May 19 2022

Fighting the System in D&D

Posted by

A monk performs a stunning strike in a Modern-era campaign.

WARNING: Rant ahead.

When D&D fifth edition landed, it was such a breath of fresh air. 3.x and Pathfinder (first edition) had become so cumbersome with bonuses, status effects, corner cases, and who-knows-what, that I had reached the point of not being able to bear to run them. Even with reskinning, books full of source material, and so on, I got so sick of my Saturday nights being an extended math class that I switched to Savage Worlds and ran only that for a while… which had its own problems, but that’s for some other time. Point is, I ran The Lost Mine of Phandelver and instantly fell in love. It was D&D, but with rules that made sense and moved fast, and it was amazing.

But over the past several months, I find myself fighting with it a lot more than enjoying it, and it’s starting to grind at me, both as a player and as the DM.

You Can’t Make That Character In This Game

I am a HERO System child, and that will always be part of me. One result is that I come up with very fleshed-out character concepts and “kits,” strong ideas about who the character is and how they should work. For example, a character I recently wanted to build was a pistol-packing harengon ship’s engineer, just in case a Spelljammer campaign materialized in my future. Think a cross between Gadget Hackwrench and Tracer from Overwatch. Should be a fairly straightforward thing, right? Artillerist Artificer, and you’re good to go. Except Artillerist is a pet class. You can carry your little turret companion like a weapon if you want to, but it’s still basically a familiar doing its own thing. I also wanted this character to have a wicked kick, with those harengon legs—not something she’d be doing on the regular, more as a bit of character fluff and a potential back-up to fall on if she was pinned down for some reason. So Fighting Initiate could get that with the Unarmed Combat style… except a harengon doesn’t get access to a feat until 4th level, and has to give up one of their quite-probably-only ASIs to get it.

So I tried an Armorer with Thunder Gauntlets, reskinning a heavy crossbow as her paired pew-pew pistols (making one attack requiring two hands), or using the Custom Lineage option to build a kinda-sorta harengon who could get Fighting Initiate but lost the signature leap ability in the process, or Artificer with a couple of levels of Fighter… I tried all sorts of combos. Some of them kinda-sorta worked, but none of them were what I really wanted, or at least wouldn’t become what I really wanted until well into the campaign. Which points to the next problem.

D&D Is Secretly a Seven-Level Game

5E’s designers made it no secret that they really considered 3rd level to be where most campaigns should probably start, but that they felt compelled to include the “training wheels” levels of 1-2 for reasons of tradition and easing new players in. Which, meh, but I could live with that if the game didn’t start to come apart at 6th level and generally go off the rails completely by 9th or 10th. I’m not just talking about the famously-broken CR system that doesn’t work past 3rd, but just the sheer arms race between the PCs and the monsters. Once the 3rd- and 4th-level spells come out, no monster who doesn’t have maxed hit points is likely to survive more than one round; and if you scale up the monsters so they can last any length of time, they’re almost as likely to one-punch any party member who isn’t a barbarian. I’ve observed in multiple games now that starting around 7th level combat feels less like a tactical skirmish and more like rocket tag. Which is fun sometimes, but for me at least it gets old fast.

So the “good part” of the game starts at 3rd level, starts creaking at 6th, and rare is the campaign that goes above 10th. That’s effectively a 7-level game, even if there are 20 levels in the book. If you like unusual character combos, say a burglar who’s also a martial artist a la the image at the top of this page, you probably won’t get there until the campaign’s half over—by which time the barbarian’s reckless rage, the paladin’s smite-nova, etc. are all going to be way more effective than anything you can pull off anyway. (Let’s not even get into the fact that such a character would be extremely cool in the Tier-1 or Tier-2 worlds of mortal adventure, but completely in the wrong world for Tier-3+. Spider-Man can go to space, sure, but he doesn’t BELONG there.) Which leads to the next issue…

Anti-Fun Abilities You Can’t Not Use

It’s against my nature to ban character abilities; given the “You Can’t Make That Character” issue already mentioned, I want more options instead of fewer. However, in practice, there start to be some things that show up over and over again, because they’re too good not to use, and I would argue, actually make the game less fun for me as a player, and definitely make the game less fun for me as the DM. For instance…

