Jul 20 2015

Monster Monday: Tentamort for 5E

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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

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.


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.

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Nov 21 2014

Killing 4E and Taking Its Stuff

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Coming Home to D&D

It’s no secret that I like D&D 5E. I mean, I really, really like it. I had stated at the time 4E came out that I wanted the new edition to be basically a D&D version of Star Wars Saga Edition, and while I would have liked that, I actually like 5E better in almost every way. It’s not perfect, probably no system can be, but it is still mighty good. Had 5E been what was released in 2008, I am pretty certain there would not have been the Edition Wars, and probably no Pathfinder Roleplaying Game either, for better or worse.

It’s also no secret that I disliked D&D 4e. I mean, I really, really disliked it. All of that said, mechanically and conceptually, there is a fair amount of “the good bits” of 4E still lurking in 5E, maybe more than some people would like to admit. Just as the doom of 4E was foretold in the latter days of 3.5, the doom of 5E was foretold in the latter days of 4E. The only difference is that in the latter days of 4E, a lot fewer people were paying attention, myself included.

I freely admit that I completely ignored the playtest. I am one of those people who felt they’d been “fired as a fan” by WotC, and as such, I simply let them go their own way while I went mine. I was, if not entirely happy with Pathfinder, at least comfortable enough to be getting on, and that worked. (My attempts to move to other systems such as Savage Worlds notwithstanding.) So I missed the “Essentials” phase of 4E, which is where the shifts that led to 5E began, and more importantly I missed the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, which seems to be where the real sea-change had finally appeared.

NCG is thoroughly a 4E book, make no mistake, with all the random disassociated powers and dubstep-colored explodey art you would expect from such a thing. But it also includes campaign-specific Character Themes (which would become 5E‘s Backgrounds) and a strong emphasis on long-term story and away from a long string of perfectly-balanced set piece encounters. In the entire book, there is not a single battle-map to be found. Really, with just a few cosmetic changes in art design and tone (and, y’know, tossing out the 4E mechanical artifacts), NCG is practically a 5E book already.

(Also, if you intend to run the Lost Mines of Phandelver from the 5E Starter Set, it makes a great long-term campaign sourcebook. I’m not using it straight for my own campaign, preferring my own homebrew to the thrice-exploded Forgotten Realms, but I am liberally raiding it for good bits.)

Looting the Body

So, now that 4E is a smoking crater safely behind us, what exactly did 5E take from it, and what is there still worth the taking?

Well, as mentioned, Backgrounds are an implementation of 4E‘s Character Themes, providing a small mechanical benefit for a character’s origin. They call it a “feature” instead of a “power,” which is a welcome name change in my opinion– one of the worst things about 4E was the whole “ADEU” (At-Will/Daily/Encounter/Utility Power) framework, which led to the whole “I’ve used up all my powers, I guess I’ll just attack” malaise that made 4E combat such a tedious grind. [1]

Of course, if you really look at it, the ADEU model is still there. Spell slots are “Daily Powers,” always have been. Any class feature that is expended and recovered after “a short or long rest” is an “Encounter Power” by a different name, and so forth. But it’s heavily buried and disguised, to keep people from staring at their power cards and thinking of them as “These are the things I can do.”

What I like about these things being called “features” instead of being called “powers” is that they blend in. They become part of your character’s background, an attribute they have just like their class or race, something they can go to if desired, but not their defining thing. “Power” implies that it’s something you do– an action you would take, probably in combat. “Feature” is just something you have that other people might not. And as a “feature,” there’s no minimum power level it has to have in order to feel justified. Rogues and Bards get to double their proficiency bonus for certain things, due to their Expertise. Calling that a “power” seems pretty grandiose, doesn’t it? But yes, it’s certainly a “feature.”

Here There Be Monsters

The one thing I really liked in 4E as presented, was the way it handled monsters. The math was forever being reshuffled, alas, but in principle at least there was a basic template for what the approximate stats of a monster should be for a given role at a given threat level, which you could then customize with certain signature abilities. A CR 1 kobold archer and a CR 1 goblin archer had almost the same stat block, except that kobolds where “shifty” (which enabled them to have extra movement) while goblins… uh… did something goblinish that I forget off the top of my head.

