Oct 05 2017

D&D Overland Travel Encounter Table Template

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My Storm King’s Thunder campaign has moved to the underdark for a bit, and as such I need a new random encounter table as the characters tromp miles and miles in the dark, instead of their usual tromping miles and miles over mountains or across the plains. ;) But it seems to me this is as good a time as any to work up an encounter table “template” for making these tables easier to build in the future.

I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from Adventures in Middle-earth and including such things as world events, interesting terrain bits, and even just “mood swings” in my encounter tables to give the journey more character than just “you fight owlbears/you fight orcs” etc. That also means there are “empty spaces” on the encounter table so the party doesn’t automatically have a hostile encounter every time they enter a new overland hex.

Feel free to use this template for your own games, if you like. I’m pretty pleased with the result in my own.

1d12+1d8 Encounter
2 Major Benevolent Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Gandalf, a powerful metallic dragon, or something similar. This power may be traveling incognito– the party may entertain angels unawares. On Repeat: No encounter.
 
3 Easy Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No encounter.
 
4 Resources. Your party finds plentiful game, a grove of mushrooms, wild healing herbs, a valuable mineral deposit, or even a small buried treasure or cache of supplies left by previous wayfarers. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
 
5 Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: Cloudy, windy conditions.
 
6 Fellow Travelers. Pilgrims, miners, friendly locals, wanderers. Will happily share news and maybe a meal. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
 
7 Help! Fellow travelers, as described above, being menaced by hostile creatures making up a medium or hard encounter. If rescued, the travelers will be grateful and provide aid or reward to the party. On Repeat: Medium Encounter.
 
8 Fair Roads and Favorable Conditions. Your party finds shortcuts, ample sources of clean and refreshing water or shade, and makes excellent time. Your travel speed is increased by 50% for four hours. On Repeat: Same encounter again once, “No Encounter” from then on.
 
9 Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
10 A Skill Test. Fallen trees, a collapsed bridge over a swift river, or other something similar have blocked the road and the party must devise a way past it, or perhaps the party’s mounts are spooked by something and must be calmed down. Have each player describe their intended action in turn and resolve with a skill check or simply narrate likely results. If there are more successes than failures, the party moves on. If there are more failures than successes, the party loses four hours of progress. If all checks are failures, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
11 A Moment. The party comes upon a gorgeous vista, a mysterious ring of standing stones, crumbling statues from a fallen kingdom of old, a spectacular sunset, or other inspiring moment. Everyone in the party makes a Wisdom saving throw (DC 10-15 depending on the surroundings). If successful, they are filled with hope and gain Inspiration. If they fail, they simply shrug and keep marching. If they fail by 5 or more, they see only the fleeting nature of life and become morose, gaining a level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
12 The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues. Trails lead nowhere or dry up. Progress is hampered and rocks turn underfoot. The scout must succeed on a Survival check (DC 10-15 depending on terrain) or you lose 4 hours of progress. If this roll fails, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Rainy conditions.
 
13 Hard Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
14 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
15 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
16 The Very World Seems Against Us. Your intended route is blocked by flooding, rockslide, enemy action, or an overwhelming hostile force. Lose 4 hours of progress. Everyone in the party must make a DC 15 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
 
17 Deadly Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain.
 
18 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
19 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Hard Encounter.”)
 
20 Major Malignant Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Saruman, a powerful chromatic dragon, or something similar. This power probably has minions and is up to no good, but may regard the characters as beneath their notice and move on unless the party starts something. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
 

During Prep: Pre-populate encounters with appropriate creatures. Place regional-, campaign-, or adventure-specific encounters in the Undefined entries.

At the Table: Roll (or have the party scout roll) when characters enter a new overland hex, or once per 4-hour watch while camped. Travel speed is not a factor: difficult terrain slows down monsters just as much as it does player characters. Roll more often (at least once per four hours of travel) in dangerous or heavily-infested areas, such as cursed jungles teeming with monsters.

Variations: Roll 1d12+1 during daylight and 1d12+1d8 at night to create a “don’t travel in the dark” atmosphere.

I hope you find this useful! It’s the core engine I use for my overland travel adventures, and I find it works well.

-The Gneech

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Aug 01 2017

Take the ‘A’ Train Down to Mordor

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Friggin' orcs, man.
Friggin’ orcs, man.

