Tag: Orbis Leonis

Once the Storm King Has Thundered, Then What?

Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm
Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm

My Storm King’s Thunder game has been waiting in the queue for the past several weeks while one of the other DMs in the group runs his game; but we are due to get back to it soon, and I’m starting to look with serious intent at what comes after the big finish.

Assuming the characters solve the mystery of the Storm King’s court, rescue all the peeps who need rescuing, defeat all the baddies who need defeating, and restore the Ordning among giant-kind, they will probably be somewhere in the 12th level range. At that point, it becomes more difficult to realistically look at the Silver Coast in terms of a sandbox/hexcrawl environment– and I am trying to resolve that with the tenets of my DM’s Credo.

Random, everyday hazards of a fantasy setting are not going to be a problem for these guys… the way I put it in conversation recently was, “The Avengers don’t wander around New York taking down muggers.” Once you’ve defeated Thanos, what’s next? And more importantly, how do you integrate a threat on that kind of scale in a way that doesn’t just shove them down the players’ throats? Having Galactus show up and threaten to eat the world is pretty darn railroadey. >.>

Another challenge for me in this particular area is that I just don’t natively think in “high level” style. The majority of my campaign world is fairly mundane: think Middle-earth instead of Asgard. At one point, while they were hunting down Svartjaw, one of my players mocked the Thane of Acholt by asking “What kind of lord doesn’t even have a magic weapon?”

Given the assumptions of D&D, it was a legit question. The answer was twofold: first, he didn’t have a magic weapon because mechanically he was a Knight from the back of the Monster Manual with his greatsword swapped out for a longsword and shield; and second, because my conception of the world is that magic items of any kind are super-rare. Does Theoden of Rohan have a magic sword? I mean, yeah, he might, but the text never mentions it. The moment of Theoden taking up his sword and all his men losing their shit about it is supposed to be because Theoden King is Awesome, not because he has a longsword of leadership.

But even with magic items being scaled back the way they are in 5E, it is absolutely not the case that magic items are super-rare in D&D, nor in the way I’ve structured the campaign. Everyone in the party has at least one and probably two or three pretty wifty items at this point, either awarded as treasure, or because to accommodate one of the players’ desired campaign style I created a “vaguely 3.x” subsystem to allow them to spend treasure on items.

In short, I’m still bringing low-magic thinking into an intrinsically high-magic framework and that also applies to my adventure design. On some level, my idea of a “high level conflict” is the characters being at the head of armies taking on a million bazillion orcs; but D&D‘s idea of a “high level conflict” is more like “one of Demogorgon’s heads declares war on the other and as a result the cosmos is being torn in half.”

I… just don’t think that way. O.o To lean on the MCU metaphor, I love-love-love the “ground level” threats of Captain America: The First Avenger and Spiderman: Homecoming, and I can even enjoy Thor: Ragnarok for a romp or two, but Infinity War kinda makes me check out. Crazy-big cosmic adventure is a foreign language to me.

Going back to the matter of high-level adventures and the sandbox/railroad dichotomy, the hugeness of high-level threats is part of what makes it hard to relate to them in a sandbox context. CR 15+ things don’t just wander around the world waiting for your players to bump into them. They are things like Cagarax the Red, the ancient dragon who claims the Silver Coast as his terrority, or Iuz the Old, cambion emperor of the realm who bears his name, or the Cult of Elemental Evil spilling out of their temple and marching across Veluna. The world is only stable enough for low-level sandbox play because these major powers are content to lurk in their lairs for now. When it comes time for high level adventures, these are the sources that trouble is going to come from, but the moment I decide “Iuz is going to go on the march,” that is me deciding what the adventure will be.

Now, my players might be totally fine with that; years or decades of “the DM creates the adventure and we show up for it” style play have pretty much made that the norm. And as long as everyone’s having fun, that’s hardly “wrong.” But I have been striving to change my approach to gaming, and if I am serious about making “player empowerment” a priority, I have to examine that facet of things. I mean, I can just decide “Iuz is going to go on the march” and then ask the players, “What do you want to do?” It’s entirely possible they might reply, “We buy popcorn and watch.” In that sense they’re perfectly empowered. But I suspect if I tell them Iuz is marching, what they will hear is “The adventure is over there, go get it.”

