Tag: Pathfinder

Digging In the Old School Sandbox

There’s a lot of talk in the gamer blogosphere about the new edition of D&D‘s compatibility with OSR (“Old-School Renaissance” or “Old School Roleplaying,” depending on who you ask). And while there’s not always consensus on exactly what OSR consists of, there is no question in my mind that that 5e has been strongly influenced by the OSR movement, from mapless encounters to wandering monsters.

Hand-in-hand with OSR comes the concept of “sandbox play,” a style in which the DM does not create scenes or story beats, but rather maps out locations and creatures/NPCs, gives them goals, and starts them rolling, then turns to the players and says, “What do you do?” There is no story until the players bring one to the table; what scenes or exciting things happen are purely emergent based on what the players do.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver in the Starter Set has been largely praised by reviewers for its “sandbox” nature, especially the portions that take place in and around the main town. There are multiple potential patrons with sometimes conflicting goals, and there are multiple ways to get involved with and approach most of the adventure locales. There’s only one real “railroad” moment, and that’s right at the start of the game: you will be ambushed by goblins as the first encounter. From there, even though there are adventure hooks, you don’t have to follow any of them and it isn’t assumed that you necessarily will.

Some of the hooks are obvious: your patron has been carried off by goblins and if you want to get paid (or are simply loyal to him), you’ll probably want to go track him down. But the adventure doesn’t break if you don’t. Once you get to the town, there are plenty of other factions to get involved with or adventure leads to follow up on. For that matter, there are trails leading out into the wilderness, so you don’t even need to go looking for adventure hooks if you don’t want to. You can just head out on the road and see where it leads you. Of course, if your initial patron dies, you’ll lose the benefits of having him around and any further leads he might have had for you, so it’s not without consequences– but it’s also not a “game over” screen, so to speak.

Prior to Dragonlance, this was actually the norm in D&D adventure design, and in some ways it’s very liberating, for both the players and the DM. In a story-based game, the DM has to make sure there are no major plot holes, or the players will immediately and inevitably find them and break your story. And you have to be sending the players through a story they’re interested in, or else the whole thing will fall flat at best, or create friction at worst. As a player, I’ve spent sessions grinding my teeth because I felt forced into a scenario that I didn’t want to participate in and had no control over, because there was a plot I was supposed to follow whether I wanted to or not. As a DM I have certainly been guilty of forcing that on my players in the past as well, and I always regret it afterwards.

But it’s not like it’s all “story-based bad, sandbox good.” One main pitfall of a sandbox game is the chance that when you ask the players, “What do you want to do?” they’ll shrug and say, “I dunno, what do you want us to do?” I recently encountered an extreme version of this with my Eberron game when I presented the players with a list of jobs available at the adventurer’s guild, asked them to pick one, and they simply stared at me. It was not unlike trying to run a campaign based on Bartleby the Scrivener, and I’m still trying to figure out what I did wrong there.

The other major pitfall, from what I’ve read, is that the players will feel like there’s “nothing to do.” They might hear a rumor of a dungeon across the mountains or a shipwreck on an island, or perhaps they’re even wandering from wilderness hex to wilderness hex having a long string of random encounters, but none of it feels like it matters. “When do we get to the story?” seems to be the chief complaint of players in this kind of situation, to which the standard sandbox answer is, “There isn’t a story, until you make one.”

Right now at least, as a DM I’m leaning towards the sandbox model. It requires a lot of mapping out locations and writing up encounters that may or may not be used, but on the other hand, I don’t have to keep coming up with a never-ending stream of plot twists and compelling narratives. I once had a player flat out tell me, “I don’t want to make a story, that’s your job.” At the time I didn’t know what to say to that; these days my answer would be, “Why should I have to do all the work?”

…Which bring me back to 5E, and the bounded accuracy model. 3.x/Pathfinder, with its extreme power scaling, could be run sandbox style, but wasn’t great at it. An encounter that would be a TPK at one level, would be a pushover two levels later, and the whole narrative flow of the game, as well as advancement and treasure acquisition, was based on the model of “mostly normal encounters, plus one or two challenging ones and one or two easy ones.” That meant that you had to constantly scale the world up to match your group, or at the very least make sure everything was in a fairly narrow range.

For sandbox play, that pretty much sucked, because it meant constantly retooling the world around the PCs. This was usually done by moving them from zone to zone like an MMO, so characters didn’t start to wonder why, when they wiped out that cave full of goblins, it was replaced with a cave full of trolls.

