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 22 2021

The PTSD Is With You (Jedi: Fallen Order)

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Jedi: Fallen Order is a game that just beats the crap out of its protagonist.

Poor Cal Kestis can’t catch a break. One day he’s just a young Padawan, honing his force powers through tough love by a Jedi master, then suddenly some jerk says “Execute Order 66” and his world goes to crap. Fast forward five years and he’s hiding out on the planetary junk yard of Bracca, tearing apart Republic ships to sell the scrap metal back to the Empire to make Imperial ships, which is a dirty and dangerous job with a low life expectancy. But, unlike Jedi, it does have a life expectancy.

That is, until your only real friend gets tossed into a !sarlacc pit by an on-the-job accident and you have to use your only reliable force ability to slow his fall long enough to get him out of danger… catching the attention of the Imperial Inquisitors (former Jedi-turned-disciples-of-Darth-Vader) and having to flee for your life.

Cal, as you might expect, has some issues. But while PTSD makes him jumpy, fearful, and reluctant to stick his neck out (and understandably so), it never makes him mean or bitter, and I love the game for it. Cal is not badass. Not even a little. He’s sweet and humble in that Luke Skywalker way, doing his best to do the right thing in a universe where doing the right thing tends to get you horribly mangled or killed. He’s always checking in, looking for the best, and cheering up the companions he picks up along the way, even when almost every one of them screw up in some fashion that makes bad things so much worse. He gets mad about it—he’s not a saint—but he also works through it and looks for the positive (or, failing that, the least awful) outcome in any scenario.

Over the course of the game, Cal doesn’t exactly “get over” his past traumas, but he does undergo significant healing and growth, to the point where, at the end of the game, when confronted with a terror that he can’t possibly overcome and told “you would be wise to run,” he replies with a regretful, “Yeah… probably…” and stands up to the terror anyway, because somebody has to protect the people Cal has chosen to protect, and Cal is the only one there to do it.

And given the shit this game throws at him, that’s probably his most amazing superpower. Slowing time, Jedi psychometry, double-jumping and wall-running, wading through stormtroopers to the point where they’re literally calling for help, these are all useful abilities, but none of them define Cal the way just “being thoughtful and kind” do. In a world where so many game protagonists are grizzled, macho space marines, having a hero like Cal is a breath of fresh air, and makes not just for a good game, but for good Star Wars, which is something I have come to be grateful for whenever I can find it.

I fear for young Cal. Fallen Order 2 is on the way, and given that he needs to be out of the picture within the next ten years in order for Luke to take up the mantle of the last of the Jedi, I can totally see that going the way of Rogue One. But given Cal’s heroic (in the best way) nature… a Jyn Urso-style sacrifice for the greater good seems like his inevitable destination.

-The Gneech

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May 12 2021

Traveller, And Why Enigma Sector Is Not That

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Enigma Sector banner

I recently started a D&D space opera campaign which I’m quite pleased with. It’s in a homebrew setting (I hesitate to use the term “original” here) designed to be a giant mashup of all the spacey tropes, in the same way that standard D&D is a mashup of all the fantasy tropes. So we’ve got not-Jedi, we’ve got a “good guys” Federation and a “bad guys” Empire, battledroids, bug-eyed monsters, and so on. It’s a lot of fun!

So when it came time to figure out spaceships and the whole economy of trawling around in a little freighter, I naturally looked to Traveller, the grand-daddy of space RPGs and pretty much the unacknowledged model for things like Babylon 5 and Firefly. Its “tonnage + Credits” ship-building model has been imitated dozens of times by dozens of other games, and its interplanetary trade matrices have appeared in places as weird as Savage Worlds’s gothy-fantasy pirates 50 Fathoms campaign.

But you can’t just lift those systems out of Traveller and plug them in to D&D—the numbers are crazy and designed for a very specific gameplay loop. As SirPoley describes succinctly in his Four Table Legs of Traveller series, the game assumes that your party will be paying out huge amounts of money to pay for their ship every month, which will in turn drive them to engage in trade and/or exploration to scrounge up enough money to keep the bounty hunters off their tail. This trade/exploration is procedurally handled by the GM via random encounter tables and except for the random appearance of “Patron” encounters, could all be done faster via computer if you were so inclined.

And this is where we come to why I’ve never run Traveller. Just like I have little patience for grinding in a video game, I ain’t got time to build self-populating spreadsheets just to watch the numbers roll. Patrons, those rare high-paying jobs that actually force you to get out of your acceleration chair and go do stuff, are intended to be the spice of Traveller, a fun diversion that creates a break from the core gameplay loop. And I’m just… no. -.- For me, that should be the meat of the game, with the trade/cargo/passengers business being a fun little mini-game for the people who are interested in it.