Storm King’s Thunder involves a lot of overland travel. I mean, a lot of overland travel. One reason I created a ginormous continental map for the campaign was to keep track of all the tromping all over everywhere that the adventure calls for (and to have an everywhere to tromp over).

The question then becomes, how best to handle these long hikes in-game. There are a few possibilities:

Travel By Montage

This is the mode I practiced for many years, and it’s not a bad one per se. Essentially I just decide what happens between point A and point B and tell the players. If it’s interesting enough, the journey pauses and a session or two is spent dealing with the narrative pitstop, then off they go again.

There are some downsides to this. First of all, because they’re glossed over, long journeys feel cheap. Telling the players “You leave Argent, ride a boat for six weeks and now you’re in Zan-Xadar, what do you want to do?” makes it seem like Argent and Zan-Xadar might as well be right next to each other. The world “feels” smaller because there is no real marker of time or distance.

(See also the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Gandalf leaves Bag End, travels by montage to Gondor, then travels by montage back to Bag End, all in the course of three minutes. Did that trip take a day? A year? No context.)

Second, it takes away from the organic nature of the world and puts me back in the place of being the one who decides what the characters do on their trip, both of which are against the spirit of My Gamemastering Credo.

Overland Travel: The Mini-Game

The One Ring RPG (or its 5E variant, Adventures in Middle-earth) has a whole subset of rules for overland travel, because let’s face it, “walking” is the primary activity of any character in a book by Tolkien.

Brief summary: using the player map, the group picks a destination and a planned route and each character is assigned a task (Guide, Scout, Hunter, or Lookout). The GM then determines the overall “peril rating” of the journey based on their own map, which will then be used as a modifier for the rest of the trip. The Guide makes an “embarkation roll” which determines the general mood of the trip, which has results ranging from “The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues” to “Paths Both Swift and True.” The higher the peril rating of the journey, the more likely it is to be a rough slog.

Once all this is worked out, you turn to actual encounters along the way. There is a generic table of journey events, but the GM is encouraged to customize it for specific regions or a particular campaign. This part is a fairly standard random encounter table, but built around themes instead of specific events: “Agents of the Enemy” or “The Wonders of Middle-earth” or “A Fine Spot to Camp”, etc. Combat and skill checks within the encounters are often modified by the Embarkation Result or the Peril Rating, and so forth.

Finally, assuming the party survives the encounters, they get to their destination and roll on the “Arrival Table” to see what kind of shape they’re in at the end, ranging from “Weary to the Bones” to “Inspired and Filled with Hope.”

Essentially, the whole journey becomes “a dungeon,” with characters only able to take short rests after each encounter, with something like “A Fine Spot to Camp” providing a rare long rest opportunity. It’s a neat system, somewhere between the Hex Crawls of old-school yore and the Travel By Montage method. But it is… crunchy. A long journey with a lot of encounters will certainly take several sessions, and you’ll have to keep track of the Peril Rating, Embarkation Result, and rest resources along the way. It’s probably not that much more overhead than a dungeon map is, but for some reason, it feels like a lot of work. It might just be a matter of what you’re used to.

What I Have Done So Far

When the campaign transitioned from Keep On the Borderlands to Storm King’s Thunder, that was definite Travel By Montage moment, because the whole nature of the game shifted (and I didn’t have a map ready for travel then anyway). But now that the game is up and running, I have largely been treating Orbis Leonis as a giant hexcrawl.

In order to not have to rigorously define every bloody hex on the map, I make liberal use of random encounter tables, with a core assumption of one random encounter check every four hours during actual game play, and one check per day between sessions, unless the players are somewhere that is already a keyed encounter.

This doesn’t mean there’s going to be a fight every four hours! “Encounters” in this context aren’t necessarily wandering monsters: my tables are also full of things like random terrain bits (“a wooded bog,” “an ancient burial mound,” “an orphaned castle wall of old”), changes in the weather, or other travelers on the road (which get re-rolled when the characters are in the wild, obviously). There are also “no encounter” slots, which is typically what goes into a slot after that encounter has happened once and becomes the norm when I keep rolling an 8 over and over again. XD

Although I was once very sneery about them, I’ve come to love random encounter tables because they make the world feel alive– there’s stuff going on in it and if the players ask for Survival checks to see what sort of things they might run into, I can look at the random encounter table and tell them. I sometimes go as far as to put a whole five-room dungeon on the table, but that’s usually more work than it’s worth because that will naturally be the roll that never comes up.

