Aug 23 2021

On the Other Hand, Screw Omu :P

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Friggin' orcs, man.

Friggin’ orcs, man.

So I’ve been running an adaptation of Tomb of Annihilation for a while, and I have come to the unexpected conclusion that I don’t like running a hexcrawl as much as I thought I would, and also that I’m probably done with “big book campaigns” as a general thing any more once we’re finished with this. (Red Hand of Doom was amazing; every one I’ve tried since then, not so much.) I polled my players, and they’ve enjoyed the game fairly well, except for feeling the pressure of the Death Curse making them anxious about taking wrong turns or losing time to the jungle. ToA as written is kind of the worst of both worlds in that regard, in that you can’t just pfutz around and do what you want (which is the hexcrawl’s theoretical strength), but you also don’t have clear signposts showing you where the plot went (which is the strength of a linear plot).

Still, after only a few major detours, the characters found their way to the Forbidden City of Omu, home of the titular Tomb of Annihilation, except that before you can actually go into the tomb you have to get through… another hexcrawl! There are nine mini-dungeons scattered across the city, from which you are supposed to collect plot coupons, which in turn leads to another dungeon to get the last key, at which point you can start the first… level… of the last… dungeon… and collect… keys… for the… later…

Y’know what? No.

I spent the past few weeks prepping Omu while Plotline ran his game a while, and as we’re coming close the time when I’m actually supposed to run again? I just don’t want to. The stuff in Omu isn’t bad per se, but it feels like busywork, literally grinding for XP to get the characters high enough level to go through the main dungeon. And just… why? I guess it must have been written this way for a reason, but I ain’t running it.

I’ve got at least two weeks before I actually run; I have decided in that time to tear out all that “wander around the city as a whole ‘nother hex crawl” nonsense and instead create a semi-linear structure with a story the players can get into. There are existing and established factions for them to get involved with, a couple of subplots they are already connected to (including Inete’s crisis of faith and the Bag-of-Nails/Hooded Lantern/Copper Bell story), and so on. I’m also going to refactor the adventure as needed so they can tackle it at the level they are, instead of putting in a bunch of STUFF for them to level up with.

Realizing you want to skip to the end of your own adventure is not a good sign when you’re the DM. It’s time to do some fixing.

-TG

Mar 14 2021

Shady, Rogue or Bard? Time To Choose

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Shade-Of-the-Candle Takes It Easy... But Takes It
Yes, Shady, choosing is very hard in this case.

WARNING: Lots of rules rambling ahead. Read only if you are a big ol’ D&D nerd.

So last night Shady hit 6th level after a fun session fighting against the most cheerful demonic bounty hunter ever. So now I have to actually choose, Rogue or Bard? Neither option is great immediately—6th level rogue gets her expertise in Investigation and Persuasion, but nothing else changes. 1st level bard gets her a new skill, a new proficiency, a small handful of spells, and three uses of bardic inspiration per long rest.

So neither choice is about what happens at level 6; they’re really about what happens at levels 7, 8, and 9.

If Shady sticks with rogue, at 7th she’ll get evasion and more sneak attack, at 8th she’ll hit 20 Dex, and at 9th she’ll get that awesome Panache ability and still more sneak attack. If she jumps over to bard, at 7th she’ll get Jack of All Trades (double-bumping her Initiative on top of her swashbuckler boost), at 8th she’ll get Blade Flourish (which is a game-changer ability) and Two-Weapon Fighting*, and at 9th she’ll finally catch up with that 20 Dex.

The problem is, I want all of this stuff for Shady! Panache especially is something that suits her perfectly, that whole “piss off the baddie so they chase only you—but also can’t actually GET to you” annoyance/avoidance tanking strategy goes all the way back to her fight with Kresthianze the black dragon. Having a mechanical backup for what she’s been doing purely through RP would be very nice.

On the other hand, in play, Shady’s biggest weak spot is totally her AC. The pattern with her, from the mimic that one-punched her at 2nd level, to the fight in the warehouse, to fighting Gornstard the Wailer last night, has over and over been:

1) Combat starts
2) Shady gets almost one-punched before she even gets a turn
3) She spends the rest of the fight either out or reeling from the first hit

To a certain extent, this is the rules working as intended. Rogues are glass cannons, and even swashbucklers—who are intended to get in melee and stay there—are expected to jump in and out, hide, and generally be evasive more than durable. Fortunately, Uncanny Dodge is a big mitigator here—when I remember to actually USE it—but the fact remains that Shady’s paltry 16 AC is her big ol’ Achilles Heel.