  • Stunning Strike. On paper, this seems like a fun little controller ability. Spend some of your class resource to make the enemy lose a turn, giving you advantage on hitting them on the next turn. Thematically it fits: has there been a martial arts movie fight where the hero didn’t ring an opponent’s bell, shove them through a pile of crates, or something else that took them out of the fight briefly? So it should be great. But what happens in practice? The monk spams stunning strike until the BBEG fails their saving through purely through the law of averages, and then the rest of the party surround-and-pounds, fight over one round. What cool things can the BBEG do? You’ll never know.
  • Spirit Guardians. Who even let this into the game? The cleric gets an aura that auto-kills enemies within 15′ of them without any effort or risk on their part… and 3/4 of the monsters in the game have no ranged options? The first time someone cast this in my game, I thought I had to be reading it wrong, but nope, that’s how it works. Instead of being afraid of an angry mob, the cleric runs towards them.
  • And More… Banishment ends entire fights with a single saving throw. Wild Shape gives you multiple hit point pools that you can just use and discard. With the right subclass and a single feat, a human barbarian could literally resist all damage of any kind at 3rd level. I used to think sneak attack was broken, until I saw a game get above 5th level, now I feel like rogues have kinda gotten the shaft.

“yOU JuSt Ne3D To bE crEATivE!”

Posting about any of these issues to just about any internet space will get you a bunch of Reply Guys telling you that they can be fixed through encounter design or somehow magically by “Just being creative!” So let me throw in a sidebar rant about that, while I’m ranting. I’m already the King of Reskinning; being a HERO System child teaches you that, as the entire system is literally nothing but reskinning. As for encounter design, does it really make sense that I should have to build all of my encounters around the fact that the paladin is going to go supernova on their smites on the first round, or the barbarian does 75 points of damage per turn unless they crit, or that the wizard will limit every creature to being able to move or attack but not both? What, pray tell, is the point of even having published adventures when I have to throw away all the written encounters and rebuild them from scratch because WotC foes are made of tissue paper? YES, D&D encounters work better if you have multiple foes rather than a single powerful monster, and YES it’s okay for the players to flex on the monsters sometimes, and YES I can just give every monster more hit points or have another wave come running around the corner, BUT these are not solutions to the systemic problems.

Sooo… Whatcha Gonna DO About It?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think that the core engine of 5E is fine, honestly, but it has too much “D&D Baggage” attached to it to really find a meaningful solution. You’d have to go through the whole system from top to bottom to pound out every proud nail, dry out every damp squib, and tune every sour note, at which point you’re basically playing a different system anyway. Pathfinder 2E seems tempting, with promises of robust 1st-level characters and repeated claims by various YouTube channels that it actually is and stays balanced for 20 levels, but I have my concerns.

Heck, HERO System still exists, even if it’s a giant wall-o-text mess these days, and so does Savage Worlds and any other number of alternate rules systems. But D&D is easily King of the Hill in terms of online/remote play support, with PF2E the only other one that even comes close. There are a few random people doing Foundry Mods or Roll20 plug-ins for games that aren’t D&D/PF2E, but they’re super-niche.

So… I don’t know. It might just be that I need a break.

Filed under : Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying Games | Comments Off on Fighting the System in D&D
Apr 20 2022

More Rambling About 5E vs. Pathfinder 2E

Posted by

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

Some follow-up to my last post on this topic, I’ve had a few things keep coming back to me from the things fans of PF2E have said. Specifically, “martials who don’t suck,” and “all levels matter.”

You’ve Been Bushwhacked, Martial!

Martials occupy a very weird space in 5E. In the grand tradition of “linear fighters and quadratic wizards,” martials are generally quite strong at low levels, but quickly become overshadowed by the casters at higher levels. This trend is not absolute and can be very muddy, as there is literally no completely non-magical class in 5E. (Sub-classes, yes. But every class has at least one and usually multiple magical variations.) And it has certain outliers that have to be accounted for. Every fight in my Tomb of Annihilation campaign has to be balanced around the barbarian, who does “every hit point in the Universe in damage” every round. A different barbarian in my upcoming Red Hand of Doom is literally resistant to every kind of damage, except psychic… effectively giving him a d24 hit die. Paladins go supernova. Monks stunlock boss monsters and turn apocalyptic encounters into trivial surround-and-pounds.

(Sorry, fighters and rogues. Being dependable over the course of 6-8 encounters per day is not the selling point 5E’s design seems to think it is.)

PF2E‘s approach to this, as far as I’ve gathered from my research, is to balance around encounters rather than days (which as I mentioned in my last post, has its dangers), and to hit casters with a nerfbat.

I am fine with hitting casters with a nerfbat.

I am very, very fine with hitting casters with a nerfbat.

So if that’s actually true, well… it does sound appealing.