And if I tell them “Iuz is on the march, and Cagarax has decided to take the city of Argent as his new lair, and Elemental Evil is spilling out of its temple, what do you want to do?” they may very well just go, “Uhhhh….?” and vapor-lock. In a low-level sandbox, choosing not to take on the lizardfolk lair because you’re going to the barrow downs is not the end of the world.

Choosing not to mess with Galactus because you want to focus on Thanos? Just might be. >.> Where’s the “choice” in that?

In Which My Players Have No Chill

There are no rooms to hole up in, here!
There are no rooms to hole up in, here!

In response to my last post, over on Dreamwidth Terrycloth asked, “Why would you stop your party from taking short rests? I thought short rests were assumed between each encounter.” And since I did mention it was a topic for another post, here it is! 😉

In 5E RAW, short rests take an hour, during which you can spend hit dice to regain HP, as well as any class features that recover on a short rest (such as arcane recovery, ki points, and the like). Terrycloth clarified in a later comment that he uses the “short rests are 5 minutes” variant from the Dungeon Masters Guide (which is closer to the 4E version), on the grounds that:

4e improved its play a lot when it shifted to monsters with fewer hit points and more damage — having to fall back on at-will powers instead of being able to use your encounters was tedious. To get interesting combat you need to have options.

Having people hoarding every resource in 5e was the same way. TEDIOUS.

One of the actual gameplay things that bugged me about 4E, especially in its early stages, was that every encounter was exquisitely balanced to perfectly challenge an on-level party at full strength– which was facilitated by the 5-minute rest after each one. The concept of the “encounter power” was what encounters were built around. I agree with Terrycloth that 4E was tedious, but I would actually say that easy resting was one of the things that made it so! It was a well-oiled game-mechanical machine but… it quickly became… monotonous.

  1. DM sets up room, everyone rolls initiative.
  2. Players use encounter powers.
  3. Monsters use encounter powers.
  4. If either side survives, whittle away with “at-wills” until encounter over.
  5. 5-minute rest, rinse, and repeat.

In my group– and mind you, we were veterans who’d been playing D&D for decades– all creative efforts just dried up. Everyone spent the encounter staring at their character sheet wondering which power to use next, or, if their powers were expended, going “Sigh, I guess I attack.”

It was, frankly, boring. Say what you will about the lack of interesting character options in 1E, having a character sheet the size of an index card definitely encouraged you to think outside the box in a tough situation (if only because the box had nothing in it).

I’m not advocating the elimination of encounter powers (or, in 5E parlance, “class features that recover on a short rest”) or the elimination of short rests by any stretch. My tabaxi monk would beat me up if I did. But I do believe that powers should be expended, and that the choice to stop and recover those powers should have a tactical cost to make it interesting. A 5-minute rest is trivial, and if you assume that there’s a rest after every encounter, then those powers are not “expended” beyond the couple of rounds that any given combat lasts.

5E combats are short, man.

Now, if the short rest is an hour, that makes a difference. From a narrative stance, an hour is a significant chunk of time and if you’re up against a ticking clock you’ll want to weigh the value of the rest versus the time lost. Add wandering monsters into the mix, and you’ve got an even bigger choice: do you gamble on having monsters appear, thus losing both the time and the benefits of the rest?

As my gamemastering credo and my GMing style generally have evolved, I have come more and more to love “emergent” play– that is, instead of me “creating a story” and “running the players through it,” I much prefer to put the pieces of the world in place, say, “Go!” and see what happens. I can (and do) make educated guesses as to the general way stuff might shake out, but I am not attached to that result. One of my players sometimes asks after a session “Were we supposed to [do some thing]?” or “Did you expect us to [do some other thing]?” and I understand why– I once ran my game that way. But I have found over the years, running that way is a lot of work, and doesn’t generally reward the effort put into it. My honest answer, these days, is “I was fine with whatever you did. You’re the stars of the show!”

Reliable short rests mean that the party is always at or close to full strength– which would put the relative ease or difficulty of any given encounter mostly in my control. That, in turn, means that building encounters is basically me deciding how it will go. “This fight will be a pushover. That one will be a terror.” While it’s true that players always zig when you expect them to zag, it still results in me largely ending up in a position of controlling the flow of the adventure during prep, instead of letting the game unfold at the table.

I want the players to be in charge of that. I want them to decide “Hmm, reserves are low, maybe we should back off…” or “Six goblins? We can take ’em!” But for that to even be on the table, reserves have to be able to run low! Thus, resting has to be limited.

