Aug 23 2021

On the Other Hand, Screw Omu :P

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Friggin' orcs, man.

Friggin’ orcs, man.

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

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

Y’know what? No.

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

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

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

-TG

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Jul 23 2021

Bursty McThirsty

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Shade-Of-the-Candle runs into (or away from) danger!
During Shady’s most recent adventures in Inkblitz’s D&D game, I found her largely underperforming in combat. Some of this was my well-known dice curse, of course… +7 to hit and still couldn’t roll above a 12 even with advantage, that tracks. And some of it was that we’re in a party that’s bursty AF and generally goes nova in every battle because we rarely have more than one fight in a day. In a party that can fire off four fireballs in two rounds and not break a sweat, Shady’s 6d6 sneak attack “is also there.” Neither of these are things I can do anything about, so I’m looking for things I can do.

Besides the fact that the class is perfect thematically for Shady, I picked swashbuckler rogue for her because I was inspired by Sirfox’s Bugs Bunny antics with Nikki in my own Storm King’s Thunder campaign. A pain-in-the-ass who annoys his enemies to death as much as anything, under all that Nikki is actually a supreme duelist, who has dropped the finishing blow on many a boss fight. Not by himself generally–even with uncanny dodge he’s too squishy to one-on-one for long–but he’s still more often than not the one who lowers the boom.

All of that fits with what I pictured with Shady: she talks-talks-talks, tries to weasel and wiggle her way out of most fights to begin with, but once the fighting actually starts, her goal is to maneuver the baddie into position to just get straight-up murdered. Think Jack Sparrow dueling Barbossa to a standstill while Will and Elizabeth run around actually killing most of the pirates, that’s the kind of action Shady’s intended to engage in. It worked beautifully against the dragon Kresthianzé, but a lot of campaign has gone by since then! In most fights since then, Shady has been nearly one-punched before she got a turn, been flailing against mooks, or even better off staying out of the fight entirely and engaging in plot macguffins.

And to be fair, being the one chasing the plot macguffin while everybody else fights also tracks, think Jack Sparrow running around carrying a jar of dirt. And I don’t resent the other players getting cool moments–Leuco the tiny mouse obliterating demons with thunderballs is badass! I’d just like Shady to get some dueling action, so I need to figure out how to set that up.

In the most recent combat, she was hampered by her low Wisdom save, which left her charmed or feared for half of it; that’s not something I can mitigate any time soon other than by avoidance. After level 12 or so, Shady will have ASIs/feats coming out her ears and proficiency with Wisdom saves is on her shopping list, but before then she gets all of one ASI, three levels away from where she currently is, and that has to go to either Lucky or capping her Dexterity. (Darn you rogue 6, why couldn’t you have been an ASI instead of expertise?)

Numerically, capping her Dex has the most benefits, boosting her AC, attack rolls, and damage; on a meta level, Lucky would mitigate my dice curse and help prevent Wisdom-save-choking as long as I use it strategically. But as I say, it’s still three levels off.

One thing Nikki does that Shady doesn’t do as much, is to hide with cunning action every turn. Shady generally uses her bonus action to make an off-hand attack instead–since the first attack usually missed. ;P Hiding would give her advantage on her attack, but attacking twice is not that different mechanically (roll to-hit twice, crit chance is the same, and if the off-hand attack hits instead of the main-hand it’s 4 less points of damage) and fits Shady’s “in your face” psychology better. Hiding would make her a little more durable in the you-can’t-hit-what-you-can’t-see way, tho. Reflecting back on our recent battles, there hasn’t actually been much cover for her to hide behind, tho, so I’m not sure how viable a strategy that would be. I’ll have to look into it going forward.

Other than that? Well, Nikki has better stats than Shady (since I rather foolishly let players roll instead of going point-buy) and is higher level; he also has cloak and boots of elvenkind, giving him crazy Stealth checks. All of these things are factors, but again not ones I have much control over. Mostly I think I need to just keep looking for ways to boost Shady’s strengths and mitigate her weaknesses, without losing focus on the RP aspects that make Shady, Shady.