I used this to great effect in my one actual attempt to run 4E by having 1st level PCs attacked by a swarm of sea-devils (which were mechanically re-skinned kobolds with the blood frenzy racial feature) supported by harpies (the same kobolds with flight and luring song).

Does 5E share this flexibility? Well, the official verdict is still out until the DMG is released and its chapter on monster creation devoured by the masses. However, based just on what’s in the Monster Manual, I’m going to say “Yes.” For my Silver Coast game I have already created a goblin shaman by taking the Acolyte on p. 342, making him size Small and giving him the Nimble Escape racial feature, and created an undead barbarian king (spoiler, my players, there’s one of those floating around!) by adding some barbarian class features to a wight.

5E doesn’t have Minion rules per se, but it doesn’t really need them, either. To change the danger level of a given creature, the easiest way is to tweak its hit points. A grovelly swarm of kobold bootlickers might have only 2 hit points each, but their boss is a big (reptile) dog, having a whole 10. He’s still CR 1/8 just like the rest of them, but he’s a lot less likely to be one-punched, even by a PC. If you want a really tough kobold? Take the CR 5 Gladiator on p. 346, make him size Small, give him Sunlight Sensitivity and Pack Tactics. Even the party fighter will notice when a kobold spears him for 2d8+4 damage.

Certainly, any game system can do re-skinning and most of them do to at least some extent. But 5E, like 4E before it, has it “baked in” to the monster design ethos in a way that 3.x/Pathfinder didn’t, and it really does make the DM’s life much, much easier. There aren’t different types of hit dice based on what genus your monster comes from (undead get d12, fey get d6, or whatever the numbers were, I forget now), you don’t have to do a lot of agonizing about whether swapping a power will shoot the CR way out of your encounter budget, etc. [2]

What Say Ye?

What do you think? What was good about 4E that’s worth salvaging in 5E? How are the systems similar? Different? I’m very curious to hear with other gamers have to say on the topic.

-The Gneech

[1] It’s ironic, 4E actually had a brilliant set of mechanics for off-the-cuff stunts, in the form of the famous “Page 42,” but in practice it seems most people rarely used it, instead spending the whole combat trying to figure out which power to use this turn. But it’s all about presentation: players’ activities are molded by what the rules tell them. Thus, for maximum player creativity, you need to have minimum rules.

[2] With bounded accuracy, the impact of CR is greatly diminished anyway. Depending on the skill of the players and the whims of the dice, lower-level baddies can still be a problem, while higher-level baddies can unexpectedly be a pushover. A surprise round, a good initiative roll, and the number of foes you’re facing are much bigger factors in how any given fight will play out than the individual CR and stats of a single opponent, generally speaking.

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Oct 04 2014

The Grand Unified Theory of Gneech’s Campaign Worlds

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I have run a lot of fantasy games over the years. Many of them have only had a few sessions before the group changed or something turned me off about them, while others have lasted for years. This has left a long string of half-realized settings, abandoned PCs and potentially interesting scenarios, cluttering up my hard drive (and my creative subconscious).

I have discovered, with the arrival of 5E, a strange urge to reclaim the pieces of this patchwork, and try to weave them together into something resembling a persistent and connected setting, which I can use going forward as background for diverse games without having to throw away everything and start from scratch over and over. This is part of a larger rekindled love for the game, which I have to admit had been struggling, and I am very happy to see returned. I imagine I’ll explore the why and how of that aspect later, but for now, I’m looking at the campaign worlds and how they can work as a unified world.