So while I’m lifting some of the trade rules and tables from Traveller, the math is going to require some heavy tweaking to make it work for my purposes. The Enigma Sector characters already have a small ship that they used to escape from their Badguy Empire captors, and there are enough planets it could reach that they never have to upgrade if they don’t want to, so the “exorbitant debt payment” motivator is out. In its place, I’ve reduced the amount of money that cargo and passengers will make, and increased the operating expenses of the ship itself (in the form of fuel and spaceport fees) so that it’s still worth engaging in that system, but not to the point where taking time off from cargo hauling to go on adventures seems insane. (As SirPoley mentions, the pay scale for Patron encounters in Traveller is keyed off the size of your party’s cargo hold rather than having a diegetic in-universe value in order to guarantee this, which is taking handwavium just a little too far for me.)

I also want the players to be able to spend money on gear and such—partly because this is still D&D, and partly because at least one of my players just really loves that and I want them to be able to engage on that front. If they’re breathing fumes as far as money is concerned because they have to pay $50,000/month just to keep their ship running, they’re more likely to dump the ship than to go out exploring, which kinda negates the purpose.

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Dec 15 2020

GeekQuery — D&D Is a Team Sport

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Or, “You’re A hero, but you’re not THE hero.” This week InkBlitz and Gneech discuss group dynamics in Dungeons and Dragons.

InkBlitz: https://twitter.com/inkblitzer​
The Gneech: https://twitter.com/the_gneech​

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Dec 13 2020

Shady’s Solo Adventure: Titan Out of Nowhere

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Marid illustration from the 5E Monster Manual

Okay, after the last scene Shady has a goal and some obstacles: she needs to steal the shipment of alchemist’s fire back from Dragonwatch Keep, after it’s been delivered (or at least the deal has gone through), but without letting anyone at DW know she’s working for the LP. In a normal tabletop game, this would involve a lot of brainstorming among the players but… there is only me. >.> In the story world, I imagine Shady is going to her most trusted compatriots (presumably the other officers of the Moonlit Horizon) to hash it out, but in the tradition of heist movies, this would be a very boring scene and only revealed in flashback. But I still have to figure out at the very least where things are going!

At this point in her career, Shady has been around the Dreaming Sea a bit. FATE QUESTION: Has she ever actually been to Dragonwatch Keep? (Very Likely, Chaos 4: 22. YES) Does Shady have detailed knowledge of Dragonwatch Keep’s operations? (Unlikely, Chaos 4: 19. YES) Oh ho! That’s interesting. How about this: does Shady have any inside contacts she could bribe or otherwise finagle into getting her access to where the shipment will be stored? (Very Unlikely, Chaos 4: 34. NO)

So she knows enough to make an educated guess about how the deal will go down and where the shipment is likely to be stored, but doesn’t have an “in” to get her to it. She’ll have to work out access.

There also has to be someone else to take the blame when the theft is discovered. “Persons unknown” is the safest bet, but if the Moonlit Horizon is spotted sailing around Dragonwatch Keep, that would put Shady onto the suspect list. Shady kinda likes the idea of pinning the theft on the actual gunrunners—they are likely candidates after all, and causing them more grief might earn a few more points with the Lady P.

So Shady comes up with a cunning plan: go to the gunrunners offering to help them recover the shipment, “for a price,” only to turn around and capture their ship herself once the heist is done. Bad kitty!

That means that scene six becomes “Go to Saltar’s Port and find the gunrunners.” I don’t really want to play out a whole scene of Shady getting information about the gunrunners from Telekain, so I’ll just have Shady make a Persuasion check to see how much she gets out of him about it: 9. Whoops. XD Telekain was not forthcoming at all—sworn to secrecy by the LP, maybe? So off to Saltar’s Port with nothing but her wits to go by.

FATE QUESTION: Is there an encounter on the sea? 50/50, Chaos 4: 24. YES. Going to http://dndspeak.com/2017/12/100-sea-travel-events/ I find 36: “In the dead of night, a panicked bell toll rings. A massive beast is striding in the ocean. It appears the ocean depth only reaches up to its hip.” Meep. O.o Dragon turtle? Storm giant? Some kind of god astride the sea? Mother Hydra herself? Let’s check the event focus table for some clues: “NPC Action: Proposal of Fame.” Um.

“Captain! Captain!” The banging on Shady’s door caused her to leap to the floor, the Crescent Moon in one hand and a pistol in the other. “There’s something ahead! Come quick!”

Shady frowned, tucked the pistol into her armpit, and yanked open the door. “Something ahead? Why the hell are you… the… hell?” Looking past the face of her panicked crewman, she saw a titanic figure looming in the sea beyond the bow of the Moonlit Horizon. It was humanoid in shape, but gargantuan in stature, with green-scaled skin and massive fins protruding from the sides of its face. Bedecked in a turquoise silken sash that had more fabric than the entirety of the ship’s sails, and a similar turban that could cover a house, it was awash in massive jewels, seashells, and enormous gold chains.

The figure had crossed arms and was staring down at ship, clearly and deliberately blocking their path.

“By all the gods, what is it?” muttered a crewman. “What or who? Will it smash us to splinters? Does it want a tribute?”

“We’re not going to find out standing around gawking,” said Shady. “Approach the thing. Slowly.”

“Surely we should turn and run!” said another crewman.