I’m just glad there’s no freakin’ paladins in the party. >.>

-TG

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Jul 21 2021

My Growing Suspicion Towards Skill Checks

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THIS JUST IN: I have opinions about D&D. I know, shocker, right? The latest that I’ve become aware of, is that I am growing increasingly reluctant? Distrustful? Resentful of? Skill checks. Both as the DM and as a player.

As a DM, it’s been kind of poking at me for a while; I don’t know when I first noticed, but somewhere along the line, “I make a _____ check” became group shorthand for “I skip to the end, what’s the result?” Talking to NPCs? “I make a Persuasion check to get them to do what I want.” or “Can I make an Insight check to see if I trust him?” Searching for clues? “I make an Investigation check, what do I find?” etc.

And I’m guilty of it too as a player—I think it’s just a habit we just sort of developed as a group—but it’s starting to grate at me. I’m not sure how or when it became a thing, and I don’t really care; but when I’m DMing, it’s something I’m moving away from. (The “Insight Check Lie Detector” is one that’s been a particular worry for me lately. My current campaign has had a lot of very dishonest NPCs, and more than once I’ve gone out of my way to wave red flags, only to have the players lean on their Insight check instead of just coming to the conclusion that the NPC is lying to them. If that Insight check is botched, well, the character believes and steps into the chipper/shredder, the player is frustrated, and so am I.)

As a player on the other hand, I’ve found it a severe handicap for years, because (as is well documented) I can’t roll dice for shit. Give me +15 to a check and advantage, and I’ll still find a way to botch the roll. My most famous incident was rolling 16 on 8d6 during the climactic battle of a CHAMPIONS session back in college, but I’ve had plenty of rangers who couldn’t damage their favored enemy, burly fighters who couldn’t knock down a door, cheesed-out skill monkeys who couldn’t pick a lock, and so on. To combat this, I’ve started being very meticulous in my descriptions about what my characters do and say, searching every nook and cranny of a room, drawing out every conversation with everybody, and so on, fishing for an auto-success so that I never hear that awful phrase, “make a skill check,” which translates to “you almost certainly fail.” I don’t want to have to pay a Feat tax of giving all of my characters Lucky just to get around my dice curse.

But philosophically, the more I think about it, the more it bugs me on principle as well as for any selfish reasons. It’s like the pay-for-shortcuts packages in MMOs, where you’re effectively paying to not have to play the game. The real mechanic of every TTRPG, what makes them a distinct and awesome activity, is the flow of the Game Master presenting a situation, the Player attempting to achieve something, and the Game Master adjudicating the result. That is the game, not your AC and hit points, not your 18 STR or your 8 WIS. “Roll Perception to search the room. (clatter) With a 10 you don’t find anything,” is just as boring as “Make your attack roll against the monster. (clatter) With a 14 you hit for three points of damage.”

As a player, there’s not much I can do other than make my best case to the DM and hope. As the DM, tho, I have started to change the way I handle skills. First and foremost was to institute a “please don’t roll dice unless I ask for it” policy at my table. And then, I try to set up my adventures such that I don’t have to ask for it. My policy for that is “ask for details, not dice rolls.” When players are being vague or evasive about what they’re doing, I come back and ask for specifics. I don’t demand that players who lack confidence in real life give speeches for their high-Charisma characters any more than I make players swing real swords in combat, but I do at least require them to tell me what it is they’re trying to communicate and/or get from the NPC, and what means by which they’ll try to get the NPC’s cooperation.

Now there are times when playing out every room search/enemy looting/secret door searching would get old, and particularly as we get into the back half of Tomb of Annihilation I expect that will be pushed to its limits. There has to be a certain allowance for the fact that it’s just not fun to detail the poking of every corner of every hallway. I generally get around this with my third policy, “assume the characters are competent.” And what I mean there is, if someone in the party is trained in Survival for example, assume they are good enough trackers to find trails and food/water unless there’s a particular reason why they might not. If they’re creeping through a dungeon, assume they’re watching the shadows and looking for traps, etc. In terms of game rules, this boils down to the “passive skill check” mechanic as a way to bypass “routine” things. The comedy of “Big Damn Hero Is a Stumblebum Because Fuck Dice” has long lost its appeal for me, if only because I keep building Big Damn Heroes and they keep stumbling instead.

