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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Jan 30 2014

New Comic Sneak Peek, Page Thirteen

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New Comic Sneak Peek, Page Thirteen by the-gneech on deviantART

I don’t know why I find these progress shots so fascinating, I just do.

-The Gneech

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Dec 29 2013

I Hear His Theme Music, He’s Around Here Somewhere…

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So @EpicBirdbrain on Twitter did this in response to a silly conversation we were having, and I pretty much love everything about it…

DEET-doot-doot, deet-DEET-doot-doot...

Thanks, buddy! :D It’s awesome. And I plan to use it early and often.

-The Gneech

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Dec 14 2013

Princess Spylestia, For No Good Reason

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Princess Spylestia, For No Good Reason by ~the-gneech on deviantART

I have no idea what I’m doing.

-The Gneech

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