But then I hear about PF’s classes have things like the Gunfighter holding a sword in front of the barrel of their gun so the bullet splits in two and hits two different targets, and I’m just like… “Really?”

So. I dunno.

Dirty Secret: 5E Only Has 7 Levels

It is a truism (and not without reason) that 5E kinda goes off the rails somewhere around 10th level. It’s not impossible to play by any stretch, but everything has to be extensively customized to the crazy abilities of your specific party, and you have to design enough flexibility into every fight that the monsters will last more than a round and a half, but can’t one-punch half the party. This is why published materials tend to stop here, the work-to-reward ratio of building those adventures doesn’t outweigh the fact that fewer campaigns actually get there… which turns into a downward spiral, since there are fewer adventures, so fewer people play, which causes them to make still fewer adventures…

But this is just half of the picture. 5E is designed with the idea that levels 1-2 are “trainer” levels, with characters who are extremely simplistic to play, and are also extremely fragile. More experienced groups are low-key expected to just always start new campaigns at 3rd level, when classes really “come online.” (And a lot of multiclass characters don’t really reach their intended “build” until 6th, 7th, or higher.)

So effectively, D&D campaigns are only expected to be levels 3-10.

In our group, we lobbied InkBlitz to only award 1/2 experience for the campaign Shade-Of-the-Candle is in, because we want it to last! But at the same time, we do kinda feel like we’re languishing in the 5th-7th range (and I think Blitzy’s getting bored there). Imagine how much better it would be all around if we could keep leveling up without being afraid that this level will be the one that kills the campaign because it becomes unmanageable?

Now, this is mostly theoretical, and the only evidence that Pathfinder is any better is, well, PF fans saying so. I can tell from just looking at the math that low-level PF characters are sturdier (my PF Shady build had 20 hp at 1st level), but low level monsters hit harder, too (a 1st level hobgoblin does roughly 8 points of damage per hit and has a good chance of hitting twice per round). But creating a 1st level PF character is a fairly lengthy process that involves choosing options for your background, your class, your ancestry, a personal feat (which can be mostly flavor) and any archetypes (how PF handles multiclassing, “half-” races, and other mix-and-match abilities). So there’s already a lot of customizing going on right out the gate.

Whether this extra mental investment translates into more fun, probably depends a lot on what you want out of the game. I love to build “exactly the character I want,” so there’s a lot for me to chew on there. Some of the other players are much happier with a pushbutton game where they don’t need to think about the rules—which is an understandable side effect of having to do a lot of adulting all the time, and just wanting your D&D night to be fun with friends.

And, well… do I really care about getting to play 20 whole levels of a game? I’m feeling a certain amount of fatigue from my Tomb of Annihilation game, but that’s also because it’s one long single narrative that has taken a year and a half to get through. My Storm King’s Thunder campaign was much more rambly and episodic (at least until the end), and I’m looking forward to going back to that.

It’s 11th level… we’ll see how playable it actually is. >.> It would certainly be comforting to have confidence in the system underneath it.

-TG

Filed under : Dungeons & Dragons | Comments Off on More Rambling About 5E vs. Pathfinder 2E
Apr 01 2022

Finding My Path in #DnD

Posted by

You couldn't do this at 1st level.

Wow, has it really been August since I last posted here? Crazy. >.>

Anyway! We’re nearing the end of Tomb of Annihilation, so victory or defeat, we’ll soon be heading back to the characters from Storm King’s Thunder, all waiting patiently at 11th level for the story to roll back around to them. And, NGL, I’ve got cold feet. High level D&D and I have not had a smooth relationship over the years, in that kind of “our star signs don’t match” way that isn’t anybody’s fault but still gums things up.

Leaving out my philosophical/aesthetic problems wrapping my head around high level play, there’s also the fact that 5E’s rules just plain break. This was evidenced most dramatically at the end of Storm King’s Thunder when, after hearing about what a damp squib the fight against the campaign bigbad was, I buffed it like crazy and they still curbstomped her. This was an 11th level party going against a CR 23 monster, mind you, with big buffs on either side, yes, but at the end of the fight most of the support characters on either side were a wash.

It’s not so much the outcome of the fight that bugged me about it… I would have liked the baddie to last one more round, maybe? But she did get to do a few things. What bugged me was that this was a fight that, on paper, should have reduced the PCs to a thin yellow spray, and they knocked it out of the park. Good on them for knocking it out of the park, but that clearly means that I can’t trust the encounter building guidelines, period. This is a huge problem because, with so little high level content available, I’m gonna have to homebrew 85-90% of it, and I don’t have any tools to work with other than eyeballing everything and hoping for the best.