The flip side of that is that encounters have to be diverse. Since I can’t depend on the party being full strength at the start of every encounter, my overall trend is for the difficulty of any given encounter to be lower than they would be in a 4E (or 3.x/PF) game. In old-school D&D, and in the game as I try to run it, it’s not the dragon that kills you– it’s the fact that you took on the dragon after fighting waves and waves of kobolds that does it. 😉

In Terrycloth’s case, it sounds like his players are super-cautious, and based on how he describes his encounter designs elsewhere in the thread, that’s understandable. My players, on the other hand? Have no chill whatsoever. XD The bigger and more dangerous the monster, the more eager they seem to be to go poke it. It has been a combination of luck and teamwork that has kept their characters from getting killed time and time again, which is exactly how it should be for heroes.

Keep in mind, this is all very theoretical. Unless you’re actually designing the archetypal “20′ x 30′ rooms connected by 10′ halls” old-school dungeon, you may not be able to even tell where one “encounter” ends and another one begins. In my most recent scenario, the party was confronted with a fortress on a floating island, with a big villain and his minions, some potential allies, a dungeon underneath, and portions that were hostile to all– and being the perverse lot they are, they split up and went off to poke different parts of it. Was the rogue and wizard up in the villain’s tower “an encounter”? What about the rest of the party fighting minions down in the fortress courtyard? I mean… yes? But neither of them fit into the “encounter-rest-encounter-rest” model. It’s just the story that emerged.

Be the Sandbox You Want to See In the World

…Yeah, okay, that title doesn’t make much sense. >.> But we’ll roll with it!

My Storm King’s Thunder campaign is rolling along nicely, going on something like two years now. SKT was hailed in reviews as being a terrific sandboxey adventure, which it kinda-sorta is, and kinda-sorta isn’t [1], but we are now in the “post Eye-Of-the-All-Father” stage of the campaign, which very much isn’t a sandbox, as written. I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say that if you’re familiar with SKT, you will probably know what I mean when I say that from Chapter Five forward, it’s pretty much a railroady race to the end, with scripted cutscenes for NPCs to have big moments baked in and everything.

Which, y’know, makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t really write “a campaign in a book” like this and have the ending make any kind of sense, if you don’t collapse all the probability waveforms down into a single cohesive storyline. But running a railroad game is fundamentally opposed to my Gamemastering credo, specifically items #7 and #9. So how to resolve this?

Actually, the answer is also in the Credo, specifically item #11. I’m tossing in a bunch of potential side-quests of my own design, most if not all of which are optional. The most recent sessions involved the characters happening upon a derelict cloud giant skycastle that by the machinations of fate was tied in to one of the PCs’ backstories– none of which is in the adventure-as-written. This particular side-quest kinda floated in the liminal space between sandbox and railroad, in that I was pretty confident that when confronted with an unexpected floating island, the PCs would want to check it out… but they also had the option, and the story would not have been broken, if they just shrugged and said, “Meh, the Oracle told us to go to Ironslag, let’s keep going to Ironslag.”

The scenario ended with them in something of a quandary about what to do next: they’ve still got the task at Ironslag waiting for them, but I can see at least three other directions they might want to go from here, and none of them would be “wrong answers.” One of those is even still on the Storm King’s Thunder script! Another one involves stopping at a town where they’ve never been and– guess what– that town is also a mini-quest-hub that has at least three side-quests going on as well.

I don’t expect the players to do all these side-quests, and honestly I wouldn’t want them to– it would probably feel tediously grindy to go on every monster-hunt they happened across, and you could play an MMO for that. But having the quests there gives the players “breathing space” around the main plot, in order to pursue their own agendas, which is what sandbox play is really all about at the heart of it.

It’s entirely possible that the players will look at the side-quests, say “Screw that noise!” and carry on racing towards the end of Storm King’s Thunder instead. That’s fine, too! It’s entirely consistent with my GM credo to let the players buy their tickets and get on the plot railroad, if that’s what they have chosen to do.

[1] Actually, very few D&D games are actually “sandboxes.” What they may be is “open world,” but that’s another discussion all together. My experience is that most of the time, when people describe a D&D adventure as a sandbox, what they mean is “not a railroad.” ;P

This One Goes to Twenty (#DnD)

Fire giants. They're just bad.
Fire giants. They’re just bad.

