

This, I think, is pretty nifty, and I’d really like to see WotC continue this approach in the future. How cool would a 5E Eberron Plot Point Campaign be, for instance? Not a single mega-adventure like Seekers of Ashen Crown, which only works if your players are willing to follow a single spoon-fed storyline, but a tapestry of scenario hooks so that if your players hop on an airship to Karrnath on short notice, you could just turn to the Karrnath section of the book and have five paragraphs of potential things ready to go when they got there? With bounded accuracy and the flatter power curve, I can imagine a supplement like this really working in a way that it couldn’t have done in 3.x/PF or 4E, and I would actually very much love to see it.

-The Gneech

[1] There’s probably a very interesting blog post to be written about how 50 Fathoms is basically a Traveller campaign with a fantasy skin… but that’s for another time. Or perhaps another blogger.

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Oct 02 2014

Monsters! RAR!

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I received my 5E Monster Manual yesterday and spent the evening and part of this morning devouring it. (Mmm, wood pulp! :d) It’s a seriously impressive book, giving almost every monster a page which includes lovingly-rendered art, several flavorful bits of monster lore which the DM can use or ignore freely, and a stat block. This book, like the Players Handbook before it, has just that touch of whimsy (from the “delicious squishy brains” disclaimer buried on the facia page to the outhouse mimic sketch in the index) that both 3E and 4E lacked and I have missed. (Go back and look at the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and you’ll notice that at least half the illustrations were single panel cartoons nicked from Dragon magazine!)

It’s not without its quirks, of course. Many of the creatures I find the most interesting have been shunted off into “Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures,” by which they basically mean “beasts.” But since the category includes such staples as blink dogs, giant spiders, worgs, and all of the swarms, you’d think they’d merit a little more respect.

Also, much has been made of the lack of an index by CR. Personally, I find this a non-issue, since the DMG is probably going to have all kinds of encounter tables and the like, but WotC has since published said index on their website, and Blog of Holding has done one that’s probably more useful if you’d like such a thing.

But on the topic of CR, wow did CRs trend down in 5E! Creatures that have traditionally been unholy terrors at the “heroic” tier [1] such as manticores or wights, tend to top out around CR 3. [2] CR 5 is home of the “big league” monsters such as trolls or gorgons, and then the eldritch nasties such as mind flayers or hags start appearing in the CR 7-8 range. This is clearly a deliberate design decision, which I have a few theories about.

First of all, the encounter budget models that WotC have released so far all indicate that the number of monsters shoot the difficulty up quickly, which means that while a single CR 2 ogre would be a “hard” encounter for a 2nd level party, a pair of them would be considered a “ludicrous” encounter. [3] Since many DMs love to throw groups of monsters at the party, keeping individual monster CR down keeps the difficulty from going through the roof too fast.

Second, D&D has always had a certain “When do we get to the good stuff?” problem. The game’s iconic monsters, things like adult dragons and beholders and mind flayers, don’t tend to appear until 5th level or higher, while many campaigns struggle to get past 3rd due to player attrition, DM burnout, or whatever. Skewing the CRs down makes it more likely that the average group will advance to a level where the bigger, badder, “cooler” things can start showing up, hopefully sustaining interest in the game and opening the campaign to more varied scenarios than another March of the Goblins. [4]

Finally, bounded accuracy rears its head again: low level baddies can still hurt higher level PCs. One on one, a lower level critter will certainly run out of hit points long before a higher level PC will, but when you get a room full of them, that’s another story. Lower CR monsters fill the niche that minions were intended to in 4E, without the “meta” aspects (“Why does this goblin have 33 hp, and that one only have 1? They look exactly the same…”) So a creature’s CR is not really as important a factor in encounter building as it was in previous editions, it’s just a general indicator of a creature’s toughness.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in play. And after this weekend, there’ll be a two week break in my gaming schedule, so I’m also looking forward to retooling my Silver Coast game with a full range of monsters, rather than just what was available in the Starter Set. Now then, where on this map could I put the Tarrasque…?

-The Gneech

[1] I’ll rant about tiers some other time. When codified as they were in 4E, I find them horrible metagamey constructs; fortunately, 5E just uses them as handy labels for the DM, which is fine.

[2] This means that my Summoner Conversion will need a serious retooling, probably topping out the eidolon’s form at CR 4 or so.

[3] I’m not sure I agree with their assessment of encounter difficulty: my players have so far waltzed through multiple “hard” encounters without breaking a sweat. But then again, my players all have years of gaming experience, so it might just be a testament to their playing skill.

[4] Mind you, I love me some goblin invasions. But you can’t do that every time. Nor can you make every campaign about Tiamat trying to break out of her extra-dimensional prison. Tyranny of Dragons, I’m looking at you. Didn’t Red Hand of Doom kinda sew up that idea for a while?

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Apr 21 2014

Some Thoughts on @AwesomeCon and @InterventionCon

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So AwesomeCon was this past weekend, and it was very cool; pretty much the same experience as the San Diego Comic-Con, except not quite as packed beyond capacity and making you hate life because you couldn’t move for all the people in the way. If I could be sure it would never grow any bigger I’d happily make it a regular thing, but as this was only its second year, I suspect my hopes are going to be dashed in that regard. If I had one real beef about the con, it’s that it could use more SF/fantasy, gaming, and especially more ART, instead of just being an unrelenting drum of “comics, comics, comics.” (A con the size of AwesomeCon really should have a good art show, but it’s only their second year, hopefully that will come with time.) What makes Dragon*Con still worth going to, as horribly huge and unwieldy as it has become, is the broad swath of fandom. Where were the Tim Powerses, Seanan McGuires, and Neil Gaimans?

Seeing the huge response to AwesomeCon, OTOH, just reinforces my opinion that InterventionCon needs to kick it up a notch or it will eventually perish. I realize and fully support that they don’t want to become just another giant dealer hall in a convention center with no personality, and that their intended focus is on creators rather than attendees. I dig that and I’m all for it. But without attendees, really, how are you going to get creators to come? Going to a con requires a significant investment of time and possibly also a significant investment of money– for someone operating on tight margins (as most indie fandom creators are), there has to be a certain amount of confidence you’ll recoup that investment or they’ll just give it a miss. It doesn’t have to be sales, it could be networking or learning new skills or what-have-you, but again, how can you network if nobody is there? (Which could also be handily summarized by asking where are the Tim Powerses, Seanan McGuires, and Neil Gaimans…)

This year, I went to AwesomeCon purely as an attendee– I didn’t even bring business cards– mostly because I am sorta rebuilding my whole operation from scratch and wanted to learn the lay of the land, but also given all the upheaval my life has gone through in the past year I just wasn’t up to doing anything more. But the chances are quite good that I will try to get an artist’s table next year, especially if I can find someone to go in with me (running a table solo is a lonesome and exhausting activity). It would certainly be handy to have a largish local con to go!

-The Gneech

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