They’re also great for making places feel different from each other. Argent is mostly wooded hills and has things like cleric-eating owlbears running around in it. Hestelland is a grassy plain and so it has herds of wild horses and packs of worgs. The Silver Spires Mountains are lousy with harpies, gargoyles, giant spiders, and the kobold minions of Cagarax the Red. Add to this the overlay of giants, with their frequency based on where the various giant holdings are, and you get a nicely-varied, very organic-feeling world.

I’m thinking of adding some of the elements of The One Ring‘s Journeys system to my game, without going quite so crunchy– maybe adding “Journey Mood” items to the encounter table for instance, something like “This leg of the journey has been plagued with bad luck. You got mired in a bog, losing an hour, and [random character] slipped on a rock and turned their ankle. Make a Dexterity saving throw to avoid having your movement halved for the next 24 hours.”

Giant Eagles, Pls

Eventually, Storm King’s Thunder has some story items built in to enable characters to travel faster. I’m not going to enumerate them here (because spoilers), but the latter parts of the campaign do require a lot of going from one end of the map to the other, possibly multiple times, and having to play all of those trips out, whether Hex Crawl or Journey Mini-Game style, would get real old after a while. Sorta like the teleporting chain from the original Against the Giants series back in the day, these are plot devices mostly and relatively limited in applicability, so they don’t break the rest of the campaign by making long journeys trivial forever.

The main challenge with these is deciding when to introduce them, and figuring out just how limited they actually are– because once they’re in place, we’re back to Traveling By Montage as a plot element. And after putting so much work into building a large, well-populated world, I don’t want to apply the fast-forward button just yet.

-The Gneech

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Jul 30 2017

Tiers of Play, or They’re Taking the Hobbits to Mt. Olympus

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Epic Levels: You're There When the Very Mountains Fight Back

As a followup to my post about power inflation, something I’m pondering with Storm King’s Thunder is the expected “tiers of play” built into D&D.

D&D has always had this, but in most editions it was kinda hidden. Low-level play is generally the stuff of Heroic Fantasy, taking on local bandits or smallish monsters, dungeon crawling and tomb raiding, generally very personal stakes. Mid-level play is more like High Fantasy, taking on legions of orcs, the occasional giant or dragon, saving the kingdom, that sort of thing. Then high-level play gets into the Power Cosmic, dealing with entire hordes, powerful (and generally super-weird) monsters like beholders, mind flayers, Galactus, and who-knows-what-else, and slaying gods.

(4E had this specifically called out, with everything but graduation ceremonies between tiers. It was designed to make the implicit, explicit, and therefore clearer, but in practice it just felt really clunky and artificial. Fortunately 5E went back to being subtle about it.)

There was a certain sense to that when campaigns lasted for years or decades. But these days? I dunno. 5E fast-forwards you through levels 1-3 (or just skips over them all together), and a typical “Adventure Path” style campaign in the modern mold is generally designed to cover 10+ levels over the course of about a year of play.

There are good meta reasons for this, of course. Very few RPG campaigns last longer than a year, and even staying around that long can be considered an achievement, so 1/2 to 2/3 of the game’s actual content rarely sees actual use. What’s the point of even having pit fiends and demiliches, if no player ever actually sees one?

But at the same time, to have a character go from scraping copper pieces together at 1st level, to drinking tea with ancient dragons just a year later, makes every campaign feel like That Escalated Quickly. It also wreaks havoc on gameworlds. Faerûn keeps getting blown up over and over again, as Tiamat becomes an epic threat, then the cults of elemental evil, then Demogorgon, then the giants… At least Middle-earth stayed saved.

MMOs, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They are generally designed to emulate one tier of play and stay there forever.

Reddit knows the score.

I’ve been playing LotRO for ten years. (That kind of amazes me.) My little hobbitey warden has defeated thousands of orcs, hundreds of trolls and giants, the last king of Arnor turned into a wraith, spiders the size of a house, a dracolich, the Watcher in the Water, one of the nine Nazgûl, and a freakin’ balrog.

What is he doing ten years later? Still fighting orcs, mostly. XD The occasional 100th level sickle-fly. I think, if this was a tabletop campaign, I might find that a little odd.

What I’m looking for, I guess, is a sweet spot somewhere between these two extremes. 5E purposefully levels out the XP curve to stretch the mid-level range longer than the low and high ends to keep characters in that zone as long as possible, but I’m not sure even that’s enough. (On top of which, if they’re shrugging at hill giants now, what will they be like at 8th level? 10th?)