“You think we could outrun it?” said Shady.

“I…?” said the crewman.

“Exactly. Approach it. Slowly. If you can slip around it while I’ve got it talking, so much the better.” She collected a hailing horn from a hook, then climbed out onto the bowsprit of the Moonlit Horizon. Once she felt they were close enough, Shady shouted through the horn, “Ahoy, titan!”

The creature seemed confused by this form of address. “WHAT DID YOU SAY???” it bellowed, with a voice that rolled like thunder.

“Ahoy!” Shady shouted again. “My compliments on a fine and starry night! Captain Shade-Of-the-Candle of the Moonlit Horizon, at your service! Be so kind as to state your name and purpose, please!” (SHADY CHARISMA CHECK: 5. Way to go, Shady. -.-)


(SHADY HISTORY DC 15: 17) Shady blinked; “Prince Mibakaaz” was the name of a djinn in stories Brother Velas had told her years ago, exiled from the Plane of Water for reasons that nobody could agree on. The idea that such a creature was real had never even entered her mind… much less that she would ever run across him. Without missing a beat, she instantly dropped to one knee, making a grand flourish with her free hand.

“Oh mighty Prince Mibakaaz!” she shouted through the hailing horn. “Forgive me for not recognizing your magnificence instantly! We are but humble sailors, un-used to honors of such magnitude, and blinded by your eminence!”

“OBVIOUSLY,” replied the creature, but preened a massive frill nonetheless. “YOU ARE LUCKY TO FIND ME IN A GENEROUS MOOD.”

“For what purpose have you revealed yourself to us, Oh Mighty Prince?” asked Shady. “Surely our humble vessel can only be of minor service to you.” The djinn seemed to drift to Shady’s left as she spoke—her Pilot casually adjusting course as instructed.


“We would hardly be suitable for that, Your Immensity,” said Shady. “We must have air to survive. Have you considered looking among the tritons?” She winced internally—Rulita would skin her alive if she got word of that.


“Er…” said Shady.


“Any wish at all?” Shady called through the horn.


“Captain!” called out a crewman behind her. “A mountain of gold!” She turned at looked at him—Morely was the name.

“Are you serious?” she said.

“He could sink us with a whim!” said Morely. “Better to do as he says. Think about it. The world at our feet!”

“Uh huh,” said Shady. “At a pretty steep price.”

“It’s death or fortune,” said Morely. “I say we choose fortune! Agree to his terms! Make the accord!”


Shady turned back to the djinn. “My apologies, Oh Tremendous One,” she called through the horn. “One of my subordinates speaking out of turn. I shall have him flogged for interrupting you!”


“But there is something in what he says. So if Your Hugeness will cast the wish now, I shall immediately attend to the needed course of action.” (SHADY DECEPTION vs a marid’s passive Insight DC 13: 13 exactly!)

“GRANT THE WISH FIRST?” said Mibakaaz. “PRESUMPTUOUS OF YOU TO SUGGEST, MORTAL! BUT I ADMIRE THE BOLDNESS, IT WILL MAKE YOU A GOOD SERVANT.” The djinn performed a grand series of gestures, surrounding himself and the Moonlit Horizon with a vast glowing magic circle. “SPEAK YOUR WISH, SHADE-OF-THE-CANDLE, AND IT IS GRANTED!”

Shady stood up and smirked. “I wish for Prince Mibakaaz to return immediately and irrevocably to the Plane of Water and be gone from my life evermore.”

‘WHAAAAT?” demanded the djinn, as the magic circle flared. Both he and the circle suddenly vanished with a balloon-like pop.

A cheer went up from half the assembled crew; a handful of others looked disconcerted, and Morely looked astonished. “Captain!” he demanded, as Shady tossed the hailing horn to the Bosun and hopped down to the deck. “Why would you throw away—”

Morely didn’t get to finish his sentence: Shady had driven her knee into his groin, and then brought her elbow hard down across his back as he doubled over. “A mountain of gold? The world at my feet?” Shady demanded. “You’d happily turn slaver on the word of a giant magical fish?” She shoved him away with a foot and turned to the Bosun. “Put him in a longboat and set him adrift. Anybody else who doesn’t like what I’ve done tonight is welcome to go with him.”

The Bosun nodded approvingly. “Aye, Cap’n,” he said, and Shady returned to her cabin.

NEXT: Saltar’s Port does not help.

Lady Patrician
Dragonwatch Keep
Captain Dryden Ainsworth
Wharfmaster Fean Wavecrest
Sea Lancers: Kia (Captain of the Recluse)
Sea Lancers: Sterling (Captain of the Silver Corsair)
Sea Lancers: Adric (Captain of the Blue Fin)
Cardinal Maraldo
Scullery maid
Patrician’s guards
Prince Mibakaaz

CHAOS: 4 (this was weird and out-of-nowhere)

Steal the alchemist’s fire
The privateers’ rivalry
The L.P.’s intrigues
Ainsworth’s botched security vs. Shady’s spying
Morely (and henchmen?) set adrift