It’s been a year and a half since the campaign started at the Keep on the Borderlands; the characters have reached 7th level and finally, after much meandering, gotten to the Eye of the All-Father in Storm King’s Thunder. If we assume that KotB was the prologue, and snuffing out (so to speak) the fire giants’ hopes of reviving the Vonindod was Act One, we are now at the beginning of Act Two.

Storm King’s Thunder is written in the weird meandery style for the first part, but then once you hit the Eye of the All-Father, it pretty much becomes a straightforward run to the end. There are some branching points, but they all lead to the same destination, somewhere around 10th or 11th level. So it’s still a bit away, but we are now at the point where I can see the end of Storm King’s Thunder looming on the horizon, and have been thinking about what the campaign would do next.

I had the idea of ending the campaign when we reached the end of SKT to start something new; I was particularly looking at doing a Spelljammer(-ish) campaign that brought in a lot of the flavor of the MCU cosmic stuff, inspired by Thor: Ragnarok. And I still like that idea, but as I was thinking about it, I had a very sudden and definite message from the subconscious:

No. I want this campaign to go to 20th level.

…Well okay then. O.o

There’s lots of reasons for this, not the least of which being we’ve never reached that kind of a level in any of our campaigns, and so it would be something completely new for us. Also, I just like this group of characters, and I’m not ready for their story to be over– and I suspect the players probably feel the same way. Finally, by all accounts (and our own experience so far), 5E is the system that, if you’re going to go to 20, you want to do it in.

(In Pathfinder we’d already be hearing creaks around the edges of the system by now. In 5E, at 7th level, the combats are taking a little longer than they did back in the KotB days just by virtue of having more complex characters and tougher opponents, but the action is still fast and furious. Out last session had a chase/combat against a behir in a cave maze (CR 11!) that was done 75% as “theater of the mind” and basically went like this:

For all the chasing around and getting in potshots at the monster (or FROM the monster) it all ran very smooth and quickly and led to a fingernail-biting climax where the barbarian NPC was one round away from being digested in the creature’s belly and saved by the players pulling out all the stops to save her. I can’t think of another system we’ve used that would have handled the situation half so well.

But having decided that I want the campaign to reach level 20, that leads to the question of what to do for the second half. There are some tweaks written into Storm King’s Thunder itself that provide ways it can be expanded on, and I’ll happily add those in, but even that isn’t likely to take the party past 12th or 13th.

So what I’ve decided to do was to pull out some of my still-unplayed higher level 3.x edition adventures, particularly from Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics line, and tie them together into an “adventure path.” Some of them involve giants and make for obvious “sequel” material, particularly if [SPOILER REDACTED] manage to escape rather than suffer Death By PC when their nefarious scheme to [SPOILER ALSO REDACTED] comes to light. I also found another one that could provide a kind of cool “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” side-trek as a change of pace from fighting giants all the dang time and that could possibly act as setup for Spelljammer later.

The ones I’ve found so far could take the game as far as 16th or 17th. Beyond that… I have no idea. That’s probably at least another year and a half away itself anyway, so I have time to work on it, and by then hopefully WotC will have gotten around to some of that “supporting higher-level play” they’ve been talking about. But it seems to me that once you get into that realm, where even the wizard has 80+ hit points, the barbarian becomes as strong as a giant and can rage indefinitely, and the cleric can literally resurrect people at will, the stories are going to have to look very different.

You don’t “dungeon crawl” at that kind of level. I don’t know what you do do… but you don’t dungeon crawl. Really that, more than anything, is going to be the challenge at that point.

-The Gneech

Drang and Sturm

Brother Drang summons lightning against the cave leaper. It's SUPER EFFECTIVE.
Brother Drang summons lightning against the cave leaper. It’s SUPER EFFECTIVE.

An epic moment from last night’s D&D session. Wandering around the underdark because reasons, the party was attacked on a long and narrow span by “cave leapers” (a kind of bat-winged flying dire toad thing) and purple worm larvae, in an encounter literally named “The Gorge of Horrible Things.”

Hantamouse’s storm cleric (“Brother Drang”) was swallowed whole by a leaper, which then tried to fly off. The barbarian lassoed it, and SirFox’s rogue (an anthropomorphic flying squirrel) jumped on it, stabbing the thing with his rapier to make a handle. At this point Hanta, who had already cast summon lightning at the beginning of the fight, decided he had no fucks to give and blasted the thing from the inside out, failing the saving roll against his own spell and taking the full brunt of it as well.

