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

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

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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Nov 10 2019

Acrobatics vs Athletics in 5E, Plus Shady Shenanigans

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Shade-Of-the-Candle, tabaxi rogue

So my tabaxi swashbuckler Shade-Of-the-Candle (whom I like to describe as “If Catra and Jack Sparrow had a love child…”) recently hit 3rd level in Inkblitz’s game and finally came into her full being… but not without some rough going. One of her earliest rough spots came from a failed check to jump a 10′ gap. Now Shady has a 10 Str and had proficiency and expertise with Athletics (giving her a +4). To clear the distance all Shady needed was a running start, but the DM called for a DC 10 Athletics check due to treacherous conditions. With her +4, all I needed was a 6+ on a d20.

Anybody who knows the history of me and dice should know that I would automatically fail that check, and I did. Some nights I don’t roll higher than 3 on any die of any kind, which is fine for d4’s, but sucks for everything else. Shady went splat down into the water below. :P

This led to a discussion between the DM and myself after the game, because being able to easily jump a 10′ gap is something I felt like my tabaxi swashbuckler should be able to do, and wanted to figure out a way to make that happen. He eventually said that in the future he would allow Shady to use Acrobatics to make jump checks, and suggested I move her expertise over to that, giving her a +7 acrobatics check from there forward.

Well, I mean, yes please. ^.^’ But this points at a thing in 5E: sometimes the rules act like Acrobatics and Athletics are two very different things, and sometimes they’re treated as more or less interchangeably, being “do physical things using Str or Dex, whichever works for you, man.” Both of these approaches are workable, with different positives and negatives, but honestly I’d kinda prefer the game picked one. My DM went with the latter method, and because we game in a shared world and try to keep our rulings consistent, I’ve pretty much adopted the same.

If you assume that they’re different skills, the best quick distinction I’ve heard is “Athletics is for going up, and Acrobatics is for coming down.” You use Athletics to jump, climb, swim, etc., while you use Acrobatics to keep your balance, avoid damage from a fall, walk a tightrope or swing from a chandelier, etc. The Angry GM suggests to dispense with all the foofaraw by completely decoupling proficiencies from ability checks. A jump across a gap is a Strength check, and if you can convince the DM that your Acrobatics bonus applies, you get to add it. Of course in Shady’s case that wouldn’t have helped—she was already proficient in the skill check she couldn’t make, it was the ability check underneath that screwed her over. But it does at least keep Acrobatics and Athletics in their own lanes.

I’m still not sure the approach I like the best. I want my Dex-based monks and rogues to be able to parkour their way up corners like Jackie Chan and double-flip their way across wide open gaps, but I can also see how “Acrobatics for Dex peeps, Athletics for Str peeps” parallels nicely with Str-based melee weapons vs. finesse weapons. We’ve got an approach for now, we’ll see how it goes in play.

20th Level Pirate Cat

While I was mucking around with levelling her up, I decided to play with theoretical future iterations of Shady. Simplest version was straight Rogue 20, swashbuckler all the way down. Then I did a version each of Rogue 17/Fighter 3 and Rogue 15/Fighter 5, because as the rogue class starts to get up into the double digits, it tends to lose a little luster (at least in combat) compared to its mid-tier amazingness. Working from the baseline of where she is now, not upgrading up her gear at all, assuming average rolls for hit points and the availability of the Mariner fighting style from UA, I got…

Shade-Of-the-Candle, L20 Rogue
Str 10, Dex 20, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 16
AC 17, hp 186, Initiative +8
Cutlass MH: +11, 1d6+5, sneak attack +10d6; OH: +11, 1d6; DPR 12d6+5 = 45)
Acrobatics +17, Athletics +12, Perception +13, Persuasion +15, Sleight of Hand +11, Stealth +11
Blindsense
Climbing 20′ (tabaxi)
Dungeon Delver feat (adv. to spot traps, resistant to trap damage)
Elegant Maneuver (bonus action to get advantage on next Acrobatics/Athletics check)
Elusive (no attacker has advantage)
Evasion (no damage on successful Dex save)
Fancy Footwork (no AoO from target you melee)
Lucky feat (3 luck points)
Master Duelist (miss with one attack, roll again w/ advantage)
Panache (swashbuckler taunt/charm)
Rakish Audacity (+Cha to initiative, sneak attack isolated target)
Reliable Talent (any proficient check below 10 becomes 10)
Slippery Mind (proficient w/ Wisdom saves)
Stroke of Luck (turn one failed check/attack into auto success)
Tough (+40 hp)
Uncanny Dodge (reaction to halve damage from incoming attack)

…a nice solid build. Her capstone features (Master Duelist and Stroke of Luck) are nice “when you think you blew it, you didn’t” features, but are also made a bit redundant by Lucky.

Shade-Of-the-Candle, L17 Rogue, L3 Fighter
GAINS
AC 18, hp 189
Action Surge (one extra action per short rest)
Climbing 30′ (tabaxi + mariner)
Improved Critical (crit on 19 or 20)
Second Wind (bonus action to recover 1d10+3 hp once per short rest)
Swimming 30′ (mariner)

LOSES
Dungeon Delver
Elusive
Sneak Attack becomes +9d6 (DPR 11d6+5 = 42)
Stroke of Luck

Assuming there aren’t a whole lot of traps all the time, the only thing I really miss here is 1d6 of sneak attack, which reduces her DPR by 3 points, negligible at 20th. In exchange she gets +1 AC, more climbing, a swim speed, second wind, and improved critical (which makes for a 10% chance per round of a 20d6+5 critical hit, baybee). So, a net win. :) Unless I had a pressing reason I probably wouldn’t take the first level of fighter until 11th level, as Panache and that 10th level stat bump/feat are too valuable. I might even wait for 12th to get Reliable Talent and the 11th level sneak attack die.

Shade-Of-the-Candle, L15 Rogue, L5 fighter
GAINS
AC 18, hp 191
Action Surge
Climbing 30′
Extra Attack (with reduced sneak attack DPR 11d6+5 = 42)
Improved Critical
Second Wind (1d10+5)

LOSES
Dungeon Delver
Elusive
Master Duelist
Sneak Attack becomes +8d6
Stroke of Luck

Here we lose 2d6 sneak attack which hurts a little more, but trade it for an extra attack, which keeps the DPR the same and also creates more chances for critical sneak attacks; she also ends up with a whopping 191 hit points. Totally worth it.

Of course, this is all academic… it’s a very rare campaign that reaches 20th level, although I’d love to play in one.

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Oct 30 2018

Once the Storm King Has Thundered, Then What?

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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?

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