Just, ugh. :P I can do it, but the whole point of using The Popular Game™ is that I shouldn’t have to be building everything from scratch.

So earlier this week, I decided to give Pathfinder 2E a look. I keep hearing about how it has so much more robust math and so very many character options that we wouldn’t have to homebrew a new race for InkBlitz and SirFox every campaign, the rules would just cover it. When 5E came out I literally gave away almost all my Pathfinder 1E books because I was so burned out on the 3.x engine I knew I would never willingly run it again; when PF2E came out, I didn’t even give it a look, because I was quite comfy running my (at the time low-level) 5E game. By a weird quirk of synchronicity, I found a bunch of recent YouTube videos with titles like “Why Are So Many 5E DMs Switching to Pathfinder Lately?” which gave me a lot to chew on. By an even weirder quirk, Paizo just announced earlier this week that they are releasing a 5E conversion of one of their most popular PF2E adventure paths, which amused me.

So I dove into vids from prominent PF2E creators and I picked up a copy of the Pathfinder Beginner Box on Roll20 to give it a look. I built a PF2E adaptation of Shade-Of-the-Candle, and generally gave it as thorough a poke around as I could without starting a whole new trial campaign. These are the thoughts I had on the topic:

Running the Treadmill

5E and PF2E have fundamentally different philosophical underpinnings. Thanks to bounded accuracy, 5E is “static,” with the 10-30 DC range being pretty dependable across all levels. Even the advantage/disadvantage mechanic doesn’t change the range of numbers you can hit, just the probability that you’ll roll high. A completely cheesed-out high level character in 5E might make a check or attack roll with as much as +6 proficiency, +5 stat bonus, and a dizzying +3 gear/circumstance bonus, turning their average roll into a 25. But a skilled low-level character could also conceivably hit a 25 in something they’re good at! Since most creatures’ AC tops out around 20, the effect of this is that high level characters hit their target more often, but low level characters aren’t necessarily locked out of being effective at all.

PF2E, on the other hand, adds your level to every check with which you’re proficient—and to balance that, DCs and monster AC goes up by the same amount. As long as you only fight on-level stuff, this is a wash, but it means you will ROFLstomp anything just a few levels below you, or get ROFLstomped in return by anything just a few levels above you. This effect is magnified by the way PF2E handles critical successes and failures, and PF2E leans into that by having crits explode in effectiveness. High level creatures aren’t just hitting low level creatures more often, they’re pouring crit after crit into them. As a result, you get the MMO-style world that either quietly levels up around you based on your stats, or the challenges around you rapidly get trivialized as you level past them.

That’s something that used to bug me in 3.x/PF1, where it was less pronounced. In PF2E, you have to be all in on that design, or you won’t have a good time. Bring on the Level 15 stirges, baby!

Oh, and since it only effects things you’re proficient with, by the time you’re 5+ levels deep, the chances of succeeding a skill check you aren’t proficient with rapidly fades, leading characters to hyper-specialization in short order.

Razor’s-Edge Encounter Balance Cuts Both Ways

From all reports I could find, the encounter creation rules in PF2E have their rough spots but are mostly as accurate as described. And like D&D 4E, PF2E is balanced mostly around the encounter rather than the adventuring day. This makes story-based adventures (where there may only be one fight per day) work much better, as you don’t have a big imbalance between the casters/paladins/monks who can go nova, and the lowly “dependable martials” who can’t. On the other hand, it means that the only three encounter difficulties are “Trivial,” “Challenging,” and “OMG.” The best description I heard of it was “Every encounter in PF2E feels like a boss fight.”

As the DM, this can be super-freeing, because all you have to do is grab monsters that match the math and you can be confident you’ll get what you want out of the encounter. On the other hand, it can be super-limiting, because you can’t just toss whatever you feel like in there! You have to run the math for everything so you don’t accidentally put in the one owlbear too far that turns it from a good fight into a one-way trip to Boot Hill for your PCs. Where 5E is so loose as to be shapeless, PF2E is so tight that you run a regular risk of overtuning.