The Ones Still Left Behind

Not all of my games can be united this way. Eberron is too distinctively itself to be put into another setting, and the fate of that particular campaign is still TBD. Fortress of Tears, likewise, cannot be simply transplanted. The cosmology and structure of that game was designed to be a cohesive whole with a very specific feel, and while I doubt I’ll do anything with it any time soon, I think it deserves its own space on the shelf, so to speak. The tongue-in-cheek setting of “Mid-Evil” is not itself going to be integrated into the world, although bits of it that I liked might be imported. Finally, my Fantasy Hero setting was too far removed from the premises of a “D&D-land” style setting to really integrate, so it also remains its own thing.

Orbis Leonis

This is the setting as it currently stands. Racial/cultural notes are broad strokes and not intended as a straightjacket: it’s a wide, colorful world and there are enclaves of different cultural groups in every major city. Demihumans and monstrous humanoids have been largely left out of the discussion because for the most part I don’t have a whole lot of different cultures for them worked out and I don’t want to put in any limits I don’t have to. Assume the usual baseline for Dungeons & Dragons for such folk unless you have a reason to do otherwise. Campaign-specific races (such as the nephilim from Zan-Xadar or Sirfox’s gnoll cleric in Red Hand of Doom) exist, but are local populations rather than world-defining ones.

The Silver Coast
Bringing the world together begins with The Silver Coast. Argent is on the northwest edge of a large continent which is bordered by several seas and island continents to the south. Not too far north of Argent the climate quickly becomes cold, and there is a large glacial “land mass” that expands and contracts with the seasons, connecting the main continent with an arctic continent for half the year (being a cold and stormy sea for the other half). Legends tell of a zone of permanent warm paradise in the center of this arctic zone, but you know what legends are.

South of Argent is the kingdom of Ertikan. North and northeast of Argent are various “barbarous” (by Argentile standards) peoples, the friendliest of which are the blonde- and red-haired Calladgangers, but most people of the northwestern part of the continent tend towards fair or ruddy skin and hair colors and curly or wavy locks. The religion of this area resembles the core religion of Faerun, unless specified otherwise, although the gods of Oerth are also known here.

Fellhollow/Rise of the Argent Lord
That game (all two sessions of it) took place 600 years ago; Argenti, “The Silver City,” was later rebuilt as Avileigne… only to have Mt. Thunderdelve erupt and destroy it. That place can’t catch a break. (The modern city of Argent takes its name from the older one, even though it is actually some thirty miles to the northwest. Sort of a “New Argent,” as it were.) The town of Fellhollow was destroyed during the orcish invasion known as the Rise of the Argent Lord; the later town of Pelann was built near its ruins (and, like Avileigne, destroyed again by the eruption of Thunderdelve).

Red Hand of Doom/Revenge of the Giants
A wide, grassy plain on the eastern side of the Silver Ridge Mountains eventually connects to “The Endless Plain” in the northwest corner of the Elsir Vale map. Most of the plain is sparsely populated, but there are nomadic horse tribes related to the Calladganger peoples (think Rohirrim) and at least one large civilized city-state (as yet undefined) lies by a large freshwater lake or inland sea on the one major road between Argent and Elsir Vale. The events in the Silver Coast game are concurrent with the indefinitely-hiatused Revenge of the Giants game (thus, Elsir Vale is currently in the midst of a deep and unnatural winter), and it is conceivable that the two games could connect in the future, allowing characters to overlap. The people of Elsir Vale tend to be of fair complexion, with thick, dark hair, although much variation is common. The religion of this region resembles the core religion of Oerth.

The Greyhawk Campaign/Shadows of Thessalaine
The country of Thessalaine, which bears a remarkable resemblance to a similar country on the world of Oerth named ‘Bissel’, lies to the northeast of Elsir Vale, beyond the Giantshield Mountains (referred to in Thessalaine as The Barrier Peaks). Some years ago now, the infamous necromancer Evard the Black attempted to conquer Thessalaine, but was eventually defeated by “The Watchful Seven” (a group whose variable roster most reliably included Kyriela of Kithria, Jaer, Dragor, Angelina, and Verdhaven). Thessalaine has a very diverse population, being a sort of “crossroads of the world”. The religion of this region generally also resembles the core religion of Oerth. To the east of Thessalaine is terra incognita for the moment.