-The Gneech

Jul 09 2021

Main Character Syndrome vs. the Ensemble in D&D

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I’m not going to mince words: I am prone to Main Character Syndrome. I am not proud of this fact.

I am not the only person in our D&D group who suffers from this affliction, but I suspect I may be the one who struggles with it the most. Shade-Of-the-Candle could be a study in it: she is a natural leader, but also prone to going off and doing her own thing without telling the rest of the group what’s up, always thinks she knows the score (and is right more often than she’s wrong), and gets very prickly when things don’t go her way. As her player, I spend a lot of time biting my tongue to prevent the game from becoming “The Shade-Of-the-Candle Show, Guest-Starring The Other Player Characters.”

My drow bard Obsidian was even worse about this. In her case, I had built it in to her as a deliberate character flaw that she only really cared about herself and regarded the rest of the party as “her staff.” It was intended to be there to get some laughs at her expense, but I discovered to my mounting horror that some other members of the group readily bought into it and worse, the DM literally made her the most important person in the universe as a plot point, at which juncture I felt like both Obsidian and my own presence were doing the group more harm than good. :(

So for Plotline’s game, when I created Dusk, I deliberately crafted his personality to buoy up the other members of the party first. He is constantly talking up the other players’ abilities and interests, trying to find new devotees for the cleric, being fascinated by the artificer’s inventions, or dazzled by the other fighters’ combat prowess, etc. (He’s no slouch in the bragging-about-himself department either, mind you, but in his case it’s the buoyant “I love being awesome!” way of a himbo, and not the sneering “What have you done for me, lately?” way of Obsidian.)

I bring this up because over the past few days, I’ve been watching a series of “D&D Highlights” videos on YouTube (my favorite of which is posted at the top of this post). The videos are very silly and entertaining shenanigans, which is enough by itself, but what I have been most impressed by is the masterful way the players are supporting each others’ RP. Even the “grumpy dwarf” character is expressing that “grumpy dwarfness” in a way that can allow the other characters to shine, such as the character walking blindly into the pranks they pull on him even when the player knows exactly what it is going on. It’s terrific “yes, and” RP all around, even when it’s just pure goofiness.

Granted, these are highlight reels, so they’re showing off the best moments. But this is the kind of thing I want to see in my games, and it’s the kind of thing I want to bring to the table when I’m a player. A good D&D game is the story of the group, not of any one character. I think Dusk works towards this goal pretty well for the most part, and I think Shady can do that as well, I just need to be better about making it happen. In both cases, PEBCAK (“Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard”) applies, in that I the player have to remember to be focused on making the rest of the group shine instead of chasing after my own glory.

-The Gneech

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Jun 24 2021

Shady vs. Dusk: Throwdown!

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Shade-Of-the-Candle uses diplomacy.

So as a thought exercise, I levelled up both Shade-Of-the-Candle and Stars-At-Dusk to 20 to see how they compared both in a fight, and at their respective party roles. Here’s what I came up with:

SHADY: Bard (College of Swords) 6/Rogue (Swashbuckler) 14
AC 17, hp 167 (20d8+60), Spd 30, Initiative +11
Saves: Dex +11, Int +5, Wis +6
Multiattack (2/round); Crescent Moon: +12 to hit, 1d8+6 piercing +7d6 sneak attack; Cutlass (off-hand): +11 to hit, 1d6+5 slashing; Pistols: +11 to hit, 1d10+5 piercing
Acrobatics +17, Athletics +12, Deception +9, Intimidation +9, Investigation +11, Perception +12, Persuasion +15, Sleight of Hand +11, Stealth +17
Bardic Inspiration (d8, 3/short rest), Blade Flourish, Countercharm, Cunning Action, Distraction, Elegant Maneuver, Evasion, Fancy Footwork, Fighting Style (2-handed), Lucky (3 uses), Panache, Rakish Audacity, Reliable Talent, Uncanny Dodge
Spells: Charm Person, Cure Wounds, Enemies Abound, Enthrall, Healing Word, Hold Person, Mage Hand, Sleep, Thorn Whip, Thunderwave, Vicious Mockery