I’m kinda curious and would actually like to hear from people. If your only choice were one of the two, which would you prefer: a focused campaign with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end (“Throw the ring into Mount Doom!”), or the “continuing saga” of a group of characters that goes on indefinitely, with new stories popping up as old stories resolve, taking you all over the world and possibly beyond?

As an addon to that, how do you feel about the progression of tiers? Is there one you prefer to the others? Do you want to find one and stick with it, even if it meant an XP cap (or at least being cut back to a trickle)? Is the standard progression fine? Too slow? Too fast?

Enquiring Gneeches want to know!

-An Enquiring Gneech

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Jul 28 2017

A Million Bazillion Orcs, and Other Nuisances

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Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter
Pictured: An Easy-to-Moderate Encounter

One issue I’ve encountered with the Storm King’s Thunder game is power inflation. It was already an issue during the Keep On the Borderlands phase, but it has reached new heights. We’ve got a party of six fifth-level characters, who are off-and-on supported by a (CR 7) stone giant NPC, plus any other NPCs who happen to be along for the ride (Lord Alden and Harold, in the current scenario, are both effectively CR 1).

This is a party that punches well above its weight. My best guess, based on running the “encounter difficulty by XP budget” math, is that they are roughly on-par with a 10th level “typical” party. The problem with that, however, is that CR 10+ creatures have abilities and defenses that lower-level characters, even these powerhouses, might not have the resources to overcome.

But then again, they might. D&D has never done “boss fights” well, and that’s still true of 5E. Put this party in a big empty room with a behir (CR 11), and my money would still be on the party unless the behir had access to lair or legendary actions. Multiclass Geek would probably get swallowed whole at least once, tho.

(In some ways, this is a feature, not a bug. If you put a giant boss at the bottom of a dungeon, where the PCs have had to fight their way to get to it and are down on resources, the fact that the boss is gimped by the party’s number advantage is a hidden way to make the fight winnable while still feeling epic.)

The current thought on encounter design for D&D is that in any given encounter you should have at least three monsters against a regular party, plus one monster for each party member beyond four. So against a party of six, at least five monsters. Against a party of nine(!), at least eight monsters.

This is rapidly becoming a very crowded 30′ x 50′ dungeon room. ¬.¬

The good news is, 5E is so much faster than the past three editions that there’s not that much overhead from having all these mass combats. “These two attack Rina. These four attack Togar. The ones attacking Rina need 10 or better, the ones attacking Togar need 16 or better.” (Dice clatter.) The DMG has a chart for mob attacks that boils even that down to “If they need a 15, every fourth monster hits,” but we have not (yet) had a fight so large that I felt it was worth looking it up.

Just taking the average damage from each mook attack, something I was dubious of at first, really makes this go even smoother. “You’re hit twice, take ten points of damage.” Easy peasy. The +/- 3 points of damage either way from rolling dice every time is not missed, although I still roll the damage individually for monster criticals, adding just that touch of spice roughly once or twice per game session.

The other issue, though, is 5E‘s strange fixation on not having monsters over CR 3 if at all possible. In the last session, Sheala took out a dozen enemies with a single fireball because they couldn’t survive half damage even if they made their saves. You can start stacking your monster ranks with reskinned knights, veterans, gladiators, and bandit captains to buff them up a bit, or create 3.5-style “mob” versions of lower level foes, and there are some third party supplements for the purpose. But the players might rightfully wonder why the orcs last week couldn’t withstand a fireball and the ones this week can, unless you introduce a story element of Bigger, Badder Orcs (say, a new strain bred by an evil wizard wearing shimmering rainbow robes).

There is an upside to having a party that can take a licking and keep on ticking– I can just put whatever I want and makes sense into the scenario and not be worried that they can’t handle it. But the real problem is things that should be dangerous becoming trivial. The “svartjaw” in the last session was a reskinned wyvern, a CR 6 brute, and they just melted it like butter before a blowtorch. Players love and want to win, but if they don’t feel like they had to at least work for it a little, it feels cheap, and will become boring fast.

5E‘s much-touted Bounded Accuracy is meant to address this very issue, but when you pile on a huge party like this, you flip the script. Suddenly the carefully-balanced math and action economy that is supposed to allow monsters to remain a threat across wider levels, is exactly what enables the party to just stomp all over everything.