Swords and Spreadsheets

Pathfinder 2E is a game that is daunting to look at, period. Every character sheet or monster statblock is a sea of keywords that you have to either memorize or have quick reference for. Building your character requires choosing a Background, a Heritage, a Class, an Archetype, feats attached to all of those, and then any extra feats or proficiencies you still have left over at the end; then every time you level up, all of your proficient values change and you gain at least one new ability, whether that’s a class feature, a racial feat, a personal feat, etc. Running the game is an exercise in tracking “+2+1-4+2+2-2 = +1” calculations for everything you do, and because of the importance of critical success/failure, each one of those +1’s or -1’s is important. Now most of this calculation is just done up front (or when you level up), but if you have players with a short attention span—or you’re a DM who can’t hold more than three things in your head at once—there’s going to be a lot of “What was that modifier again? What does this condition do again? Wait, does {insert spell name here} apply?” going on, which is exactly the sort of thing that slows games and why 5E created the whole “advantage/disadvantage” system in the first place.

Basically, you’ve got to think about the mechanics a lot more often, and having a rule for EEEVERYTHING makes it a lot easier to “do it wrong.” The system gives you a solid framework to build custom creatures/items/character abilities on, but it’s like a giant erector set with a bunch of weird-looking little pieces. What do they all do? Why is this one at this weird angle? Why are there four different types of connectors??? I’m sure it works beautifully once you’ve got the hang of it, but from the outside it just makes my eyes swim.

My Fallacy Cost Sunk! (or, “Trading One Kind of System Pain For Another”)

Honestly, one reason I was considering PF2E was to bring back crunchy magic item rules for SirFox; 5E has worse-than-nothing systems on this topic and it’s caused us headaches in the past. But when I did a quick-and-dirty canvassing of opinions from group, he was the first one to argue against learning a new system so far into an established campaign. It surprised me, but other players said basically the same thing, and they’re not wrong. Jumping into Pathfinder at any level higher than 1 would probably be a disaster in terms of learning the system. But there’s also the fact that I’m just not convinced that it wouldn’t be just trading one set of problems for a different set.

I still have to come up with adventures that will work for these characters in this campaign. 5E is going to be mostly silent on this front, with me grabbing what third-party stuff I can find to use from the DM’s Guild, but mostly making it up as I go—with useless encounter building guidelines. Pathfinder has high-level content and great tools, but its adventures are as dense as the rule system they’re built for, and when I’ve run them in the past I usually end up throwing out large chunks and homebrewing the rest anyway. Even at higher levels, 5E is mostly-transparent at the table and fairly breezy in combat… the idea of going back to hour long fights does not appeal. O.o

So for the time being at least, I ended up deciding to stick with 5E. When we someday reach the end of the Storm King crew’s campaign, maybe I’ll look at running some PF2E just to see what it’s actually like… but I suspect by then we’ll either be at or near new editions for both. We’ll see.

-The Gneech

Aug 08 2017

In Which Some 5E Stuff Needs Remixing

Posted by

Pictured: Probably not challenging enough.

Pictured: Probably not challenging enough.

In terms of round-by-round, 5E is great. It doesn’t have the grind-grind-grind problem of 3.x/PF, nor the “everybody is a sorcerer” problem of 4E (which, I’m told, also gets ridiculously grindy in short order).

But structurally, in terms of encounter building and monster design (and how that ties in with rest and advancement), I feel like it still has problems.

The Resource Management Game Nobody Plays

The “15-minute workday” is still a thing in 5E. The game is balanced around the notion that every two encounters (or so) the characters will take a short rest, and that after their sixth encounter of the day they’ll take a long rest.

In order for that to work, most of the individual encounters need to not be that tough. The party uses a big spell in one, the fighter loses some hit points in the next, and so on, but they can soldier on through. Because no one encounter is likely to wreck the party, they can keep on going until they’re out of Adventure Fuel (i.e., hit points and spells), and then recharge with a long rest.

The problem there is that, narrative wise, this can get real boring. If the stakes are that low for almost every encounter, and you have limited game time, there is a strong desire to “skip to the encounter that actually matters.”

So there is a strong inclination to beef up individual encounters, so that each one feels more significant. Instead of six rooms with six orcs each, the party finds three rooms with twelve orcs each. (Of course, in a well-built dungeon, there’ll be more variety than that. But you get the idea.)

But! When confronted with tougher encounters, players inevitably go nuclear on them– the wizard opens every fight with a fireball, the fighter uses their action surges, etc.– and it makes perfect sense for them to do so. The players don’t know how tough the encounter is or isn’t, or what the GM might have up their sleeve. Better to blast the hell out of everything and be reasonably sure you got it all, than to get one-punched by something without ever getting a spell off.

And what do players do after they’ve gone nuclear? They want a long rest to recharge! If that means backing out of the entire dungeon and coming back the next day to take it one room at a time? That’s what they’ll do.