Theoretically at least, with 5e’s flatter power curve, the basic ecology of a region can stay the same and still have interesting or challenging encounters over the course of several levels. The wilderness encounter table in Phandelver, for instance, has something as piddly as three stirges (75 XP) all the way up to something as fearsome as five ghouls (1000 XP), and is intended to cover levels 1-5. I pity the group of 1st level characters who get set upon by five ghouls in the middle of the night– but the possibility of that kind of thing happening is a hallmark of both sandbox play, and OSR. It’s also something that you probably wouldn’t see in 3.x/Pathfinder[1].

-The Gneech

[1] Or 4E either, I’d imagine, but that’s because 4E would want to set it all up on a map with a giant magic boulder rolling around in circles doing necrotic damage every other round for no good reason…

Eberroneous

So Laughing Ogre Comics, my local pulp paper distributor of choice, had a small shelf of d20 game stuff that pretty much stopped moving some time around 2007 or so. One of the things on it was an almost-complete set of the 3.x Eberron books, which I’d always been kinda-sorta interested in but never had a compelling reason to get until my recent campaign started.

Having resolved to go in and ask if they’d give me a package deal, I was very surprised when on the very day I attempted to do so, they’d reorganized the store and the gaming shelf was gone. O.o Luckily, the stuff had all been just shipped off to a warehouse, so when I asked the manager if it was too late to buy them en masse, it was just a matter of logistics. He was more than pleased to get them off the books, too. Expecting something like a 10% discount, I ended up getting all of them for $5 each. Aww, yeah! I now have a big ol’ “Box of Eberron,” which should keep me in reading material during the long winter months.

In the meantime, now that SirFox has safely landed in California, and we’re hopefully just a week out from being able to game again, I need to turn my attention to cleaning up some of the mess made of the campaign in the last session.

I knew going into the last session that there was a bit of a plot problem. “Mark of Prophecy” (the intro scenario from the 4e Eberron Campaign Guide) basically consists of “a great opening, a solid middle act, and then a ball dropped.” After figuring out that Aric Blacktree was menacing them by proxy, of course the PCs are going to want to go after him– but the scenario as written didn’t account for that. It just had him come attack them while they were flying on an airship… somewhere. Because airship fights. The scenario as written didn’t even say where they were supposed to be going. (Ahh, 4e. So unrestricted by things like story structure.)

The airship fight encounter, as nifty as it was, also wasn’t enough to sustain a whole game session. So to fix both of these things, I stitched the beginning of the next scenario on and turned the “you can’t find Blacktree, but he can find you” thing into a plot point.

Looked good on paper. Didn’t work so well in practice. :-`

Basically, that removed all of the agency from the players. They were given a very obvious “Here’s the next plot hook, go get it!” at the beginning, but were understandably reluctant to start a new one before the previous one was resolved. And instead of enabling them to cleverly seek out and confront the villain like a bunch of Big Damn Heroes, I instead found myself giving them a series of “No, that didn’t work. No, that didn’t work either…” responses until they gave up and stepped into the airship fight encounter as presented in the scenario.

Not my best moment as a GM, sadly. I really should have foreseen that the players would have wanted to chase Blacktree down and had something ready for that. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, some cool “scouring the underbelly of Sharn” encounters leading to the eventual airship fight could have filled in the gap, felt a lot less forced, and not robbed the PCs of their roles as the ones driving the story.

Oh well, lesson learned, hopefully. Meanwhile, they’re already off and into the next scenario anyhow, but I’m not giving up on the whole “that’s actually a plot point” thing. There are wheels within wheels of competing factions who are all trying to manipulate the Draconic Prophecy to their own ends and the PCs are currently pawns in the middle of all this with only a vague idea of what’s actually happening. That part is working as intended– Eberron’s all about the intrigue. But I have to keep my focus on making sure that the story is about the players, not about the plots going on around them.

Part of that means remembering to throw out the plot-as-outlined when it doesn’t make sense or isn’t any fun. And having the PCs pound the pavement all day, get nothing, and then be ambushed by the badguy they’ve been searching for the whole time? Not so much fun.

-The Gneech

In Which the Boom Is Lowered

I didn’t talk about it much on Friday because I wanted it to sink in a little first; but on Friday I was informed that my job in its current form would cease to exist at the end of September.