Zan-Xadar, Jewel of the South, City of the Wicked
Zan-Xadar is on the southernmost tip of the continent, far southeast of the kingdom of Ertikan and south of Thessalaine across the Desert of Xadar, as is its neighbor/rival city-state of Khaldun. The island city-states of Kithria and Nellevar are in the warm Opal Sea, south of the continent, and the near-mythical (to the Silver Coast, anyway) nations of Alcairam and Setranophis are on the northern lip of a vast continent far to the south populated by nations largely unknown to the north. The one adventure we actually ran in Zan-Xadar (“The Fallen Fortress”) can be assumed to have “just happened” if and when a future game takes us back there. The peoples of this region tend towards darker skin and hair colors, with dark brown or black skin dominating Alcairam particularly. The people of Setranophis are a distinct racial group with reddish-brown skin and very fine black hair. The religion of this area is a crazy hodge-podge of cults from around the world, although the worship of Bahamut, Tiamat, Methis/Erathis/Titania, Nergal/Garagos, Baaltis/Ioun, Fortuna, and Kelaeno (a.k.a. Mother Hydra, a.k.a. Umberlee) are prominent in the great glittering cities. Setranophis and Khaldun have sanctioned state religions, an ancestor cult and the Goddess of the Black Flame respectively, and the worship of other deities is strictly illegal in both places. The people of Zan-Xadar and its neighbors are cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and regard the people of the northern realms (with the possible exception of Thesselaine) largely as bumpkins. (Thessalaine replaces Beltharain from the original Zan-Xadar setting; heck, they even sound similar.)

Castle Strongstone, the “Tower of Power”, and the Tomb of the Zodiac
These are places of myth and legend, associated with the tales of the great human wizard Mystic the Strange, the wily elf-rogue Fgyarbt, and the gnomish trickster Zarfbardafardwards. It is generally believed that their adventures took place in a lost country somewhere north of Thessalaine or Elsir Vale, although many lands claim to be “where it really happened.” The objective truth of the matter has long been lost to the ravages of eons; who or what a “Slick Rick” might be, no man may say.

The Empty Spaces Between…

Assume that unless it is explicitly states otherwise, there are other nations in between the ones listed here which have simply “not become important yet,” but will be added in around these as needed. These realms, though connected, are all distant lands, and travel between them is done via map montage. ;)

Thoughts/comments/suggestions, players…?

-The Gneech

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Sep 30 2014

Summoner Subclass for D&D 5E, First Pass

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I don’t know if my Eberron game is savable, given how much resistance I felt to running it the past few times I tried, even with an adventure already prepped. However, Hantamouse and Sirfox have both expressed interest in it, so if I can figure out just what it is that was bugging me and fix it, there might be hope for it yet. I have pretty much decided to jump from Pathfinder to 5E, tho, which means conversions would be required.

The game had a very offbeat mish-mash of races and classes. The races are not a problem, I can do those easily. The classes are more of an issue, as PF operates on a whole different scale and set of assumptions about class complexity, spell availability, and so on. So today I’m looking at Summoners.

In 5E, the “Summon X” spells have all been replaced by “Conjure X” spells instead, and have all had their levels severely bumped. Conjure Animals, the lowest level summoning spell, is 3rd level, and allows you to summon critters of CR 2 or lower (as a 5th level caster).

Given 5E‘s “bounded accuracy” model, this is understandable: being outnumbered is much worse than being outgunned, and every creature summoned effectively doubles the summoner’s ability to impact the fight. The “action economy” was already important in 3.x/PF, but in 5E it’s a major deciding factor. This is why, for instance, beastmaster rangers effectively have the choice of taking an action themselves, or having their animal companion take one instead. 5E wizards are conjuring critters at around the levels where fighters are attacking two or three times in a round. Wizards can cast find familiar at 1st level, but familiars are specifically forbidden from attacking in combat.