There is also the Monty Haul problem, where the party’s ability to take on outsized challenges leads to them racking up high level treasure and XP, which in turn enables them to level up even faster in a geometric spiral. Dividing the encounter XP by six, seven, or nine as appropriate helps here, and I have complete control over how much wealth the party has access to simply by decided what’s out there, but it is still something I need to watch.

(As a side note, I do love that 5E is built on the assumption of class/race abilities only, decoupling magic items from character progression. I have always looked askance at “numerical progression” items from the first time I saw a +1 sword in my Holmes Boxed Set with chits instead of dice. My completely perfect world would mostly leave out treasure too– when did you ever see Frodo and Sam count gold pieces? But I fear that would force a little too much of my own preferred playstyle onto the rest of the group, and certainly “local duke offers 500 gp for bandit slaying” is a handy wrench in the narrative toolbox.)

None of these challenges are insurmountable, and compared to the “I hate my life!” slog of prepping higher-level 3.x/PF these are perfectly-acceptable problems to have. They’re just things I’m noticing about how the current game is going. Every campaign is different!

-The Gneech

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Jul 24 2017

A Grassy, Wind-Swept Sandbox Full of Giants, Part Seven

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Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane
Harold of Acholt worries about his father, the Thane

When you prep for the players to zig, they always zag. Continuing from part six…

We’re finally caught up to the most recent game session! With game world firmly built out and chock-a-block with adventure hooks and sidequests, a firm campaign direction (“Escort Xerlo to the Eye of the All-Father”), and brain-eating enthusiasm infinitely better than the floundering avoidance I started with, I was excited for the characters to head into Rohan Hestelland. It was a four-day hike from Tyvalich to Hierandal, the capital of the realm, which was summarized in a paragraph because it mostly consisted of staring at grass for hours on end.

The first order of business on arriving in Hierandal was looking up Piotr Zymorven to ask him about his father’s sword. They found him in a tavern, not quite plastered but definitely a bit sauced, where he’d basically been for the past two weeks. Piotr explained that passing fire giants had been killing and eating the wild horses (“wildermearh”) of Hestelland, a symbol of national pride, and so Piotr (who was a King’s Guard at the time) had rounded up a party to track the giants and make them pay for this insult.

They had followed the giants back south up into the mountains, to some kind of a citadel with orc servants. Deciding to lay a trap for the giants, Piotr and crew waited for the giants to leave on another foray and went in, taking out the orcs. They found a lift down into subterranean levels and went to explore these, only to be confronted with a drider and her swarm of “pets,” whatever they were.

Unfortunately, Piotr had a crippling phobia of spiders, stemming from a traumatic early encounter with a bebelith when serving as squire for his heroic father. So when confronted with the mindbending weirdness of a darkly beautiful elf maiden from the waist up and a horrific giant spider from the waist down, and a brood of what are presumably giant spider minions, he froze up, and then finally dropped his father’s sword and ran while the rest of the party was horribly slaughtered. He made it back to Hierandal, the only survivor of the expedition, where he was stripped of his rank for cowardice and had been moping in the tavern pretty much ever since.

The party’s reaction to this sad tale ran from understanding compassion on Togar’s part to contempt on Brother Drang’s and seeming complete indifference from Nikki. Togar immediately recalled Xerlo’s vision– of him fighting spiders in the dark– and declared that obviously he had to go down into that hole and retrieve the sword. Unfortunately, that meant hiking all the way back to Tyvalich (“We just came from there!”) and further past it, going in completely the wrong direction from their overall goal of escorting Xerlo north.

The party decided to take in the town and see what else was going on before they did anything else. At the Adventurers Guild they heard about demon hound stalking the streets of one town, a “night of the living dead”-style phenomenon that happens every nine years in another town (and was due to hit again before the end of the current summer), a party of tomb raiders heading off to Annunimas Mirathranc looking to recruit some muscle, and finally one of the lords of Hestelland organizing a hunt for some sort of demon bear called Svartjaw, who was also terrorizing the wildermearh herds as well as murdering homesteaders across the plains and leaving slaughtered households in its wake.