So, yeah. Not a surprise, if you’ve been following the saga of my transition to pro writer, but still A Thing. I had hoped to have a nice, easy transition period where we sold the current house and bought a new one on our own schedule, after which time I gave my notice and all was well with the world. And certainly, “the end of September” is about when I was projecting for that to happen, so Congratulations, me! The universe’s plans and my own are more-or-less in synch!

Aheheheheheh. *flail*

So what changes? Fairly little, actually. I will probably talk to some folks in the graphics department about taking some part-time or freelance graphic design work as a fallback, but we were on target to have the house on the market by the end of the month anyway, and certainly if we’re actually moving or moved by the time the job goes Pfft! I’ll be just as well off to say my goodbyes and throw myself into the new life.

Good news is, staying through the end of September entitles me to get my yearly bonus. 😉

But Enough of That Pain! Let’s Talk About Gaming!

Ran the third session of my Eberron Pathfinder game on Saturday. The characters had an epic battle in the skies over Sharn as their new would-be menace, Aric Blacktree, tried to kill them all for reasons still unknown (at least to them). For those who don’t know psionics, a word of advice: a 4th level Wilder can do horrifying amounts of single-target burst damage. Beware. By taking a wild surge, Blacktree’s “energy ray” power did 6d6+6 damage as a touch attack. The downside was that he kept suffering enervation (which left him dazed and ate an additional 4 power points), so could only get that shot off twice, and the first one missed. Still… dayum. The second shot incinerated the NPC skycoach pilot on the spot. Fortunately, when the skycoach crashed into a tower, the PCs managed to abandon ship without getting killed in the process.

The second half of the session was basically segueing into another scenario, this time going into the “goth deco” ruined district of Fallen in search of a mysterious statue for an even more mysterious NPC patron. This brought the party’s lack of a cleric into sharp relief, as an exactly on-level encounter with a pack of barbarian ravers (think the inmates from Escape From New York, that kind of thing) dropped two of the characters and severely injured most of the rest. (1st level barbarian, raging, two-handed greatclub power attack: +6 to hit, d10+9 damage. Ouchie.) A healer in the group would have made all the difference. I suspect there will be an investment in potions/wands soon.

And Then There Was WoW

Last night, after working on the whole “pack up and move” thing for a while, I broke down and bought the full updated version of Mists of Pandaria for World of Warcraft, mainly ‘cos I wanted to make a tanky pandaren and the warrior class was just too darn dull. So now I’ve got an up and running pandaren windwalker monk named Akiji (somewhere in the low teens) and a draenei ice mage named Duskgem (somewhere in the high teens), both on the Moon Guard server, both members of the Fortune guild. Look me up sometime. 🙂

I don’t honestly know how much time I will spend in WoW, given that I will soon be unemployed and might not have money to blow on a monthly rent-to-pwn fee, and given that I’ve always had a begrudingly-enjoy/hate relationship with MMOs, but for the time being it’s serving fairly well for my “Braindead, me go kill monsters until sleeptime…” needs. I’m also a bit uncomfortable about the “racial conflict is in the world’s DNA” nature of the setting, but honestly that’s a common thread in almost all contemporary fantasy– it’s usually just less blatant about it.

-The Gneech

Monday Monster: Mourning Haunt

This is a Pathfinder adaptation of the “Mourning Haunt” creature in the “Mark of Prophecy” adventure from the Eberron Campaign Guide (4E). (Note that this is a CR 5 version, because I was running this adventure at 3rd level. For a CR 3 version, reduce it to 2 HD and lower its natural armor to +6, which will give it AC 16, hp 27, change its to-hit to +4, and change its Haunting Fog ability to DC 12, 1d4 damage.)


Demon Monkey King by ~Emerii on deviantART

A Mourning Haunt resembles a white-furred demonic ape, and is about 7′ tall. Tendrils of dead-gray mist unwind from its fur, concealing it in a cloud of fog. Its eyes are blank white orbs, and its mouth is full of long, sharp teeth. Four curling horns jut from its skull.