Fighters get the shaft in a situation like this– their strength relative to magic-users is they can keep fighting all day without expending resources. But if the wizard gets recharged every time, the endurance of martial classes is irrelevant. (This is why everyone was a sorcerer in 4E.) Action surges and stuff like that make fighters a little more bursty to compensate, and of course 5E rogues are OP no matter how you slice it, so it’s not as bad as it was in 3.x/PF, but it’s still a thing.

The NERF™ Monster Manual

My campaign currently has a very large party. Six PCs, plus 1-3 NPCs of varying power levels depending on the scenario. This utterly breaks the action economy as it is, but even moreso once Bounded Accuracy comes into play.

Far from making it so that “even goblins can stay viable threats,” with a party this size B.A. makes it so that “even dragons are never a viable threat.” ;P In my last session, the 5th level party went into a fight with three wights and six zombies, and didn’t break a sweat. They were a little annoyed at the way the zombies kept standing back up again… but it wasn’t scary, so much as a nuisance.

Dammit, I want wights to be scary. -.-

When you have an edition in which levels 1-2 are pretty much intended to be skipped, but 60% of the monsters are CR 3 or lower, you end up with things like this. When you then combine NERF™ monsters with beefed up encounters, you suddenly have 5th level parties facing beholders. Combat then becomes very, very swingy, a game of rocket tag in which the only roll that matters is “initiative.”

Not great for “heroic fantasy” style gameplay. Also not great when the players have six chances to roll higher initiative than the monsters. ;P (Savage Worlds, a game that deliberately has rocket tag combat, also makes you check initiative fresh at the beginning of each round to at least add a little more uncertainty to this.)

Encounter Inflation and XP

The other danger of beefed up encounters, using the default assumptions of XP and level advancement, is that characters get beefed up XP, which in turn makes them advance faster, and the whole thing just explodes geometrically.

This can be avoided by decoupling XP from monster CR (or at least minimizing it), which a lot of my favorite RPGs of the past did by default. The HERO System for instance gave a pretty flat “3 XP per session, +/- 1-2 points for dull/easy or awesome/tough sessions.” You could (and our group often did) go through whole sessions without anyone so much as throwing a punch– and as long as everyone had a good time, you didn’t feel like you’d been shafted in the XP department for it.

The most recent Unearthed Arcana column has an interesting take on this, proposing a “100 XP per level” model in which exploration, interaction, and combat all have 1-4 tiers of difficulty, and any given encounter would give (10 x tier) XP.

I think this is a neat idea, although the first thing I notice is that it flattens XP progression back out. 5E is famously designed so that you fast-forward through levels 1-2, slow down for 3-10, and then pick up a little from 11+. The XP for monsters might still need work tho– it basically boils down to “5 XP per normal monster, 2 XP per minion, 15 XP for something way out of your league.” In the case of my party vs. the not-terribly-scary wights, that would have been 22 base XP, halved for having more than 6 characters, or 11 XP. Was that encounter really worth 1/10 of a level?

The tiers for treasure and interactions are also sorta arbitrary. Tier 4 exploration (worth 40 XP) is the discovery/wresting from monsters a “location of cosmic importance,” for instance. If a campaign starts doing the whole plane-hopping thing later, you’ll be discovering cosmic locations all the time, won’t you?

But the key thing is, with this system, combat is no longer the benchmark for character growth. Like the original “1 GP = 1 XP” model, characters who like to talk, sneak, or otherwise do things besides fight all the things have an alternate progression track, and that makes for a more varied and potentially-interesting game.

So What Does It All Mean?

Based on all this, I think I would prefer:

  • Beef up monsters a bit. When 1st level lasts a while, a CR 3 monster (like a wight) is scary longer. When the game starts at 3rd level and goes up from there, a CR 3 monster becomes the new baseline. By that reckoning, a lowly goblin should be at least CR 1, while a wight should be something like CR 5. Almost everything in the Monster Manual needs at least +10 hit points and +2 to their attack rolls. :P
  • Tweak rests. This post is hella long already, so I will have to save the “rest” issues for another day. Something that will allow for tougher individual encounters, without screwing over the fighter types and/or creating 15 minute workdays is a big challenge.
  • Non-Combat XP is Best XP. A tier-based system in which each encounter (whether it is a puzzle, a roleplaying moment, a fight, a treasure looted, whatever) gains about the same XP makes for a much more interesting game. Is talking to the shop-owner as much of a learning experience as fighting for your life? Well… maybe not. But if it’s a great moment in the game, it should be more rewarding than just tossing a fireball at 2d6 orcs.