Now I fully expected the players to want to follow up on the Zymorven’s Sword quest before they did anything else– it involved backtracking, which is always the sort of thing players want to get over with quickly if it needs to be done, and on top of that Togar was visited in the middle of the night by Hathas the Heedless’s ghost, who’d put them on that particular road in the first place. Although severely weakened by being “killed” again by the fire giant, Hathas had mustered up enough energy to manifest and tell Togar he remembered more details of his quest and that there was more to it than just “find and recover the sword.” The sword wasn’t actually the quest per se, but was actually a landmark for the true goal of the quest, which was somehow to prevent someone or something from disturbing whatever slept under Mt. Thunderdelve even further.

And while that certainly did sound important, the players instead decided to join in the hunt for Svartjaw. Their reasoning was sound– Lord Alden, the Thane organizing the hunt, was champing at the bit to go and barely being held back by his son Harold, who was desperate to find some reinforcements for the hunt first. The players figured that if they didn’t join the hunting expedition now, they would come back from Tyvalich to news that Thane and son had been killed by the demon bear as well.

At his point I had to wing it a bit– while I had a general outline for the Hunt for Svartjaw (actually an adaptation of “The Last Hunt” from issue 92 of Dungeon magazine), I had not fully prepped that adventure. HantaMouse pointed out that “this is the problem with running a sandbox” (hence the running title of this blog series), and that’s certainly true, but honestly? I still prefer it. I wouldn’t have put the possibility of the Svartjaw hunt out there if I wasn’t willing to roll with it, and while I didn’t have complete prep for every possible outcome, I had enough to roll with.

This is one of the situations in which a Random Encounter Table is a DM’s second best friend. I knew that Svartjaw’s lair was in Chalsem Wood, which was roughly two days’ ride from Hierandal plus or minus tracking time, so I called for some Survival checks to see how quickly they picked up the trail. (Answer: Very. For some reason, the party can’t seem to roll below 20 on Survival checks. And that’s before Multiclass Geek gets her bonuses in a forest setting.) Even zooming in on Svartjaw like iron filings to a magnet, they still had to cross the Maethe, at one Random Encounter Check per four hours.

Near the end of the first day they came upon hill giants and their hobgoblin slaves, wandered quite far afield from their mountain home, dragging dead horses back as “Food for Guh!” This was obviously nonsense of the type up with which Lord Alden would not put, and so the party spurred on their horses and charged! Lord Alden got a few good licks in, Harold got his shield smashed by a hill giant club, and the party committed their usual badassery, Sheala taking out all the hobgoblins with a single fireball. Brother Drang and Lord Alden clanged their weapons together in a little mini-joust moment at the end of the fight– the knight’s equivalent to a high-five– and the party camped the night, stopping to bury the horses in a cairn of honor and burn the giants.

(The camping and horse-burial bit got a bit elided over at the table; I need to remember to address it for the next session.)

The next day the party reached the edge of Chalsem Wood, where they were confronted by Lord Feornod, Thane of Chalsem, and a party of knights. Lord Alden, it seemed, had a history of “poaching” on Lord Feornod’s lands, and Feornod was quite testy about it. Lord Alden, on the other hand, was quite determined to find and destroy Svartjaw before it killed anyone else, and the two were getting quite heated about it. Fortunately, Nikki intervened with soothing words and a gift to Lord Feornod of his last bottle of Zelno Wine from Appletop, so Feornod gave Alden “until dawn” to complete his specific hunt for Svartjaw.

The trail continued into the woods, where it rapidly got quite dark as the sun went down, the longer days of summer notwithstanding. The party decided that instead of tromping around in the darkness looking for the demon bear, they would instead make a camp, grill something delicious-smelling, and bring the bear to them. The plan worked beautifully (or horribly)– within an hour of setting up camp, they were beset by Svartjaw, a massive, spined, distorted grizzly the size of an elephant, with a slathering black-rimmed muzzle and eyes lit with a baleful green fire.

Here’s where the DM’s art of improvisation jumped in: I hadn’t written up stats for Svartjaw yet, ‘cos I wasn’t expecting to need them this session. But I did have wyvern stats handy on the random encounter table, and it was “close enough.” The fly speed got dropped and the stinger poison became a “Terrifying Roar” attack at the same save DC to avoid becoming frightened, and sim salabim I had a Svartjaw.

Well my dear readers, reskinned wyverns are still CR 6. A party of six 5th-level PCs and their CR 7 stone giant ally piledrived Svartjaw so fast that Lord Alden and his son didn’t even get a chance to draw their swords. Lord Alden was quite upset by this apparent anticlimax to what he had expected to be an epic last hunt that would be sung of by the bards and so on… until Rina pointed out that the tracks they’d been following had a very distinctive tread missing three toes on one foot– and that the monster they had killed did not.