DUSK: Fighter (Champion) 15/Rogue (Swashbuckler*) 5
AC 20, hp 178 (5d8+15d10+60), Spd 30, Initiative +15
Saves: Dex +11, Int +6, Wis +8
Multiattack (3/round); Compelling Argument: +12 to hit (crit 18-20), 1d8+8 piercing +3d6 sneak attack; Longbow: +11 to hit, 1d8+5 piercing
Acrobatics +11, Athletics +12, Deception +8, Intimidation +8, Investigation +6, Perception +8, Sleight of Hand +8, Stealth +17
Action Surge (1/short rest), Alert, Cunning Action, Fancy Footwork, Indomitable, Second Wind, Uncanny Dodge
*My original concept for Dusk was to take assassin, but the way he’s been played leans more towards swashbuckler.

The first thing that immediately jumps out is that Dusk is a much deadlier fighter than Shady. Yes, if she can get the drop on Dusk and land a big sneak attack up front, that’ll surely hurt. But with that Alert feat, Dusk is almost guaranteed to be going first, and even if his individual attacks hurt less, he’s going to be doing more and occasionally hitting just as hard as Shady does with that increased crit range. Dusk is also more durable, thanks to his shield. To get in a third attack, Shady has to give up her cunning action, although with both of them being swashbucklers, there’s going to be a lot of hit-and-fade going on that makes cunning action superfluous. Also, Shady has to use Blade Flourish to bump her AC or damage output, and she only has 3 uses of that in any given fight.

On the other hand, Shady has a lot more flexibility and potentially fight-ending abilities, particularly Charm Person and Hold Person. Dusk’s high Wis save and Indomitable strengthen him against that, but Shady’s Lucky feat could then come along and say “Nope!” Heck, if Shady can get Dusk below 40 hp and drop a third level Sleep spell on him, that’s all she wrote.

In terms of the party, Shady is definitely a better leader and a lot more useful in social or exploration situations, while Dusk is more purely a striker. And the truth of the matter is neither one is likely to be interested in fighting the other one to the death. Dusk would probably be hitting on Shady the whole time, while Shady would be focused on whatever achieving goal Dusk stood in the way of and be looking for a way around him. But if they had to fight for some reason, I’d call their chances about even, maybe favoring Dusk just a bit but not much.

Which honestly? Seems about right. Shady is Jack Sparrow, while Dusk is Inigo Montoya.

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Jun 23 2021

Fictionlet

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“So what exactly is your point then?” asked Isadora. “I’m afraid I’m not following.”

“Nothing terribly grand, I suppose,” said Greg. “I was just thinking, that Roy Clark is to guitar, as Victor Borge is to piano.”

Brigid wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t know who either of those people are.”

Greg winced at her. “Do you say these things just to hurt me?”

“Oh please,” said Isadora. “Do you really mean to suggest that Mr. Picking and Grinning is on the same plane as Phonetic Punctuation?”

“Suggest it? I’m stating it explicitly!” said Greg. “Look at the facts. Both extremely capable musicians. Both leaning on humor to the point of being defined by it. Both constantly being asked to ‘play something straight.’ Roy Clark doing a duet of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ with Johnny Cash is right up there with Victor Borge and Leonid Hambro playing the Hungarian Rhapsody. The only difference is NBC or PBS.”

“Bah. Never!”

“I resent the fact that you two understand each other better than I understand either one of you,” said Brigid. “Can we talk about traffic accidents or something?”

-The Gneech

<-- previous B&G

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