What do you think, players?

-The Gneech

Filed under : Dungeons & Dragons | Comments Off on In Which Some 5E Stuff Needs Remixing
Sep 30 2016

Some Random Thoughts About Pathfinder

Posted by

Pathfinder Ultimate Combat cover

I remember the moment I was done with Pathfinder. I was trying to get my sputtering Eberron game to fly and I’d picked up a PF module, and one of the foes– not even the “boss fight” at the end mind you, but just a normal encounter in the middle of the adventure– had a stat block that was more than a page and a half long. Three-plus columns of 10-point type. I don’t remember what the creature was, other than a general feeling of it being something along the lines of “fiendish half-golem mutant dreamlands giant oracle 4/barbarian 3/inquistor 2”.

I literally looked at the page and said, “Oh, shut up.”

People who’ve known me for a long time know that I jumped on the Pathfinder bandwagon early on and stayed with them for years. Given the options at the time, there were a lot of good reasons for doing so. But near the end of my run as a Pathfinder GM, my games were floundering. I kept trying to co-opt Star Wars Saga Edition for everything, or if that failed, switching to things like Savage Worlds so that there wasn’t so much overhead in game prep and to keep fights from lasting hours… with varying amounts of success.

Now here’s the thing. 3E was amazing in its day. Providing a framework to not only allow but to encourage all kinds of mixing and matching of creatures, classes, and templates threw open the gates for all kinds of new and interesting encounters D&D had rarely seen before. In 2E a vampire lizardfolk being the twist villain at the end of a module was enough to make it a “fresh and exciting classic.” (I won’t spoil it by saying which one, but grognards probably know already.) With 3E, you could do that all the time and feel relatively confident that the ruleset would support it.

So when Bruce Cordell tossed a vampiric gibbering mouther into Heart of Nightfang Spire (if I’m remembering correctly– it might have been Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil?) it was kind of neat as gimmick, but also got snorts for being kind of silly. I myself used a similar trick when the players in my group destroyed a cursed magic item by feeding it to a gray ooze– only to have them attacked by a fiendish gray ooze for their trouble.

But that kind of thing is like cayenne pepper: a little bit gives the encounter a kick, but any more than that and you can’t taste anything else.

Pathfinder, especially latter-day Pathfinder, is cayenne pepper soup with a side of cayenne pepper chips and a coffee with cayenne pepper cream. Most game systems tend towards inflation and bloat as they age, and 3.x was creaking under its own weight by the time Pathfinder rolled out. [1] PF cleaned up some of the clunkiest bits, which helped, but as the years rolled on and the pressure to keep adding new things carried on, it became this giant lumbering mess of a game, perfectly captured in visual form by the baroque and overwrought Wayne Reynolds art that is its hallmark.

What brings me to all this right now is that I’ve been invited to join an online Pathfinder game. Now I’m grateful to be a player in anything (and I promise not to kibitz about PF at the table!), so yesterday I pulled out Lachwen and statted up a 3rd level version. Thankfully, it’s a “core” game, and I had Hero Labs to work with because I had forgotten (or blocked) so much of how 3.x/PF worked that it would have taken me hours to do it by hand. Using the “PC wealth by level” guidelines, she started with 3,000 gp and with that she bought… three numeric bonus items. Because that’s how PF magic items work. I might go back and toss one of those out for a dozen spell scrolls or something that add a little more interest than a random +1.

It was the first time I’d looked at Pathfinder in any significant way in two years, and I was surprised at just how strong my reaction was to it, and what a difference 5E has made in how I look at the game. It also kinda makes me wonder what the gaming world would be like now if WotC had released 5E in 2008, instead of what we actually got. I have no doubt there would have still been edition wars, with nerds being the way we tend to be; but I don’t think it would have torn the community so wildly apart.

-The Gneech

[1] This is one reason WotC is being very slow and deliberate with its 5E releases. They don’t want to have to make a new edition and risk another 4E schism again any time soon. 5E‘s deliberate modularity is also a hedge against this– just because a given subsystem exists, doesn’t mean that you’re expected or required to use it. A third of the DMG is systems like Sanity that only a few outlier games will ever bother with.

Filed under : Dungeons & Dragons | Comments Off on Some Random Thoughts About Pathfinder
Jul 20 2015

Monster Monday: Tentamort for 5E

Posted by

One of my old Fiend Folio favorites, brought to the new edition. The flavor text is not mine, I just did the stat conversion. NOTES: Is it nuts that a CR 2 creature can have 55 hit points? That seems nuts to me. 5E, you have strange math.