But short of magic items (and man, she is looking for that Cloak Piratey Longcoat of Protection), the only ways for her to boost her AC are 1) maxing Dex, or 2) Blade Flourish—either of which she can get at 8th level, it’s just a matter of which.

20 Dex will set her AC to 17 whenever she gets attacked, before she gets a turn or after, all the time. Blade Flourish, using the Defense option, potentially adds +1d6 to her AC (typically putting it around 19), but only after she’s made an attack, and only up to three times per long rest. It also boosts her already-crazy speed and bumps her damage on the initial attack roll.

The biggest thing is that going the bard route gives Shady the 20 Dex at 9th level—which means that in terms of AC, she gets both of the boosts by going the bard route, at the expense of a bit of sneak attack, evasion (which has not been a factor so far since we don’t have a lot of fireballs flying around, but might become one if more dragons start showing up), and, of course, panache.

I dunno; I keep going around and around and not being able to land. All of this is solved by 15th level, in which she has all the bard and all the rogue she wants and everything after that is gravy… but what are the chances of any campaign getting there? Generally not considered good. That’s what makes this a tough choice—whichever direction she chooses is likely to be the only choice she gets.

-TG

*Theoretically it would also open breastplate + shield, but even if the breastplate looked like a leather battle corset, the Dex cap would make it a net wash, and I just cannot see Shady carrying a shield. Dusk does, because he’s a fighter-flavored-with-rogue, but Shady is not a gird-her-loins type.

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Oct 20 2020

Massive Damage in D&D

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Conan Double Header, art by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson

A player in my Tomb of Annihilation game has a bugbear barbarian (bugbearian?), who has one purpose: kill stuff. He’s tricked out to attack as many times as possible for as much damage as possible and be useless for anything else other than foraging and carrying stuff. Every fight he just turns on frenzy and reckless attack and flings himself at the monsters, then seems a little deflated when they all die too fast.

Which, y’know, is fine. They’re crawling around a jungle full of zombies, dinosaurs, and zombie dinosaurs. This is somebody you definitely want around in a situation like that.

Meanwhile, a player in my Storm King’s Thunder game has an elf paladin who leaps out of airships onto the backs of cloud giants, pouring multiple smites onto each attack, while another player’s rogue has nearly single-shotted more boss fights than I can keep track of.

Long story short, these characters do a TON of damage, and other than the rogue, can take as good as they give. Other characters in the group certainly participate, but these are the ones who blow up badguys, and these are the ones, when I’m choosing monsters for encounters, I have to take into account. Something that can make the bugbearian actually stop yawning and pay attention, will one-punch the halfling wizard. If I want something to have at least one round and preferably two, it needs to have hit points to spare.

I don’t begrudge these characters their victories, but I do worry about their domination of the spotlight. Other players at the table who are not so tricked out may begin to wonder “Why am I here?” Especially if they either don’t have the system mastery to take full advantage of their character’s abilities, have opted for flavorful-but-suboptimal abilities, or in the case of one player, just keep having bad dice nights. (I feel your pain, Blitzy!)

My general solution for this is to go for multiple monsters rather than single bosses, and to vary my environments as much as possible. Usually I’ll try to include one or two big bruisers as the baseline, a wildcard spellcaster or terrain effect, and then throw in as many smaller support troops as needed to keep things exciting. The Usual Suspects almost always make a beeline for the big scary things, but the rest of the party still has something to do dealing with either the wildcard or the troops. I don’t generally fudge die rolls at the table—especially in Roll20, where I have the monster attack rolls and damage visible to the group chat—but I may alter monster tactics on the fly, on the grounds that fog of war may cause confusion or distraction in battle. Very rarely, I will decide a monster has “one more hit point” so they can live one more round—the DM equivalent of spending a point of inspiration. ;)

But more often than that, I just pre-buff the monsters from their stats in the book, especially named foes. Since the book defaults to monsters having “exactly average” hp, for a baddie I want to be a little more durable I’ll give them 75% of their maximum or so. One fun thing I’ve taken to doing is “rolling monster hit points with advantage.” For instance, if a creature has 10d8 hit dice, I’ll roll 20d8 and drop the ten lowest.