Me: “The good news is, you killed the cave leaper! The bad news is, you’re now 20 feet in the air trapped inside a dead leaper. You take five more points of damage from the fall.”

Hanta: “No I don’t! I’m at zero already.”

They won, in the end. 😉

-The Gneech

D&D Overland Travel Encounter Table Template

My Storm King’s Thunder campaign has moved to the underdark for a bit, and as such I need a new random encounter table as the characters tromp miles and miles in the dark, instead of their usual tromping miles and miles over mountains or across the plains. 😉 But it seems to me this is as good a time as any to work up an encounter table “template” for making these tables easier to build in the future.

I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from Adventures in Middle-earth and including such things as world events, interesting terrain bits, and even just “mood swings” in my encounter tables to give the journey more character than just “you fight owlbears/you fight orcs” etc. That also means there are “empty spaces” on the encounter table so the party doesn’t automatically have a hostile encounter every time they enter a new overland hex.

Feel free to use this template for your own games, if you like. I’m pretty pleased with the result in my own.

1d12+1d8 Encounter
2 Major Benevolent Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Gandalf, a powerful metallic dragon, or something similar. This power may be traveling incognito– the party may entertain angels unawares. On Repeat: No encounter.
 
3 Easy Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No encounter.
 
4 Resources. Your party finds plentiful game, a grove of mushrooms, wild healing herbs, a valuable mineral deposit, or even a small buried treasure or cache of supplies left by previous wayfarers. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
 
5 Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: Cloudy, windy conditions.
 
6 Fellow Travelers. Pilgrims, miners, friendly locals, wanderers. Will happily share news and maybe a meal. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
 
7 Help! Fellow travelers, as described above, being menaced by hostile creatures making up a medium or hard encounter. If rescued, the travelers will be grateful and provide aid or reward to the party. On Repeat: Medium Encounter.
 
8 Fair Roads and Favorable Conditions. Your party finds shortcuts, ample sources of clean and refreshing water or shade, and makes excellent time. Your travel speed is increased by 50% for four hours. On Repeat: Same encounter again once, “No Encounter” from then on.
 
9 Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
10 A Skill Test. Fallen trees, a collapsed bridge over a swift river, or other something similar have blocked the road and the party must devise a way past it, or perhaps the party’s mounts are spooked by something and must be calmed down. Have each player describe their intended action in turn and resolve with a skill check or simply narrate likely results. If there are more successes than failures, the party moves on. If there are more failures than successes, the party loses four hours of progress. If all checks are failures, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
11 A Moment. The party comes upon a gorgeous vista, a mysterious ring of standing stones, crumbling statues from a fallen kingdom of old, a spectacular sunset, or other inspiring moment. Everyone in the party makes a Wisdom saving throw (DC 10-15 depending on the surroundings). If successful, they are filled with hope and gain Inspiration. If they fail, they simply shrug and keep marching. If they fail by 5 or more, they see only the fleeting nature of life and become morose, gaining a level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
12 The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues. Trails lead nowhere or dry up. Progress is hampered and rocks turn underfoot. The scout must succeed on a Survival check (DC 10-15 depending on terrain) or you lose 4 hours of progress. If this roll fails, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Rainy conditions.
 
13 Hard Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
14 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
15 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
16 The Very World Seems Against Us. Your intended route is blocked by flooding, rockslide, enemy action, or an overwhelming hostile force. Lose 4 hours of progress. Everyone in the party must make a DC 15 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
 
17 Deadly Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain.
 
18 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
19 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Hard Encounter.”)
 
20 Major Malignant Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Saruman, a powerful chromatic dragon, or something similar. This power probably has minions and is up to no good, but may regard the characters as beneath their notice and move on unless the party starts something. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
 

During Prep: Pre-populate encounters with appropriate creatures. Place regional-, campaign-, or adventure-specific encounters in the Undefined entries.

At the Table: Roll (or have the party scout roll) when characters enter a new overland hex, or once per 4-hour watch while camped. Travel speed is not a factor: difficult terrain slows down monsters just as much as it does player characters. Roll more often (at least once per four hours of travel) in dangerous or heavily-infested areas, such as cursed jungles teeming with monsters.

Variations: Roll 1d12+1 during daylight and 1d12+1d8 at night to create a “don’t travel in the dark” atmosphere.

I hope you find this useful! It’s the core engine I use for my overland travel adventures, and I find it works well.

-The Gneech