Attack of the killer mustache!

Tentamort (CR 2; 450 XP)

Medium monstrosity, unaligned


Armor Class 12
Hit Points 55 (10d8+10)
Speed 10′, climb 10′


Str 15/+2, Dex 14/+2, Con 13/+2, Int 3/-4, Wis 14/+2, Cha 5/-3


Skills Stealth +4
Damage Resistances poison
Condition Immunities prone
Senses darkvision 60′, passive Perception 12
Languages


Retraction. The tentamort may compress itself and all of its tentacles into small crevasses in rocky, swampy, or otherwise suitable terrain. Doing this gives it AC 15 and advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks but renders it immoble.

Spider Climb. The tentamort can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.

Tentacle Sever. The tentamort’s tentacles may be targeted in combat. Each one is AC 12, 15 hit points. Damage done to a tentacle counts against the creature’s total hit points. A severed tentacle is destroyed and cannot attack. It regenerates severed tentacles over the course of three days.


Actions


Multiattack. The tentamort makes two attacks, one with each tentacle, or two with its poison tentacle against a grappled target.

Grasping Tentacle. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 15′, one creature. Hit: 11 (2d8+2) bludgeoning damage and the target is grappled (escape DC 12) if it is medium or smaller. While grappling the target, the tentamort has advantage on attack rolls against it and can’t use this attack on other targets. The tentamort may attempt to push or pull the target 5′ per turn as a bonus action if it defeats the target in a contested Strength check.

Poison Tentacle. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 15′, one target. Hit: 11 (2d8+2) piercing damage and the target must make a DC 12 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned for ten minutes. While poisoned, the target takes 9 (2d8) damage at the beginning of each of their turns and cannot recover hit points. The target may make a new saving throw to overcome the poison at the end of each of their turns.

(Text from the Pathfinder PRD.)

Tentamorts are eerie ambush predators, preferring to let prey come to them rather than seeking food out, and relying on their excellent senses to warn them of approaching meals. A tentamort possesses several tentacles, most of which are used for locomotion but two of which have evolved for singular purposes in securing food. One of these longer tentacles is covered with tiny, sticky nodules and is capable of constricting prey, while the other ends in a long, thin stinger. The tentamort’s method of attack is to grab its prey with its constricting tentacle and sting the grappled target with the other. Tentamort poison is particularly horrific, as it swiftly liquefies the creature’s internal organs into a rancid slurry the monster can then drink with the same stinger, siphoning out the fluid with foul sucking sounds. Larger creatures often require multiple stings (and multiple failed saving throws against the venom) before they can be fully absorbed by a tentamort. Tentamorts are almost mindless, possessing just enough intellect to make crude animal judgments about peril and food. Once a tentamort has grabbed prey, it tends to focus entirely on that creature, ignoring attacks upon it from other sources as long as its current victim remains a source of nutrition. After a tentamort finishes consuming a creature, all that typically remains are the bones and skin.

A well-fed tentamort uses the hollow corpse of its meal as a sort of incubator for its eggs, injecting the body with a caviar-like mass of black eggs that mature in the rotting carcass for several weeks until a dozen or so hand-sized tentamorts hatch and crawl out of their host’s orifices. Depending upon the availability of other prey, anywhere from one to six of these may survive, feeding on rats and Tiny vermin, until they eventually grow to adulthood. Tentamort young look like dark blue starfish with a single red eye in the center—they do not possess their longer, specialized tentacles until they mature. A young tentamort often attaches itself to a larger predator, clinging to it much the same way a remora clings to a shark, dropping off to feed innocuously on its host’s kills while the creature sleeps.

Some tentamorts grow much larger than their human-sized kin. Known as greater tentamorts, these ogre-sized creatures have at least [18] Hit Dice and are Large sized. Their two specialized tentacles grow to 20 feet long, providing the creature with greater reach than a Large monster normally possesses. Greater tentamorts are never found in groups, for these creatures can only achieve such monstrous size through cannibalism, as if there were some key nutrient in another tentamort’s body that allows them to exceed their typical physical limitations. Some of these creatures have mutations giving them two tentacles and two stingers. Yet the most disturbing quality possessed by these monsters is their unexpected intellect—greater tentamorts are often as intelligent as humans, or more so. They cannot speak, but possess an eerie form of telepathy that works only upon creatures they are in physical contact with—a feature they often use to “chat” with their food as they eat.

Filed under : Dungeons & Dragons, Monster Monday | Comments Off on Monster Monday: Tentamort for 5E