This tends to result in encounters that, on paper, seem crazy, but at the table, work out. In my last session, the party of six 4th-level characters faced off against a pair of girallons (CR 4 each) and six “girallon whelps” (CR 1/2 apes reskinned) on a bridge over a waterfall—which should have been a “deadly” encounter going by the math. They got a bit chewed up, and had to use some of their resources, but it was eminently survivable. The actual girallons didn’t last very long against the bugbearian. Again, the monsters weren’t necessarily following the most optimized tactics—I tried to play them as instinctive feral beasts. If I’d been metagaming “to win” I would have had them mostly ignore the bugbearian and swarm the wizard and pummel her, then swarm the rogue and pummel him, then fling the warlock and the druid off the bridge, and so on.

Does this make me a softie? I don’t think so. I’ve run fights where the monsters were both smart and intent on killing the characters. What I’d like to think is this makes me impartial: I played the monsters according to their mindset. Unfortunately, the CR system just looks at the math and doesn’t account for roleplaying the monsters or having a crazy party comp. (Really, how could it?) This has meant that I have to stop thinking of CR 4 as “a balanced fight for a 4th level party” and start thinking of it as “this is about the ceiling for how tough any single monster in the fight should be.”

-The Gneech

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Oct 08 2020

Wrapping My Head Around Mid-Level D&D

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You couldn't do this at 1st level.

You couldn’t do this at 1st level.

So a while ago now (two years, actually, but it feels like WAY WAY LONGER), I speculated on where my campaign would go when we finished Storm King’s Thunder. Earlier this year, we did in fact finish it, with shocking revelations, a titanic battle against an ancient blue dragon, and the restoration of the Storm King to his throne. It was huge, and epic, and everybody reached 11th level.

As a palate cleanser, and because I honestly had no idea where to go next, I started a side-campaign adapting Tomb of Annihilation. To make it flow more naturally, I introduced the Wasting Curse at the end of SKT by having Iymryth’s death come as a nasty shock to her—she thought she had a clone all ready to go, only to get sucked away into the Soul Monger instead. (Oops…!)

So for the time being, my players have a new group of jolly 3rd-6th level adventurers tromping around the jungles of the Burning Coast trying to end the Wasting Curse or die trying—either of which will set up to return to the SKT “main campaign” when it’s done. If the Burning Coast crew succeed, life carries on. If they fail, well, the SKT team can come and take up the task.

But again… then what?

At the end of Storm King’s Thunder, the party found themselves unexpectedly pronounced thanes of the storm giant king, and in fact one was named the first ever High Priest of Stronmaus. Hekaton has decided that the storm giants’ isolationism is half of what left them vulnerable to Iymryth’s machinations and wants to re-join the world as a going concern (kinda like huge blue Wakandans); therefore he is claiming the vast desert realm of Kadath with the intent of re-civilizing it, and I’m sure he’d love to have the players’ assistance with that. But what would that look like in actual play? They can only fight so many behirs before it gets pretty dull.

Some potential directions it could go:

  • Ambassadorial missions to Gyrenstone, Xul-Jarak, Hestelland, and Argent to set up friendly relations with the neighboring realms
  • Deeper delves into the horrors of Iymryth’s lair… what exactly is down in that hole besides purple worm larvae?
  • The continuing saga of the Unmaking, whatever was going on in the Garden of Graves, and how it connects to the Wasting Curse
  • Cagarax and the Council of Wyrms
    • Who is going to take Iymryth’s place?
    • How will they respond to her death?
  • Player backstory delving?

At 11th level, the characters have a lot of autonomy, and so the players will need to be setting some agendas. They’ve reached the point where an “adventuring day of random encounters,” besides being highly unlikely, is not going to be much of a challenge for them. Even monster-hunting in the wastes of Kadath, while hazardous, are not really a problem if they can teleport home at the end of the day.

So when the time comes to go back to the main group, I’m thinking we’re going to have to treat it like a harder reboot than I was initially thinking, with a whole new Session Zero and some in-depth discussions of where the players want it to go. But the main thing is, I have got to come to grips with this intimidation by higher-level play if we’re ever going to get anywhere. “Somewhere around 5th” is super-comfortable for me, because the characters are durable enough for some interesting challenges without having world-breaking magic and abilities, but it’s not fair to the players to keep forcing a new game every time they get past that stage. And plus, I just miss the Storm King’s Thunder gang, and I don’t want their adventures to be over just because I’m floundering behind the screen.

-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 17 (+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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