Svartjaw, it seemed, was not the only one of his kind.

Furthermore, examination of the bear revealed that like the displacer beasts in the previous session, Svartjaw was also wearing a collar with a token on it, in this case an emblem of Nerull the Reaper, a dark god of death and murder from eastern lands. There was still hunting to be done before dawn. The session ended with Lord Alden giving the order to mount up to continue the hunt, darkness and the forest be damned.

And with that, the campaign summary is up to date! The next session will begin with the PCs attempting to find Svartjaw’s lair and confront the source of its evil. Will Lord Alden survive his last hunt? Time alone can tell.

-The Gneech

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Jul 21 2017

A Grassy, Wind-Swept Sandbox Full of Giants, Part Six

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The Grand, Unified Map of Gneech's Campaign World

Then, the world changed. Continuing from part five…

I was going to finish the recaps with the discussion of last weekend’s session here, but I got to talking about the map (as one does) and realized the last recap would have to wait for one more post.

Once I realized that Storm King’s Thunder was a “build your own campaign” framework and not a straightforward adventure module and embraced it, that meant that I had to build out the world in order to make room for it all. I went through the module from front to back and placed every location important to the campaign somewhere, and then set myself to the task of filling in as much of the blank space around that as possible.

I discovered that the Silver Coast was waaaaay too small for what the campaign called for. The first version of the “completed” map had pretty much an entire continent’s worth of stuff shoved into a space not that much larger than the state of Virginia, because I was trying to make “1 mile hexes” my base unit of measure, which meant trying to keep Photoshop from choking on an image that should have been 200″ across.

Not a winning strategy. ¬.¬

I completed a Grand, Unified Campaign World map and accompanying gazetteer to give the players, but I knew before it was even done that it wasn’t right. The distances were skewed, some parts of the map were too big, but most were way too small, and so on. I wanted to have something in place by the end of AnthroCon so we could get on with gaming.

And it wasn’t wasted effort by any stretch– putting all the nations in place relative to each other and writing out how they’d been shaped by their common history really helped make the world “real” in my head. It also showed me where the biggest empty spots were, which in turn prompted me to create several nations and historical details that I really like and I’m sure I will use someday, regardless of whether or not it comes up in Storm King’s Thunder.

But it wasn’t done. Not really. So I went back and redid it from scratch, ooooone moooore tiiiime, but this time making damn sure everything was the right size, and in the right place.

Orbis Leonis Meets Middle-earth

To give myself the proper sense of scale, I started with a map of Middle-earth and put a properly-scaled hex grid over it, but even that was a fairly complex process. In order to get a hex grid that would scale up and down with the image and not turn into a blobular pixelley mess, I created it as a pattern fill in Photoshop. But to keep the the different-scale hexes precise relative to each other, that meant I had to draw that map at a scale where the pattern repeat on exactly the right percentages of the pattern size.

…Yes, I realize that’s hard to parse. I can’t come up with a clearer way of describing it. It’s a complex topic. -.- Suffice to say, creating the grid was a mathy fiddly process all by itself.

But once that was in place, I cut up the previous map into nation-sized chunks, appropriately scaled up, scaled down, or chopped into pieces to figure out where they had to go and what size they really needed to be to match previous campaign history as well as fit the vision I had for each nation. The Desert of Xadar, for instance, is supposed to take weeks to cross, while Hestelland should be an open and airy plain where horses run wild for days, and so forth.

It took several days and the project pretty much ate my brain the whole time, but now that it’s done I’m really happy with the result. This is a game world that I can see going pretty well forever, with enough detail and history to feel “lived in” while still having plenty of room for expansion as needed (I tried to leave myself lots of open spots). It’s not suitable for publication or any such thing– it’s got chunks of Greyhawk, chunks of Faerûn, bits of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, and of course the Middle-earth nations of Rohan, Arnor, and Angmar with the serial numbers shaved off. But it is a cool place for me and six friends to visit every Saturday night.

It also taught me a lot about world-building in general, which is valuable for creating original works. I will probably use a very similar process to build out Calypsitania and the Fortress of Tears world for writing novels in next.

Next time, part seven, in which we finally catch up to the campaign!

-The Gneech

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