Mourning Haunt

CR 5/XP 1600
CE Medium Humanoid (demon)
Init +0; Senses blindsight, darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +4
Aura mourning aura (constant)


AC 18, touch 10, flat-footed 18 (+8 natural)
hp 57 (6d8+21)
Fort +4, Ref +5, Will +4
Defensive Abilities displacing hit (at will); Immune electricity, poison; Resist acid 10, cold 10, fire 10


Speed 30 ft.
Melee Bite +7 (1d6+2/x2) and Claw x2 +7 x2 (1d4+2/x2)
Spell-Like Abilities Haunting Fog (2/combat) (DC 14)


Abilities Str 14, Dex 10, Con 14, Int 9, Wis 10, Cha 12
Base Atk +5; CMB +7; CMD 17
Feats Iron Will, Multiattack, Skill Focus (Acrobatics), Toughness +7
Skills Acrobatics +5, Climb +6, Perception +4


Displacing Hit (Reaction) (Su) When hit by a melee attack, the mourning haunt instantly teleports to a safe space of its choice up to 60′ in any direction. It does not require line of sight, but cannot teleport through force effects. The creature must use this ability when hit by a melee attack, but may choose to teleport as little as 5′ away. This is an instant reaction and does not provoke attacks of opportunity.
Haunting Fog (2/combat) (DC 14) (Sp) A 10′ square area is filled with swirling gray mist that burns all within and may immobilize them. Anyone who enters the fog or is in the fog at the beginning of their turn take (1/2 hd)d4 fire damage (3d4) and must make a Ref save or be immobilized. Once placed, the fog remains until the haunt dispels it or is slain. Mourning haunts are immune to this effect.
Mourning Aura (Constant) (Su) The mourning haunt is surrounded by a 10′ radius aura of swirling gray mists. It has full concealment against creatures outside of the aura, and regular concealment to creatures within it. It takes no penalties from the concealment itself and its darkvision can see perfectly through the mist.

Hero Lab® and the Hero Lab logo are Registered Trademarks of LWD Technology, Inc. Free download at http://www.wolflair.com
Pathfinder® and associated marks and logos are trademarks of Paizo Publishing, LLC®, and are used under license. “Mourning Haunt” and its lore ©2009 Wizards of the Coast, from material written by James Wyatt, Keith Baker, Ari Marmell, and Robert J. Schwalb. This conversion is fan material only, no assertion of ownership is intended or should be inferred.

Dinner and a OHMYGODWHATISTHAT

(Spoilers for “Mark of Prophecy” from the Eberron Campaign Guide ahead.)

Session two of the Eberron Pathfinder campaign began with incorporating Squant the ratfolk summoner into the story, which was quite easy, actually. Hired by Magister Thyrane of the Esoteric Order of Aureon, a self-appointed “arcane watchdog” over Sharn, Squant was given an “extraplanar compass” and tasked with tracking down mysterious and worrisome summoning energies that had been detected in the city. With a cry of “This sounds like fun!” he was off.

The trail led him to the Ambassador Towers district, where Yamashi, Nienna, and Cirano were all attending a ceremony of remembrance as guests of Lord-Major Bren ir’Gadden. It had been four years exactly since the Day of Mourning, and ir’Gadden hadn’t forgotten the mercenaries who rescued him on that day. Other ceremony attendees included other survivors who had been in or near Cyre that day and escaped the tragedy (including the Cyran solider whom Nienna had shot in the leg as he tried to escape the tower four years ago), or displaced Cyran nobles now at the Cyran embassy in Sharn. Doing their best not to commit too many gaffes in such a highbrow crowd (well, except for Cirano), they’d been mingling and eating hors d’oeuvres for a bit by the time Squant arrived. Squant had just managed to get a guard to go fetch “someone in authority” to let him into the ceremony, when a clock chime indicated that it was the exact moment that the Mourning had occurred. Lord-Major ir’Gadden started to make a speech, but then a door slammed open and swirling gray fog came spilling out, as if the Mourning itself had come to Sharn.

Panic, naturally, ensued.

The mist turned out to be an aura effect around a demonic creature known as a “mourning haunt,” which could not be seen from outside the mist, but was visible once you were in it. Looking something like an enormous four-horned demon ape, the mourning haunt began attacking ceremony attendees. The PCs engaged it, as did Lord-Major ir’Gadden, the Sharn guardsmen on hand, and shot-in-the-leg guy. (Shot-in-the-leg-guy, later revealed to be named Talsar, was suffering from a case of bad dice rolls and having a hard time fighting effectively, leading naturally to several jokes about one’s adventuring career being over once you take an arrow to the knee.) Unfortunately, the mourning haunt had a very annoying habit: every time it was hit with a melee attack, it would teleport away, usually to the far side of the map, where it would attack bystanders again. The first several rounds were a Benny Hill-esque chase back and forth from one end of the map to the other, until the PCs figured out the pattern and decided to hold their ground in strategic locations, letting the Sharn soldiers do the chasing and attacking the mourning haunt when it teleported back to being near them.