So, how to build a 5E summoner class? It depends on if we want to match the Pathfinder class or just build something off the summoner archetype. Most of the summoners that have appeared in games I’ve seen seem to be tapping their own innate magic rather than studied wizards, so “Summoner” becomes a Sorcerous Origin (basically sorcerer subclass). At 1st level, they automatically know the conjure eidolon spell (1st level, ritual), which can be cast at various levels for various effects:

  • First Level: Essentially as find familiar. Although obviously an otherworldly creature, the eidolon has the stats of a Tiny beast of CR 0 (such as a bat or weasel). The eidolon has either the celestial, fiendish, or fey subtype. The eidolon has all of the characteristics of a familiar, including the ability to be temporarily dismissed, the telepathic link with the summoner, and the ability to deliver touch spells.
  • Second Level: The eidolon acts as a ranger’s animal companion. It has the stats of a Medium or smaller beast of CR 1/4 or lower, but adds your proficiency bonus to its AC, attack rolls, damage rolls, and any skills and saving throws it is proficient in. Its hp maximum equals its normal hp maximum or four times your sorcerer level, whichever is higher. It can attack foes as directed by the summoner, as a ranger’s companion.
  • Third Level: As second level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Large or smaller beast or monstrosity of CR 2 or lower.
  • Fourth Level: As third level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Large or smaller beast or monstrosity of CR 3 or lower.
  • Fifth Level: As fourth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast or monstrosity of CR 4 or lower.
  • Sixth Level: As fifth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 4 or lower.
  • Seventh Level: As sixth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 5 or lower.
  • Eighth Level: As seventh level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 6 or lower.
  • Ninth Level: As eighth level, but the eidolon has the stats of a Huge or smaller beast, monstrosity, or elemental of CR 7 or lower.

Conjure eidolon does not count against the sorcerer’s limit of spells known, and in all other ways acts as find familiar. All of the “Conjure [creature]” spells are considered to be on the Sorcerer Spell List for summoners, even though they are not normally on the Sorcerer Spell List. These spells cannot be cast while the summoner’s eidolon is present, but they may be cast if the summoner temporarily dismisses the eidolon (as the find familiar spell).

At 6th level summoners gain Summoner’s Call, the ability to instantly summon their eidolon to their side or swap places with their eidolon as if they had cast dimension door. (They cannot move themselves to their eidolon’s side, they must either summon it, or switch places.) This can be done as a bonus action. Once this ability is used, it cannot be used again until the summoner completes a short or long rest.

At 14th level summoners gain a Life Bond with their eidolon. As long as the eidolon has at least 1 hit point, damage in excess of that which would reduce the summoner to fewer than 0 hit points is instead transferred to the eidolon. This damage is transferred 1 point at a time, meaning that as soon as the eidolon is reduced to 0 hp, all excess damage remains with the summoner.

At 18th level summoners gain the ability to Merge with their eidolon. This transformation includes all of the summoner’s gear. While merged in this way, the summoner is protected from harm and cannot be the target of spells or effects. All effects and spells currently targeting the summoner are suspended until the summoner emerges from the eidolon (although durations continue to expire).

The summoner can cast spells while inside the eidolon by taking control of the eidolon for the duration of the casting. Any material components used for these spells are taken from the summoner’s gear, even though they are otherwise inaccessible. The summoner can direct all of the eidolon’s actions while merged, can perceive through its senses, and can speak through its voice.

Once the summoner uses this ability, it is expended until they complete a short or long rest. The can end this effect at will, emerging adjacent to the eidolon if able. If the eidolon is returned to its home plane while the summoner is merged with it, the summoner is immediately ejected, taking 4d6 points of damage, and is stunned for 1 round.

…Whattya think, sirs?

-The Gneech

Sep 22 2014

Digging In the Old School Sandbox

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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…

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Oct 22 2013

Spiritwolf Commission: Alaion

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Spiritwolf Commission: Alaion by ~the-gneech on deviantART

Spiritwolf’s elven monk Alaion, equipped with bracers of defense and ready to lay some smackdown.

Thanks, Lanny!

-The Gneech

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