This chewed up the mourning haunt fairly quickly, causing it to change its tactics. Although killing bystanders was fun and part of its overall agenda, its real mission turned out to be assassinating Lord-Major ir’Gadden, Yamashi, Cirano, Nienna, and Talsar, for reasons unknown, and it began targeting them specifically. By that point, however, the PCs had figured out its gimmick and worked around it, dispatching the thing quickly. As it died, its body dissolved in a flash of arcane energies that briefly formed the dragonmark from the tower of prophecy– “Five at the brink of destruction stand as one against the tempest’s roar.”

Once the immediate crisis was under control and introductions were made, Squant explained that he’d been tracking the mourning haunt, and that the extraplanar compass suggested that the ritual that had brought it to Sharn was still going on. Lord-Major ir’Gadden tasked the PCs with finding the ritual and shutting it down; Talsar insisted on joining them. Like the PCs, he’d had recurring nightmares since the Day of Mourning that contained voices whispering that damn prophecy. “I don’t know how or why, but I’m part of this.” ir’Gadden basically replied “Fine with me,” and off they all went.

This led to a skill challenge sequence in which the PCs questioned shopkeepers, followed the extraplanar compass readings, and searched for traces of the wispy fog or other clues of the haunt’s passing as it traveled from its summoning point to the attack at the ceremony. Two failed rolls led to a pair of complications: the first came when, tracking the gray mists down a drainage pipe, they got battered (and in the case of Talsar, washed away as the dice failed him again) by a flash flood that dumped them into a cold, dark cistern. The second came when, climbing out of the manhole access to the cistern, they disturbed a murder of Sharn crows, a particularly aggressive breed that swarmed all over Cirano. The swarm was quickly dispersed by one of Yamashi’s bombs and some well-place arrows, and the group went on their way.

Eventually they reached their destination: a normally-unremarkable townhouse at the base of one of the towers in the Center Bridge district. (“Normally” unremarkable because at this particular moment, it was anything but: from inside came noises suggestive of a storm, a roaring sound punctuated by peals of thunder.) They decided, as PCs tend to do, to go in the side door, but in this particular instance it didn’t matter: the bottom floor was devoid of any light or activity, everything was happening up above. On the lower floor they did find some personal effects, including a holy text of the Blood of Vol (Divinity of Blood Revealed, sort of the Pocket Bible of the blood cult) which had the name “Blacktree” written inside the back cover.

The upper two floors of the house had been gutted and converted into an eldritch machine that opened a gate to the Mournland. The machine was attended by a dolgaunt and a pair of shifter mercenaries, who seemed to be frantically trying (without much success) to keep it under control. The machine was the source of the roaring thunder, and the sound and lightning cascades from it were growing more intense by the moment– if allowed to keep going, the machine would open an interplanar rift that would cause an explosion that could take out most of the Menthis Plateau. The PCs quickly dispatched the machine’s attendants, then disassembled the device, getting only partially battered and singed by the lightning strikes in the process. As the last piece was smashed, the gate to the Mournland popped like a soap bubble and an unnerving quiet fell over the building.

At this point, Talsar said, “You realize what just happened, right? Five at the brink of destruction stood as one against the tempest’s roar.” Yamashi replied, “Don’t you just love being in the middle of a prophecy?”

The session wrapped up there for the night, with the characters heading back to report to Lord-Major ir’Gadden what they found and did about it. They have also been promised a reward from a Cyran ambassador who survived the attack at the ceremony of remembrance, but they have precious few clues to the scope of the plot at hand and what it all means. Written instructions they found on the slain shifter mercenaries indicated that they were to shut the machine down after two more mourning haunts had come through the gate– it appeared to be mostly luck that hadn’t happened yet. And other than the implication that Aric Blacktree and a man described by a witness in the skill challenge as having “a peculiar curved posture” are involved somehow, they’ve got little to go on.

Perhaps more will become clear next time…

-The Gneech

PS: This scenario was written as 1st level for 4e, but it’s been fairly simple to convert to 3rd level for Pathfinder. I will provide stats for the mourning haunt tomorrow as a “Monday Monster” entry. The skill challenge I ran pretty much straight as written, although I altered the complications for things I thought were a little more interesting than just “random fight with thugs.” Finally, the shifters were changelings in the original scenario, which is more cosmetic than anything else. I was surprised that the group didn’t try to intimidate or otherwise get the shifters to flee, that’s a tactic this group often uses and the shifters were already looking for an excuse.